Dissing Citizens

Imagine a “democracy” where citizens could technically vote for anyone, but where authorities strongly recommended particular candidates for each office, and those who voted for others were given extensive psychiatric treatment, out of concern for their welfare, and taken away from their jobs and families, out of concern for the welfare of others.  Technically, this could make sense — maybe there really is always a clear best candidate, and only crazy folks would think otherwise.

But this situation could also easily describe strong repression, and it seems to dis voters by restricting their control.  People like democracy in part because it raises their status, by making them seem in control.  But if so, voter status must fall as that appearance of control is restricted by law — there is an essential tension between democracy and regulation that overrules voter beliefs.

While we have many kinds of regulations supported by many kinds of rationales, one very common rationale is bias, that people make bad choices, bad not just for society as a whole, but bad for each particular choosing person according to their own preferences, holding constant all other decisions.  Such rationales are commonly offered regarding product safety, professional licensing, and financial regulations, and in legal and election procedures.

It may well be that many people do often make such mistakes, and that they are furthermore stubborn enough not to listen to advice telling them about their mistakes.  So it might well require government force to keep folks from hurting themselves via unwise choices.  But there is a real conflict between telling voters they are wise enough to run the government, and using force to keep them from acting on many of their beliefs.

Consider: which voters are in charge of the policies that keep voters from acting on their beliefs – can these two groups of voters really be the same?  Yes, citizens may realize they are error-prone and intend to use government to keep them from making mistakes.  But then voters would only need to be advised by the government of their mistakes, not forced to follow government advice.  And voluntary deals with private orgs could achieve the same outcome.  Yes perhaps a majority of voters tries to keep a minority of voters from their mistakes, but if so why is such force applied to all voters?

This tension becomes especially strong when voters are prevented by force from acting on their political beliefs.  Consider legal limits on which candidates voters may elect to public office, limits on policies candidates may advocate, or limits on advisors voters may hear on candidates and policies.  Such limits should detract from the status of being a voter in control of government – these limits seem to publicly declare that voters cannot be trusted on certain of their beliefs, and that the elites who set and maintain such limits (e.g., court judges) are the rightful higher-status rulers over such foolish lower-status voting rabble.

But what is clear to me may well not be clear to most voters.  Voting is done in an especially thoughtless sort of far mode, where a great many contradictions remain unnoticed.  But with time, this conflict may become more obvious – how then will voters resolve it, by demanding fewer limits on their actions, or by limiting the vote to a smaller subset of less obviously foolish citizens?

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  • http://ahappinessexperiment.wordpress.com/ ahappinessexperiment

    Why do smart people vote? I don’t vote for the same reason I don’t play the lotto.

    But I agree I want the right to vote, merely for the sake of status. However, since I know my vote doesn’t count and nothing I say is going to influence anything, my right to vote doesn’t seem worth much. I’ll sell it to you for $50.

  • Garrett

    The way you put it, you make it sound as if a week ago we all voted and passed every current US law. There’s a huge amount of path dependency and complexity here that you’re skimming over, I think.

    Also, I don’t think legal limits on which candidates voters may elect to office (such as 35 years or older and a natural born citizen for the Presidency, correct?) are really “imposed by elites”. I’m pretty sure most people approve of those. I can’t think of any limits imposed from above on policies candidates may advocate, or limits on advisers voters can hear, can you maybe give an example of those?

  • Bias

    In different modes of cognitive processing, we are capable of different levels of rationality. One easy example is that I may rationally not wish to smoke in some undetermined time in the future but cannot resist the temptation right now.
    People can then rationally choose to impose upon themselves coercion that will keep them from temptation during their non-rational state.

    This is a central understanding underlying support of paternalistic measures that Mr. Hanson does not address.
    Indeed, as a libertarian, I would say that this is one of the great unaddressed issues by libertarians.


    • Jayson Virissimo

      People can then rationally choose to impose upon themselves coercion that will keep them from temptation during their non-rational state.

      This is a central understanding underlying support of paternalistic measures that Mr. Hanson does not address.

      You went from people restricting themselves to restricting unwilling others. This isn’t an unimportant gap to cross.

      I’m sure you can see the difference between telling your spouse to throw out all the chocolate in the house to prevent you from getting fat, and telling the policeman to throw out all the chocolate in your neighbor’s house so that he doesn’t get fat (without his permission).

    • David J

      What specifically is the issue you are talking about? That libertarians do not address the desire for an individual to use government to stop themself from doing “bad” things because they cannot exercise self-control?

      Even if that were a good idea when someone is in an irrational state why do we assume that law would influence their decisions?

      Your assumption is that only irrational people would take certain decisions and those decisions should be illegal since legality is influential for an irrational person. But the decision needs to be considered on its own merits – and not with respect to those who would make it – in order for any action to be considered (fair/just/equal).

  • Luff

    The function elections has is to prevent civil wars; it is not an optimal way to choose the best candidate for office. Removing the incompetent from the ballot might provide better officials, but you will have a hard time making people accept that they’re too stupid to vote. (At least as long as they’re clever enough to use guns.) Unequal rights among different groups of citizens is a recipe for conflict, and preventing civil war is more important than competent leaders.

  • MPS

    I think what you are forgetting is the power of majority rule to coerce others to behave the way you want them to.

    For instance I would vote for a carbon tax. You could ask why do I want to force myself to pay more for fossil fuel — I could do so voluntarily. But the point is I want to others to do this as well.

    Without thinking too much about this, I guess this stems from perceived liability in the behavior of others. What do I care what Wall Street bankers do? Well I care if I think their decisions can ultimately affect whether I lose my job or not. Why do I care whether my neighbor snorts cocaine? Well I care if I think his habit will ultimately make him dependent on my support — or if I think it brings crime to the neighborhood, etc.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      What do I care what Wall Street bankers do? Well I care if I think their decisions can ultimately affect whether I lose my job or not.

      Should you be prevented from choosing your own consumer goods? After all, that could affect whether someone will lose their job or not (specifically, the worker who makes the product you refuse to buy because it is of poor quality or is too high a price).

      Surely you must admit that this liberty of yours is to dangerous to be left to you to exercise.

  • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com richard silliker

    Who are these authorities? If they are smart enough in the first place, why have elections?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Garrett, I don’t see what the timescale has to do with it. We have the limits today, they limit who we can vote for, and we aren’t trying to take away those limits.

    Bias, yes in one mode we might want to limit our choices in another mode. But private solutions should suffice for that, if legally allowed.

    Luff, how does giving people the vote prevent civil wars unless it is via raising their status? But then why do we risk a civil war by limiting their vote and thus lowering their status?

    MPS, there’s a difference between collective action problems and personal mistaken choices – I’m talking about the later.

    • David J

      Robin, you seem to be equating “Raising Their Status” with “Making Them More Content”; and if so then pretty much any change is either going to raise or lower status. Civil War (or more generally crime/demonstrations) more often occur as people become more and more discontent with their lives and the hopes. Voting gives people hope that they and others like them can change society without having to risk death or imprisonment. Hope, not status, “prevents” Civil War.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Do North Koreans have hope? I’m pretty sure there are fewer demonstrations there than in first-world liberal democracy. The American Civil War doesn’t seem attributable to a deficiency of hope either, although arguably it may not qualify as a “civil war”.

      • http://ahappinessexperiment.wordpress.com/ Bock

        It is precisely hope which CAUSES civil war. Without hope, who would fight? On the other hand, break their spirits…

  • Garrett

    In the timescale part of my post I was talking more about the financial regulation, product safety, etc, but I guess it works for either one.

    I think there’s a large amount of status quo bias, I don’t think it’s easy to get people up in arms about something that’s been a law for 100+ years. I think what you’re saying about people voting to restrict their own rights (or perhaps they just want to restrict the rights of a minority they believe is inferior) seems like a much more powerful argument if the currently living people voted by popular vote all these rules into place. I think they are so far removed from the process (it’s not a popular vote, and many were put into place long before any of us were born) that I don’t think you can make such a direct link

  • Bill

    OK, Robin, I get to pick who is the obviously foolish citizen and get to disenfranchise them.

    • Bill

      Have to be careful. This was intended as irony.

  • Bill

    You know, there was one period in American history when, following the Civil War, we disenfranchised some folks because they could not read, and the majority thereafter did all they could to be sure that that population would not be educated.

    The majority group also, quite cleverly, created the grandfather clause: that if you’re grandpappy was a voter before such a date, say 1860, and, even though you could not read, you could vote because grandpappy did.

    You have to think about a proposal that would deny the vote to the dismal and uniformed. What incentive would the informed have to educate the dismal or uninformed?

    For good reason, we do not give the vote to inanimate objects. The vote is limited to citizens, who are natural persons, at least as last I checked. Innanimate objects, such as corporations, live forever, and have an incentive to throttle infants who could be their competitors in the future with all sorts of regulatory and other barriers.

    We give the vote to natural persons because, when we vote, we vote for the interest of natural persons, not inanimate objects. When we vote to protect our interest as natural persons, we vote to protect the other interests of natural persons as well, or, at least 51% of them.

    Now, you could argue that the inanimate object, say a chemical company, knows more about a potentially harmful chemical compound than the average voter on the street, and therefore, it should vote. The problem is that the object is not of the set of natural persons that would be affected by this decision.

    • David J

      A more simple for reason for not giving votes to “inanimate” objects is that either they truly are inanimate and thus could not vote even if allowed or that such inanimate objects are composed of citizens who can vote and thus the rule of one-person-one-vote would be broken.

      This doesn’t mean that those persons composing the inanimate object cannot vote in a way that would benefit said inanimate object nor can or should we attempt to do so.

      • Bill

        I agree.

        Also, foreigners vote through inanimate objects so you are extending the right of citizenry. Citizen natural persons bear the costs and the entity of foreign nationals investors do not.

        You can also argue that managers of inanimate objects, if they could vote, get to vote twice. Once as a citizen, and a second time based on the voting power of the the inanimate object.

    • Rich Rostrom

      “there was one period in American history when, following the Civil War, we disenfranchised some folks because they could not read, and the majority thereafter did all they could to be sure that that population would not be educated.”

      Not true. To begin with, “we” did not do it, unless you are writing as a self-identified White Southerner”.

      In the second place, the literacy tests and “grandfather clause” were put in place after the “Redeemers” overturned the Reconstruction-era governments. By that time (10 years after the War) schools and colleges for blacks had been established all over the South. The Redeemer governments did not shut down these schools. Underfunded them compared to schools for whites, but they continued to operate. The first black teachers’ college in South Carolina was established during the governorship of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a notorious racist and white supremacist.

      And in the third place, the literacy test was never actually used literally: it was simply an excuse for disfranchising a black. There was no need to prevent blacks from learning to read because they might then be able to pass the literacy test – blacks automatically “failed” the “test”.

      • Bill

        You’re right in some parts; wrong in others.

        A great class on post civil war reconstruction is online at Yale University. Taught by Prof. Blight or Bright.

        You can find it at oyc.yale.edu

        You are right that for a period of time after the war blacks could vote, but you might want to check your dates when it ended; I think it was in the early 1870s–but you can find out by listening to some informative lectures and tell me more.

      • Bill

        Oops. Some more to disagree with.
        You might want to listen to Berkeley Prof. Brad de Long’s economic history of the United States available at I Tunes U. He has a lecture on funding of black schools and the literacy test. Uh Uh. Quite clearly education was not funded, both for literacy reasons and to keep blacks in low paying jobs. He has some facts, even post reconstruction.

  • http://www.edwardgaffney.com Edward Gaffney

    “People like democracy in part because it raises their status, by making them seem in control.”

    I agree with, and appreciate, this revision of Robin’s earlier hard-line pro-status stance. Though I still don’t think it applies in the case of corporate speech. It also explains anti-democratic tendencies towards outgroups; one can simply consider them as being outside one’s demos, such that it doesn’t hurt so much to have them outside one’s polis.

    Considering the thesis, I would see a few examples: constitutions, and the human rights concept more generally, regulate the bias towards the majority; representative democracy regulates the bias towards instability in policy.

    But surely, on the status argument here, it’s actually the voters and not the judges who ultimately determine what anti-bias regulations are put in place? It’s not as if the United States Constitution can only be changed by its Supreme Court. I still don’t see how status competition can be the issue here.

  • Patri Friedman

    Libertarians have high status in Robin’s peer group and he is concerned that his previous anti-libertarian postings may be interpreted as him being an outsider to the tribe, so he is signaling his affiliation by defending some libertarian beliefs?

    • ThePencileFamily

      Or promoting his awareness, without affiliation.

    • Ryan Vann

      Cheeky stuff by Patri Friedman here.

  • David J

    The problem with the status raising effects of voting is that your reference group is those who cannot vote. Plus, aside from the first generation to gain voting rights after not having them, people didn’t really have to do anything to earn such a right other than be born in the right place and live long enough. For that first generation maybe status was a big driver – equal rights and all that – even if the actual right being fought for didn’t mean all that much to them but subsequent generations would have less attachment and simply view it as an entitlement – and those without as being deprived.

    Even if you use a measure, such as IQ, to limit who can vote the measure become the relevant status metric while the voting simply becomes a byproduct since such a measure is either A) controllable or B) innate; voting is a privilege given by those in power to those deemed worthy and as such is relevant to ones status within that restricted area. To the degree that we want to be associated as political insiders and knowledgeable it is useful but to the degree someone is trying to be acknowledged as a good mother it is not.

    I’m starting to ramble now and not totally sure of where my thoughts are so I’ll stop and just let these thoughts sit for consideration…

  • Michael Turner

    “… there is an essential tension between democracy and regulation that overrules voter beliefs.”

    There’s also an essential tension between democracy and special interests who seek to buy the candidates they prefer.

    Remember, this SCOTUS decision was about election financing, for a representative democracy, not a direct one. We’re not talking about the people being wise enough to run the government — we’re talking about the people being wise enough to pick someone they think is wise enough to run the government. Which is itself an iffy proposition, perhaps, but not the same thing. But voters are only offered choices of candidates they believe were effectively bought for them in advance, why should they think that voting confers any status at all? Quite the contrary, if anything.

    Let’s also bear in mind that this recent SCOTUS decision also empowered labor unions and dot-orgs to finance their own advertising for candidates. (Indeed, it was a dot-org that brought suit.) The oldest (and still among the biggest) dot-orgs: churches. And let’s imagine for a moment a true repeat of the Great Depression (which is still not impossible, especially the way things are going). That scenario could put corporate interests on the run, as consumer demand plummets, profits turn to losses, and businesses begin to fail. In the race to the bottom of “earnings”, those who could command union dues and pew-side charitable contributions might actually gain in overall purchasing power, if their membership gains were grearter, their drop in losses were slower, and if deflation became strong enough.

    You want the pre-election airwaves saturated with Huey Long backed by Jimmy Hoffa? Because if you’re thinking “hurray for our side, we have won the right to hear candidate endorsements from the poor little previously-muzzled corporations!”, that’s the other edge of the blade, if the economy deteriorates much further.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      There’s also an essential tension between democracy and special interests who seek to buy the candidates they prefer.
      No there isn’t, everyone’s interests are “special”. In a democracy politicians promise certain policies to constituents in hopes they will vote for them and otherwise support them. We just call it “special interests”, “pandering” or “whoring” when we dislike it.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Robin: have the arguments you presented above made you believe that status is less of a factor in democracy than you previously thought?
    That is one possible way of interpreting your evidence…

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  • mike

    We already limit a group of people from voting for exactly the reasons given: we believe them to be stupid, easily misguided and coercible, and in need of protection from themselves.

    That children are not allowed to vote is proof that people are open to the idea of restricting the vote. The key, as always, is in the definition of the restrictions.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Bill: I’m quite familiar with the history of black voting in the post-bellum South. Black voting was secured by the 15th Amendment. In LA, MS, FL, and SC, blacks were half (or more) of the population, and provided a base for Republicans to control these states. However, violent intimidation by the Democrat “Redeemers” (executed by the Klan) suppressed enough black votes (and dissident whites) to allow Democrat to seize control of these states in 1875-1877. Republicans agreed to withdraw Federal protection for the Reconstruction governments in return for Democrat acceptance of Hayes’ election as President in 1876.

    However, this did not end black voting in the South. There was a long rear-guard action, lasting until 1900. Several black Republicans were elected U.S. Representative from the South during this period. The last was George White of NC, elected in 1896 and 1898. Also in the 1890s, blacks won a few elections to state legislatures, and to the 1895 SC state constitutional convention. It was in the 1895 constitution that SC established literacy tests.

    The final crackdown only came in 1900. And as noted, nearly all the Southern states had schools and colleges for blacks at that time. Disfranchisement was enforced largely by abusive registrars and clerks, backed by Klan intimidation. Black voting was zeroed out; but it was done without regard for black literacy.

  • Servant

    There is a “democracy” where the leaders advise people to vote for the correct candidate and sometimes send people to mental hospitals if they refuse to do so. It’s called Russia.

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  • Karen Patrick

    The current voting system isn’t ideal, but it’s the best choice we have. Voters should just seize this opportunity: it will not come again.


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