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Political Ignorance and Voting for a Lesser Evil

Canadian columnist Marcus Gee has an excellent article on how political ignorance exacerbates the challenges of voting for a lesser evil. But the problem is in some ways even worse than he suggests. At the same time, there is much we can do to improve the quality of our decisions.

On June 7, voters in the Canadian province of Ontario will be going to the polls to choose a new government for the province. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee has an interesting article arguing that all three major-party options in the election are badly flawed, and analyzing the challenges voters face in deciding which of the bad choices is the lesser evil. As he explains, widespread political ignorance results in a situation where all too many voters make choices based on crude partisan bias and often-misleading information shortcuts. Even if you have little interest in the Ontario election, Gee's insightful column is well-worth reading as a helpful overview of the dangers of voter ignorance and bias, and the challenges of choosing between bad options at the polls. The many Americans who hated the options before them in the awful 2016 election can readily sympathize with his dilemma.

I agree with much of what he says about the problem of voter ignorance, and I also think he is right to conclude that voting for a lesser evil is often the right thing to do. But in some key respects he both understates the dangers of political ignorance, and overlooks potential solutions.

Gee focuses on the ways in which ignorance and bias might lead voters to make poor choices between the available alternatives. But public ignorance also has a big effect in determining what those choices will be in the first place. Candidates and parties know they face a largely ignorant electorate, and they structure their platforms accordingly. For example, Gee alludes to the fact that all three Ontario parties are largely acting as if the province's very serious fiscal problems can be finessed through a combination of smoke and mirrors and pretending they don't exist. If the voters were better-informed about fiscal issues, the parties could not get away with that, and quite likely would not even try to do so. Similarly, voter ignorance played a major role in ensuring that American voters faced such terrible options in the 2016 general election. Donald Trump's victory in the GOP primaries was almost a textbook case of exploiting voter ignorance on various issues, most notably trade and immigration. The situation in the Democratic Party was only modestly better. By the time we we get to the polls on election day, much of the harm caused by voter ignorance has already been inflicted, by ensuring that we really do face a choice of evils.

I. How Political Knowledge is Different From Consumer Knowledge.

In his column Gee also somewhat downplays the problem of voter ignorance by suggesting that ballot-box decisions are similar to private-sector ones, and that a high degree of ignorance is unavoidable in both cases:

We all have to find some way to make a decision. It may not be a perfect decision or a terribly sophisticated decision – but, then, what decision is? Faced with buying a new fridge, most people don't search endlessly through Consumer Reports and compare each model for price, reliability, energy use and design. They see their neighbour's new fridge and ask: How do you like it? Or they watch a persuasive ad and decide: That one will do.

It is certainly true that we almost never "search endlessly" for information when we make decisions. Our knowledge is always imperfect. Nonetheless, it is likely that most people devote far more time and effort to seeking out information when they buy a a new refrigerator or a new car than when they decide who to vote for in any election. I follow politics far more closely than the average American. During the November 2017 election here in Virginia, I spent more time than usual figuring out who to vote for because I was more divided in my own mind than usual, and because the election was expected to be close (it turned out not to be). Even so, the time and effort I spent was only a fraction of what I devoted to deciding what car to buy the last time the Somin family needed a new one. Even though I find cars boring, I still did a good deal of research and test-drove three different SUVs, and tried to evaluate what I learned as objectively as I could.

My case is not that unusual. A great deal of evidence shows that people consistently acquire more information about significant private decisions than about ballot box choices, and also that private decision-makers do a far better job of objectively evaluating what they learn. Why is it that? Largely because we know that the decision about a car or refrigerator is actually likely to make a difference. When I was deciding what car to buy, I knew that the one I chose would almost certainly be the one our family ended up with. If I screwed up, we would probably pay a high price for the mistake. By contrast, even in a very close election, the chance that my vote - no matter how well-informed - would make a decisive difference in choosing the next governor of Virginia is infinitesimally small. Thus, it was perfectly rational to devote more time to the car decision. The same logic holds true for most other voters, especially those who (unlike me) don't find politics particularly interesting. It is logical for them to be "rationally ignorant" about politics, and also to devote little effort to curbing their biases in evaluating the information they do learn.

If we want to curb the dangers of ignorant decision-making, we should reform our institutions so that more decisions are made in the private sector - or by "voting with our feet" - where we have stronger incentives to become well-informed. Other things equal, it would be better if more decisions were like the ones we make about cars and refrigerators, and fewer like the ones we make in elections.

II. How to be a More Responsible Citizen.

In the meantime, poorly informed voters have more options than Gee suggests. He claims generally have no choice but to cast a ballot based on crude heuristics and biases, because voting is "a civic obligation." But if they are indeed poorly informed (especially compared to the average voter in their jurisdiction), they should consider not voting at all. Abstaining from ignorant voting is not a breach of civic duty; to the contrary, it is often the right thing to do. If you know little or nothing about the issues at stake in an election and are unwilling or unable to become better-informed, you can often serve the public interest best by staying home on election day and leaving the outcome up to those who might make better choices.

If you believe you have a duty to help the community, you can fulfill it in any number of other ways, such as contributing to charity, performing various types of public service, or even simply being good at your job. At the very least, you should not try to "serve" by reducing the quality of the electorate, which far from benefiting society actually makes the situation worse. As John Stuart Mill put it, voting is not just a personal choice, but rather "the exercise of power over others." If you can't exercise that power in at least a minimally responsible manner, maybe you should not do so at all. Casting poorly-informed votes is often rational. But rational behavior is not always good behavior.

Neither the US nor Canada has mandatory voting (and that is a good thing). So nonvoting is always an option. If you are well-informed about some races and referenda, but know very little about others, you can always vote on the former, and abstain on the latter. For what it is worth, I practice what I preach, and engage in such selective abstention myself. Given our limited time and cognitive ability, it isn't wrong to be ignorant about various candidates and issues. But, with some exceptions, it is generally wrong to inflict that ignorance on the rest of society. And, despite Gee's (and many other people's) claims to the contrary, staying home does not mean you have no right to complain about the policies of the winners. You still have every right to condemn harmful and unjust government policies.

If you are determined to vote nonetheless, there is much you can do to make yourself a better voter - both by learning more about the issues and by trying to curb your biases. I discussed several such steps here, and see also this useful article in Scientific American and political philosopher Jason Brennan's recommendations in his book The Ethics of Voting. Even the best-informed voters will have great difficulty in coping with the enormous size and scope of modern government. But they can be better than most voters currently are. If you are going to vote for a lesser evil, your decision on which is the lesser and which the greater should be at least relatively well-informed and unbiased.

Sadly, because of the perverse incentives they face, I am not optimistic that any substantial fraction of poorly informed voters will either decide to stay home on election day or significantly increase their levels of political knowledge. Ironically, the kinds of people who carefully consider these questions are probably already much more knowledgeable and objective than most of the electorate. Still, it is useful to remember that you don't have to vote, and there is much you can do to improve your decision-making if you do.

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  • Chem_Geek||

    https://goo.gl/images/NXEpUD

    Vote for the lesser evil. ;-)

  • MightyMouse||

    You're very nice too! But the image is kind of scary. That's alright though. What kind of chemistry do you study?

  • MightyMouse||

    Thanks for sharing. You are so nice, and it is very refreshing. Everyone appreciates you, or at least they should!

  • Jerry B.||

    Once again, Prof. Somin advocates for government chosen by the informed, as exemplified by Prof. Somin.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Here we go again :-)

    This idea that even fully-informed voters would vote better is nonsense.

    Consumers have enough trouble choosing toasters when there are only a few variables and Amazon has every possible combination at a zillion different price points.

    It is impossible to choose political representatives who will satisfy even 1% of our desires, because government does a zillion times as much as even the fanciest toaster. Maybe you like one candidate's views on parks but not on the military. Or maybe the view of Yellowstone is good but Yosemite is lacking, or the Air Force policy as B- and the Coast Guard policy is B+, and some other candidate is just the reverse on parks but better on the military.

    Doesn't matter. The government simply does too much, sticks its nose into too many tents, and those options can't be disentangled.

    And to top it off, candidate promises are worthless. The worst that can happen to a politician is to not win the next election.

    People know their choices are meaningless, not because their candidate migth not win, but because it doesn't matter: whoever wins, the government will continue to meddle where it has no business, and the guy who won won't make any difference.

  • bernard11||

    government does a zillion times as much as even the fanciest toaster. Maybe you like one candidate's views on parks but not on the military. Or maybe the view of Yellowstone is good but Yosemite is lacking, or the Air Force policy as B- and the Coast Guard policy is B+, and some other candidate is just the reverse on parks but better on the military.

    Exactly right.

    Voters then need to weight these various issues in making their decision. And that means that values matter. Voting is not a pure exercise in rationality. No matter how well-informed a voter is, personal values are going to be critical in the decision-making.

    Let's take a few issues. Immigration. Abortion. Health care. Various wars. Opinions on these matters, and their influence on votes, are value-based, not the result of careful analysis. Two people can agree 100% on the analysis, yet vote in diametrically opposite ways.

  • Al S||

    There is good and evil in all of us. Accordingly, we will always be voting for the "lesser evil". Or, as I prefer to look at it, the greater good.

    Further, I'd asset that we don't know the optimal amount of information that one should have in deciding for whom to vote. Better data doesn't necessarily lead to better decisions - I'm not even convinced that on balance it necessarily leads to better decisions, especially given that the data we obtain about politics is not neutrally derived. Piling more information onto incorrect intuitions doesn't necessarily make them right.

  • gormadoc||

    If good and evil are not mutually exclusive there is not necessarily a "greater good" when choosing representatives.

  • qlangley||

    Much of what you write is, as usual, excellent, but this particular argument misses a key point:

    "Even so, the time and effort I spent was only a fraction of what I devoted to deciding what car to buy the last time the Somin family needed a new one. Even though I find cars boring,"

    I think that is at least partly BECAUSE you find cars boring. In the case of the election, you already had a massive prior investment of time in familiarizing yourself with the issues. While the effort you put into this is exceptional, everyone continues to hear news about politics all year round, even when there is no election on. Only people who follow specialist media get that sort of coverage on cars. Friends of mine who are interested in cars sometimes go straight to purchasing because they have been thinking about the issue for some time, even though no purchase was planned imminently.

  • JonFrum||

    I didn't vote in the last presidential election because I refused to choose between two such grotesque scoundrels. But if I was going to get cute, I would have voted for Trump. And no, I am not ignorant of the issues. And the candidates. And I'd rather vote for a pussy-grabbing buffoon than a Lady Macbeth-scheming, rapist-excusing, self-entitled feckless ....

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Nonetheless, it is likely that most people devote far more time and effort to seeking out information when they buy a a new refrigerator or a new car than when they decide who to vote for in any election.

    Sure. Consumer items—cars and refrigerators—come with track records. The models in question may even be extensively tested, with pluses and minuses published.

    By contrast, a politician running for office is a pig in a poke. Not even the politician knows against what challenges, or according to what standards, he will be judged. It's all in the future. Nobody knows the future. And everybody knows that nobody knows.

    So what people want to know is simple. When it comes to trade-offs, which part of the electorate will this politician favor? That's the best they can do. And no amount of study can improve on it. Somin's political ignorance bit would make more sense if there were such a thing as political non-ignorance. There isn't. Nobody knows the future.

    By Somin's measure—probably mine too—there has rarely been a segment of voters as politically ignorant as the Trump base. So what? They estimated with accuracy which of their two choices would better favor them in trade-offs. Or at least seem to favor them. The dishonesty of politicians is not something informed voters seem notably better at estimating than ignorant voters—nor does anyone seem to care about it as much as the trade-offs question.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    If you know little or nothing about the issues at stake in an election and are unwilling or unable to become better-informed, you can often serve the public interest best by staying home on election day and leaving the outcome up to those who might make better choices.

    That, of course, makes no sense in Somin's stated frame of reference, where an individual vote is useless, because it has only a vanishingly small chance of determining an election.

  • Robert||

    In Gee's article, I'm trying to figure out why he saw as a bad thing the result of an experiment in which people's prediction of who was most competent based on their picture matched which of them had won election, when the predictors didn't even know they were candidates. Wouldn't it be worse if it were those judged least competent who'd won?

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Robert, no. It would probably be better.

    To take it out of the electoral arena, consider what has happened in television news. Overwhelmingly, the men are handsome, and the women beyond gorgeous. There is no reason to suppose that a good looking person could not, independently of his/her looks, also be a competent investigator, or an honest reporter. But is it reasonable to suppose outlier-level good looks would be so uniformly on display if reporting competence had been prioritized ahead of looks? Because of what you can see, you can know with fair reliability that when your news source looks like a fat toad, that is a person whose information you want, and to whose opinion you should give study. What else but exceptional journalistic talent could explain such an anomaly?

    Same principle in politics, I suggest. A candidate or office holder who prevails over rivals despite losing the contest over appearance has likely demonstrated political qualities worth special attention.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    But, while it may seem unfair piling on, good looks actually are predictive of IQ. Presumably because a wide range of biological insults that can lower your IQ also impact your appearance.

    So, if you knew nothing about the candidates except what they looked like, you'd have a significantly better than 50-50 chance of picking the smarter of the two, just going by appearance. Which isn't a lot, but it's not nothing.

    Oh, and to some extent you actually can judge a book by its cover, too.

  • bernard11||

    Maybe you could provide some evidence.

  • Brett Bellmore||

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Or, you could go check out the young women at MIT, and compare what you find to the young women at Alabama. Using your system, Brett, you won't have any trouble proving—by leaps and bounds—that the Alabama women are smarter.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Or did you mean the book by its cover thing?

  • Robert||

    But, while it may seem unfair piling on, good looks actually are predictive of IQ. Presumably because a wide range of biological insults that can lower your IQ also impact your appearance.

    So, if you knew nothing about the candidates except what they looked like, you'd have a significantly better than 50-50 chance of picking the smarter of the two, just going by appearance. Which isn't a lot, but it's not nothing.


    That's what I thought: that there'd be either a sociobiologic or heuristic reason that people would do better than chance judging competence by people's looks even in a still photograph.

    Stephen Lathrop, am I correct in reducing your thinking on this to the following hypothesis: that observers reason backward, knowing the general appearance of people who are successful (for instance, in politics), which may be for other reasons than competence, and inferring competence therefrom? So that even if they didn't know these pix were of political candidates, they apply politically-popular looks to other walks of life?

    I think Brett Bellmore's hypothesis more likely. To me the fact that people put stock in looks like this is evidence that looks are predictive, because otherwise the practice would not be so widespread. There's no school or church or political movement formally teaching people to do this, yet they pick it up fairly universally.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    No, Robert, not correct.

  • Robert||

    There is no reason to suppose that a good looking person could not, independently of his/her looks, also be a competent investigator, or an honest reporter. But is it reasonable to suppose outlier-level good looks would be so uniformly on display if reporting competence had been prioritized ahead of looks? Because of what you can see, you can know with fair reliability that when your news source looks like a fat toad, that is a person whose information you want, and to whose opinion you should give study. What else but exceptional journalistic talent could explain such an anomaly?


    Could it be that other fields are more sensitive to looks than TV news reporting is? So that fat toads are rejected elsewhere & turn to news reporting as one of the few remaining things they'd be accepted doing?

    I consider this plausible, because people may reject being in the vicinity of the repulsive looking, but be willing to accept looking at them thru a TV.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Sure, Robert. Probably the medical field is more sensitive to looks than TV news reporting is. You can test that pretty easily, just by checking out the doctor shows.

  • GabrielSyme||

    "Same principle in politics, I suggest. A candidate or office holder who prevails over rivals despite losing the contest over appearance has likely demonstrated political qualities worth special attention."

    At least going off of a few examples that jump to mind, an ugly and/or incompetent looking successful politician leads me to assume they are corrupt, and had the right connections to get into power, not that they had any other particularly special qualities. Chris Christie being the most obvious example I can think of, my local elected officials being some of the others.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    To all who suppose made-for-TV good looks correlate positively with journalistic aptitude, God help you.

  • Robert||

    What journalistic aptitude do you need to be a TV or even radio news reader, anyway? Do we ever see the people who prepare the stories?

  • Careless||

    Somin could stop being deliberately ignorant about the effects of low-skill immigration, but that's not going to happen.

  • Alpheus W Drinkwater||

    Or maybe, just maybe, he knows more about it than you. Wouldn't that be a kick in the balls?

  • Don Nico||

    I suspect that "voting for a lesser evil" is most often a self-delusion to justify voting for a different evil

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Or a greater evil, which you happen to prefer.

    But it's best not to make too much of that. Because what kind of evil you will get, and how much evil, is a question for the future, which makes it actually unanswerable.

    Better advice for voters who want to sharpen up useful political knowledge would be to study up on answering this question, "When it comes to trade-offs of interests among groups of voters, which parts of the electorate will this candidate likely favor?" That at least is a question about traits among the candidates which can be studied now, and which may prove durable during the future.

    It would help also if journalists sharpened their technique for eliciting and disclosing answers to that question. Professional politicians seem expert at promising all things to all people largely because most journalists accept that as part of the game, and fail to press for specificity and resolution of contradictions. And partisan journalists encourage it. Political knowledge of what a partisan journalist looks like could be better cultivated.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    "It would help also if journalists sharpened their technique for eliciting and disclosing answers to that question."

    It would help if journalists actually wanted to aid their audience in making an independent choice, instead of intending to push them into making the choice the journalist prefers. But we live in a sub-optimal world, don't we?

    That's the actual problem. Until we have journalists who figure that it's their job to inform, and the public's job to decide, we're not going to have journalists who are asking probing questions. We're going to have journalists who either lob softballs or gotchas.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    It would help if journalists actually wanted to aid their audience in making an independent choice, instead of intending to push them into making the choice the journalist prefers.

    Got it. If a journalist researches a story, and finds facts you wish were otherwise, and reports them, that's the journalist, "intending to push them into making the choice the journalist prefers."

    When you think about it, that's sort of insanely wrong, and accurate, at the same time. The journalist probably does prefer that people make choices according to facts, which could be why he chose a career dedicated to discovering facts and publishing them.

    Brett, have you reflected on how thinking like that could be walling you off from learning anything at all? Given that frame of reference, how do you determine when the other choice, the one you prefer, is unfounded? Do you suppose your own view of the factual basis of human experience comes to you entirely via your own first-hand observation? I suggest that if that were true, you—and all of us, if we were similarly situated—would know almost nothing about the law, government, politics, the economy, technical innovations, or even the weather, two states away.

    Brett, like all of us, you know almost nothing, except what some journalists told you. And, bad news for another widely-held prejudice, almost all of those journalists did their work for legacy media, not on the internet.

  • ||

    There are no OBJECTIVE standards by which you can judge whether an election was "correct" or not. Anyone who says the contrary is trying to sell you something -- usually, their own brand of politics.

    Consider this quote from the article: "The many Americans who hated the options before them in the awful 2016 election can readily sympathize with his dilemma."

    To whom was the 2016 election "awful"? Who are the Americans who "hated the options"?

    Why, the LOSERS, of course. The winners think it was great and they loved their options.

    QED.

    The rationale for representative government is the understanding that the people are their own best judges of who should lead them. And by "the people", we mean everyone, in every situation, of every station, regardless of education, wealth, race, creed, or any other characteristic you care to name. The wisdom of the crowds is better than the wisdom of the elites at all times, in all places.

  • gormadoc||

    Does this apply to gang rape as well?

  • Tempe Jeff||

    "Does this apply to gang rape as well?" Well, aren't you a feckless one... With your perverse line of thought, obviously you admire the Clintons. Or, perhaps you miss Ted Kennedy-Chris Dodd sandwiches? Or, Al Gore wanting to release his inner chakra?

  • cja||

    In the mind of the author, the politically ignorant are from the Deplorable Baskets who voted for Trump, which means that the answer to "how to be a more responsible voter" is for those voters to vote correctly or stay home. Unfortunately, similar words were often said by Clinton, and all these months later are still being repeated. This kind of rhetoric is not good for the party, not then, not now, not for the future.

    I liked Trump's policies then, and I'm very pleased with them now.

    Having ignorant voters seems to be working for the country- especially for those who want high employment numbers and a peaceful end to the North Korean Conflict.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    I liked Trump's policies then, and I'm very pleased with them now.

    Which part do you like best -- the bigotry, the pandering to superstition and hollow nationalism, the self-aggrandizement, or the nanny-state authoritarianism?

    Hunch: The bigotry.

  • ||

    What the parent apparently likes is "high employment numbers and a peaceful end to the North Korean Conflict."

    Perhaps you should read it more closely?

  • cja||

    It's because of people like you that even though I am not a Republican, I will be voting anti-Progressive for the near future. I'm anti-war, anti-authoritarian, anti-globalism and believe that tolerance is a two way street. Basically, I'm a strong believer in the Deplorables of this nation and their ability to lead wholesome, happy and productive lives - and yes- vote their conscious.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    With the Deplorables, if they were voting their unconscious, how would you tell the difference?

    Please let me rush to apologize for that. I know it's wicked, pedantic, ungenerous, unfounded, and bad for my ethos—but I just couldn't help myself.

  • Sarcastr0||

    It's because of people like you that even though I am not a Republican, I will be voting anti-Progressive for the near future

    Spite voting best voting.

  • Bob from Ohio||

    More tedious: Somins immigration posts or political ignorance posts?

    Discuss.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    The immigration posts. The political ignorance posts are merely repetitious, but at least have some real reasoning to them. The immigration posts are maddeningly obsessive, and totally dismissive of contrary views.

  • mad_kalak||

    I find the immigration posts amusing actually, because they have two amazing hallmarks that are almost impossible to achieve, amazing erudition combined with sophomoric ignorance of grounded reality. It's like the rhetorical soul of William Jennings Brian or Cicero being used by a 13-year-old girl to complain about a curfew.... and not just that the curfew is to early, but that justice demands that she not have one at all.

    Plus the comments section is always fun whenever immigration is brought up.

  • GabrielSyme||

    The political ignorance posts, primarily because the discussion in the comments tends to be far more boring.

  • Kazinski||

    I have to admit I was somewhat ignorant of what we would be getting when I voted for Trump.

    He has just turned out so much better than I expected that I have to admit that even though I voted for him, it was because I live in a deep blue state. So if I wanted to cast a protest vote, I might as well vote for the protest candidate.

    Who knew a year and a half ago I would be so happy with my choice. Come for the protest, stay for the regulatory reform and business tax cuts.

  • Sarcastr0||

    Dude, he's using partisan tribalism to destroy any institutional ability to hold the executive accountable for anything.

    Might be a bigger deal than that tax cut.

  • mad_kalak||

    What is unraveling the norms of our republic more, Donald Trump, who hasn't done a thing unconstitutional (unlike Obama who had several 9-0 SCOTUS decisions saying he did), or the left's apoplectic reaction to him trying to make the results of the election illegitimate?

    While I readily admit that Trump is boundary pushing, especially by antagonizing the press, the bigger problem is that the left, in trying to win portrayed Trump as bad as Hitler, and can't bring themselves to walk it back. That threatens our Republic. Even leftists like Bill Maher have said, and I'm paraphrasing, that "yea, we said Bush and Romney were Hitler too, but it was rhetorical, but with Trump, we really, really mean it, and this time it's for real." In short, the leftists of the world cried wolf one to many times, and the middle isn't listening anymore.

  • Sarcastr0||

    The left being unhappy at Trump is what's threatening the Republic, not the right's theories that the Clintons are everything from felons to traitors to child cannibals.

    OK, dude.

    And having SCOTUS go against you is not the same as delegitimizing the FBI.

  • Sarcastr0||

    We are made to have the SCOTUS smack down the President, that doesn't harm our Constitution at all.

    Saying the election is rigged, don't trust the press, don't trust the FBI...that's not what we are made to do.

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