Arnold Kling  

Election Prediction: Voting will be Irrational

My Favorite Example of a Biase... Dexter: Beyond Good Int...

One of Bryan Caplan's faves, Michael Huemer, writes,

Normally, intelligence and education are aides to acquiring true beliefs. But when an individual has non-epistemic belief preferences, this need not be the case; high intelligence and extensive knowledge of a subject may even worsen an individual’s prospects for obtaining a true belief...The reason is that a biased person uses his intelligence and education as tools for rationalizing beliefs. Highly intelligent people can think of rationalizations for their beliefs in situations in which the less intelligent would be forced to give up and concede error, and highly educated people have larger stores of information from which to selectively search for information supporting a desired belief. Thus, it is nearly impossible to change an academic’s mind about anything important...

Later, he says,

The problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces. It is a greater problem than crime, drug addiction, or even world poverty, because it is a problem that prevents us from solving other problems. Before we can solve the problem of poverty, we must first have correct beliefs about poverty, about what causes it, what reduces it, and what the side effects of alternative policies are. If our beliefs about those things are being guided by the social group we want to fit into, the self-image we want to maintain, the desire to avoid admitting to having been wrong in the past, and so on, then it would be pure accident if enough of us were to actually form correct beliefs to solve the problem.

As we approach an election, we should be in awe of the irrationality being expressed. Read Huemer's essay before you vote.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Ragerz writes:

I thought Huemer's article was interesting, even while flawed.

First, why was it interesting? I think it is true that people make political and economic decisions "irrationally" in the sense those decisions are often motivated by the desire for validation. That is, one might adopt a certain political belief for reasons of social image. Likewise, one might buy an extra fancy automobile for reasons of social image. Both decisions derive from an irrational insecurity concerning one's worth. It is also true that many people do gravitate towards facts that seem to support their normative beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. Either confusion leads them one to fail to recognize that IS is not OUGHT or alternatively, rationally believe that others will confuse the two and thus it is best to advocate one side of the other of a contested factual issue.

Overall, the article offers nothing non-obvious as a proposed solution to such irrationality, except for traditional answers: heightened awareness of our biases, a careful examination of the evidence, etc. This is mostly good advice, but there is nothing new here.

I do have some criticisms for this article. It appears to me that the author exhibits the very irrationality that he examines in the article.

His first mistake is talking about "political disagreement" in general. Much better would be to talk about the subset of political disagreement to which these biases are most applicable. The set of things that we label "political" is huge. A large subset of political disagreements are simply irresolvable by reference to facts, but are simply moral to the core.

An example of a moral disagreements are views on abortion and animal rights. At what point does a "human" life worthy of protection by the government begin? At conception, at viability, at birth, or at some other time? The political disagreement here is completely unresolvable with reference to any facts that might come into existence.

That the author makes much of the correlation between beliefs about abortion and animal rights is misguided. The number of people with strong beliefs about animal rights is exceedingly small. The vast majority of people eat meat that is produced by killing animals. The vast majority of people, those against abortion included, do not think we should inflict unnecessary suffering on the animals we kill for food. So, empirically, the number of people on each side of the abortion issue is quite large. In contrast, most people agree about animal rights.

To the extent that there is a small correlation here, it should not be suprising. Many people who are against abortion are against abortion for religious reasons. And that same religion instructs that animals are here for our use. Should we really be suprised that the many religious people who oppose abortion are not animal rights activists? Should we even be suprised that many people who have sympathy for born animals do not have much sympathy for unborn fetuses? I don't buy the argument that a belief in protecting animals must be logically correlated with a belief in protecting fetuses. It all depends on how you conceptualize the world. For the author to assert these things should be logically correlated is to do nothing more than elevate is own conception, which is not particularly rational (nor irrational) but is rather merely his arbitrary conception not shared by most people. From a secular and neutral perspective, there is no non-arbitrary answer to the question of how much weight animal rights activists ought to give to the fact of birth and there is no non-arbitrary answer to whether or not religious people ought to belief all the religious doctrines that they are taught.

Another problem with Huemer's article starts right from the beginning. "Most other subjects—for instance, geology, or linguistics, or algebra—are not subject to disagreements at all like this; their disputes are far fewer in number and take place against a backdrop of substantial agreement in basic theory; and they tend to be more tentative and more easily resolved."

Actually, most people, at least in the United States, agree on a vast number of political issues. Should murder be legal or illegal? Illegal. Should sex with children be legal or illegal? Illegal. Should someone accused of a crime have a right to a trial to determine their guild or innocence, or should we just lynch them? Trial. Should elected officials be able to murder, rape, and torture common citizens? No. Should we torture the animals we kill for food. No. Etc. Etc. The number of political issues we agree on is enormous. In the sense, politics is not that different from these other subjects.

Overall, this is only the tip of the iceberg concerning the serious problems with Huemer's article. But I will mention the most serious, and I think irrational problem. Huemer has a thesis to advance. That most political disagreements are due to irrationality, rather than, say, normative disagreements. This is an empirical question. Yet what I see here is that Huemer has very strong beliefs, and he is not really talking about the empirical data that would help resolve his claim.

We do know this. Political disagreements can be thought to arise from irrationality, normative disagreements, and probably most often, both. We also know that Huemer has arbitrarily elevated on source of disagreement and downplayed his others using an arbitrary and particularized conception of the world. It appears to me that Huemer is adopting the conception of the world that most likely advances his thesis (as when he asserts that normative beliefs concerning the protection of animals should be correlated with normative beliefs concerning abortion). That is in itself irrational. Overall, Huemer irrationally gives more weight to one cause of political disagreement than another, using an personal conception of the world rather than either looking to empirical data or alternative (and I would argue, more persuasive) conceptions of the world. So he is irrationally arguing for irrationality as the primary cause of political disagreement. Amusing.

raj yashwant writes:

voting hardly matters unless one's vote has a seizable power. In modern democracy the power of vote is so miniscule and close to an epsilon tending towards zero that its exercise or not hardly makes a difference to the person who excercises it. Voting will be only effective when a persons action results in clustering of large of epsilon votes into a number which though is small is still larger than insignifcant epsilon.

Modern democracy and corpoerate society sufferes from the this principal agent problem wherein due to distribution of the principal's power into large number of miniscule entities called voters or shareholders the actual power still remains with the agent, who understands that it is impossible for all the principal to cluster into a seizable population in order to enforce that the agent works on the behalf of the principal and not indulge in self-fullfilling endeavors.

Hence, any form of democracy or corporate structure is bound to have principal agent problem in voting

Ragerz writes:

I agree with Raj Yashwant. Voting does not have sizeable benefits for the individual exercising the vote. That Mankiw votes tells us that he is not merely maximizing his utility by following his lower-order inclinations, but is instead aligning his actions with some other principle.

Overall, there is no doubt that as Raj says, the principle agent problem exists for both democracy and corporations. In both cases, the agent is only partially accountable to the principle. However, in both cases, there is some accountability. Voters in a democracy do exercise some discipline, as does the legal system. Markets in the corporate contexts also provide some discipline. (Of course, one wonders how much in the corporate contexts, where managers who run a corporations badly enough to be subject to a corporate takeover save themselves with so-called golden parachutes that provide enormous compensation.)

I find it bizarre that anyone should expect humans to be rational - given our evolutionary history, and the fact that our extra intelligence is mostly social intelligence - to do with understanding, predicting and manipulating the behavior of others.

The near-impossibility of arguing people out of political, social and religious beliefs is the same phenomenon as the impossibility of arguing deluded patients out of their false persecutory or jealous beliefs.

This is because we evaluate these things in the light of assumed intentions, not 'the facts'. So, the same comment from a Democrat or a Republican is interpreted quite differently, becuase we assume different motivations.

The trouble is that we tend to assume morally-wicked intentions of people with whom we disagree. This leads to a lot of trouble.

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