A couple weeks ago I said that if you’re not informed on political issues, don’t vote.
Listen to this MP3 clip from a recent Howard Stern show. A guy goes to Harlem and asks people who they’re voting for. All three say Obama. He then attributes McCain’s views to Obama and asks whether they agree with it. For example, "Do you agree with Obama’s pick of Sarah Palin? Do you agree with Obama that our troops should stay in Iraq? Do you agree with Obama that stem cell research should be banned?" To all, they say yes.
And in this 20/20 clip there’s some nice footage of John Stossel asking people off the street some very, very basic questions about the world and getting blank stares.
God Bless America.
(Hat tip to Bryan Caplan for both links.)
14 comments on ““I Support Obama Picking Sarah Palin””
It seems like you think that the interviewees should have given the right answer to those questions. Or abstained from voting due to ignorance. For a couple of reasons I disagree with that.
Firstly, knowing the answer, or getting it right, doesn’t seem that important to me.
* It is effectively trivia for the vast majority of people. Apart from signaling and actually working in politics knowing the answer won’t matter for you personally.
* Especially if they have low IQ or little leisure time getting to know presidential candidates’ policy more than fleetingly would be a huge waste of their limited resources.
* Social pressure is really strong. See for instance http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/11/i-cant-believe-my-eyes-conforming-to.php . A reporter and crew asking a question where one of the implied premises is false isn’t playing fair, since it’s going to take quite a lot to contradict a group speaking from authority. So at least the first interviews aren’t very reliable.
* Even if you don’t care at all what the reporter thinks of you, getting his answers right is pretty insignificant compared to appearing disloyal to one’s group. Having your peers see you coming out against “your” candidate on national TV might very well be much worse than seeming a little stupid.
Secondly, I think stupid voters rationally should vote even though they are stupid.
* Voters being ignorant might not be so good for society as a whole, but it’s probably better for the ignorant voter to go ahead and vote anyway. Both to score points with their group, to feel that they’re contributing, and to make sure that their voting bloc at least get some political pork. Any small individual benefit should be more than enough to make it rational for them to degrade the process as a whole. This is especially true if ignorance isn’t evenly divided by different interest groups, which seems to be the case.
* I’m not at all sure that the democratic process actually would benefit much as a whole by excluding ignorant people from it. Smart people aren’t particularly altruistic so in my view the most likely result from excluding ignorant people would be that ignorant people would get shafted even harder than they already are. And there still would be a ton of inefficiency from different interest groups trying to leverage money from each other and simply disagreeing on fundamental values, and so on.
I wonder how many people he talked to in Harlem to get the three that were included in the clip.
Ben, this post is hilarious. Thanks for bringing it to light.
Pete- I’ll give you three guesses an the first two dont count.
My guess? Three.
RasmusF- First, we do not live in a democracy. We live in a republic. If you do not know the difference, consult the Federalist Papers. Two, our system works best when the people are educated. The Framers created a system that would work to naturally educate people. It should, but it has’nt. For an explanation of this theory that’s written better than anything I could create, again, consult the Federalist Papers.
Rasmus – thanks for the detailed comment. But I think you’re ignoring the fact that ignorant voters often vote AGAINST their own self-interest. And agreed that extensive policy research is a poor use of resources for most. But there are some basic facts that every citizen should know.
I think they framed the questions wrong. They should’ve asked “which of the two will get america out of the economic mess” – they would’ve answered most likely “neither”. Damn right!
IMHO, they chose a wrong tool to measure voter literacy. There are certain vital questions for which everyone has a right answer. Stem cell research is not as vital as keeping the job or saving the house.
When you have anyway to choose between the two mediocres, does it really matter how savvy you are?
Let’s say you have a unique take on issues, vastly different from what the two stand for. By abstaining from voting, do you get your way?
Under those constraints, as Rasmus F says it is better for a not so savvy voter to go by the peer group whip so that they at least end up expressing solidarity with the group cause and not be seen as traitors.
Here’s a similar video: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=fJuNgBkloFE
Be glad that you don’t have compulsory voting like here in Australia.
Andrew – I live in a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. So forgive me for my lack of localized knowledge.
I realize that I should have been more careful with my terminonology, but I do not see what substantial difference there is between a democracy or republic when it comes to the effects of voter education.
Ben – No, I am not really ignoring it as much as questioning that ignorant people actually do vote against their own self interest a lot. Even pareto improvements might be rationally opposed if you start to take into account the effects of status and use an evpsych framework. For instance, I might rationally oppose my friend Eric getting a new car, at no cost to anyone, if it means it will make me feel worse about my crappy Saab.
Since voter ignorance isn’t distributed randomly, ignorant people neglecting to vote, or just giving up their right to vote entirely, would substantially decrease the voting power of a lot of groups, and especially groups that aren’t doing too well already.
I also think it is pretty clear that lowering a group’s voting power is a guarantee of that group losing out politically. And that giving up your vote would create some really bad incentives for politicians and government in general. And I am pretty surprised that Caplan hasn’t spent more time addressing that questions, as incentives is what economists tend to do well.
So taking into account self interest I very much disagree that people should not vote due to them tending to vote poorly.
And I also think this is only one, of very many, reasonable counters to Caplan. For instance, putting things into a game theoretical frame would not make things look good for neglecting to vote, for any reason.
What are you crazy Steve?
Compulsory voting ensures that the ‘middle’ stays involved in the voting process. Without them, you get the more extreme elements like that which you see in the states – making it easy for large organised groups who normally are not part of the mainstream to overrepresent themselves and present more extreme views than you would have normally had. We especially see that with religious types in the Republican party at the moment.
In Australia compulsory voting isn’t something that is really seen as a bad thing. But also not seen as an overly good thing either :). Unlike the states, we have voting on Saturday, so it’s not so much an inconvenience. Especially as the voting process only takes a couple of minutes because voting is spread out instead of people rushing before and after work.
The only one pushing for non-compulsory voting here were(Were) elements of the liberal(conservative) party wanting to errode the voting base most likely to vote against them (the young).
Sure it adds a bunch of uninformed voted into the mix. But that balances out the whack-job uninformed votes on the fringes. Compulsory voting is what stopped Pauline Hanson from gaining a toe hold in the political system.
Remember that there are forces behind these “Everyone must vote” movements, and these forces have agendas.
I’m sure the group registering voters at the rock concert would not be equally zealous about reaching those coming out of churches on a Sunday morning. Any interest group who wants to compete politically must get their supporters to register and vote–even the dumb ones or those just following social pressure.
Signing up voters has become an arms race that every political agenda must compete in.
I am pretty sure you could get similar results by interviewing racist rednecks in the south and asking them if they would support McCain’s plan to end the war in Iraq or to ensure a woman’s right to choose.
Several things: first, there are absurdly uneducated people in every demographic — cherry picking young people & black people to make them look stupid (both of whom will turn out in disproportionate numbers for Barack) does nothing to advance the political discourse without some statistics to back it up. Democracy is not government by some of the people that are deemed educated enough — it is governance of the people, by the people, for the people.
Ben, I’ve gotta take issue with your notion that some people should self-regulate by abstaining from the political process: it’s ridiculous. The miniscule number of people who were going to vote, but will now abstain because someone tells them not to because they aren’t educated enough… those few people who are conscientious and reflective enough (and patriotic enough) to do that are the same people we need voicing their opinions about the direction of this country (yes, even if they don’t know everything). The less conscientious, equally uninformed people will still be casting their ballots in spite of the aforementioned plea.
The implication of the radio piece from Harlem was that these Obama supporters, since there weren’t well-versed in his policies, must only be voting for him because he’s black, and that that is unreasonable. The same way a huge fraction of this country won’t vote for him because he’s black… or because they think he’s a secret muslim or because they think that he helped the weather underground bomb federal buildings as an 8-year-old child. Should these people also stay home from the polls?
Height seems to have a disproportionate amount of weight in American presidential elections: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heights_of_United_States_Presidents_and_presidential_candidates (both consciously & unconsciously): should we revoke the voting capabilities of people who’s vote might be biased by the height of the candidate? How about by their attractiveness? How about people who don’t know anything about a candidate and just select them due to party affiliation? Parties are, after all, just vehicles for maintaining political power in a particular group – maybe these people should abstain too for be being biased by anything other than policy?
Bottom line: it’s neither fair nor possible to put a normative judgment on people’s different criteria for making their voting decisions and these news pieces have absolutely zero substance to them – uneducated people are all over the place. In fact, I don’t think it would be at all difficult to make the case that someone who thinks that the world is less than 10k years old and has no clue what the bush doctrine is, is unfit to cast a ballot, much less be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
This post and its comments read like something out of another century – I daresay I hear murmurs of a grandfather clause / literacy test just around the corner and the substitution of some kind of self-selected oligarchy rather than self-governance.
I prefer the phrase “informed enough” not “educated enough” — there are plenty traditionally educated people who don’t know jack about politics or policy.
You call the number of uninformed people “minuscule.” Perhaps you haven’t seen studies around policy or economic knowledge in America. The number of people who do not know how many senators represent their state, or know what comparative advantage is in economics, or know where their taxes ago, is far larger than minuscule.
You raise a good point about how far one should go in regulating irrationalities. Is someone who votes on height alone just as irrational as someone who believes trade is bad (due to not studying econ)? I’m not sure. My sense is yes, and that they, too, ought to step aside from the voting process.
I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a political literacy test before voting. Uninformed voters create policies that not only harm themselves but harm our democracy. Drivers must pass a test before operating a vehicle for fear of hurting others on the road. Don’t undereestimate the damage that can be done in the ballot box.
Ben, I’m with you that the number of uninformed voters is huge — we have no disagreement on that. I am equally as disheartened by how uneducated the majority of the electorate is & I’m sure we’ve seen some of the same polls.
I used the word “miniscule” to describe the number of people who were going to vote, but who would instead consciously choose to abstain if there were a nationwide call for uninformed voters to remove themselves from the electorate. I was not trying to say that the number of uninformed voters was small — I recognize that it’s huge. My point was that the only people who would actually remove themselves from the voting populace are inherently not as bad as many of those who would remain (in that they recognize their own lack of information on the issues & love their country enough to silence their individual voice for the common good).
Also, your support of this political literacy test concept surprises me. I guess you are choosing to ignore the absolutely abhorrent history of the literacy test in this country: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_tests
You don’t think that such a test could again be abused to suppress a particular part of the electorate? That doesn’t scare someone like yourself with what I consider to be at least a few libertarian political tendencies? (forgive me if that is a mischaracterization of your politics)
Also, I think you’ve written quite a bit on the inadequacy of standardized tests as part of the college admissions process — why do a 180 on this one? (Maybe I’m misconstruing your views, or maybe its just that the qualifications for being a capable voter are easier to determine through a test than the qualifications for being a capable student — either way this could use clarification)
I agree with you that while the framers certainly stressed that an informed public makes for better governance — they also recognized that there will always be misinformed people or people who would seek to hurt the country if doing so could help them individually; thus, they set up a system intended for the uninformed (and transient minority opinions) on both sides to cancel each other out and to have the direction of governance move with the desires of some kind of at least marginally-informed plurality with decisions reflecting what is best for the majority.
I’ve heard the driving analogy before, but definitely don’t think that it’s an apt one: whatever ‘damage’ an uninformed vote does, it does it equally as powerfully as the ‘good’ that the informed vote does — also the good and the bad consequences that result from these votes are distributed pretty widely across society. This has no parity to driving where the best that good drivers can do is not fuckup while bad drivers can kill people (& inconvenience huge numbers of people & destroy enormously amounts property).
You initially claim that a high percentage of uninformed voters actually vote against their self-interests & while I agree in the sense that rationally speaking all voters should vote in their self-interests and therefore, any number of people who vote against their self-interests is surprisingly high. Nonetheless, if people know nothing (I mean absolutely nothing) , if they’ve only got 2 options (& 1 is more with their self-interests and the other is not) they’ll still vote with their self-interest 50% of the time. And given that even fairly uninformed people still know something (unlike the aforementioned example) the reality is that over a large sample size, a majority of people will vote with their own self-interest.
After the last 8 years I don’t think anyone underestimates the damage of uninformed voters —
but the reality is that Bush won in 2000 by suppressing huge swaths of the poor, black voters who would have voted disproportionately for Gore (& many of whom may very well have been part of the uninformed electorate that you want to eliminate). Had we had a turnout that reflected a greater fraction of the population, even if that turnout included additional informed voters on all sides of the political spectrum, the last 8 years could have been very very different
Alright sorry for the long response, you’ve just raised some issues that I feel very strongly about.