Accountable Public Opinion

In a recent Time oped, Michael Kinsley laments that the public doesn’t take more responsibility for its opinions:

[On the Iraq war, pundits have] all changed their tunes, a little or a lot, with various degrees of contrition.  Politicians, too, are under pressure to recant anything nice they may have said about the Iraq war … But one important voice was as wrong as any of them and now is among the most censorious about the way things have turned out. Yet this voice has never acknowledged its previous errors. In fact, no one expects it to do so, even though it is more responsible than any pundit for U.S. policy in Iraq. This is the voice of the citizenry, the American people. …

I am always amazed at the things people are willing to express opinions about. Is the "surge" working? Is there likely to be a terrorist attack in the next few months? … In opinion polls, citizens are treated like gods, dispensing or withholding their "approval" on any basis they wish or none at all. …  Ninety percent of the electorate once approved of Bush’s "handling" of terrorism. Now only 39% approve. That means at least 51%, or more than half of all Americans, used to support Bush on terrorism but don’t anymore. You might say they have decided they were wrong, but opinion-poll democracy requires no such self-criticism. Political opinions are like old-fashioned airline tickets, with no change penalty.

Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq … did in fact have the support of most American citizens, which surely egged him on. … Millions of Americans now apparently regret those opinions. But unlike the politicians and the pundits, they do not face pressure to recant or apologize.  American democracy might be stronger if they did.

Kinsley hits the nail on the head with the word "pressure."  Secure dictators such as the opinion poll and voting public now are feel little pressure to admit anything.   This is why I’d prefer public policy to instead be based on a more accountable public opinion, one with more pressure to be right due to a personal penalty for being wrong.  This is the key concept behind "futarchy," or decision markets for public policy

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  • michael vassar

    OTOH, by allowing people to change their minds without admitting error you probably get more changing of minds, which could be good. Unsophisticated investors usually buy more of their looser stocks, why wouldn’t unsophisticated voters do the same with looser wars?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Yet this voice has never acknowledged its previous errors.
    What would the voice of the public acknowledging its errors look like? I can´t see how it could be made to work – individual members of the public might acknowledge their errors, but how would this translate to the public at large?

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Robin,

    But, for the public to somehow be made to be held accountable would mean that one would have to require the public to engage in buying into such futarchic markets. If they do not, then so what? So, yesterday many thought the Iraq War was a good idea, but now that they have seen it go on and on for several years without the outcomes predicted by many, including the president, they have changed their minds. Presumably a futarchic market would simply reflect this as well, but would only affect those who actually bought into it one way or the other.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Barkely, the idea is that only those who do trade count when measuring net public opinion. The others are interpreted as having opted for silence on the issue. I certainly do not presume that the market price would have always been the same as public opinion as we currently measure it.

  • Chad Walters

    Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq … did in fact have the support of most American citizens, which surely egged him on.

    One could imagine that a good percentage of the American public feels that their support was garnered by misleading evidence presented by an administration bent on going to war.

    What would the voice of the public acknowledging its errors look like?

    I humbly suggest that it might look something like November 7, 2006.