The Wrong Aesthetic

In the midst of all of the Breitbart-related death hooplah, the incendiary remarks from liberals and conservatives alike, I noticed that among all of that, somebody was posting about Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Conservatives should thank Breitbart for somewhat taking the focus off of Arpaio’s “investigation” into President Obama’s birth certificate, which is an utter waste of everyone’s time.

Well-meaning conservatives, many of whom are crazy, just like the 9/11 truthers on the left have bought into the antics of Arpaio and other so-called “birthers.” And that’s sad. Like the Breitbart quote at the top, it is the wrong aesthetic, in addition to being factually wrong. If you believe Obama was born in Kenya, please don’t stop reading even though you are just plain wrong. I want to help you.

A recent Ann Coulter column on Rick Santorum opened with this line:

“listening to him argue the point almost makes me change my mind.”

I enjoyed that Coulter piece so much that I shared it to twitter without the apparently requisite NSFL (Not Safe For Liberals). I was, as a result, called out by a liberal friend for sharing it without putting “NSFL.”

Economist and author Bryan Caplan wrote a book that I really enjoy called The Myth of the Rational VoterYou should read it.

Most voters are not rational actors. I believe this because, while I do believe in rational economic actors, I acknowledge that many people are irrational economic actors — you know, like the people who are obsessed with buying “local.” Despite what people often say they believe about economics, they often act to the contrary. In voting, however, this is not usually the case.

In a description about the book, Caplan notes:

My answer is that irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.

In a sense, then, there is a method to the average voter’s madness. Even when his views are completely wrong, he gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price. No wonder he buys in bulk.

I say “most” voters reluctantly, since a large percentage of the friends I have are highly rational people, both in voting and economic thinking, even though many of them disagree with each other. Nor am I saying that I am perfectly rational. I’m not. Like all other humans, I have fits of irrationality both in the voting booth and in my thinking. Andrew Breitbart was not always the most rational, either.

But, yes, I think most voters are not rational. I base this off of years of experience, which is not to say irrationality is always a bad thing. Different strokes for different folks. But people range from “slightly irrational but acceptable” to “highly irrational.”

In a discussion today with a friend, I asked “are most voters rational?” He said “yes.” I disagree.

Caplan notes in a pre-book article that:

 Suppose that one scholar maintains that the average voter’s belief about X is true, and another denies it. For their debate to make sense, both sides have to claim knowledge about (a) what the average voter believes, and (b) which belief is true. How can we get to the bottom of this sort of dispute?

(For the answer, read the article!)

For example, on the left side of the spectrum, many (if not most) liberals believe that defense spending is biggest of all government-related spending. They are wrong. The majority of what government spends money on is entitlements. Imaginary “trust funds” aside, government mostly takes money from young people (FICA taxpayers) and gives it to old people (former FICA taxpayers).

Similarly, on the right side of the spectrum, there are a lot of people (if not most) who believe that foreign aid is number 1 or 2 in terms of our budget expenditures. They are wrong.

This goes on down the line to things like immigration, free trade, and education.

The debate I had with my friend was about whether people who have skewed/irrational views should be able to vote at all. I said they should, he said they shouldn’t. He said most voters are rational, I say they’re not. I should have argued that if most voters are rational, than you shouldn’t have to worry about the outcome of things since there are more rational voters than irrational ones, but I don’t believe that and it didn’t pop into my mind initially.

Democracy and liberty, in my opinion, are totally intertwined around the view that people should have the right to do wrong. Sure, voters have elected prohibitionists, and prohibition was eventually repealed. Freedom, even if temporarily abridged, often wins out in the long run. But some times it does not.

F.A. Hayek put it much better:

“Liberty is an opportunity for doing good, but this is only so when it is also an opportunity for doing wrong.”

I am fine with irrational voters. We all should be. Sure, more irrational voters often leads to bad outcomes, but they are often rectified. If people want to vote for/against a candidate solely because of race, while I think that is a stupid reason, they should be able to do that. You cannot legislate away bad voter intent. You never will.

While I do think that gridlock and the other bad outcomes are collectively what the voters asked for when they elected their officials, I think the system works just fine. Don’t believe that voters collectively did this? Many people love their members of Congress (I’ve only liked a few of my elected officials…) If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have Kennedy Camelot, Robert Byrd, and other long-standing political dynasties. One need only look at incumbent re-election stats to see that, not that all long-serving elected officials are bad.

“Sure”, you may think, “but my guy is smarter/better than the rest of them.” Maybe to you, but probably not to other people. This is why I think voters collectively get the gridlock they deserve. I do believe that certain people stay in office because some states have more rational voters than others, and elect politicians that are more rational than the average politician. Just not in Massachusetts.

Other people, like NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, think differently:

“One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”

I do not agree with Friedman on this. I don’t think we should turn the way of China and let one party or the other rule us with “10 year plans” and other Chi-com mumbo jumbo. I do not think this will yield better outcomes.

In general, I think competition yields better results. Unfortunately, political parties already may have taken us down a road to “one-party” autocracy, but rather than one party, it’s just the parties switch power and largely doing what voters want. The problem is not that competition hasn’t worked in politics, it is just that the market is inefficient because acquisition of knowledge and information regarding politics is costly, therefore people might be less inclined to seek it out.

The problem with where we are today is that both political parties, over time, have given voters what they want. And the results aren’t pretty. Not because it’s democracy, as opposed to a Chinese-like autocracy… rather, it’s that what we often want is bad policy.

Back to Breitbart. I liked him for his style. A friend said that my college webpage “empire” (hardly) reminded him of a small-scale pre-Breitbart. I took that as a compliment. Sure, my webpages made some enemies at SLU (thinking of a former SLU TV editor) but generally tried to get information and ideas out to make things better. The same can be said about Breitbart, even if he sometimes did it in ways that were criticized as underhanded or deceptive.

Breitbart’s beef in the mid-1990’s was that he felt the airwaves were too slanted in one-way. Therein, he had a point. Over time, and with the internet’s presence, things have changed. There is more intellectual diversity in public discourse, but there is also more cognitive dissonance. Google and Facebook almost become cognitive dissonance machines for some.

To do well in making a point or winning an argument, though, one must understand the view of the adversary and be able to critique it and explain why it is wrong/inferior.

This is why I think conservatives (and liberals, too) have an opportunity to change the political landscape, and make the country better. A former boss of mine used to describe Congress as a place where “people build a consensus on an issue.” And that’s true. Right and Left get together all of the time on many issues, but that consensus rarely results in law. Unfortunately, a big consensus for Congress it would appear, is spending more money than we have.

I think we need to build a consensus on rationality, not the soundbytes. Soundbytes are useful only if most of potential listeners are rational. This will help improve outcomes more than trying to restrict irrational people from voting or clinging to and espousing non-issues that are a waste of our time, like:

Birth Certificates

The Koch Brothers

Rush Limbaugh’s / Rachel Maddow’s comments on XYZ

This will not be an easy fight, and it’s not a perfect one. At the very least, people should stay away from those soundbytes and do what they can in a way that is likely to yield better results — like volunteering their time, donating, and voting. More importantly, they can do what they can to promote rationality, but more on that later. We should focus on ideas and their effects, not non-sequiturs and what we perceive to be the “evil” motivation behind a policy.

I say it’s not a perfect fight, of course, because rationality varies. What might be a rational view to me might be irrational to somebody else.  Some lady in Texas today tweeted to Senator Cornyn saying “please end tax breaks for big oil companies.” He/his staff replied “how about reconsidering all tax breaks?”

President Obama wants to get rid of tax breaks for oil companies, but presumably keep them for other forms of energy that he prefers. Ron Paul believes the minimum wage is a price control and thinks it should be abolished, Mitt Romney wants to index it for inflation.

All of these differing views cater to people. Presumably, people who agree with Obama will vote for him and people who don’t won’t. People who agree with Paul more than Romney will probably vote for him, and vice versa. However, there are some economic truths to which policies are best, unfortunately, the best policies are usually not the most popular. This is often because they are more complex, or as Caplan puts it, it feels better to blame others than it does to blame yourself.

In another post, I talked about the “two worlds” in terms of policy wonks and policy know-nothings. The frustrating thing, to me, was that I couldn’t get a grade school acquaintance to talk turkey, fundamentally, about taxation. Not even about technical details, but about a fundamental premise. Seemed easy enough, but it wasn’t. We need to change this.

I remember a discussion I had about free trade with another friend. He held the view that free trade was bad, and that we shouldn’t trade with foreign people. (Ironically, many people have no qualms with trading with Canada, but many of them think Mexico is somehow different, usually because of racial reasons.) He felt that restricting trade with foreigners would help the country. I disagreed, and responded, “would restricting trade among states help them in the same way?” Apparently, he thought that was different, but it’s not. The problem with the whole debate is that most people think nations trade. Nations don’t trade, people do. All of those trade stats are of individuals in nations trading with each other.

I didn’t get anywhere with this, but it is indicative of the broader problem. For all of the seemingly difficult policy debates that are heated and separated by a broad divide, how do we still have debates on issues that most rational people can agree on?

Answer: an irrational voting populace.

How do we fix it? Well, I’m not completely sure. I tend to try to add value, and when I do, I end up having long discussions. The solution lies in philosophical discussions with people about the underlying fundamental issues (better known as “the weeds” to policy wonks.) They haven’t resulted in me changing a lot of hearts and minds, but I keep trying. And I’m not saying I feel I am 100% right on every issue. But if we can start getting people off of reciting well-known falsehoods, and thinking critically and rationally, that will help improve outcomes.

One way is if people who have an intricate knowledge of an issue (or set of issues) focus on adding value to the debate. I try and correct erroneous email forwards, saying “While I don’t support the views of politician X, the facts in this email are wrong because of Y and Z. A better solution would be Q.”

Unlike some of the long talks I have had with people that have yielded little results, I’ve gotten back a lot of ‘thank yous’ for doing it. I am sure many people have muttered “what an asshole” as well, but that is OK. And yes, I have been an asshole on the internet. (Others have called me other, worse names.)

Another is to leave comments or start discussions. Don’t back down. You’re not going to convince everyone, but sometimes you might make progress. In a discussion on my state representative’s facebook page, I got a hardened liberal commenter to admit (without prompting) that something I said had really got him to view an issue in a different light. Sometimes, people will see things in a different light.

So, if you’re an expert about something, or not even an expert, but you know more about it than most people, don’t let irrational comments slip by. Call it out. Challenge it. Especially if they are your friends.

Caplan concludes his preview of his excellent book by saying:

My final remedy for voter irrationality, then, is for people who know more than the average voter to stop being so modest. When experts and those who heed them address a broader audience — in the media, in their writings, or in a classroom — they need to focus on the questions where experts and the public disagree, and clearly explain why the experts are right and the public is wrong. Thus, when economists get the public’s ear, they should not bore them with the details of national income statistics, or quibble with each other about marginal issues. They should challenge the public’s misconceptions about markets, foreigners, saving labor, and progress.

Sure, it takes more time, but if it results in less spam forward emails, less irrational and pointless Facebook debates, and most importantly, less irrational political outcomes, it is well worth the time, and it just might work.



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