Just Don’t: On Political Passivity

I recently came across a 2012 paper by philosopher Michael Huemer titled “In Praise of Passivity.” Given our current political climate, I found the paper to be rather wise:

Image result for don't, just don't gifWhen it comes to political issues, we usually should not fight for what we believe in. Fighting for something, as I understand the term, involves fighting against someone. If one’s goal faces no (human) opposition, then one might be described as working for a cause (for instance, working to reduce tuberculosis, working to feed the poor) but not fighting for it. Thus, one normally fights for a cause only when what one is promoting is controversial. And most of the time, those who promote controversial causes do not actually know whether what they are promoting is correct, however much they may think they know…[T]hey are fighting in order to have the experience of fighting for a noble cause, rather than truly seeking the ideals they believe themselves to be seeking.

Fighting for a cause has significant costs. Typically, one expends a great deal of time and energy, while simultaneously imposing costs on others, particularly those who oppose one’s own political position. This time and energy is very likely to be wasted, since neither side knows the answer to the issue over which they contend. In many cases, the effort is expended in bringing about a policy that turns out to be harmful or unjust. It would be better to spend one’s time and energy on aims that one knows to be good.

Thus, suppose you are deciding between donating time or money to Moveon.org (a left-wing political advocacy group) and donating time or money to the Against Malaria Foundation (a charity that fights malaria in the developing world). For those concerned about human welfare, the choice should be clear. Donations to Moveon.org may or may not affect public policy, and if they do, the effect may be either good or bad–that is a matter for debate. But donations to Against Malaria definitely save lives. No one disputes that.

There are exceptions to the rule that one should not fight for causes. Sometimes, people find it necessary to fight for a cause, despite that the cause is obviously and uncontroversially good–as in the case of fighting to end human rights violations in a dictatorial regime. In this case, one’s opponents are simply corrupt or evil. Occasionally, a person knows some cause to be correct, even though it is controversial among the general public. This may occur because the individual possesses expertise that the public lacks, and the public has chosen to ignore the expert consensus. But these are a minority of the cases. Most individuals fighting for causes do not in fact know what they are doing.

He concludes,

Image result for don't, just don't gifPopular wisdom often praises those who get involved in politics, who vote in democratic elections, fight for a cause they believe in, and try to make the world a better place. We tend to assume that such individuals are moved by high ideals and that, when they change the world, it is usually for the better.

The clear evidence of human ignorance and irrationality in the political arena poses a serious challenge to the popular wisdom. Lacking awareness of basic facts of their political systems, to say nothing of the more sophisticated knowledge that would be needed to reliably resolve controversial political issues, most citizens can do no more than guess when they enter the voting booth. Far from being a civic duty, the attempt to influence public policy through such arbitrary guesses is unjust and socially irresponsible. Nor have we any good reason to think political activists or political leaders to be any more reliable in arriving at correct positions on controversial issues; those who are most politically active are often the most ideologically biased, and may therefore be even less reliable than the average person at identifying political truths. In most cases, therefore, political activists and leaders act irresponsibly and unjustly when they attempt to impose their solutions to social problems on the rest of society.

…Political leaders, voters, and activists are well-advised to follow the dictum, often applied to medicine, to “first, do no harm.” A plausible rule of thumb, to guard us against doing harm as a result of overconfident ideological beliefs, is that one should not forcibly impose requirements or restrictions on others unless the value of those requirements or restrictions is essentially uncontroversial among the community of experts in conditions of free and open debate. Of course, even an expert consensus may be wrong, but this rule of thumb may be the best that such fallible beings as ourselves can devise.

So, the next time you get the itch to raise awareness about some controversial political issue, Huemer suggests…

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8 thoughts on “Just Don’t: On Political Passivity”

  1. I found myself wondering how he envisions representative government working. Turns out, the joke was on me—he doesn’t. He’s an anarchist.

    So, yeah, if you think all government is inherently negative and you aim to end it, by all means, encourage the avoidance of civic engagement. Otherwise, direction of how government ought to act must come from somewhere, and every deviation from representation of the will of the people I’ve seen makes it more corrupt. So I’d rather support people advocating policies they favor, and allowing the wisdom of crowds to percolate up to the level of policy.

    This last seems largely ignored by Huemer. It’s roughly parallel to a claim that no one should engage in commerce because no one person has enough information to set prices efficiently. But that neglects the social nature of the enterprise—part of what makes price-setting valuable is the collective feedback which makes markets work. Similarly, sure, no one person knows enough for us to want to rest policy choices solely on their preferences. But we don’t do that. Instead, we each send political signals with our advocacy which work much like the price signals in a market—no one of them carries all the information, nor is it intended to.

  2. If the paper was advocating oppression of political activism/participation, I could understand some of the concern. But it’s not. It’s saying that biased, ignorant, and misinformed people should stop engaging in activities that allow them to exercise power over others–often to their detriment–when they don’t know what in the hell they are talking about.

    There’s a vast amount of social science literature (Huemer cites some of it) on this folk theory of democracy–“wisdom of the crowds”–you refer to and why it’s wrong:

    Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, 2nd ed. (Stanford University Press, 2016).

    Christopher H. Achen, Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016).

    Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press, 2007).

    Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press, 2011).

    Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016).

    And while not addressing the same issue, this is related:

    Tom Nicholas, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017).

    People are overwhelmingly and systematically ignorant or misinformed about politics and public policy. The claim is *not* that voting/activism/intervention should *never* occur (he makes this quite clear). But based on the social science, the likelihood that you know much about these given subjects is small, which makes your attempt to exercise power over others problematic. In other words, practice a little humility and some self-restraint.

    Nonetheless, I think your comparison to price signals is off the mark for various reasons, many of which are detailed in Ch. 7 of Brennan’s Against Democracy. But I think it’s at least worth pointing out that using markets to solve the knowledge problem in economics is about pushing decision-making to those *most knowledgeable* about local circumstances. Prices provide information about these local circumstances (i.e., scarcity) to those far removed from them so that they in turn can make better informed decisions at the local level. As the literature above demonstrates, political participation has nothing to do with the most knowledgeable. Furthermore, politics is about exercising power over others, for better or worse. As Nathaniel pointed out, individual consumers and producers dictate their own inputs. That’s not the case with elections or public policy.

  3. I’venow read enough about the issue that I think I can respond. First of all, I think you’re wildly generous to markets. Consumer purchases are at least as likely to be selected based on group membership and ignorance as votes. The idea that the signal sent by a teenager’s decision to buy an iPhone rather than a Pixel represents putting decision-making in the most knowledgeable hands is just as problematic as the folk theory of democracy, for similar reasons.

    But the wisdom of crowds need not rest on any simplistic version of the folk theory, anyway. Suppose an exaggeration of the critiques is correct, for example, and voting is entirely based on group membership rather than directly on issues. It doesn’t follow that this structure would be powerless to allow the electorate’s preferences to percolate up to their representatives, both because group membership is itself negotiable (though sticky, and thus likely a seriously lagging indicator) at the margins, and also because the electorate has preferences about other factors than the issues.

    Which brings us to a central problem with the critiques I’ve seen (which include some but not all of the ones you cited, so correct me if others avoid this concern): they all select or invent a definition of what rational voting would be, then compare actual voting to their standard. But I’m at least as confident in the ability of a person’s vote to reflect their preferences as I am of their words to reflect their preferences. Similarly, the ability of economics to determine a person’s interests seems no more accurate than their own behavior. No matter what standard someone proposes to judge voting against, it’s either so theory-laden as to amount to more an assertion about what people ought to care about than a measure of what the do care about, or else it’s no more reliable than the votes themselves. And I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who claims that their theories about what people ought to want should be written into law, especially in a way which would resist critical evaluation and reversion to a democratic standard.

    For example, Brennan’s epistocracy seems designed to allow the writers of the tests to choose their government, while freezing everyone else out of the process. If you think there’s some fair and rational way to select the test writers which won’t massively bias everything after their selection, what is it?

    Tying this back to your original post, how confident should a person ever be that there’s no valuable information in their vote? Even if you can’t consciously recall some fact about an issue, it doesn’t follow that your preferences can’t be latent in your other beliefs or feelings. Contrariwise, we’ve all met staggeringly incompetent people who fail to recognize their own ignorance. So when would we be justified in being more confident in our beliefs about the well-informedness of our beliefs than we are in those beliefs themselves?

  4. You first compared voting to price-setting, but then you shifted to consumer purchases. Those aren’t the same thing, so I stand by my point about price signals.

    Your next paragraph seems to miss the entire point: it’s not about whether voter preferences “percolate up to their representatives.” It’s about whether or not these preferences are actually informed. And the social science demonstrates that more often than not they aren’t.

    Nothing in this post suggests that something should be written into law. The Brennan book I cite addresses epistocracy (he’s wary of some models, while more supportive of others), but that’s outside the scope of the post. His book was cited mainly for (1) the social science and (2) the critiques of various defenses of democracy (specifically the “voting is like price signals”). The point of the post is summed up in the last paragraph.

    As for your “who’s to say??” paragraph, a good starting place would be (1) experts in the field and (2) empirical literature. If you’re unfamiliar with the expert consensus or the literature in the field, then you should probably shut up about it. And most people don’t know jack.

  5. I’m not sure I understand your point about price setting. My economic education suggests that prices are the emergent consequence of demand (consumer behavior) and supply. You seem to be suggesting that consumer behavior plays no role in setting prices, and that, instead, prices are set by experts. Is that your view, or have I misunderstood?

    As for your second paragraph, there are two problems. First, Huemer didn’t make the following argument, but some of your other sources did: voters vote badly because they often vote for the candidate opposed to either their interests (in some formulations) or their preferences on the issues. I take this argument to be defeated by the point that voters have preferences for things other than issues which may rationally guide their votes, and that we should be at least as distrustful of expert opinions about the interests of individuals as their own.

    You suggest we should start with experts and literature, but that simply ignores the problem you’re purportedly responding to: how do you control the bias in these sources? Do you even have an idea of which biases would worry someone like me? And how would you propose determining whose expertise is relevant without injecting further massive bias?

    And, even you did go to the experts, on most controversial political issues, they are also divided. There are a few outliers, like climate change and evolution, on which essentially only non-experts take one of the positions, but other stuff is pretty up in the air. So you have just the same dynamic in these cases as non-experts have with everything else (which is just what you expect, given his point that experts were barely better than chance). No one’s view is reliable, so Huemer presumably thinks no one should vote on those issues. But if we’re selecting representatives based on issues and even experts shouldn’t vote on the basis of most issues, we are either electing people because of a tiny minority of their relevant qualifications or else disqualifying every voter.

    Which gets back to my concern about how he expects a government to function, and the relevance of the fact that he doesn’t. He’s not looking for solutions.

  6. It struck me that you were somewhat conflating demand and prices (which you apparently weren’t), but that wasn’t my main issue with your response:

    1. Public policy isn’t a product for personal consumption.
    2. A consumer may be ignorant of some things, but he/she isn’t ignorant about what he/she demands or wants to consume.
    3. Prices convey necessary knowledge. For example, a buyer doesn’t need to know that bad weather caused crop failure which caused scarcity which caused the price to go up. All he/she needs to know is that the price went up. This is how knowledge is coordinated and communicated in a market economy.
    4. The mechanism isn’t the same in politics. Voting and activism may coordinate and communicate the preferences of voters and activists, but it doesn’t follow that these preferences (and the public policies based on them) will be beneficial.

    Yes, voters vote certain ways for a number of reasons. A voter may vote for greater immigration restrictions because they hate Mexicans. Because they’re racist. I don’t really care about their preferences. Someone else may not be able to name the three branches of government, but they’re going to vote for Donald Trump because he’s a Republican and they grew up Republican. That’s not a good reason. Another may advocate for protectionism because they believe it will lead to economic prosperity. Well, they’re wrong. They may be sincere, but they are misinformed. If these people get their way, they hurt others via bad policies. I’m not alright with that.

    I’m not sure where else you would start to inform yourself on the social science behind public policies than with the experts and empirical literature in the fields. This shouldn’t be controversial. As for the claim that experts do no better than chance (I assume you’re referencing Tetlock’s study), Brennan points out,

    “Tetlock does not show…that experts are no better than laypeople or average voters. After all, Tetlock didn’t study laypeople or average voters at all. Tetlock’s laypeople, against whom the so-called experts were compared, were Berkeley undergraduate students–that is, some of the smartest and most educated people on earth. Tetlock was testing the cognitive hyperelites against the cognitive superelites. Beyond that, Tetlock only tested experts on what the experts themselves regard as the “hard” questions–questions for which there is considerable controversy. So, going back to economics, there is a wide range of controversy in economics (e.g., should we use monetary or fiscal policy to fix a recession?), but there is also a wide range of agreed-on views, such as that we should have free trade and avoid price controls. The voting public gets the easy questions–econ 101–wrong” (Against Democracy, pg. 193-194).

    Or as Bryan Caplan summarizes,

    “There is only one major instance in which Tetlock compares the accuracy of experts to the accuracy of laymen. The result: the laymen (undergraduate Berkeley psychology majors–quite elite in absolute terms) were far inferior not only to experts but also to chimps” (The Myth of the Rational Voter, pg. 83).

    The experts were tested on questions that were *controversial* in their fields and difficult *for experts*. They weren’t asked questions about which there was a solid consensus. Experts can be wrong, but they are less likely to be wrong on the given subject than you or me.

  7. “2. A consumer may be ignorant of some things, but he/she isn’t ignorant about what he/she demands or wants to consume.”

    I don’t understand how this isn’t exactly parallel to the case of voters’ preferences. A consumer might well know what they want, at least more than anyone else, but it doesn’t follow that these desires are well-informed or serve their interests. For example, a consumer might express a desire for an iPhone, but, when asked why they want that, they might list various factors which are better served by a Pixel. And it might well be the consensus view of experts that the Pixel is the better choice. This seems to me exactly like the argument you and your sources are making about voting. You’re right that public policy isn’t a product, but I don’t see how your arguments about public policy don’t apply equally well to markets.

    Indeed, I think I understand something which I take to be foundational to market thinking very differently from how you’ve described it. You seem to take markets to funnel decisions to experts. I think it’s just the opposite–what markets do which is so amazing is aggregate the behavior of numerous non-experts (each of whom knows just a little; far less than would constitute expertise) to accomplish a result which is not only satisfactory, but better than experts could accomplish even if they were in charge. It’s command economies which funnel decisions through experts, and, generally, they suck.

    You’re right that it doesn’t follow that policies based on the preferences of the voters will be beneficial, but it also doesn’t follow that the allocation of resources based on the preferences of consumers will be beneficial. It’s not an a priori demonstrable thing; indeed, virtually anyone can come up with lots of examples which seem to show the opposite. We only believe that markets are better than expert-driven command economies because we’ve tried both systems. A posteriori, it happens to turn out that experts did a crappy job. And not even a universally crappy job! I have the impression that health care suits markets so poorly that command economies have done reasonably well, comparatively.

    Similarly, nations generally do better when they encourage lots of citizen participation.

  8. If one thinks the government spends too much money and also thinks that foreign aid makes up 25% of the federal budget (it’s less than 1%), then that person’s policy views will be warped. If all you’re trying to establish is that people’s preferences are fickle–both consumers and voters–I really have no argument with that. But as you admitted, politics isn’t a product for personal consumption: it’s policies and laws being forced on millions of people. If a consumer is ignorant about the Pixel, then his/her desires aren’t met to the fullest extent that they could be. If a voter/activist is ignorant about immigration economics, they will vote/advocate for policies that hurt millions of current and potential immigrants. That’s why the analogy breaks down for me. Drastically.

    I completely agree with your summary of markets. I’ve apparently been unclear. While markets decentralize decision-making power, it’s still pushing power to those in the know. People have small bits of knowledge, but markets let those people make decisions regarding *those small bits of knowledge.* Or, as Hayek puts it, the decision-making power is pushed to those with “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation” (“The Use of Knowledge in Society,” pg. 521-522). Does that clarify what I mean?

    I don’t disagree that democratic participation has been the best form of government yet discovered. But I don’t think it follows that we should therefore (1) encourage people who are ignorant or misinformed to seek power via voting or activism and (2) want politicians to enact policies that are not well-supported by empirical evidence.

    Here’s an interesting bit from Brennan’s book:

    “Recently, [Martin] Gilens measured how responsive different presidents have been to different groups of voters. He finds that when voters at the ninetieth, fiftieth, and tenth percentiles of income disagree about policy, presidents are about six times more responsive to the policy preferences of the rich than the poor. To Gilens’s surprise, George W. Bush, whom his colleagues and mine are inclined to portray as a tool of the wealthy, was more likely to side with the poor on policy issues than any recent president, including Kennedy, Johnson, or Obama. Gilens is in some ways horrified by results like these, but he admits there’s an upside. Voters at the ninetieth percentile of income tend to be significantly better informed than voters at the fiftieth or tenth percentile, and this information changes their policy preferences…Gilens finds that high-information Democrats have systematically different policy preferences from low-information Democrats. High- income Democrats tend to have high degrees of political knowledge, while poor Democrats tend to be ignorant or misinformed…For an instrumentalist like me, Gilens’s results are reason to celebrate. It means that democracy works better than it otherwise would, because it doesn’t exactly work. Democracy is supposed to give every individual citizen equal voice, but it doesn’t. For whatever reason, smarter and better- informed voters, with more enlightened policy preferences, are better represented, with their preferences better realized, than less informed voters with less enlightened preferences. Smarter and better- informed voters are more likely to get their way” (Against Democracy, pg. 197-198).

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