Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Some thoughts on voter irrationality and the authority of 'experts'

Here are some arm-chair thoughts regarding the rationality of certain beliefs.  Many economists, political scientists, and moral/political philosophers criticize democratic decision-making based on the claim that voters are ignorant, irrational (see Caplan (2007)), and prone to mob-mentality.  A premise utilized in the criticism of democratic decision-making is common-sense claim that just because a majority of voters believe X is the case doesn’t make it so (whether X stands for some economic policy or moral proposition).

In The Myth of the Rational Voter (2007), Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they are irrational and systematically biased in judging economic policies.  In furtherance of this claim, Caplan compares certain beliefs held by a large portion of the voting public to the prevailing views of the economics profession.  He notes that voters systematically choose bad policies as judged by economic experts.  As a result, democracies choose bad policies.  Using this evidence, Caplan suggests that it is plausible for economic experts to have political authority: individuals should obey the economic policy decisions of economists because they should recognize that their beliefs diverge significantly from what the experts in the field believe, and this divergence is likely the result of cognitive biases.  In a follow up paper, Caplan writes:

Once we set aside autonomy concerns, though, Estlund’s expert/boss “fallacy” makes sense.  Given the claim that “The experts are more likely to be right about X than us,” it is hard to deny that “We should do what the experts think about X.”  If economists are better able to weigh the merits of free trade and protection, there has to be a presumption that we should adopt the trade policy that economists think best.  Of course, you could deny that economists know better; but once you grant that premise, it is hard to see why you shouldn’t heed their judgment.

So suppose we grant that we should heed experts’ judgments.  This admission quickly raises the next question: What should experts do if someone violates the moral imperative to heed their advice?   In a democratic context, this question becomes: Would it be justifiable for experts to overrule the majority for its own good – i.e., for experts to act as “bosses”?  Once we set aside arguments from autonomy, as Estlund seems to do, it is hard to see any principled objection to this expert/boss inference (not “fallacy”).  Think about it this way: By assumption, an expert knows more than you do, and you won’t listen.  Without challenging these premises, how could you block the expert/boss inference other than by saying “I have a right to make the wrong decision”?

To be clear, Caplan is not suggesting that experts should always have political authority, for he leaves aside arguments based on rights, autonomy, and pragmatic concerns (e.g., who is to police the experts?).  Rather, he is making a claim that it is at least pre facie reasonable to expect individuals to heed the proscriptions of economists.

Now, here are my concerns about this.  If we recognize that majority voting qua decision procedure possesses no epistemic authority (i.e., just because a majority believes that X is the case does not show that X is actually the case), how should the economically-ignorant laymen (i.e., those without a PhD in economics) choose which expert-backed opinion to believe?  The data set Caplan utilizes in support of his claim that voters differ from experts are surveys of economists.  The problem is that there is never unanimity in beliefs; rather, we often see some percentage split among these experts.  Sometimes the split is 75-25, 65-35, 80-20, etc.  But if majority voting is not a proper tool for making decisions among the population writ large, why is it so among economic experts?  How is it rational to place faith in this decision-procedure in light of the fact that experts disagree?  How are we to judge the competing claims of experts?

One may argue that an economist is not an “expert” if they do not share the prevailing views of the profession.  But this seems to beg the question, for the important problem precisely is why should we grant “expert” status (and thus obey) to the views of “the majority” of the profession.

Perhaps Caplan discusses this issue in his book or in follow-up work.  Perhaps the answer is based on some kind of Condorcet Jury Theorem application (claiming that economists are more than 50% likely to get the answer right, that there is no evidence of systematic bias among economists, etc.).  I’m skeptical, but I have to go back and read his book (which I haven’t read in 4 years or so).  Anyway, these are some things I have been pondering.

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