The Unbearable Wrongness of Governing-By-Poll

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post up today about why it’s wrong for Third Way, the pseudo-Democratic group that’s the very essence of the “Goldilocks” approach to politics (Republicans are too conservative, therefore Democrats are too liberal, so always try to find the “just right” middle ground, even if it’s not the position best supported by the facts/evidence), to suggest that the best way to govern is to listen to the ideas of run-of-the-mill centrist voters . It’s short, so go read it all, but here’s the money quote:

One of Third Way’s findings is that “[t]he plurality of Swing Independents said the best way to strengthen our economy—a subject of utmost concern to them—was to reduce the deficit” but people who think this is the case are mistaken. Deficit reduction can bolster the economy by giving the central bank leeway to reduce short-term nominal interest rates without sparking fears of inflation. Currently, however, nominal short-term interest rates are too close to zero to be reduced. To bolster the economy you need either a fiscal lever (higher deficits), lower interest rates (higher inflation), a total reframing of the monetary situation (nominal gross domestic product targeting), or supply-side structure reforms that are unrelated to fiscal policy. In an ideal world, Swing Independents would know that this is the case. But it’s very plausible that they no more know how to boost growth in a zero-constrained interest rate environment than I know how to repair an air conditioner. The challenge facing policymakers is the same as the challenge facing an HVAC repair guy, namely to fix the problem. A politician whose best idea about how to obtain problem-solving knowledge is to consult an opinion survey has a very unsound business model. (emphasis added)

This is a theme I’ve returned to tangentially over and over: often, it doesn’t matter what people think is the best way to solve an issue, because they don’t really know what it would take to solve the problem facing us. I know this comes off sounding elitist, but actually, it isn’t. It’s simply a recognition of the inescapable fact that “the people” are not, repeat, NOT experts. They can’t be: no one’s an expert on every subject, and on any given issue, most people are not experts.

Let me be clear: on issues where there’s genuinely a great deal of disagreement, even among experts, or on issues where it’s mostly a matter of personal taste/preference (and therefore there IS no “right answer”), then I absolutely think the voting public can, should and do have the final say about how to proceed. But when the issue is one for which genuine understanding requires a familiarity with a bulk of specialized knowledge or experience (which most people lack), then we are most certainly NOT likely to be best served by simply taking polls of random people (or even a subset of people who have been pre-selected for being “swing voters”), and proceeding according to what they think.

Think of it this way: if you were to have a medical condition arise that is unmistakable and which did not exist previously, you could ask ten of your friends and neighbors to weigh in on what they think it might be and how you should deal with it. But would you really – honestly – be more likely to take the aggregate “average” of this advice as your plan for diagnosing and dealing with the issue, especially if that aggregate position conflicted with the diagnosis and advice of your doctor? You’d be a fool if you did.

Of course, the reality of our political system is that, even in such cases where the advice of experts is helpful or even necessary to solving a problem properly, it still definitely does matter what the bulk of people (often, especially those “swing” voters of whom Third Way claims to have the pulse) think. To the extent that they (the voters) have the power to vote for representatives and (sometimes) policies that reflect what they think  (or against representatives who pursue policies those voters think best), then it unquestionably matters what “the people’s” view of how to solve issues is. And I’m not suggesting that ought to be changed to some system of government-by-elites.

But the other facet of our representative republic’s functioning which shouldn’t be overlooked is that, once elections are over, elected representatives should try to solve problems and govern in the way that seems best to them…not to a polling of “swing voters” in their district, or even to high-dollar donors or industry lobbyists.

Pie in the sky to think that’s how politicians actually DO operate, I know. Nevertheless, that’s how it’s supposed to work, and my point is that even if we cannot immediately remove the influence of money from politics, do we really need to add to the ways in which our system is hobbled by trying to force our politicians to care about and make decisions based upon what the average of a random slice of inexpert opinion on any given topic happens to be? Presidents – our most visible and debated political leaders – have advisors. Expert advisors. This is for a reason: because those people possess the experience and the specialized knowledge of everything from economics to military policy to environmental knowledge.

Every once in a while, the entire bulk of expert opinion about how to view an issue or how to approach solving a problem is wrong. Science is littered with such examples. Ptolemy’s earth-centered model of our solar system was displaced by Copernicus’ sun-centered model. But what gets missed in the celebration and remembrance of those times when “all the scientists (or other experts) got it wrong” is that the vast majority of such occurrences, including the Ptolemy/Copernicus one I just gave, involved later, better expert thought, sometimes utilizing new discoveries or tools, disproving older expert opinion and thought.

Very rarely, by comparison, have such occurrences involved some dude’s (or even a collection of “swing voters’) hunch disproving the reigning expert consensus about an issue or of how to best approach a problem. As Matt Yglesias adroitly pointed out: “A politician whose best idea about how to obtain problem-solving knowledge is to consult an opinion survey has a very unsound business model.” Too right.