Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Wherein I get PWNED

I hate getting pwned, especially when it comes to political philosophy. I'd like to think, at least, that I can out-argue the average schmo. So I'm particularly annoyed that I had no good response to a proposition put forth by one of my colleagues at work today.

Our office is normally apolitical, in large part due to the fact that there's a fairly wide range of views amongst the staff and we prefer not to be unduly distracted by heated discussion. However, it being the morning after, we made an exception and were talking about the state of things in Washington state. The income tax measure failed, as did the two measures intended to eliminate the state monopoly on liquor sales, which I maintained was a logically inconsistent result1. I suggested that, in regards to the liquor control measures, people were voting emotionally rather than considering the anticipated impacts of the bill.

As a rejoinder my colleague said, in essence, that it was perfectly acceptable for people to make such decisions based on emotion rather than dispassionate analysis2. Which completely derailed me; I obviously disagree with that statement, but I was unable to articulate why dispassionate analysis was better.

I suppose I could have made a consequentialist argument that rational analysis is more likely to produce an internally consistent body of legislation, but I generally prefer not offer ends-based rationales if at all avoidable3. So is there a deontological argument to be made that "voting your gut" is a bad thing? Let's look at the theory, shall we?

Most of the criticisms of direct democracy, of which the initiative/referendum process is one expression, tend to center around the idea of voter competence. People on the pro- side argue that individual citizens are just as competent as elected legislatures, whereas those on the opposing side highlight evidence to the contrary4. Implicit in this argument is the concept that both voters and elected representatives should govern rationally but, as Gutmann and Thompson note, aggregative democratic practices don't take voter rationality as a given5. At best we can say that most people talk about direct democracy as if rationality is important.

There's nothing in the theory underlying the referendum process that prohibits irrational decisions so, if we're going to argue against the use of emotion, we've no recourse but to look at outcomes. However, we can do so in a very generic fashion that doesn't involve nitpicking over specifics. We can simply ask whether there's any cause to believe that emotional decision making results, on average, in better outcomes than rational decision making? I feel safe in saying "no" and asserting that

  • Policies which conform to empirical fact are better, on average, than those that don't.
  • Policies that are chosen primarily on the basis of emotion are unlikely to conform to empirical fact.

Technical I suppose that both of those are empiric statements in their own right, and thus testable/falseafiable, but they seem so obvious to me that I'm inclined to treat them as axiomatic.


1 There's lots of different ways to slice that one; I could easily be wrong.
2 Long form, slightly paraphrased:
Him: The measures would have increased the number of liquor outlets.
Me: How do voters determine the appropriate number of outlets?
Him: It's ok for them to vote their gut on that one.
3 Seems that I'm not alone in this regard: "Do we damn both representative and direct democracy on the basis that each produces outcomes that many find repugnant? Clearly, an assessment of either process in terms of its results is something of an analysitc cul-de-sac". Demanding Choices: Opinion, Voting, and Direct Democracy, p. 10.
4 ibid., pp. 11 - 14.
5 Why Deliberative Democracy?, pp. 13 - 14.

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