Friday, April 12, 2019

Voting and expertise

Here is something that worries me. In a democratic system, voters need to decide questions where not only is the first-order evidence regarding the questions far beyond the area of expertise of the typical voter, but it is far beyond their area of expertise to know who are the reliable experts.

Economic questions seem particularly glaring cases of this. One politician proposes to raise the minimum wage on the grounds that this will improve the earnings of the neediest members of society, and thereby on balance raise up the most vulnerable. Another proposes to keep the minimum wage fixed on the grounds that raising it will lead to greater automation or close some businesses or reduce employment hours, and thereby on balance bring down the most vulnerable. Who is right is largely an empirical question. There is no way to address it without hard data, and the analysisof the data is really difficult.

If I were voting on such an issue (as an expat Canadian, I don’t get to vote either in the US or Canada), I could to talk to colleagues in the Economics Department and try to get their expert opinion. But, frankly, even that probably wouldn’t be very reliable. These issues are ones that economists are going to be divided on, and while I know about the intellectual integrity of my colleagues in the Economics Department, it’s hard to know about their standing in the field and their knowledge of a particular question. And the vast majority of people doesn’t even know any economists personally.

This is really pessimistic. And I don’t see a solution. More education is good, of course, but the level of education that would be needed would be way higher than most people would have either the time or talent for. Maybe the one happy thought is this. When we have controverted empirical questions like that, and we need to make a decision, tossing a coin isn’t a bad way to do it. And voting is no worse than tossing a coin.

1 comment:

Walter Van den Acker said...


The idea behind voting is that enough people have sufficient expertise to vote and that time will tell if the vote was "correct" or not. That's why there are elections every four or five years. It's not a perfect system, but it's currently the best one available.