Worse, but More Moral, So Better?

Talking about morals and not consequences is deceptive because we have similar values. So how much do we really want people to participate in politics?

I.

Law professor Ilya Somin, author of Democracy and Political Ignorance, says, “The sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance is shocking to many observers not familiar with the research.” Political theorist Jeffrey Friedman adds, “The public is far more ignorant than academic and journalistic observers of the public realize.”

Some examples:

  • During election years, most citizens cannot identify any congressional candidates in their district. Only 29 percent of American adults can name their congressperson, let alone discuss their congressperson’s voting record. Oh, and citizens generally don’t know which party controls Congress.

  • When asked, “What percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid?” voters typically estimated 25 percent, and said they thought 10 percent was an appropriate level. In fact, American “bilateral foreign aid” clocks in at only 0.6 percent.

  • Seventy-three percent of Americans do not understand what the Cold War was about.

  • When people are asked the same policy question a few months apart, they frequently give different answers—not because they’ve changed their minds, but because they’re making up answers on the spot, without remembering what they said last time.

Et cetera, et cetera.

(This is not to bash on Americans. I suspect these results generalize to other countries, very much including my own. It’s just that these studies happened to be done by US universities on US citizens.)

These examples of voter ignorance abound, and such ignorance influences our political positions.

II.

When it comes to politics, it seems, some people know a lot, most people know nothing, and many people know less than nothing.

What explains this?

Voting costs time and effort—not just a trip to the polls, but also the work required to form an opinion beforehand, like reading news and watching debates. And yet the personal benefits are tiny.  The odds that all this effort and your single vote resulting from it will make a difference as to who ends up in parliament are tiny. Not to mention the infinitesimal chance that this effect will also make a further difference in what laws the government will sign off on and so how politics will actually influence your life.

In fact, The Elephant in the Brain makes an elegant case that our political behavior is often better explained as an attempt to signal loyalty to “our side”, rather than as a good-faith attempt to improve outcomes. In this context, knowledge does not pay, while ignorance goes unpunished. As everyone with a social media account knows, there’s a sense in which political participation “kills minds” and turns neighbors into civic enemies.

When you look at voting as an economic and social activity, then, it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of people lack even an elementary knowledge of politics, and many of them are misinformed:   universal suffrage incentivizes most voters to make political decisions in an ignorant and irrational way.

IIV.

In Against Democracy, political philosopher Jason Brennan argues, well, against democracy.

The problem, says Brennan, is that if most voters act foolishly, they don’t just hurt themselves. They hurt better-informed voters, minority voters, citizens who abstained from voting, future generations, children, immigrants, and foreigners who are unable to vote but still are subject to or harmed by that democracy’s decision.

If we, the electorate, are bad at politics, then people die. We fight unnecessary wars or get beaten by a virus. We implement bad policies that perpetuate poverty (this example will return later). We overregulate drugs or underregulate carbon pollution, and so on.

Relative to better-informed citizens, less-informed citizens do in fact consistently prefer different policies. On economic issues, for example, research by economist Bryan Caplan identifies a number of areas in which the average (American) voter deviates from expert consensus: an antiforeign bias, an antimarket bias, a make-work bias, and a pessimistic bias (systematically underestimating the value of economic progress).

Universal suffrage incentivizes ignorance and then imposes these ignorant decisions on innocent people.

IV.

Accordingly, Brennan continues, to justify democracy we have to explain why some people should have the right to impose bad decisions on others; why it’s legitimate to impose incompetently made decisions on innocent people.

Otherwise it seems reasonable to hold that, when some citizens are morally unreasonable, ignorant, or incompetent about politics, this justifies not permitting them to exercise political authority over others.

The only thing that could nevertheless justify unrestricted, universal suffrage, Brennan adds, would be that we cannot produce a better-performing system.

At this point, in political philosophy, ‘epistocracy’ has emerged as the main challenger to democracy’s throne. Epistocracy means the rule of the knowledgeable. A political regime is epistocratic to the extent that political power is formally distributed according to competence, skill, and the good faith to act on that skill.

This essay is not about arguing in favor of epistocracy. It’s about the relative importance of instrumental versus moral considerations.

V.

Not everyone agrees with Brennan that democracy is something that can in principle be evaluated (and discarded) on how well it performs.

Some issues elicit opinions based on values as opposed to opinions based on outcomes. In these cases, we don’t care whether the policy will produce good or bad outcomes. What matters are the values enshrined by it.

Abortion is a prime example of this. Many people who are either strictly pro-choice or strictly pro-life have in common that they aren’t concerned about what a policy concerning abortion would cost, what it would mean for women’s health, life and happiness, or what the economic consequences would be. Abortion policy, such people would say, shouldn’t be governed by a cost-benefit analysis based on projected outcomes. It should be governed by what’s right and wrong.

Assisted suicide is another example. One side believes that we all have the right to die humanly when confronted with sufficient pain. The other side believes that life is holy. The effects of a right-to-die policy—the costs and savings, the suffering and guilt that would result and that would be avoided—are irrelevant to everyone who bases his or her attitude on sacred values. The issue is again one of right versus wrong.

In this vein, some believe democracy is better because it’s right. In Factfulness, for instance, the well-known Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling leveled this type of defense of democracy:

“I strongly believe … democracy is the best way to run a country. People like me, who believe this, are often tempted to argue that democracy leads to, or is even a requirement for, other good things, like peace, social progress, health improvements, and economic growth. But here’s the thing, and it is hard to accept: the evidence does not support this stance. Most countries that make great economic and social process are not democracies. … Anyone who claims that democracy is a necessity for economic growth and health improvements will risk getting contradicted by reality. It’s better to argue for democracy as a goal in itself instead of as a superior means to other goals we like.”

Democracy and widespread political participation are good as ends in themselves, for democracy is a uniquely just form of social organization. Each individual has a dignity, founded on justice, that imbues them with rights and freedoms—rights and freedoms that cannot easily be outweighed by consequentialist appeals to the greater social good. One of these is a basic right to an equal fundamental share of political power. Hence democracy.

VI.

So some things, it is claimed, should be pursued “in themselves”, often because they have ‘intrinsic value’, or are ‘right’.

I’ve always found justifications based on things being goals in themselves rather than on things having just outcomes to be suspicious. After all, if epistocracy (or some other system) makes everyone’s life go best, what could it even mean to say that democracy (or some other system) is nevertheless ‘better’?

If giving citizens a basic right to vote and run for office is not something that makes lives go better, why should political participation be a goal in itself?

An interesting dynamic opens up at this point. For aren’t happiness, making lives go better, not fighting unnecessary wars, implementing policies that end poverty and inequality, et cetera, also things we value? In virtue of what can universal suffrage – which is just another value – trump all those things?

VII.

This makes us see that appeals to right and wrong needn’t be the end of discussion. You can continue by asking whether this value (political participation) is worth maintaining in light of the outcome-based values that are being sacrificed to hold onto it (how many wealth, health, and happiness may it cost?).

Sometimes we should just stop being so uptight about certain things. For example, one point of disagreement around Universal Basic Income (UBI) is whether it’s ethically kosher to give people free money. Many have scruples about this because of the moral belief that you should work for money, you should deserve it rather than be given it, perhaps paired with the conviction that poverty is a character problem rooted in laziness and vice. Giving people money is out of the question, regardless of the consequences the policy would have. Because of this moral surpass.

Yet there are many experiments that show that cash grants to poor people offer a way better return on investment from society’s perspective than the even-more-expensive system of “help” we’ve whipped up, with reams of paperwork, registration systems, and an army of inspectors. Just Give Money to the Poor documents plenty of research that correlates unconditional cash disbursements with reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, and truancy, and with improved school performance, economic growth, and gender equality. Giving them some money for free while discarding these “assistance programs” would be cheaper for us,while also being more effective at making their lives better.

This seems to me to be a clear case of the retreat-to-morality gone too far. We’d all be better off if we’d just give the poor and homeless cash, and holding onto the moral resistance against free money isn’t worth making everyone worse off for.

IIX.

But sometimes it is the case that we might want to enact policies that enshrine certain moral values and not others, and thereby accept that doing so means we might not end up with the system that makes everyone’s life go best. The epistocracy versus democracy debate might be one of those cases. If so, then arguing about which form of government creates more equitable outcomes might fall on deaf ears.

Personally, I’m skeptical about this. Many things, including democracy, are nothing more than a hammer. If we can find a better hammer, we should use it.

More often than not, the only legitimate reason to prefer one policy over another is that it is more effective at producing just results, which means you have to wonder if we should pick the form of government that best delivers the goods, whatever that might be. The choice between democracy, epistocracy and other forms of government is instrumental: it comes down to which system performs best.

We should care most about outcomes, and, thankfully, most people care most about outcomes. Among humans, instrumental thinking seems to be the rule, not the exception. In The Knowledge Illusion, cognitive scientists Steve Solman and Philip Fernbach observe:

“Most opinions are driven by a consideration of outcomes. Opinions about everything from whether society should support nuclear power to education and health care are, for most people, a matter of how to achieve the best outcomes.”

In support, it turns out that, upon closer scrutiny, most candidates for genuine moral disagreement actually turn out to be disagreements about non‐moral facts. When people update their morality, typically, what gets changed isn’t their terminal values, but their beliefs about which acts have which consequences.

Solman and Fernbach give the example of the U.S. health care debate. Most people just want the best health care for the most people at the most affordable price. We want to be healthy, we want others to be healthy, and we want medical professionals to be compensated, but we don’t want to pay too much.

IX.

Unfortunately, the national conversation is framed in in moral terms nonetheless. One side asks whether the government should be making decisions about our health care, prompting their audience to think about the importance of limited government. The other side asks whether everybody in the country deserves decent health care, prompting an examination of the value of generosity and preventing harm.

We should stop doing this. Framing a discussion in basic values stops us from making progress on the issue. Stances become emotional, personal and signs of tribal affiliation. When an attitude is moral, consequences stop mattering, and chances are we’ll make worse choices, as we do in the case of unconditional cash disbursements and drugs regulation.

Moreover, talking about values rather than consequences is often deceptive, because we have roughly similar basic values. What most of us want is policy that makes our life go best, without giving excess weight to morality. In most people’s mind, values are not the issue. The issue is the best way to achieve the best outcomes.

So: How much do we really want people to participate in politics?