The Big Failure

Scott Sumner:

Most of the really important public policy issues are not even part of the ongoing debate in the press. Here are some examples:

1. The huge rise in occupational licensing.

2. The huge rise in people incarcerated in the war on drugs, and also the scandalous reluctance of doctors to prescribe adequate pain medication (also due to the war on drugs.)

3. The need for more legal immigration.

4. The need to replace taxes on capital with progressive consumption taxes.

5. Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.

6. Tax exemptions for mortgage interest and health insurance.

These 6 policy failures impose enormous damage on the country, far more than the issues typically discussed on the evening news. Why aren’t they discussed? I would argue that it is partly because the disagreements tend to break down on values, not ideology. Most idealistic intellectuals agree with me on all of these issues. They are not issues that divide the left and the right. It’s also true that most real world politicians agree on these issues. However their views are exactly the opposite of the views of intellectuals. Hence there is no “policy debate” in either the political or intellectual arenas, and hence no “fight” for the media to report.

Adam Ozimek:

The missing piece of this puzzle is that the intellectual agreement on these issues isn’t just the opposite of real world politician’s, but the opposite of the rest of the real world. At the average dinner table in this country, anyone advocating what Sumner might call the intellectual consensus on any of these issues would face a lot of disagreement, and would frequently be greeted by surprise that a reasonable person would ever dream of advocating for, say, for more immigration or less occupational licensing.

The key questions are, of course, why is it so hard to inform the public that intellectual elites disagree with them on such issues, and if being informed of this fact would be enough to change their minds.

If telling the public that elites disagree would be enough to change their minds, well then a public info campaign targeting this ignorance could yield huge rewards. Then we’d face the question of why no philanthropists care enough to fund such a campaign. Could it be that they also mainly care about taking ideological sides?

Talking to the public may not be enough, however, if the public just does not want to hear that elites disagree with them. It is hard to tell folks things they do not want to hear. It might also be that even if the public does hear it, they would not change their minds. In which case democracy just loses.

A variation on democracy, like futarchy, that relies more on expert judgement on what causes what, could do better. But to get from here to there, you’d have to convince the public to accept a form of governance that relies more on something other than on their personal opinions. Not impossible, but not easy either.

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  • ohbrother

    If these are really values issues, then the public is right to spurn the elite. In fact the elite are overrepresented in the policy debate. Given that the public knows this and doesn’t have the rhetorical tools/skills/time/patience/clout to argue with the elites they are best off ignoring them and using the crude power of elections and political ties to block/delay the encroachment of an alien values system onto their lives. This seems like evidence of the oppression of the masses by the intellectuals rather than lack of sensible debate.

    [For example, on the issues of immigration and drugs, no one in the elites is willing to frame the questions in ways that the public cares about because elites don’t really believe that drugs are evil or that immigration should be controlled to preserve the preferences of existing citizens. There might be Pareto improving solutions but they don’t trust anyone in the elite to make their case for them in a fair way.]

    Indeed, this is further evidence that prediction markets are not a good thing because people believe these will be framed in a way to undermine their beliefs, values, and culture even more quickly than usual.

  • Adam Ozimek

    “But to get from here to there, you’d have to convince the public to accept a form of governance that relies more on something other than on their personal opinions.”

    And once you did get from here to there, you’d have to have come up with some mechanism to get the public to listen to elites and change their minds, which means democracy would work again.

  • curious

    It might also be that even if the public does hear it, they would not change their minds. In which case democracy just loses.

    this is how it goes in practice. see, for example: energy security/climate change…

  • josh

    Most of the governing in this country is done by elites without the knowledge or consent of the general public. What exactly are the Federal Maritime Commission or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation specifically up to these day. I certainly don’t know and I read the Times.

    Further, if you are assuming that elites don’t manufacture consent, I don’t even know what to tell you. What is the relationship between the OWI, the Ford Foundation, Harvard, your local public high school and the New York Times? Or is there no relationship there at all.

    Incidentally, could you list some of the instances in which the “intellectual elite” was right and the general public was wrong? The things that keep popping into my mind are public housing, urban renewal, Communism, desegregation, public education, decolonization, PC-COIN, and the like.

  • Matt

    Many everyday people don’t trust experts because they believe that their opinions are influenced by impractical ivory tower ideals, financial incentives from corporations, political interests, etc. Simply telling people that the experts disagree may even be counterproductive for this reason. I’m talking about your working-class-hero types here. The problem is that if people are uneducated, they do not understand what it takes to be considered an expert, hence they don’t respect the designation.

  • josh

    Serious question: Should “intellectual elites” be trusted in all societies at all times or are we special?

  • David C

    On 1, I’m guessing the average person is against it, but the special interests involved keep pushing for it because they gain an advantage. I doubt they favor it for most of the occupations they’re not in.

    On 2, attitudes are shifting.

    On 4, the FairTax came up a few times in the last Presidential election although it was a regressive tax. There’s some movement there.

    On 5, I’m guessing the average individual has no opinion since most people don’t pay attention to local politics.

    The only ones that I think fit your point about the general public being opposed to academic opinion is on 3 and 6. For the most part, people just aren’t aware of these issues.

  • http://whyiamnot.wordpess.com Salem

    Talking to the public may not be enough, however, if the public just does not want to hear that elites disagree with them. It is hard to tell folks things they do not want to hear. It might also be that even if the public does hear it, they would not change their minds. In which case democracy just loses.

    On any given issue the “intellectual elites” may be right or wrong but they have generally discredited themselves so much in the policy environment that their endorsement is near-worthless, or even counter-productive. Consider: a police chief endorses a policy regarding crime, a professor of criminology comes out against it. Which cuts more ice with the public? Why?

    I don’t see this as democracy “losing.” The public just don’t see the “intellectual elites” as being all that elite, which strikes me as a very reasonable position.

    I also think ohbrother and josh makes some excellent points.

  • Captain Oblivious

    I’m puzzled – you claim that most intellectuals would agree with you, but you don’t actually state your position on most of these issues!

    On #1 (The huge rise in occupational licensing), you later imply that you are opposed tothe increase…. but on #3 (The need for more legal immigration) you later imply that you are in favor of an increase. So there’s not even a pattern to go on!

    I suspect that you (and possibly others) are so convinced of the correctness of your position (and so convinced that other thoughtful people would agree with you) that you didn’t even notice that you don’t state that position! Moreover, it’s entirely possible that different readers read different things into the original list, depending on their existing biases!

    Please note that I don’t necessarily disagree with you or anyone else: I’d have to be clear on what position you’re actually taking first!

  • mbk

    Politics is about normative issues, not about positive statements. Experts have more weight than the average person in factual/positive questions. Even then, when the issue is complex, it boils down to a kind of crude democracy of the experts, which changes opinion every decade or so.

    But: In which way exactly does an elite carry more weight on a normative issue? Why should it have more power over what essentially IS a question of opinion and preference? And I say this although more often than not I’d agree with the “elites”.

  • y81

    On 6, it’s hardly off the table: John McCain proposed ending the exclusion for health insurance. Most intellectuals (or at least most academics) didn’t vote for him, however.

    In fact, given their voting behavior, I am highly skeptical that idealistic intellectuals generally agree with Sumner or Hanson on much of anything. This is a well-known sociological phenomenon, the delusional belief that the people around you agree with you.

  • ohbrother

    A good example of this problem can be seen in your colleague Caplan. He likes to say that elites are better than the masses on economic matters (factually) but then conflates his values with more positive claims. He is generally a pacifist who shows contempt for both nationalism and patriotism and disdains those who want to preserve their home culture. He actively despises mainstream religions. When confronted with a scholar like Borjas who shows quite rigorously some of the downsides of recent immigration, he actually labels this work as leading to “evil” not just error. This smacks of the libertarian equivalent of Marxism.

    From the standpoint of the public, hair splitting between left libs and libertarians on these matters is pointless. They understand the signals well and they see no reason to trust elites who can barely conceal their contempt for non-elite norms.

    Which is doubly sad because genuine opportunities for mutual gains are squandered in the process.

  • J

    “why is it so hard to inform the public that intellectual elites disagree with them on such issues”

    It’s not; the public is well aware of this. It’s actually fascinating to think you might not realize this, though I doubt that’s the case.

    “and if being informed of this fact would be enough to change their minds”

    As others have noted, our intellectual elite have advocated any number of mind-numbingly idiotic, demonstrably unworkable ideas. Also, many of us have had sufficient exposure to our intellectual elite to have realized that when it comes to subjects outside their specific area of expertise, they are no more knowledgeable than a randomly selected housepet.

    “It might also be that even if the public does hear it, they would not change their minds. In which case democracy just loses.”

    How so? The fact that a given system of government doesn’t work perfectly doesn’t mean it doesn’t work better than the alternatives.

  • Alex Weiner

    All of this is often discussed in The Economist. Of course, pretty much only elites read it.

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    Some local zoning rules restrict low-density development. Sometimes we even see a combination of restrictions on both low-density and high-density development. The resulting housing shortage is blamed on greedy landlords and used as a pretext for more regulations.

  • Matt

    Maybe I should be posting this question on Scott Sumner’s blog but who exactly are the intellectual elite? Would economists at Harvard or MIT agree with the six policy failures? I’m not an intellectual elite by any means. From my perspective it would be more important to convince the general public who the intellectual elite are rather than convince them that the elites disagree with them. I don’t know who they are and I would be vary wary of anyone who claimed to be one.

    Another problem is that I’m not sure intellectual elites roll in society is to effect change. I see them more as agitators than leaders. Aren’t the intellectual elite by definition avant garde?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    The immigration restrictionist I read point out all the time what the gap is between elite and public opinion. But they include “corrupt Democrats” and “corrupt Republicans” in the elite.

  • http://twitter.com/afoolswisdom sark

    Deep down, both the public and the elites know that their talk really isn’t about policies and their consequences wrt. our values.

    At least for certain matters, I do agree that the elites have on average more correct beliefs. But this is just a side effect of needing an objective criteria on which to judge their performance in the status games the elites play. Since academics tend to be smarter/push arguments further, it is necessary for them to rely on something other than the vague plausibility heuristics the public uses to judge policy proposals. Also because they are smarter, they tend to compete on trying to show off their intelligence. So they turn to an objective standard. In the humanities this turns out to be a coherentism which does not track truth. In the harder social sciences it turns out to be the truth, as best as anyone could determine.

  • Karl Hallowell

    A big part of the problem here is that the elites don’t tend to be any more correct or relevant than the general population. For example, half of the six points above, I can’t take seriously. The “needs” aren’t. Dense development hasn’t been figured out (it has to beat sprawl, which is surprisingly hard) and most places don’t have the infrastructure to handle it. So complaining about zoning issues is premature. Points 1 and 6 have merit, and I solidly agree on point 2 (though it does have some representation in the media). That’s probably as much agreement as I’d get with anyone else.

    The problem here is that most of these ideas don’t seem particularly noteworthy or even grounded in reality. So why should the media pay attention to them?

    The whole point of an intellectual elite is that their focus on some particular subject should give insight into those areas that the rest of society can borrow. When that insight goes delinquent, then they have lost their value to the rest of society.

  • dave

    1. The huge rise in occupational licensing.

    So small people don’t care, and nobody is going to think hairdressers when you bring this up they will think doctors and lawyers.

    2. The huge rise in people incarcerated in the war on drugs, and also the scandalous reluctance of doctors to prescribe adequate pain medication (also due to the war on drugs.)

    The best example on this list.

    3. The need for more legal immigration.

    Debatable from a policy standpoint, and we already allow a ton of immigration. Plus its probably a net negative for the portion of the population that would have to compete with them.

    4. The need to replace taxes on capital with progressive consumption taxes.

    People are too worried such a tax would end up being regressive after it goes through the political process.

    5. Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.

    So small its a non starter. Nobody pays attention to local politics and those that benefit directly are very involved.

    6. Tax exemptions for mortgage interest and health insurance.

    These are seen as middle class entitlements, and middle class will never want to get rid of them, and if they did they would be unlikely to get anything in return.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    These 6 policy failures impose enormous damage on the country, far more than the issues typically discussed on the evening news.

    At the very least, this is very ambiguous. Is Sumner claiming that the total damage from the current policies in these areas exceeds the damage of issues typically discussed on the news, or that they each individually exceed that threshold? If the stronger claim is intended, then I don’t believe it. The effect of local zoning on development density (#5 on the list) is supposed to be more damaging that the war in Afghanistan (a typical news item)??? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and none at all was presented.

  • http://twitter.com/afoolswisdom sark

    Replying to the comments saying the elites have different values:

    Genuine differences in values probably do exist. But let us refrain from automatically concluding all of it is. A lot of it is signaling. Do we really care about the negative effects of immigration, or do we want to show our community that we care? We should force non-elites (and elites too of course) to confront this hypocrisy, taking their explicated values seriously and going with them showing what policy recommendations result.

  • Otto S.

    The key questions are, of course, why is it so hard to inform the public that intellectual elites disagree with them on such issues, and if being informed of this fact would be enough to change their minds.

    Huh? How are those the key questions?

    For someone who wants to drive the “élite” belief into policy implementation, isn’t the key question “how can I convince the public that my belief is in the best interest of….”?

    Ah, but in the best interest of whom? Of the individual being convinced? Of that individual’s affiliation-group? Of the country? Of the human species? Of all species? Of the present generation? Of future generations?

  • Joe M.

    “Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.”

    Most replies seem to assume the public ignores this matter. In all suburban towns I have lived in the public is very much aware and vigorously opposed to ‘dense’ development – often to an irrational extent.

    The ‘elite’ on this issue are a bunch of university people who have few if any children.

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  • GNZ

    most rational local property owners probably support zoning rules because it decreaces supply and thus increases prices, and in a very transparent way protects their property value against a certain sort of risk (eg high density housing appearing next to them.

    same principle with most of the other issues, people close to it want a different result from the agregate. except imigration – I think i might disagree that the US needs more immigration unless one just means more quality immigration.