Bryan Caplan  

Israel, Palestine, and the Enlightened Preference Approach

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A while back, I gave EconLog readers a primer on the "Enlightened Preference" approach to policy.  The key idea is that you give subjects two surveys.  The first tests objective knowledge; the second elicits policy preferences.  The idea is to see if - controlling for other respondent characteristics - people who know more want different policies.

Now if you read the comments to my post on Joe Sacco's Palestine, you might notice that a number of readers invoke something akin to the Enlightened Preference approach.  An anonymous pro-Israeli writes:
One is constantly being bombarded with propaganda in favor of the Palestinians, while we have access to all the internal political debates within Israel itself. We know both the justifications for their actions and the heated internal debates over which actions are appropriate... Anyone who hasn't heard the Palestinian side hasn't been listening.
In contrast, Saifedean writes:
If you don't believe me, then you truly must start reading stuff other than Zionist garbage propaganda that passes for American discourse on the Middle East.
The claim on both sides at least seems to be that any fair-minded person who knew the basic facts would share their policy preferences.

It's obvious that both sides can't be right.  It is however possible for both sides to be wrong.  If we applied the Enlightened Preference approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and added control variables for ethnicity and religion - what do you think we'd find? 

My best guess is that greater knowledge would lead to slightly more pro-Palestinian policy preferences.  But I'd be amazed if the implicit model of either side - initially neutral people who learned the facts would agree with me - turned out to be correct.

If anyone can propose a reasonable bet about this, I'm listening.  In the meanwhile, I'm going to email my Enlightened Preference guru to see if this question can be resolved using existing data.

Update: As far as my EP guru knows, the approach has never been applied to this issue.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (17 to date)
RL writes:

One potentially doable study would be to compare people of similar educational/intellectual/etc levels in Europe vs the United States to test the effect of different types of news coverage in the two regions.

Felix writes:

This enlightened preference method could easily devolve in to silliness like that NY Times study a couple years back.

They reported the results of their study as (roughly), "those who are knowledgeable agree with our editorial opinion". But what the study really showed was "people who read NY Times news articles agree with the NY Times editorial opinion."

Remember, the other guy is always unenlightened.

Caliban Darklock writes:

I tend to agree with your analysis. Most American discourse on the Israel issue is fundamentally driven by Jewish interests, because there really aren't very many Palestinian interests over here. I think if the Palestinian side were heard, more people would sympathise with it. I divide things up into four groups who have the following loyalties at present:

People who always side with the underdog: Pro-Palestine.

People who always side with the status quo: Pro-Israel.

People who interpret the issue rationally and believe they currently have enough information: Pro-Israel.

People who interpret the issue rationally and believe they currently DO NOT have enough information: Neutral.

I do not believe the addition of Palestinian information will significantly alter any group except the last, which will come down heavily pro-Palestine because of recency bias. The pro-Israel story is well-known, but the new pro-Palestine story will win over more of the undecided people.

Dain writes:

I'm not sure which side gets presented via the media more often (though the political narrative certainly favors the "Israeli side" in the U.S.), but my hunch is that it tilts pro-Israeli too.

Coverage of suicide bombings get lots of attention for obvious reasons, but the more mundane reality of everyday occupation, economic deprivation, and IDF soldier transgressions that are less dramatic than self-immolation garner less attention. Couple this with the relatively anti-intellectual American's (not necessarily bad, mind you) lack of knowledge of world affairs and you get "problem construction" detrimental to the Palestian point of view.

JP writes:

One problem I see is that the relevant issues are so extremely politicized that not only does the disinterested observer not know whether any source can be trusted, but he also doesn't know whether any recommendation of a source can be trusted.

Alex J. writes:

If you'd like some information from the Palestinian side, go to youtube and search on "Al-aqsa Disney". Watch what you find and tell me how your policy preferences have changed.

John Thacker writes:

The problem, of course, is in picking what objective data to use. To take a particularly biased example, I'd bet that people who know the fact that over 60% of Arab citizens of Israel would prefer to remain such compared to less than 15% who would want to be citizens of the Palestinian authority (lots of undecided) would be more pro-Israel. (Source here.)

But you can find other objectively true facts that would select for other preferences.

Fazal Majid writes:

You'd have to run the experiment in a country that doesn't have significant historical or cultural ties to the Middle East, e.g. Japan.

Maniel writes:

Bryan said: "The claim on both sides at least seems to be that any fair-minded person who knew the basic facts would share their policy preferences."

I believe this lies at the heart of the matter and explains much of the conflict. Each side can support their claims with reams of facts and bookshelves of history. Antagonisms die hard - witness the Balkans after the fall of the USSR. History is augmented by memory - "La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid" (revenge is a dish best served cold) - but I digress.

Well if the two parties can't settle this thing themselves (without tearing each other to pieces, as in a bad marriage), what is to be done? I believe that you are onto something when you entertain bets. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens may not like each other, but they are able to settle scores - literally - on the field according to certain rules imposed by men in zebra costumes. You can even bet on the outcome, which will be observable and measurable.

Here's a plan: get the two sides to agree to the "rules of the game." What game? How about "the territory game" - any Go masters in the crowd? Overlay disputed territories (yes, those would have to be defined) with a grid and allow each side to select a piece in turn. The choices could turn on access to water, holy places, roads, etc. At the end of the turn taking, there would be an opportunity for trades. When all the turn-taking and trading was done, final borders would be fixed. There would be penalties - how about the loss of pieces of territory - for violence of any kind; these would be strictly, impartially enforced (no Soviet ice-skating judges, please!). Invoking history would not be allowed; once the borders were fixed, any prisoners would be released to the other side.

What's the catch? In some places, they shoot zebras.

Tushar Saxena writes:

I'm skeptical of this approach for questions of this sort. I think its clear to establish a bunch of baseline questions and check the historical record to see where the answer tilts.
For the record, I'm pro-israel.


Did Israel "steal" the land?
Was there 'ethnic cleansing' of Palestinians?
Who was more conciliatory in trying to avoid the 1948 war?

Apart from these mostly factual questions, there are very common sense, reasonable questions one can establish for neutral parties, like follows:

Which side has kept a higher percentage of its promises? And how much higher? Is it significant or not?

All of these would in a sense establish an "inside" view of the situation. Then We must take all these answers and apply them to analogous historical conflicts and situations and see how we judge them.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"People who always side with the underdog: Pro-Palestine.

People who always side with the status quo: Pro-Israel." -Caliban Darklock

I think it depends on which perspective you choose to view the situation from. Is Palestine the underdog because it is weaker than Israel, or is Israel an underdog because it is surrounded by larger unfriendly Pro-Palestine countries? It isn't as clear cut as you are claiming.

andrew writes:

How could you ever design a balanced set of facts that tested anything other than how much education the person received?

It's far too conflated. All this would yield is the consensus of wealthy people who can afford to be educated on the matter.

In other words, I'm sure education level correlates with general knowledge on the topic and with access (money, freedom of travel, etc) which has a lot to do with which side you're from in the first place.

I just don't think you'll get the 'most considered' opinion unless you ask really divisive questions which aren't likely to have objective factual answers.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

I think the enlightened preference approach, if it is to have any value, must begin with finding a basic statement of the ultimate policy outcome. To wit:

Group A: our aim is the survival of this nation, with as much territory as possible, from wherever we can get it.

Group B: our aim is the destruction of that nation, with its inhabitants deported or assimilated.

Group C: our aim is for the problem to go away and groups A and B to live in whatever peace they can agree on, justice be damned.

Group D: we don't want to deal with the disagreements of groups A and B, and we don't care if C gets involved or not, we just think it's fine if it goes on like this for a good while longer, who gives a crock of poopoo anyway.

Which policies you support depend on the outcome you desire, that's totally obvious. You're not going to get agreement on the policies between these groups unless you force them, first and foremost, to agree on the final outcome. Clearly, in the case of Israel and Palestine, we don't have such an agreement, and we have, for a few decades now, been completely unable to reach such an agreement. So, enlightened preferences, as an approach, has no firm foundation in this case. Tell me first what you want, and then we can discuss the means -- in an enlightened way, of course.

Barkley Rosser writes:

A major problem for most people is that they simply do not have the time to really delve into getting to the bottom of this issue, if there is a bottom. One should read sources from all the sides, with an eye to their various biases. It also helps to actually visit the region and talk to people, although this may require knowing languages and being able to pass as some sort of local, which very few can do. Even then, one will never get at "the answer."

In any case, it is too easy for too many people to simply go with whatever sources they are used to following and what they say, or the people they know and trust, with obvious group biases showing up a lot.

saifedean writes:

I’m willing to take this bet, and propose another two.

A couple of minor quibbles first:

I am not arguing a pro-Palestine position; I am arguing an anti-Zionist position. That is the real question in the conflict, and not some invented nationalities and identities that should never be the matter of political dispute. For centuries, Arab, Palestinian, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Druze and other identities coexisted and overlapped in Palestine without it being an issue of national and international politics. Zionism was not even created until the late nineteenth century, by Europeans, and as Rothbard wonderfully puts it, it was “the one Jewish movement that made no sense”. For hundreds of years, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in what today is known as historic Palestine in peace. There was no nation state, thankfully, but there was the annoyance of Ottoman rule. That wasn’t good, but still nowhere near as bad as what was to follow. The Ottomans lost in WWI and the British came over and decided to pursue an utterly nonsensical idea of setting up a religiously-exclusive nation state on this piece of land that was predominantly occupied by people from other religions. This is what I don’t like. So my position is really not one of being “pro-Palestine”. My contention rather is that Zionism is a racist exclusivist scheme of ethnic cleansing and land theft. This, I believe, is a factual statement, and not a policy position. It can be true or false, but it’s different from being a policy position. Whether people agree with it or not is not a matter of policy. But I firmly believe that if Americans knew more about what is going on, they would agree with this far more than they currently do.

So I’m willing to bet on such factual statements, as well as on any policy-position you think they would translate to. But more importantly, I think you miss what I really view as the relevant policy position here in America.

I no longer care too much about what Americans think of the conflict, because I realize it is hard to undo decades of propaganda and brain-washing. I’ve read a lot of Overcoming Bias. And having lived in America for five years, I know fully well that so many Americans have a weird fetish for Israel that is completely immune to reason or facts. This isn’t something that can be corrected for by reading one book or watching a documentary. We’re talking about decades of reading silly propaganda in the NYTimes, WSJ and their likes, and having it treated as if it were the only acceptable position, and that any other position was nothing but barbaric Islamic/Arab terrorism. So I’m not all that interested in changing Americans’ minds on this conflict—much as I take pleasure in destroying American Zionists’ fantasies of it.

All I ask for, rather, is that America stop supporting politically, economically and militarily any side in this conflict. My only real policy preference on this conflict within America is about whether America should take sides. And I’m willing to bet that if Americans knew more, they would lean more towards not taking sides (arguably, non-non-interventionists will lean more towards taking the Palestinian side).

So, we could have three Enlightened Preference approach bets over:

1- Factual statements such as “Zionism is a racist ideology of land-theft and ethnic cleansing”.

2- Whatever policy-position you would think it would entail to be pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, as long as I think they’re reasonable.

3- “The United States of America should not politically, economically or militarily support any side in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
An important point needs to be raised here: you cannot discount the ideological preferences of people in this question. Knowledge isn’t everything, especially when you have strong priors. So, if someone is a rabid anti-Semite who wants all Jews killed, they’re not likely to sympathize with Israel no matter how much they know about the conflict. The same is true for a rabid Zionist who wants all non-Jews cleansed from all of historic Palestine because of what some 3,000-year-old book says. I’m sure you agree that Avigdor Lieberman and Ismail Haniyyeh both know a lot about the conflict, and yet they are at opposite extremes of it.

This is something that needs to be taken into account in the design of this bet.

David Jinkins writes:

How about only clear modern historical facts as a metric for knowledge (nothing about who has kept more promises, who is nastier, etc.):

What year was Israel founded?

Name the three largest international Arab-Israeli wars (I am thinking of 1948 Arab-Israeli War, 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War).

Name as many former leaders of Israel and Palestine as you can.

What countries border Israel/Palestine?

Name as many cities in Israel/Palestine as you can.

What colors are the Israeli flag? What colors are the Palestinian flag?

These questions are neutral, and it could be argued that they covary closely with many kinds of knowledge about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Interesting topic idea...I wonder what kind of data is currently available?

Dirtyrottenvarmint writes:

EP assumes, incorrectly, that most human decisions are arrived at rationally. This is demonstrably not true.

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