Fantasy Politics

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I’ve become convinced that here in the US, voters read too many comic books. They want super-powers to do super-duper things. Because the government wields such awesome might, they feel small and vulnerable. Only through their favorite political candidate do they believe they can live out their grand fantasies. If “their” guy or gal wins, together they can rule the world!

Politics are an even more intoxicating stupidity potion than team sports. Superman and Batman are much more fun. People don’t think that if their team wins the championship, their lives will be happier for any longer than a couple of weeks. But they’re sure that if their candidate wins the election, he will vanquish every evildoer on earth, transform the country into paradise, and guarantee a fabulously prosperous future. He says he will, and — against all reason, and despite every past disappointment — they believe him.

Hillary Clinton wants us to think she’s Wonder Woman. For a long time, many people did. The mental picture of her in short-shorts, a star-spangled brassiere, and a tiara is so traumatizing that imagining it makes me want to drink bleach. She has, however, survived not only invisible Bosnian bullets but more scandals than a stray dog has fleas. We’ll have to buy the next issue of the comic to see if she can dodge indictment for having compromised national security as Super Secretary of State.

People who think like gullible children also vote like them. Because their fondest wish is to be taken care of by Mommy and Daddy, forever and ever, amen, an awful lot of them can be bribed with free goodies.

Vastly more entertaining is The Donald. That’s a superhero nickname, if I ever heard one. Singlehandedly, he’s going to Make America Great Again. He declares that once elected, he will build a second Berlin Wall along our southern border, transport millions of people out of the country with a sweep of his scepter, and make Vladimir Putin cry like a little girl.

The fact that no president has the power to work such wonders doesn’t daunt his devotees. Never before has a president been The Donald! Or Tremendous Ted. Or the Magnificent Marco. Any one of whom can do all things — because he says so.

What worries me is that people who think like gullible children also vote like them. They do their deepest reading by flashlight in a blanket fort. Because their fondest wish is to be taken care of by Mommy and Daddy, forever and ever, amen, an awful lot of them can be bribed with free goodies. We’re just liable to end up electing not Superman but the Tooth Fairy, in the unlikely form of Tinkerbell Sanders. That’s a prospect that should make all libertarians reach for the arsenic.




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The Problem of “Voter Ignorance”

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At Cato Unbound, libertarian academics Jeffrey Friedman and Ilya Somin argue over the reason for voter ignorance. They agree that voters know pitifully little of political candidates and questions. Somin says it’s because voters are making a rational decision not to learn more. Friedman says it’s not a rational decision, but because voters think they know more than they do.

Both say it’s either-or. I don’t think it is, or that it much matters.

In the classic manner of debaters, each wants to define the other’s position narrowly and leave the indeterminate territory to himself. For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error.” For Friedman, Somin’s position is that voters are “deliberately underinforming themselves.”

Start with Somin. “Inadvertent” is a loaded term. It implies a voter who is trying reasonably hard but just messing up, again and again. That’s not really Friedman’s position.

If voter ignorance were “inadvertent,” Somin writes,“We could probably [reduce it] simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information.”

The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing.

Actually, the kind of political information Somin would want voters to have is complicated and detailed, whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple: Quit smoking. Use a condom. The comparison is not apt.

On to Friedman. His terms “deliberately” and “underinforming” for Somin’s position are loaded, implying a voter who is consciously choosing to do what he knows is a poor job. And that’s not really Somin’s position.

Friedman tries to sink Somin’s “rational ignorance” with pure logic. He writes:

If voters can plug into Somin’s formulae even a vague estimate of the benefit of their party’s or candidate’s victory, then they must think that they know enough about this benefit to be able to base their vote on this knowledge. Somin and other political scientists may think that voters should know a lot more than they do, but voters seem to think, even in Somin’s account, that they know enough that they can roughly guess who to vote for. And that’s all they need to know if they are to falsify rational ignorance theory, for, according to the theory, they should be deliberately underinforming themselves. But if they did indeed deliberately underinform themselves (by their own standards), then, of necessity, they wouldn’t be able to calculate the benefits of voting, because they wouldn’t think that they could predict the benefits of a given candidate’s or party’s victory.

In other words, “rational ignorance” is an oxymoron. Friedman, too, is drawing a sharp line around his opponent’s position, making sure that common sense is outside it. But he is trying to win by definition.

This isn’t about definitions. It’s about why people do what they do. Well, think about average voters. It’s true that they make decisions on limited data (as do we all). They often don’t maximize the use of the data they have. I knew a journalist who made his livelihood thinking about public questions. He voted against John Kerry because Kerry reminded him of stuck-up frat boys. (At least that’s what he told me.) That’s not much of a reason to choose a president, but it’s common enough. Pollsters will tell you that many Americans vote for the candidate they think “cares about people like me” or is “not phony.”

That voters engage in this sort of Holden Caulfield-style ratiocination is not going to change. Is it “inadvertent”? To a certain extent. Is it “rational”? In the way Somin uses that word, sometimes. Most people know far less about public policy than the candidates they’re electing will need to know, and it’s not worth it to them to learn more, because they have other things taxing their brains. Do they know they don’t know a lot, as Somin says? Yeah. Do they think they know more than they do, as Friedman says? Probably, and for some of them, certainly. Are they “deliberately underinforming themselves”? Deliberate overstates it for most of them, just as rational does. Remember what the choices are: Kerry or Bush? Obama or Romney?

Friedman argues that Somin’s position requires that people understand their vote won’t decide the election, and that most voters don’t understand this. I think just about anyone will admit this if you corner them. But they don’t think of voting in those terms and they resent you cornering them about it. They are small-d democrats, proudly part of a country where the collective voice of the voters does count. As Friedman points out, they have been told since kindergarten that voting is good and that good people vote. It is part of who they are.

Does the Friedman-Somin dispute matter? Friedman says you can make a better case for a libertarian society if voters are ignorantly ignorant. If they’re rationally ignorant, he suggests, maybe you could make the state more powerful, and give voters more reason to pay attention to politics. In other words, people are not paying attention to A, B, C, and D, so let’s pile on E, F, G, H, and I.

Makes no sense to me.

Somin’s argument, above, that the ignorance Friedman posits would be easier to fix does not move me, either. It’s not going to be fixed either way. It’s a permanent condition.

Here is where I end up. The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing, like why he drove to the grocery store at 11 p.m. Thursday night. Here you are trying to explain why he did not do a thing, and there are a million reasons. He never thought of it. He was tired. He doesn’t like to read. He does, but he wanted to read up on the marijuana trade, or disposable razors, or the new trucks instead. He was rationally ignorant. He was irrationally ignorant. He was stoned. He assumed wrongly that he knew enough. He didn’t care whether he knew enough. His wife got sick. His dog got run over. He ate refried beans.




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Election Day, 1849

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On the afternoon of October 3, 1849, a young printer discovered a man wallowing in a gutter outside Gunner's Hall, an Irish tavern in Baltimore. The man was disheveled and semi-conscious, dressed in soiled clothes that were not his own, and clinging to a malacca cane. The stricken man was Edgar Allan Poe. He was taken to a local hospital, where he remained virtually delirious until his death four days later at the age of 40. One of the most important writers of the 19th century, Poe basically invented the short story and made several publishers rich men. But he struggled his entire life with alcoholism and poverty, never earning more than $300 a year.

Literary historians have long speculated how Poe came to be dressed in a stranger's clothes that day. Poe was poor, but he was always fastidious about his attire. Had he sold his trademark black suit to buy liquor or food? Had he been robbed? No one will ever know for sure.

Recent speculation, however, has turned to a theory that is quite timely considering this election day, in what appears to be the tightest and most contentious presidential race in history: Poe may have been trading votes for drinks. October 3, 1849 was a local election day. "Vote early and often" is a cynical phrase that is often attributed to Tammany Hall and the Chicago political machine, but it did not originate there. Unscrupulous politicians from the East coast to the Midwest would often offer five dollars and a beer to anyone who would vote for them, using the names of deceased residents to vote multiple times. To prevent recognition at the polling place, these repeaters would be induced to change their clothes. Out of money and craving alcohol, Poe would have been an easy mark, and that would explain why he was wearing the stranger's clothes.

On this election day, how many people are acting for themselves, and how many are wearing (symbolically) a stranger’s clothes?




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