A Knowledgeable but Selfish Electorate May be Better than a Well-Meaning but Ignorant One

In my last post, I discussed economist Dwight R. Lee’s article about why most of the electorate does not decide who to vote for on the basis of narrow self-interest. Unfortunately, the very same incentive structure that leads most voters to base their decisions on the public interest also leads most of them to be ignorant. In this post, I would like to suggest that a narrowly self-interested electorate might actually be better than an altruistic one, so long as the former is much more knowledgeable about policy than the latter. I have a more detailed discussion of this scenario in Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book on political ignorance.

Imagine a political system (call it, “democracy”) where public opinion has a lot of influence over public policy. Politicians know that if they don’t do what the majority wants, their chances of winning election and reelection will be significantly reduced. Imagine, also, that the electorate is highly knowledgeable, but also extremely selfish. They understand the effects of different policies very well, but always prefer whatever policy maximizes their personal material wealth, and perhaps that of their families. Many people would intuitively assume that this is a kind of nightmare scenario. It would lead to 51% voting to enslave or at least severely oppress, the other 49% for the benefit of the majority.

Maybe it would. But a little reflection would soon lead to knowledgeable majority to recognize that slavery and severe oppression of the minority are not actually in their interest. Basic economics, plus lots of empirical evidence, suggest that slaves and forced laborers are usually less productive than free workers who get to keep a substantial proportion of what they earn. Thus, the 51% would do better to let the 49% live freely and earn a good income, but also tax them to fund programs that benefit the majority. In addition, the 51% majority isn’t likely to be stable. The minority can always try to bid away a part of the majority in order to form a new government that represents a different coalition. The more the minority is being oppressed, the more they can potentially offer swing voters to “defect.” For example, if the majority is appropriating $1 million per year from the minority, then the minority has an incentive to offer the defectors as much as, say, $950,000 in exchange for switching coalitions and letting the former minority keep $50,000 of the surplus. And since, by assumption, all of the voters are narrowly self-interested, they will not be inhibited from defecting by any sense of loyalty to “their” party. Indeed, different groups of potential defectors in the present majority are likely to compete with each other to “bid down” the price of defection. The end result is unlikely to be a perfect nirvana of good policy. But it will be a situation where government policy is geared towards maximizing the wealth of the vast majority of the people. Anyone who is seriously screwed over by the status quo is likely to know it, and become an obvious target for a minority party seeking “cheap” defectors from the majority. Moreover, selfish voters who are also knowledgeable would want government to provide various public goods, such as clean air, when it is efficient for it to do so. Excessive pollution and inadequate public goods production is likely to lower their wealth, after all.

By contrast, a political system with well-meaning but ignorant voters will often adopt bad policies that persist for long periods of time, because voters don’t understand the true effects of the policies they support, either ignore new information or don’t analyze it rationally, and routinely reward and punish incumbents for the wrong things, thereby creating lots of perverse incentives for politicians.

The status quo is clearly far closer to the ignorant/altruistic equilibrium than the knowledgeable/selfish one. I am not suggesting that we should try to move from the former to the latter. Like John Stuart Mill, I believe citizens have a moral obligation not to vote on the basis of narrow self-interest alone. Even if purely self-interested voting were desirable and achievable, it wouldn’t last for long. Knowledgeable and narrowly self-interested people will quickly realize that keeping up with political issues doesn’t pay, and so wouldn’t remain knowledgeable over time. They might even stop voting at all, given that the costs of voting outweigh the narrowly self-interested benefits. In addition, it’s possible that an electorate of knowledgeable and well-intentioned voters will be even better than one where high knowledge levels are combined with selfishness. Though I hasten to add that non-self-interested values aren’t necessarily good ones. As I discuss in my book, some altruistic values on which voters might base their decisions can still be evil ones. For example, it’s better to have an electorate of narrowly selfish voters than one that, for altruistic reasons, seeks to impose the radical Islamist vision of morality on society.

The point of the thought experiment, therefore, is not to argue that we should strive for a more selfish electorate. It is rather to suggest that voter ignorance is a much more significant problem than voter selfishness. Yet numerous political activists, pundits, and others, spend a lot more time worrying about the latter than the former.

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