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[Fernando Tesón (guest-blogging), December 11, 2006 at 12:09pm] Trackbacks
Deliberative Failure:

It is pleasure to be invited to blog at the V.C. Thanks to Eugene and Ilya for thinking of me. I would like to talk about political deliberation. According to an influential literature that cuts across philosophy, political science, and law, the moral legitimacy of laws is enhanced when it is preceded by robust public deliberation. Of course, deliberation is not a sufficient condition of legitimacy (you need right process as well) but, in a democracy, those who lose in the political process have less reason to complain if the majority’s decision was preceded by robust deliberation. Proponents of this view, deliberative democrats (DDs, for short) claim that the more the public deliberates, the better the chances are of getting things right. Deliberation, for them, has epistemic virtues.

I think this view is mistaken, and so my co-author and I argue in our recent book. Public deliberation takes us further away from the truth. The reason is that the public is ignorant about social theory. Becoming properly informed is a necessary condition for deliberation having any epistemic value, yet becoming informed is costly (this is why the public is rationally ignorant.) Take tax cuts. As readers of this blog know, tax policy is highly complex: tax cuts often stimulate the economy, but this is not always so. Knowing the exact effect of tax cuts requires knowledge of complex economic propositions which the public cannot be expected to learn. So on one end, the public is rationally ignorant. But on the other end, politicians, knowing this, feed into that ignorance for electoral purposes. That’s why the “debate” over Bush’s tax cuts was never about economics. It was a debate about whether he was trying to help his rich friends. The democrats tried to convince the voter that this was the case, because the voter understands this dynamic of zero-sum interaction: here they go again, the rich taking from the poor. But the government did not make a serious economic argument for the tax cuts either: it tried to convince the voter that he (and not the bureaucrat in Washington) could make a better spending decision. So: the public holds theories by default that are vivid (and often mistaken). Reliable social science, instead, provides opaque explanations that are harder to apprehend. This perverse dynamics produces a phenomenon that we call discourse failure. In public deliberation, people will say things that are traceable to truth-insensitive cognitive processes. Predictably, people will mostly say false things in public. It follows that, contrary to the claim by DDs, public deliberation will not bring us closer to the truth.

happylee:
Hence, democracy is a god that failed.
12.11.2006 1:23pm
talboito (mail) (www):
Can someone teach this guy the use of the relevant linebreak and paragraph tags in HTML?
12.11.2006 1:26pm
DougJ:

That’s why the “debate” over Bush’s tax cuts was never about economics. It was a debate about whether he was trying to help his rich friends. The democrats tried to convince the voter that this was the case, because the voter understands this dynamic of zero-sum interaction: here they go again, the rich taking from the poor. But the government did not make a serious economic argument for the tax cuts either: it tried to convince the voter that he (and not the bureaucrat in Washington) could make a better spending decision.


So you're equating an irrational argument from the Democrats alleging cronyism with a perfectly rational argument from the Republicans that the private sector is better with money than the government is? Seems a bogus comparison to me.
12.11.2006 1:26pm
SlimAndSlam:
DougJ: The Dems' argument alleging cronyism may have been incorrect, but it was not irrational. (Compare "that is wrong" with "that makes no sense.")
12.11.2006 1:30pm
Huh:
DougJ, I'd argue that both arguments are probably relevant to the policy motivations of the parties themselves. I think Tesón is saying that neither argument may be relevant to the actual efficacy of the policy itself.


As readers of this blog know, tax policy is highly complex: tax cuts often stimulate the economy, but this is not always so. Knowing the exact effect of tax cuts requires knowledge of complex economic propositions which the public cannot be expected to learn.


Is a tax cut that will inevitably be subject to capture good policy? I'd say probably not. That's the kind of thing an effective policy debate would uncover. But the argument that tax cuts are ALWAYS good would obscure this point.
12.11.2006 1:38pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
You go far too far when you make the general assertion that: "Public deliberation takes us further away from the truth."

Sometimes, what constitutes the "best" outcome (the outcome most reflective of the "truth") is purely a matter of values. Abortion, for example, is a question of values. One side values the autonomy of women over their own bodies more highly than they value the (potential or actual, depending on you point of view) humanity of the fetus growing inside her. The other side places a higher value on protection of the fetus than on bodily autonomy, based on the belief that there are two bodies involved, not just one.

Which side should prevail is not objectively quantifiable. One can create constructs, and begin from different first principles and reason down from there, but even the question of which first principles to adopt is entirely value-driven as well. Thus, the deliberative process, as well as the final decision-making rules, should be inclusive and encourage lengthy public debate.

Beyond that, you give the people too little credit, and experts (or whomever you suggest make these decisions) too much. The exact effect any particular tax cuts will have on the economy as a whole, much less on particular segments of the economy, is not 100% knowable. For every serious economist espousing one theory, I feel certain I can find an equally-creditentialed economist espousing an opposite theory.

I would also take issue with this statement: "Becoming properly informed is a necessary condition for deliberation having any epistemic value..." Not all members of the public must become equally fully informed for deliberation to have some epistemic value. The research I recall off the top of my head shows that groups most often reach the "proper" decision, or better decisions than individuals reach on their own, even when many members of the group are not experts in the subject matter.

The argument you make is often used in arguments against school vouchers, that the poor parents, most in need of better schools, will be unlikely to pick better schools, because they are not experts in what it constitutes a good school. But people generally have a pretty good sense for B.S., and know when it is being fed to them. They may not be able to articulate why it is B.S., but they can spot it. It's based partly on listening to competing experts arguing the facts out, and it's based partly on just plain old common sense.
12.11.2006 1:49pm
FantasiaWHT:
It depends on whether the expert status or the knowledge required for a beneficial deliberation comes from common knowledge or from, say, advanced study.

Knowing what school in your neighborhood is best? Common knowledge, or at least knowledge attainable easily.

Understanding the effects of any sweeping economic policy (tax changes, minimum wage, trade deficits, budget deficits)? Advanced study, but what's scary is often "common knowledge" in a field like this frequently leads to the "wrong" answer.

Common knowledge says higher wages are better, deficit spending is horrible because a private citizen couldn't do it, and wouldn't it be better if everything was made and sold right here in America so people didn't lose their jobs to foreign workers?
12.11.2006 1:56pm
FantasiaWHT:
bleh, I think I meant to say "Common sense" every time I said "Common knowledge", sorry.
12.11.2006 1:57pm
Parvenu:
Prof. Teson:

You have an interesting thesis, but I think that the one example you're sharing with us here suggests a small amount of selection bias. The dynamic effects of tax cuts may well be a complex and technical field. We could say the same thing about antitrust policy, patent protections, securities regulation, the safety of nuclear power plants, and many other technical topics, which may in large measure explain a lack of enthusiasm among candidates for office for making such issues centerpieces of their campaign.

On other issues, however, technical expertise is either completely unnecessary or is dwarfed in importance by larger moral questions which are informed primarily by fundamental first principles, not by technical expertise. These issues would include the role of religion in the public sphere, the guiding axioms of national defense policy, the appropriateness of racial preferences as a remedy for past discrimination, and so on. There may be a small window for statistical evidence and "social theory" to play a role in public deliberation over such issues, but ultimately, these are overwhelmingly matters of conscience, not calculation. Therefore, a public may be "ignorant about social theory" (whatever that means--you use lack of knowledge in the academic discipline of economics as an example) and nevertheless suffer no meaningful handicap in public deliberation over such issues.

Returning to my first point, even in public policy decisions requiring knowledge of technical subjects, there is room for a priori value judgments. For example, one might prove that a flat tax would lead to a higher GDP than a progressive tax, but nevertheless might hold the view that "money isn't everything," and that distributional consequences of fiscal policy are relevant considerations, and therefore not believe that that empirical finding settles the issue. One need not have a Ph.D. in economics or an endowed chair in law &economics to weigh in on the latter issue.

In short, I am ...

(a) unsure of what your definition of the "social theory" is of which you claim the public is "ignorant;" and
(b) unconvinced that such ignorance is a meaningful liability that would render public deliberation subject to such ignorance somehow infirm.
12.11.2006 1:57pm
Parvenu:
Heh. The comment thread grew like kudzu while I was typing ... let me second PatHMV, too.
12.11.2006 2:00pm
Kalliope:
Plus, I don't think that tax policy is a good example here. If we hold government spending constant, than the losing party of an "ineffective" tax cut will be the future generation. In effect, a tax cut that doesn't sufficiently stimulate the economy is a cash transfer from the future generation to the presently wealthy ("Bush's friends").
Inevitably, the future generation will never be involved in the deliberation, and unfortunately, the current generation doesn't seem to invested in its welfare. Therefore, an effective argument against the tax cuts would have to attack the motivations behind the tax cut, rather than its actual consequences.
The same would be true for environmental policy, too.
12.11.2006 2:01pm
Tillman Fan (mail):
Mr. Teson makes sense. His point can be extended further -- for example, although I consider myself to be relatively well-informed about political and policy matters, the truth is that when I vote I still base most of my decisions on ignorance (for minor races, whose name do I recognize, or some other meaningless method). If I'm right that I am more informed than most, I can only conclude that the vast majority of voters make decisions based on even less information.

If I'm right and Mr. Teson's right, what does that mean about the legitimacy of democracy in its current American state?
12.11.2006 2:02pm
jvarisco (www):
I think your point makes sense. But is not the logical outgrowth of this to create an oligarchy of people who know what they are doing, rather than a Democracy of the ignorant?
12.11.2006 2:11pm
Oh my word (mail):
Disagree to an extent with the basic premise. Just because political rhetoric appeals to the emotions and does not really invoke sophisticated political/economic theories does not mean that the basic argument isn’t there. Likewise, mass appeal arguments are not necessarily unsophisticated simply because they are not academic.

Traditional beliefs and belief systems may be every bit as wise as academic systems—if not moreso. The argument that people can spend their money better than DC politicians is precisely the same thing as supply side economics. The Democrats’ argument presupposes that wealthy people have some sort of moral duty to pay extra to the government. Now, I may think that is a bogus moral statement, but a lot of people have that moral view. If one accepts that moral argument as a given, the Democrats’ colloquial argument about Bush and his wealthy buddies certainly applies that moral rule to the situation.

One thing that academics also tend to miss is that, when an idea is refined and accepted by large numbers of people and survives in the fire-tested real world, it in many ways has gone through a similar vetting process to an idea that goes through the peer-reviewed academic process—except in many ways, this idea that gets thrown around outside the ivory tower in many ways has been far more vetted than the academic system typically does.

Academics often miss that this deliberative process can sometimes be even superior to the academic process, and that it does have a truth-finding mechanism.

That being said, I personally am quite frustrated with democracy to the extent that it seems to foster an incredible growth of government that is seemingly impossible to cut back, and that this growth in the long run will lead to the decline of the West and what have you. I just do not think that the academic system has much claim for being any better than the democratic debate of ideas—in fact, if we were ruled by academics, we’d probably have twice the amount of bureaucratic government we now have already.
12.11.2006 2:17pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I do think it would be correct, however, to use research such as this to defeat any suggestion that the winning party in an election (such ast he most recent one) has a "mandate" for his particular policies, or that those particular policies MUST be right, just because a majority of people voted for them.

Take Iraq. The public is clearly not pleased with how things are going. That much, I think we can safely garner from the election results. But that doesn't mean that a strategy of cut-and-run has been endorsed by the public, nor would it make such a policy the best choice even if the public had explicitly been endorsing that point. Large numbers of people agreeing with you don't necessarily make you right. In the particular case of Iraq, some voters were angry because they thought we had too many troops, while other vowers were angry because they think we have too few. And still others think we have the right number, but not the right kind.

So that's all I think this research is really good for, to remind us of the simple fact that group opinion is not always right. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, but we should remember that just because the public voted for particular candidate, that doesn't itself make that candidate a good one.
12.11.2006 2:20pm
byomtov (mail):
in a democracy, those who lose in the political process have less reason to complain if the majority’s decision was preceded by robust deliberation. Proponents of this view, deliberative democrats (DDs, for short) claim that the more the public deliberates, the better the chances are of getting things right. Deliberation, for them, has epistemic virtues.

I think there are two separate claims being described here.

First, "those who lose in the political process have less reason to complain if the majority’s decision was preceded by robust deliberation. " This has nothing to do with the "correctness" of the result. It merely suggests that having been heard out on a matter makes one less likely to be unhappy with an unfavorable decision.

Second, "the more the public deliberates, the better the chances are of getting things right."

Teson's second paragraph addresses only the latter claim. Is the first unimportant, or wrong?
12.11.2006 2:22pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I agree 100% about the problems of public deliberation. In my experience it seems the failure of proper deliberation happens extremely frequently. Whether we are talking about nuclear power, drug policy, monitoring child predators, the minimum wage, corporate taxation or a whole host of other issues the public debate just doesn't track the complex arguments needed to evaluate these options.

It isn't that the public is somehow debating some relevant underlying moral point and leaving the technical questions up to the experts. The public doesn't just decide that our power production should involve such and such a trade off between pollution and radiative waste. Instead uninformed members of the public individually decide on their support for nuclear, coal, etc... Similarly the public doesn't decide on the appropriate trade off between helping the poor and economic growth and leave it up to the economic experts to determine the efficacy of minimum wage or alternative solutions but instead argues over economic effects they can't possibly understand.

I'm not sure this has much to do with the legitimacy point. I think the idea of legitimacy as more than a psychological concept (the people think of the government as legitimate) is kinda silly. Nor am I convinced that deliberation makes things worse rather than just leaving at the same level of badness.

This problem is significantly exacerbated by the constant messages from culture, media and politicians telling us to take a position on issues most people don't have time to understand. Between the get out and vote ads and the general culture attitude that you ought to have some opinion on these complex issues instead of admitting ignorance. We need to stop encouraging people to have an opinion and start encouraging them to admit ignorance and to vote on who they trust to make these decisions for them.
12.11.2006 2:25pm
David W Drake (mail):
I second Tillman Fan and jvarisco's concerns and Pat HMV's analysis: a deliberative approach is usually better because many heads are better than one and because it is useful to have somewhat naive or ignorant input; otherwise, "group think" among the "experts" causes some crucial factor to be overlooked.

I also believe that using debates over tax policy as standard for the deliberative process is misleading, as Kalliope says, but not for the reasons Kalliope gives.
12.11.2006 2:26pm
Oh my word (mail):
...and, to go one further, many lay heads are often better than one expert head, even one with super logical powers.

Also, experts tend to think they are smarter than they really are. If they are given the keys to decision-making, they inflate their sense of intelligence even more so as to justify to themselves and others why they get to make the decisions.
12.11.2006 2:40pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Proponents of this view, deliberative democrats (DDs, for short) claim that the more the public deliberates, the better the chances are of getting things right. Deliberation, for them, has epistemic virtues.
Is that really the central advantage claimed for public deliberation prior to the enactment of law? I would agree, then, that it's a pretty weak basis, all things considered. Garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes.

But at the same time, regardless of what the academic literature may have latched onto, I don't think that epistemic claims about "wisdom of crowds" or "many heads better than one," etc. are necessarily a large part of what makes deliberative governance (not even necessarily in a democratic context) appealing to us. Isn't there a kind of "legitimation" involved even apart from any expectation that we're going to get to, morally, a "correct" outcome?

That is -- public/open deliberation itself has a legitimating effect. The community, and various factions in the community, see their concerns introduced and (presumeably) taken into account, and a result emerges which many of them will think awfully wrongheaded, but the legislative or policy-making organs of government have listened to what they have to say, have given them respect, etc.

I think you can see this in other circumstances which are not particularly democratic -- when a company's managers, for example, consult workers or community leaders about a change they are implementing, even though they may have no legal obligation to consult. When implemented openly, after consultation with the workers, or other interest groups, there's a sense in which the outcome is more "legitimate," since the interest groups affected have been consulted.

On a larger scale, you see something like it in Japan's innumerable shingikai and kenkyuukai and so on, which the national government (i.e. the LDP, for the past sixty years or so, with only a brief exception) consults in advance of devising and implementing new policies. Often, their membership includes representatives of various interest groups, such as the Consumers Union, or the Keidanren (Japan's organisation for Big Business). There, of course, it's not really open and public deliberation, but there is still that sense in which consultation with affected interest groups confers legitimacy on actions ultimately pursued.

As I see it, the whole public deliberation thing is kind of complementary to democracy -- there's no guarantee that democracy is going to come to a better outcome than autocracy. Hong Kong, for example, did better than many democracies when it was governed under the foreign and absolute rule of the British Governor. But it is seen as more legitimate because the objects of governance get to have their say in the process -- for reasons other than epistemological rectitude.

We like to have our say, and public deliberations let us (through our representatives) have it, no?
12.11.2006 2:56pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
To sum up my own thinking more concisely:

Just because the arguments people make in support of their policy positions are irrational does not mean that all arguments in support of those policies are irrational. Just because lay people cannot always articulate the precise rational basis for their chosen policies does not mean that their arguments are in fact irrational.

The marketplace of ideas (deliberative discourse) succeeds more often than not because there are underlying rationalities which ultimately assert themselves.

Having read some of the excerpts of Professor Tesón's book, I see that there are some parts of it with which I might agree. One sentence in the introduction ("We also underscore why allowing people to actually consent to institutional arrangements (in contradistinction to the nonconsensual features of modern democracy) will help reduce those deliberative flaws.") suggests to me that he may be making an argument in favor of providing institutional intermediaries as part of government function. In other words, perhaps the Professor is arguing in favor of representational democracy (as in the United States) and against direct democracy (via plebiscite and other direct election mechanisms). I would certainly support that argument.
12.11.2006 2:59pm
Rich B. (mail):
I think there's some "Hiding of the Ball" going on here. I think it is completely valid to hold:

A. Deliberative democracy is a good thing.

B. The "debate over the tax cuts" was stupid.

Therefore:

C. Said debate is not an example of Deliberative Democracy, but instead two groups repeating the same catch-phrases over and over again.

The argument is bad in the same way that you could argue that "Charity is a failure" because the homeless guy I gave a dollar to went out and bought drugs with it.
12.11.2006 3:03pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Rich, I suspect that the Professor's entire book offers more than the just one tax cut argument in support of his thesis.
12.11.2006 3:05pm
Oren (mail):

These issues would include the role of religion in the public sphere, the guiding axioms of national defense policy, the appropriateness of racial preferences as a remedy for past discrimination, and so on. There may be a small window for statistical evidence and "social theory" to play a role in public deliberation over such issues, but ultimately, these are overwhelmingly matters of conscience, not calculation.


I'm sorry but where you see a small windows, I see all the difference in the world. Subjects that evoke the public conscience are the ones that need empirical evidence the most to offset the emotional element in these arguments. Whether racial preferences ought to be used to mitigate past prejudice is wholly a function of how effective those preferences weighed against the societal costs of such preferences. Now we can argue about the specifics of where we draw the line on the cost-benefit continuum but the basic fact (which I do not myself know) of whether or not these policies are effective does not change based on personal conscience.

To say that the facts are irrelevant (or only a small window) is essentially to surrender the field to people that support or oppose the issue regardless of the facts. For the large majority of us in the center, the facts are quite meaningful. For instance, in the abstract, I am against abortion and for gun control but in both cases I now favor the opposite position due to overwhelming empirical evidence.
12.11.2006 3:26pm
Cold Warrior:
First, a thank you to Prof. Tesón for what promises to be an interesting discussion.

Not having read the book (yet), I am at a disadvantage here. Based on the opening post, however, I think it is important to distinguish two propositions; with all due respect, I believe the opening post confuses the two propositions:

1. Decisions that follow a public deliberative process are "better" in that they are more likely to be perceived as legitimate. In other words, a public policy decision that follows an open and robust debate will be perceived as a policy that implements that legitimately implements the will of the people, regardless of whether the policy is good from an economic (or other social science measure) standpoint.

2. Decisions that follow a public deliberative process are "better" in that they tend to be objectively preferable solutions. In other words, an open and robust public debate will more often lead to a sound policy decision from an economic (or other social science measure) standpoint.

We have ample evidence that Proposition 1 is correct. Taking it down to a micro level, studies of decisionmaking in litigation demonstrate that people perceive that decisions made after an adversarial process (e.g., a trial) are considered more legitimate (to the grammarians out there: yes, I know, something is either legit or not, but "more legitimate" is a neat shorthand here) than those reached by some other process. I believe John Monahan and Larry Walker did a lot of pioneering work in this area. If I remember correctly, this result held even in legal cultures that are not accustomed to an adversarial approach.

Proposition 2 is no doubt correct. I don't think the "wisdom of crowds" thing applies to the electorate in public policy decisionmaking. I don't have any proof in the form of rigorous social science research, but it seems that Prof. Tesón does. Public debate often (sadly, more often than not) leads to poor public policy.

But let's not ignore the importance of Proposition 1. Perfect example: the Cheney Energy Task Force debate. Remember all the hoohah about how Cheney conducted "secret" meetings in which executives from the major oil companies had significant input? The Cheney Commission's findings were dead on arrival, having been tainted (in the public's mind) by a closed/secretive process.

In other words, "process" has a value. "Open public debate" has a value. "Trial by jury" has a value, even if social scientists may demonstrate that bench trials result in accurate verdicts more frequently. Adversarial processes have a value even if the tone of the discourse disappoints academics.

So could it be that we are willing to take the risk of creating bad public policy following open public debate? Perhaps we like that better than good public policy resulting from closed-door expert deliberation?
12.11.2006 3:36pm
Phutatorius (www):
Well, I agree with this to a certain extent. For example, I think a lot of ballot initiatives lead to failed policy (or incongruous policy: vote for the tax cut on one initiative, and for the spending increase on another), precisely because the public is misinformed or swayed away from rational analysis by emotional appeals to "the children" or some other nonsense. For my part, I've always had a cynical laugh at the 3-second TV spots that tell you, with great urgency, to vote for or against Proposition 4, while making a point not to tell you what Proposition 4 is all about.

And of course there are the lamentable consequences of direct initiatives that the public doesn't read carefully enough to foresee (and which were probably intended by the drafters).

But are these results cause to pull matters out of public debate, or to do something to improve public debate? Before we have our government make its decisions behind lock doors, and on our behalf, I'd prefer we tried first to correct some of the failures of our politics. Why not endeavor to educate the electorate on matters of public interest? And on the media side, why not take steps to counter the oversimplifying sound bite, the misleading but technically true statement, the statistical prestidigitation, and other manipulations that distort public discourse?

Public discourse is deteriorating, and a feedback loop is catalyzing the deterioration. The media -- and all the people who serve data into it -- treat us like idiots, and in many ways we live up to that designation. The way to fix this is for the media to become more responsible and respectful, and for audiences to grow more critical and analytical.

And one last point: there's an assumption here that the answer favored by social science is the "right" answer, and that we should dispense with mechanisms that consistently generate other answers. That implies a judgmentalism that we should worry about. What makes the outcome favored by social science "right?" There might be something "rightening" about an outcome that is less efficient, but generally understood by the public -- if you value, say, political stability (and the transparency that nourishes it) over growth. And what if the economists say one thing and the jurists another? What if (gasp!) two economists differ -- e.g., on the question of tax cuts? Who gets to be the philosopher kings here? A lot of people on this site don't like it when judges occupy this role. Would it be any better if it were economists? Psychologists?

Yikes.
12.11.2006 3:51pm
ShelbyC:
Great post. Sounds like an arguement to minimize the scope of public policy.
12.11.2006 3:58pm
Oh my word (mail):
There are studies, including one by Neil Vidmar of Duke Law, I believe, that suggest the opposite—that juries do better than judges at determining liability—though they have more of a problem with large speculative damages such as pain and suffering or punitive damages. Oddly enough, judges will often personalize an issue more than a jury, such as if the judge knows the civil defendant.

The wisdom of the crowds undeniably exists. Good evidence for this would be the fact that the stock market indices almost always beat actively managed mutual funds. The S&P 500 is based on the interactions of millions of comparatively uneducated people whose research capability and resources, on an individual level, are dwarfed by the top drawer MBAs that run the mutual funds. Yet, the market almost always beats the MBAs in the long run.

I would no more want philosopher kings running the government. As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for everything else.
12.11.2006 3:59pm
Mark Buehner (mail):
So on one end, the public is rationally ignorant. But on the other end, politicians, knowing this, feed into that ignorance for electoral purposes.

Shouldnt these two things be mutually exclusive? If you are being taken advantage of, at some point it stops being rational to be ignorant.
12.11.2006 4:01pm
A.C.:
I think the public is entitled to any silly policy it wants, provided that it is willing to live with the consequences and that no fundamental rights are abridged. It's obvious that we can't vote to bring back slavery, but we are under no obligation to prefer the policies that generate the most economic growth. Europe doesn't -- I happen to think they are shooting themselves in the foot with the policies they do prefer, but they are allowed to be dingbats if they want. Speaking of shooting, we are under no obligation to adopt the gun control scheme that results in the lowest murder rate. And I don't think that we can resolve questions about abortion or what to do with nuclear waste by strictly empirical means.

A more interesting question is whether there are ANY policy realms that belong solely to the technocrats. Maybe things that have been going for a really long time under the same conditions -- things where most of the bugs have been worked out -- but I don't know of any issue that can be removed from public debate when it first comes up.
12.11.2006 4:04pm
TomHynes (mail):
Fernando:

Try it again with a different example.It is hard to determine whether political debate gets you closer to the truth when we can't agree, ex post facto, or among intellectuals, what the truth is.

Otherwise, all you are saying is "Politicians address their arguments to the people likely to vote"
12.11.2006 4:30pm
Parvenu:
(Hopefully my tags will start working at some point ... if not, I apologize for the visual clutter.)
Subjects that evoke the public conscience are the ones that need empirical evidence the most to offset the emotional element in these arguments. Whether racial preferences ought to be used to mitigate past prejudice is wholly a function of how effective those preferences weighed against the societal costs of such preferences.

This implies, however, that those costs are somehow better measured by "experts" than by laymen, a proposition that I reject because I believe that the measure of such costs and beenfits is primarily a matter of conscience, which brings me back to square one. In addition, the threshold question of whether pursuing such remediation is a viable goal in the first place is also a matter of conscience, as one cannot draw normative conclusions from descriptive premises. Even if it is proven that something can be done, "can" does not imply "ought."

The public has the right to determine whether a goal is legitimate in the first place before we get to any decision on whether to assign expert to the task of determining the best way to effectuate such a goal. The public also has the right to determine that certain means to an end, even if empirically effective, are per se illegitimate and therefore off the table no matter how effective an objective expert could demonstrate that such means would be. At the end of the day, some moral propositions are not susceptible to cost-benefit analysis, and the opinion of an expert in a technical field on which propositions those are is of no more weight than a layman's.
12.11.2006 4:41pm
Chumund:
I think one of the underlying points is that crowds only tend to be "wise" when they have sufficient incentive to bear the costs of educating themselves. That is why it is crucial to point out that on many issues, people are "rationally ignorant", which I take to mean that the costs of educating onself would outweigh the benefits.

Hence, something like the efficient pricing provided by the stock market is not necessarily a good example, because there the buyers and sellers have a financial incentive to educate themselves about the stocks they are buying or selling. And actually, most of the people in the stock markets can be "rationally ignorant"--all you need for efficient pricing is a few well-funded and knowledgable investors competing with each other for every buying/selling opportunity, and the rest of us can piggyback on their efforts. In that sense, the "crowd" isn't "wise", but rather just the people who end up setting the prices, and so even in the stock market the "crowd" is really relying on the "experts" to do the hard work.
12.11.2006 5:24pm
Lonely Capitalist (mail):
the truth is that when I vote I still base most of my decisions on ignorance (for minor races, whose name do I recognize, or some other meaningless method).

Then why do you vote in those races? What if you are voting for worst person just because you recognize his name? When I know nothing about 2 candidates I skip that race and let people better informed than me decide. Voting for someone with no knowledge by just guessing is worse than not voting.
12.11.2006 5:36pm
Oren (mail):

And I don't think that we can resolve questions about abortion or what to do with nuclear waste by strictly empirical means.


It is true that we cannot resolve those issues by strictly empirical means. It is also true that we cannot possibly distinguish between multiple courses of action without empirical information.

No matter how you slice it, empirical information is necessary but not sufficient in coming to a rational decision. The other component is the set of values that one uses to make sense of the empirical results (mathematically, it would be the weighting function).

The one does not "trump" the other because the two simply are not in competition - they are not fighting for seats on the same bench.
12.11.2006 6:04pm
DougJ:
I would argue that things would be different were it not for the leftward tilt of the MSM. Deliberation is impossible when one side of the argument controls all the levers of communication.
12.11.2006 6:56pm
Michael B (mail):
"Public deliberation takes us further away from the truth. The reason is that the public is ignorant about social theory. Becoming properly informed is a necessary condition for deliberation having any epistemic value, yet becoming informed is costly (this is why the public is rationally ignorant.)"

While I'm sure there is some notable, even critical, value reflected in this statement, it is also excessive as a general statement. Several considerations, but one example is the notion that "experts" bring authoritative value to a discussion, rather than more limited and even interested values to the discussion. (In the wake of Baker/Hamilton, does this really need much emphasis?)

Too, using a term like "ignorance" carries a type of exclusive, absolute or either/or connotation. The public typically brings their own general, intuitive, personal experiences, personal interests, etc. qualities to various discussions. Not that the public needs to provide input typically to purely technical discussions, but outside of that range "ignorance" carries a far too exclusionary connotation. Too, the obverse sensibility that inheres to such a notion is one that gives too much credence to excessive support for "expertise" or some type of more general, gnostic authority, such as occasionally results from corporate/political and academic/political alliances.

The excerpted statement carries warrant, within perspective, but notions of "truth" and "ignorance," as with reports of Mark Twain's death, are greatly exaggerated.
12.11.2006 6:57pm
ReaderY:
Becoming informed is costly, but ignorance costs even more.

I actually agree that democracy has an incompatibility with rational choice theory, but an alternative conclusion from this incompatibility is that a certain amount of altruism is necessary for a democratic society, or any decent society, to function.

I also degree that direct democracy breaks down if it is scattered among countless minor issues and that representative government is often better. Nonetheless, neither democracy nor effective republicansim can function in an ignorant society. Nor can liberty.
12.11.2006 9:01pm
Dave Turner (mail):
oh my word said:
"As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for everything else."

I would simply reply with a different, germane quote from the same source:

"The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter."
12.11.2006 10:33pm
Lev:
Dunno, it seems like there is a severe logic failure in here:


This perverse dynamics produces a phenomenon that we call discourse failure.

In public deliberation, people will say things that are traceable to truth-insensitive cognitive processes.

Predictably, people will mostly say false things in public.

It follows that, contrary to the claim by DDs, public deliberation will not bring us closer to the truth.


I am similarly dubious about this part:


Proponents of this view, deliberative democrats (DDs, for short) claim that the more the public deliberates, the better the chances are of getting things right. Deliberation, for them, has epistemic virtues. I think this view is mistaken, and so my co-author and I argue in our recent book. Public deliberation takes us further away from the truth.


The more public deliberation there is, the more different viewpoints and facts, for and against, are brought into the debate. The more viewpoints and relevant facts, the more likely a better decision, than a worse decision, is going to be. I think part of the problem is characterizing the end state as "getting things right" - this, plus his later comments, seem to include an idea that there is one specific correct decision to be made in each case, hence, getting things right. I doubt this is the case most of the time.

Of course, if people put beans in their ears rather than listening to arguments and facts for and against, then public deliberation does not accomplish much in enlisting public support.

--------

FWIW, re group decisions vs. individual decisions - there is, or used to be, a "training tool" for groups that illustrates the point. There are at least three variations that I know of, Desert Survival, Arctic Survival, NW Forest Survival.

In each case, the group of people is presented with having crashed in a remote location as part of a group including old, injured, very young, etc. Rescue is not imminent because the plane was way off course. The group is given a list of some 20-30 items to be ordered in their list of survival importance - knives, mirrors, salt pills, parachute canopy, plus, actions - all try to walk out, none try to walk out, some try to walk out. First, each individual orders his own list. Second, the group must come to a consensus list order based on the individual lists of the group members. Finally, the two sets are compared against the list order of importance as assessed by known experts in survival in the specific environment of the "crash" and the differences are tallied up.

The uniform experience of the Survival Scenarios is:

While a few people's individual lists have a better order, as determined by comparison to the expert's rank order, than the composite rank order list of the entire group, most do not.

Even where the group chose the wrong, according to the survival expert, action - e.g. staying put vs walking out, the resulting group rank order was better than the individual rank orders.

This, even though the group individuals were not survival or even camping experts.
12.12.2006 12:14am
Oren Elrad (mail):

The more public deliberation there is, the more different viewpoints and facts, for and against, are brought into the debate. The more viewpoints and relevant facts, the more likely a better decision, than a worse decision, is going to be.


Except that public debate rarely, if ever, actually contains any facts. It's usually a fact-free exercise in extolling some abstract values while claiming that your opponent lacks those values. As such, it is useless at determining truth in the abstract sense.

Furthermore, this fetish with multiple viewpoints consistently astounds me. All viewpoints that are inconsistent with the basic sociological or economic rules that govern the subject matter are manifestly useless.

In this sense, the empirical data do not dictate the solution or serve to chose one particular viewpoint but rather act as a screen to throw out viewpoints that cannot be reconciled with the facts.
12.12.2006 12:49am
Frater Plotter:
Some other thoughts:

I am surprised to find so much of a focus on the results or ends of different approaches here. Ends are precisely what one cannot reliably predict in society ... whereas one can more or less reliably predict whether a particular _means_ would constitute a rights violation.

"Social theory" is, by and large, bunkum. Economists fail to predict the economy, except by (a) speculating in such vague and unscientific terms that any market result could be taken as a confirmation, or (b) hyping their predictions so heavily that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Politicians and wonks systematically present false confidence to the public about things they not only _don't_ know, but _can't_ know.
12.12.2006 3:14am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Every public debate is edited by soap opera storylines, as a consequence of the news business.

The product of news organizations is not news. It is you. They sell you to advertisers. You are the product.

People say they want hard news, but they don't. Think city council meetings. What people mean is that they reject what's put out as news, that is, most people.

There's a large demographic though that likes soap opera news, and this is the largest demographic available every day because they watch news or no news, so long as there is soap opera. This is the news audience, and every story must meet their needs.

If this demographic can't support the news business, there's no business model that will work, because one-off major events that attract everybody won't pay the bills.

I wondered years and years ago : why is every news account of an airline disaster always impossibly wrong? It's because they're not trying to get it right. They don't want to turn off their audience with technical accuracy, but rather fit as background the soap storyline. If the story comes as technically accurate from the reporter, they will change it to something better.

The soap formula is : inner struggle, soul-searching and eternal frustration. So that's the news biz, and that's every public debate.

Lots of people love technical accuracy, but they don't constitute an audience that can pay the bills for the news biz.

I recommend adding to the public debate ridicule of the soap audience, and see if that can improve things.
12.12.2006 5:16am
Ivan Ivanovich (mail):
Good post. I see several references to "wisdom of crowds". It should be noted that James Surowiecki in his book by that title explained the limitations of that wisdom and how it can be distorted by propaganda. The explosion of all forms of instant messaging including the MSM, 24 hour news, and talk radio should be studied for it’s effect on shaping the opinions of the public with no evolutionary tools to deal with the barrage. We will only be able to judge the wisdom of this crowd called the American voter as a historical event in 2050. Until then we must do the best we can.
12.12.2006 7:04am
A.C.:
People who say that the public debate does not contain facts, or who analyze the news for one kind of bias or the other, are leaving out most of the public debate that actually occurs. Most people get their information from the real world, and that is full of facts and fairly resistant to manipulation. We have all seen affirmative action in schools and workplaces, we mostly know people who have worked for the minimum wage at some point (many of us have done so ourselves), we know what real estate development looks like in our communities, and do we EVER know how tax policy affects us. This would be uninteresting if we all stuck to our own experiences, but we also take our own experiences and TALK TO EACH OTHER. That's how we develop the database that tells us whether a politician or news story makes any sense.

If you focus on this kind of public debate, how can it be a bad thing?
12.12.2006 9:06am
msmith (mail):
Thanks for your reply to the recent wave of books/reviews on the wisdom of the crowd. Think the Founders were quite right to be very suspicious of the voting mob, how much more so today with the incredibly complex issues government and other organizations must deal with. Democracy like the courts procedural, makes no guarantees of the "right answer".

In another context, Soren Kierkegaard
On the Dedication to "That Single Individual"

...The crowd is untruth. There is therefore no one who has more contempt for what it is to be a human being than those who make it their profession to lead the crowd....

...A crowd," on the other hand, when it is treated as the court of last resort in relation to "the truth," its judgment as the judgment, is detested by the witness to the truth, more than a virtuous young woman detests the dance hall. And they who address the "crowd" as the court of last resort, he considers to be instruments of untruth. For to repeat: that which in politics and similar domains has its validity, sometimes wholly, sometimes in part, becomes untruth, when it is transferred to the intellectual, spiritual, and religious domains. And at the risk of a possibly exaggerated caution, I add just this: by "truth" I always understand "eternal truth." But politics and the like has nothing to do with "eternal truth." A politics, which in the real sense of "eternal truth" made a serious effort to bring "eternal truth" into real life, would in the same second show itself to be in the highest degree the most "impolitic" thing imaginable....

NEW YORK - Peace activist Cindy Sheehan and three other women were convicted of trespassing Monday for trying to deliver an anti- Iraq war petition to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

A Manhattan Criminal Court judge sentenced them immediately to conditional discharge
http://www.landmarkcases.org/nixon/nixonview.html

FROST: But when you said, as you said when we were talking about the Huston Plan, you know, "If the president orders it, that makes it legal", as it were: Is the president in that sense—is there anything in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that suggests the president is that far of a sovereign, that far above the law?

NIXON: No, there isn't. There's nothing specific that the Constitution contemplates in that respect. I haven't read every word, every jot and every title, but I do know this: That it has been, however, argued that as far as a president is concerned, that in war time, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution, which is essential for the rights we're all talking about.
12.12.2006 11:12am
Oren Elrad (mail):
Having lots of disconnected anecdotal evidence that isn't tested against basic statistical measures might not be better than complete ignorance. Even a perfectly truthful anecdote can lie in the sense that it exaggerates an improbable event, personalizes and impersonal policy or fails to properly weigh the alternatives.

For instance, if you ask most Americans about their taxes they will say that the government takes a large share of their income. The objective facts, however, are that the US has among the lowest tax load of any developed country.

Or take people's personal experience with immigration (legal or otherwise). Many people will opine that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes because they *insert anecdote about one immigrant committing a crime here*. In fact, communities with first generation immigrants have a lower crime rate (see here). In fact, the data show that immigrant crime tends to begin with the second and third generation.



I could go on and on; I know people that swear by those Airborne packets that are no more than vitamin C and a collection of other bric-a-brac (the product completely failed in double blind studies). I know (intelligent!) people that insist that astrology is not complete hokum and they often have some anecdote about how so-and-so predicted such-and-such.

There are plenty more cases where the facts can contradict what we observe on a personal level (selection bias, diffuse effects, random success). I don't think anyone has a personal reason to think that legal abortions lower the crime rate but they do.

I'm not say that anecdotal evidence is a Bad Thing but it's just no substitute for good hard data on the subject.
12.12.2006 11:29am
Luce (mail):
specific examples in some different policy areas would be more helpful than a general statements only

Also does this threads discussion demonstrate or serve as an exception to the rule suggested in the book?
12.12.2006 2:02pm
ReaderY:
In other words, most people disagree with you, so involving them tends to result in decisions different from how you'd do things. And because you think you're right, you think you're entitled to do things your way.

You place no value on the idea that people sould have a say in their own government, or that they know something of value you might be able to learn from. You believe you have all the answers.

When one can be certain one is in possession of the whole truth, democracy is undoubtedly very inefficient. There is no need to learn when one already knows. But since the days of Socrates, it has been the business of philosophers to claim that we never know as much as we think we do, and hence that the beginning of wisdom is humility. Only those willing to admit ignorance are capable of learning.

Perhaps there is something to this. Democracy is a form of government for the uncertain, the humble, those who doubt that anyone is ever in possession of the whole truth.

It is not favored by the arrogant.
12.12.2006 8:43pm