Why Voting Based on Values Can't Overcome the Problem of Political Ignorance

Values are important. But so is factual knowledge about public policy. In some ways, the significance of values actually makes the problem of voter ignorance more pressing, not less so.


In a recent New York Times op ed, former FBI director James Comey urges that "Every American should be speaking about our nation's values. Every American should be voting those values, which are far more important than even the most passionate policy differences." I agree with much of what Comey says in this piece. He's right that values are an important component of making good voting decisions, and I think he's also right to argue that many of the Trump Administration's policies are a menace to fundamental American values. Some of Comey's opponents on the political right also believe that values are the key to good voting decisions. Consider, for instance, the social conservative "Values Voter Summit."

Many take this kind of reasoning a step further and suggest that good values are really all you need to be a responsible voter. If so, perhaps I and other critics are wrong to worry about the problem of widespread voter ignorance. Even if voters don't know much about government and public policy, that does not matter much, so long as they have good values. They can then vote for candidates who espouse the same laudable principles and leave the policy decisions to them. Political philosopher Thomas Christiano even argues for a system under which values and policy decisions are separated, and voters only decide the former.

While values do matter, they are not a substitute for voter knowledge. In some respects, their importance actually implies the need for more knowledge, not less. I addressed these issues in some detail in a post I wrote last year, which I think remains relevant today:

[M]eans and ends in government are often closely entangled. Many issues – health care, environmental policy, welfare policy, education, and others – involve complicated combinations of facts and values. It isn't easy to see how the two can be disaggregated…..[T]he the size and complexity of government makes things more difficult. Among other things, the policy choices at stake involve tradeoffs between many different aims – such as those between increasing economic growth and raising environmental standards, for example.

The above points also apply to oft-made claims that voters can use "values" as an effective information shortcut…. Instead of comparing opposing policy platforms, the voters can just support whichever party or candidate seems to care more about their values, and leave the details of policy to the experts. The fly in the ointment here is that many of the issues at stake in most elections involve competing views about how we can best achieve widely shared values. Both Democrats and Republicans claim that they will grow the economy, create better opportunities for the poor and middle class, improve the quality of health care, protect us against terrorism, and so on. On these and many other issues, the big question facing the electorate is whether the parties' policies are likely to actually achieve these goals, and at what cost. Evaluating that requires factual knowledge, not just values.

A few controversial political issues, most notably abortion, may primarily come down to differences over ultimate values. But many others involve disagreements over facts and policies.

Knowledge is also essential for those issues where values really are at the heart of our disagreement. An electorate that knows little about factual matters will often do a poor job of evaluating values, too:

[I]f voters do a poor job of evaluating means, it is not clear that they are likely to do a much better job of evaluating ends. For the same entirely understandable reasons that few voters spend much time thinking about how public policy works, most also do little or no rigorous thinking about values. For example, how many people think seriously about the relative merits of utilitarian consequentialism as opposed to rights-based theories of morality? For most people, ultimate values are almost like religion: they accept those prevalent in their family or community without giving the matter much systematic thought – in part because there is little incentive to do so.

In my view, the values of the average voter in most Western democracies are not so bad. If the voters had a better understanding of how to achieve them, the quality of public policy would be vastly better. But many political theorists would argue otherwise. If you're a hard-core utilitarian like Peter Singer, a Rawlsian egalitarian, or a Catholic natural law theorist, your view of the average American voter's values is likely to be far more negative than mine. And even I think much of the electorate has significant moral blind spots, such as the assumption that it is morally permissible to make immigration policy with little or no consideration of the rights of potential immigrants themselves.

Some reject criticism of the voters' values by arguing that we can't really know which values are best. Who can say what's right? We have no reason to believe that one person's values are any better than another's. So why not let each citizen's preferences weigh equally, as "one person, one vote" democracy is supposed to do? This sort of relativist argument can be broadened into a critique of concern about voter ignorance generally. Who's to say what kind of knowledge matters and what kind doesn't?

The problem with this kind of argument is that its attempt to rescue democracy from its critics ultimately destroys any basis for preferring democracy in the first place. If we have no idea which values are best, how can we know that the values promoted by democracy are any better than those advanced by dictatorships or oligarchies? The true moral relativist has no reason to believe that the governments of the US or Canada are preferable to those of North Korea or Saudi Arabia……

The "one person, one vote" principle underlying democracy is not a morally neutral standpoint. It is based on certain assumptions about who should be allowed to participate in government and why – assumptions that can lead to multiple different interpretations of the idea.

If we think we know enough about values to conclude that democracy is superior to to dictatorship, then we should also be able to use the same principles to evaluate how good the voters' values are, and whether it might be desirable to limit their power over at least some issues. You can't logically be a moral absolutist about the comparison between democracy and dictatorship, and a relativist about competing values within a democracy. If, for example, Western democracies are superior to North Korea because they provide greater freedom and happiness to their people, then those same values can be used to evaluate the performance of both voters and other participants within the democratic political process.

Ultimately, there are good reasons to question voters' judgments about both factual issues and values. That doesn't mean we should do away with democracy entirely. Dictatorship is likely to be much worse on both fronts. But it does indicate we should be open to proposals for restructuring democracy to reduce the harm caused by public ignorance. In some cases, that may mean making fewer decisions at the ballot box, and more in other settings where people have better incentives to become informed.

I would add that, at this point, I probably take at least a modestly more negative view of the values of the average voter than I did when I wrote the above-quoted post last year. There are, I now believe, some issues on which we badly need a significant improvement in values, perhaps greater than I was previously inclined to think.

In another part of my 2017 post, I offered some additional criticisms of Christiano's proposal. See also this post on the same subject by Jason Brennan.

NEXT: We Have An Opinion (from SCOTUS)

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  1. It seems to me that when people say “values” in this context, they mean something less like the abstract philosopher’s conception of “values” and closer to the idea that the political party represents a brand name that is associated with certain groups and certain policy inclinations.

    So those conservative “values voters” that Prof. Somin references are really people who have social conservative policy positions (against abortion, against gay rights, for explicit governmental endorsements of Christianity) and assume that politicians who indicate agreement with those “values” will support their coalition and their goals in other issues that come up.

    Liberals do the same thing– they assume that a candidate who supports their values on such things as feminism, the rights of racial minorities, gay rights, and social programs for poor people will support their coalition and goals.

    And it seems to me that on either side this is a fine way to vote. Indeed, it tends to work out. For instance, social conservatives didn’t know that stem cell research was going to be an issue when they voted for Bush in 2000, but when it did, Bush took a position consonant with the social conservatives.

    This sort of “values voting” works and does not require detailed policy knowledge.

    1. The problem is that for the nation as a whole, it’s hard to stay one united country when you have two disparate groups who don’t share basic values.

      1. It’s even harder when you have (at least) two disparate groups who don’t share basic facts.

        1. You’re right. Liberals refuse to acknowledge the intelligence gap in certain races and the fact that there is no evidence that CO2 emissions from human activity impact the weather.

          1. “there is no evidence that CO2 emissions from human activity impact the weather.”

            The fact that CO2 emissions from human activity affect the climate, on the other hand, is well-established. Who is it, again, who likes to pretend that it isn’t?

            1. No, it isn’t. There’s literally zero evidence of it. There’s evidence that the temperature has warmed and that CO2 emissions have increased at the same time. There’s no causation at all.

              1. Yeah. As I suggested earlier, when people start making up their own facts, like you are, there’s no reason to pretend to agree with them.

                1. It’s your side that makes things up to hide the unpleasant truth.

                  1. The fact that you’d do something is not evidence that everybody would do it.

    2. You are really just describing party line voting.

      1. Nothing wrong with party line voting if (admittedly a big if) the party represents your interests. I find that they don’t, and vote accordingly, but I don’t begrudge those who prefer a crowd.

        1. I am not criticizing it. Its the way I vote when I vote.

          I may not vote for an occasional GOP candidate but I have not voted for a Democrat in 30 years and only twice ever.

          1. I won’t always vote for a Republican, but given that the Democrat Party is the party of socialists, perverts, and anti-American leftists, I’d vote for Hitler before voting for one of them.

            1. Yes, a big surprise. Hitler’s your guy. Who saw that coming?

              1. Given that I would have been one of Hitler’s targets, my thinking he’s an improvement over Maxine Waters and Pelosi should tell you something.

                1. “my thinking he’s an improvement over Maxine Waters and Pelosi should tell you something.”

                  That you’re not very bright? Already established.

  2. “Why Voting Based on Values Can’t Overcome the Problem of Political Ignorance”

    Because politicians lie about their values? Routinely and repeatedly?

  3. “One man, one vote” is a sham and should be overturned. Rural communities were given a death sentence under Baker v. Carr. Given a proper vehicle for review, e.g., State Senate districts, the Court should overrule Baker sooner rather than later.

    1. Rural communities’ problems derive largely from bright flight, not from Baker v. Carr.

      Our system’s structural amplification of rural voices generates plenty of drag on our society. What argument would support increasing the flattery of rural interests in an improving America?

    2. Because a rural voter should have more power than an urban one. Right, Onslow. That makes perfect sense to no one with a brain, but I guess that doesn’t include you.

  4. Voting is largely symbolic anyway. Your one vote is just about meaningless. So ignorance or knowledge are both irrelevant

    We have conservatively 15,000 [or more] offices come up to vote each election but maybe one minor office every 4 or 8 years is decided by a single vote.

    Vote how you like, or not if that is what you want. Its all the same.

    1. “We have conservatively 15,000 [or more] offices come up to vote each election but maybe one minor office every 4 or 8 years is decided by a single vote.”

      ACA repeal failed by a single vote. Something something nail, something something horseshoe, something something war.

      1. The US senate has 100 voters.

        How many US elections have 100 total voters?

        I concede small town elections may sometimes turn on a single vote but we are talking about a microscopic percentage of elections. Even in a small town a single deciding vote is rare.

        1. You missed the point.

          The Senate has only 101 (max) voters in it… so how important is it to have the 2 of them who represent you to represent you?

          1. Very important but my vote won’t matter. The person elected will be elected regardless what I do.

            1. So stay home. We’re both fine with THAT, apparently.

  5. After we implement the (political) literacy test for voting, will we add a poll tax as well, since people who can’t handle their money well enough to be able to pay probably don’t have the sense to vote correctly?

    1. No. Poll taxes are explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. Literacy tests (and tests of proof of taxes paid) are not.

  6. “Political ignorance” will no doubt correlate negatively with IQ. Given that African Americans have a mean IQ a full standard deviation below that of Euro Americans, it can hardly be disputed that a large fraction of African Americans lack the cognitive ability to understand the major issues of our time. In fact, a low IQ correlates with a lack of curiousity in such matters, and the willingness to even try to understand. them.

    So where do these facts lead us? The United States military doesn’t take anyone with an IQ lower than 80 – because they just can’t be trained to do even the most basic jobs (and without killing either themselves or others – see McNamara’s Morons). Shall we cut off the right to vote at an IQ of 80? Or shall we cut the shit and drop this Federalist ‘better sort’ baloney?

    1. We should cut the right to vote at an IQ of 100, and anyone with an IQ below 90 should be sterilized. We don’t need them breeding more unintelligent people.

      1. So your line dies out with you? OK.

        1. You’re a moron.

          1. You’re using that word incorrectly. It doesn’t mean “people who are smarter than you are.”

  7. The English economic policies of the 18th Century — Mercantilism and various sorts of regulations — were based on a reasonable set of values, attempting tpo protect and advance the general economy, which presumably would tend to benefit the citizenry in general. What Adam Smith demonstrated though was that the economy didn’t work the way the policy makers believed it did. In an arm-wrestling match, we may be cheering for the good-value policy-markers, but the Invisible Hand still wins.

    Likewise, Marxism is based on a well-intentioned value of Equality. That value is not the problem. The problem is that it doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work, the policy-makers inevitably start taking other measures which in fact oppress the people more and more.

    Good values aren’t enough — we need some knowledge of the effects of implementation.

    1. Indeed.

      First time I voted was in 2008, just turned 18. Straight D ticket. I was a product of my education, and can never undo that shameful moment.

      By the time 2012 rolled around I had acquired an interest in economics devoured any information I could find. This happened outside of the university setting, naturally.

      It’s hard to describe the feeling of betrayal finding out you’ve been voting on a deception of how the economy works. Democrats campaign on a “living wage”, and you need to have some experience with politics to know what that actually means. It boils down to a technocratic mishmash of labor regulation and welfare. This is guaranteed to be counterproductive to the goal poverty reduction. You don’t have to look far for evidence. The sky-high cost of living in places like Seattle and San Fran shows what these policies do to “real wages”.

      My values didn’t change. I still want the poor to have a better lot. The middle class too. But I can’t in good conscience support policies that actively work against it.

      1. Exactly. I used to be a liberal once too. This is why the voting age should be raised to 25 and should exclude a whole host of undesirables.

        1. “exclude a whole host of undesirables.”

          Nah. You should still be able to vote.

  8. Are we pretending there is a material difference in policy between the candidates?

    1. All the difference in the world.
      The Democrats want to take YOUR money, and give it to people who are poorer than you. The Republicans want to take YOUR money and give it to people who are richer than you.

    2. Are we pretending there is a material difference in policy between the candidates?

      Oh, it’s this guy.

  9. Woodrow Wilson, is that you ?

  10. Considering how absolutely horrible the values of the average Democrat is …

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