You're Not Entitled to Your Policy Opinions

I’m pretty down on the concept of a Presidential “debate”, or just how Presidential election marketing works in the first place. Politics seeks to answer a very important normative question of “how ought the world, or at least our nation, be?”. But in a debate that allocates a whopping two minutes per candidate to settle the enormous question about the role of the government, I don’t think due diligence is being done.

But there’s a bigger concern. It’s not just that people think that a discussion on the role of government can be done in two minutes, it’s that people are so confident about their own opinions on the role of government that they don’t notice anything is missing.

The Uninformed Voter

This essay isn’t a standard “voters are dumb lol” article, but it’s true that voters are notoriously uninformed. Winston Churchill allegedly said “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For example, let’s take a little quiz. Without looking up, do you know which political party is the majority party in the House of Representatives? If so, you’re more politically saavy than 37% of the voting population, according to National Election Survey data. (The answer: Republican)

Let’s up the ante. Can you name the Senate Majority Leader? If so, congratulations. You’re in the top 10% of voters, by political knowledge. Can you name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? If so, you’re in the top 15%, solely by knowing the answer to that question. (Answers: Harry Reid, John Roberts) (Though, these statistics from ANES may be methodlogically flawed, so take this with a grain of salt.)

And it doesn’t just have to be a game of political who’s who. Daniel B. Klein asks questions like “Does free trade tend to lead to unemployment?” and “Do immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens”? The answers here also left a lot to be desired. (Answers: No and no) Also, only 11% of Americans know how much Paul Ryan’s budget would cut spending.

The Overconfident Voter

But it’s not just that the non-savvy voters get things wrong. It’s that voters – savvy and non-savvy alike – both dramatically overestimate how much they know about politics. Let me explain to you a nonscientific yet apt and hilarious concept referred to “Mount Stupid”:

I’d add to Mount Stupid nearly every discussion I’ve ever had on how the economy works.

I think some people underestimate how scientific economics can be, and how much is actually known about the economy. For instance, check out The IGM Forum of Economic Experts, a representative sample of economists – there is very broad agreement on long run US fiscal responsibility requiring either tax increases or Medicare/Medicaid cuts, that gasoline prices are largely unaffected by US economic policy, the bank bailout reduced unemployment, the stimulus bill reduced unemployment, a return to the Gold Standard would not create price stability, and that a carbon tax would be a more cost-effective way of reducing emissions than fuel standards.

But obviously there is little consensus on what combination of tax increases/cuts and government spending increases/decreases are optimal, especially given that there are many different types of taxes and many different programs where spending should be increased or decreased. My personal study has led me to slant toward Keynesian economics, but I still wouldn’t put much confidence in it. And if you’ve never heard of the term “tax multiplier” or don’t know what “crowding out” means, chances are strong that you don’t know enough to be confident in your economic opinions either.

Where Does Good Policy Come From?

As I said, I’m interested in the question “how ought the world, or at least our nation, be?” I interpret this via a utilitarian standpoint, seeking to maximize global welfare with the best possible policy positions. But what are those positions? Obama doesn’t know. Romney doesn’t know. Ron Paul doesn’t know. The economists definitely don’t know for sure, though they do have fairly good guesses. And I certainly don’t, knowing much less than all of them about how the economy works.

But there is the big problem. Recall the Presidential debate, or really any debate on politics. At the end, it’s never about who “won” the debate in the sense of being the most accurate or the most reasonable. Instead, it’s all about who “won” the debate in the sense of appearing the most confident and being the most persuasive to people (including me) who really don’t know any better, all things considered. The way political rhetoric is used, you’d think that there isn’t any room for those interested in seeking out optimal policy positions and avoiding overconfidence. Rather, politics is dominated by those convinced they already have the solution.

But creating good policy cannot be like that. As Holden Karnofsky explains well:

[If] I want to form a theory (about, say, how to close the achievement gap)[, I] read what others have already done to test the theory; revise my theory; then try my theory out on a small scale; test it; revise it again. [The overconfident] are sure they already know how to close the achievement gap (they generally, though not always, inherit their solution from their party), and spend all their time fighting to get their idea implemented across the whole nation, which is of course a battle that takes decades and leaves no room for testing or learning about their solution. […]

Yes, there are some issues that I think are clear-cut, and I respect the people that fight for the right side. But I wish more people would step back and say, “Helping people is hard, not easy. My guess at how to do it is a guess, not a divine truth opposed only by evil people and the dupes who listen to them.” There are evil people and interest groups on every issue, but even if we struck them down, we’d be left with the question of what to do. That’s the question I’m interested in.

Take It Down a Notch, For America

They say everyone is entitled to their own opinions, just not their own facts. I’m not even sure people are entitled to their own opinions. In so far as opinions are supposed to reflect facts (which I hope they are), then any strong confidence in your policy opinions is probably not deserved.

I don’t say all this to denigrate your intelligence, or to suggest that I’m somehow superior to you, or that we’re both superior to the average voter. It’s not just that people could stand to know more; though they should. It’s that even the economists don’t know the answers here, so people need to stop pretending to know what they don’t, even if it’s “just an opinion”.

All I ask is that if you have large amounts of confidence in policy opinions – if you have strong feelings that tax cuts/increases are the way to go, that spending cuts/increases are what we need, that the budget deficit is our biggest concern/not a worry – take all of these feelings and think carefully about what you really know. Do you really deserve to have such strong opinions? Does anyone, based on how well these problems are actually understood?

The one and only thing I’m confident in when it comes to policy opinions is that the answer is no. We’re not entitled to our own policy opinions, and we need to take a whole new level of humility to them. …A level of humility that is sadly not seen in politics much at all.