Good Intentions-Bad Consequences: Voters' Information Problems

Good Intentions-Bad Consequences: Voters' Information Problems

by Phillip Nelson


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A new approach to understanding voter choice with important implications. There is a substantial class of voters who would like to do “good” but ignore important consequences of their attempts to do so—naïve altruists. The book both shows why such a class exists and tests the implications of that group’s behavior in a setting where other voters are self-interested, others are traditionalists, and imitation plays a big role in voter choice. The book also looks at the policy implications of such behavior accepting as desirable, but not fully achievable, the democratic ideal in which sufficiently informed citizens are given equal weight in political choices. Naïve altruists ignore the anti-growth consequences of redistribution from the rich as a class to the poor as a class. That ignorance produces too much of that redistribution in terms of the democratic ideal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524673796
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 03/24/2017
Pages: 172
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.40(d)

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Political scientists have written extensively about voters' lack of information, but they have ignored one of the most important voter information problems: lack of information about the consequences of the policies they advocate. This problem is particularly severe among voters who want to "do good" but are uninformed about essential features of their attempts to do so. It is the information problems of that group of voters that generates the main distinction between what voters intend and the consequences these intentions produce.

The disagreement between liberals and conservatives about economic policy is focused on two questions. Should governments spend more directly and indirectly on protecting the environment? Should governments redistribute more income to the poor and away from the wealthy? Answers to these questions are of more than passing interest to social scientists and citizens alike.

In logic these answers require a comparison of 'what is' and 'what is better', and some feasible path to get toward the latter from the former. Better information is the path advocated in this book. It is feasible because it does not require voters to acquire more information than they have incentives to acquire, just better information, which need not be more expensive information.

For the most part, the economics literature has used a simple self- interest model to explain political choices, and certain features of political preferences are consistent with that model such as the direct relationship between income and votes for Republicans. But that is not the whole story, and this book focuses on the rest of the story. Both self-interest and altruism affect voter decisions. However, both of these motivations will be somewhat muted because they both focus on the policy consequences of voting. Any individual voter has a negligible effect on those consequences because his vote has a negligible impact on voting outcomes. In contrast, voters are primarily interested in others' reaction to their vote and how they view themselves, largely a function of others' potential reactions. As a result, self-interest does not play the dominant role in determining political decisions that it plays in determining market decisions. The political position of limousine liberals is the most obvious deviation from the income determinant of political choice by way of self-interest. Indeed, Nelson and Greene (2003) found that self-interest variables were less important than other variables in determining political positions. But still self-interest plays a role in voter choice, just not the overwhelming role it plays in market decisions.

The reason self-interest and altruism affect voter decisions at all is that voter preferences are simply extensions of the preferences they express in conversation, and people do talk about their self-interested preferences and their notions of what is good for the world and their country. These latter notions of what is good are often influenced by self-interest, but not always. That the individual voter has a negligible effect on voting outcomes has another important effect. Voters, for the most part, have little self- interested incentive to acquire much information about the consequences of government policy. To the extent they have any political information at all, it is a consumption good. The usual way of determining how much political information voters have is finding how many political facts they know. Even by this standard, many voters are ill informed. But there is an equally important political knowledge component — knowledge of the consequences of policies. As I try to show in this book, many voters are also ill informed with respect to this component. Many of the voters who know their political facts are woefully deficient in their knowledge of policy consequences, and this has profound effects on their voting behavior.

One such effect is a certain erratic nature of voting outcomes. There are multiple motivations in voting. The motivation that dominates voting at any one time can vary. Occasionally xenophobia dominates. Hitler's election, the Know Nothing party in the United States and Donald Trump are examples of this phenomenon. Their success is also attributable to a disgust with stalemates sometimes produced by representative democracy. But, for the most part other reasons for voting are at the fore.

The divide in the electorate on which I concentrate is between two groups. One group includes those who vote in a self-interested way, those who are traditionalists, and those who vote the same way as the first two because they imitate their vote. The other group is those voting altruistically in a particular way and those whose vote imitates the former. I call that way liberal altruism and I call the above bifurcation the "great divide".

Liberal altruistic voters advocate more government expenditures for the same causes for which most people give to charities with one notable exception – religious causes. Liberal altruistic voters advocate more government expenditures for the sick, the poor, the environment, education, etc., all charitable causes The rationale for calling this a form of altruism is that the objects of charity are determined by an altruistic process. Charities survive only if they respond to at least some people's view of some social need not satisfied by self-interested actions. The reason the charity for religious purposes is not included in liberal altruism is that liberals are relatively unreligious.

As detailed in this book, there is a good deal of evidence that there is an innate altruistic preference. But there are serious problems with liberal altruistic voting. Currently, people cannot observe directly many of the consequences of their actions and the list of liberal altruistic actions has grown considerably. Now people have to acquire their information indirectly about those consequences. That indirectness creates a serious bias, the well-known confirmation bias. People tend to look for information that confirms their current views and avoid contrary information. Liberal altruistic voters have no incentive to acquire information that would call into question their political preferences, sustained as they are by the political preferences of their liberal altruistic friends. In consequence, liberal altruistic voters tend to continue to be liberal altruistic voters in spite of a good deal of evidence that they ignore. The most important ignored consequences of their agenda are the unintended consequences of their actions. That is the justification for calling liberal altruistic voters naive.

Confirmation bias is not the only reason naïve altruists do not examine unintended consequences. Many do not examine consequences at all. They focus simply on intentions. They support candidates who are empathetic, that is who have their hearts in the right place. But there is a significant difference between intentions and consequences. The justification for a free market is Adam Smith's invisible hand, that in a market economy self-interested decisions lead to socially desirable consequences. There are, indeed, all sorts of market imperfections that prevent a one-to-one correspondence between self-interest and the socially desirable. However, those imperfections are not so great that they prevent capitalism from producing favorable social results on average, favorable as participants evaluate those results. Those favorable results occur in spite of no such intentions from the market players. Those favorable results have to be compared with government alternatives which are at least somewhat motivated by good intentions but have serious unintended consequences.

Economists claim, with varying degrees of consensus, a whole range of unintended consequences of the naïve altruistic voting associated with liberals. There is the greater unemployment generated by the minimum wage, a reduction in the quantity and quality of products produced by price controls, a reduction in risk taking generated by taxing the rich, an increase in single mothers and a decrease in education produced by assorted indirect consequences of welfare programs. In the next chapter I detail those claims but I do not establish them. In that respect I depend on the work of others, though the unintended consequences listed are implications of simple economics.

These consequences tend to be unfavorable as evaluated both by the people being helped and by the liberal altruistic voter himself, using their own criteria of what constitutes "unfavorable". From the point of view of the liberal altruistic voter those unfavorable consequences need not be so great that they outweigh the direct benefits of his actions. But they are great enough to induce at least some altruistic voters to change their votes when they discover those unintended consequences. The book presents evidence that the unintended consequences of political decisions are often ignored. It also shows how information about those consequences can change voter preferences.

One does not have to go very far to see the impact of the unintended consequences of government actions. Costs are an unintended consequence of government expenditures and most regulations. But these costs are almost invariably ignored or understated by the advocates of these policies. Governments go to great length to hide the costs of their policies. Deficit financing is one such means. Though deficits postpone taxes, there is no postponing the use of resources that can be used otherwise, what the literature calls alternative costs. It is not accidental that those in favor of greater government spending are deficit advocates compared to those who are opposed to such spending. Indirect taxes and making businesses pay are other actions that increase the probability that voters are unaware of costs or grossly underestimate them.

There is also evidence that voters who are aware of their personal costs caused by any particular government action are less in favor of that action. However, that evidence is scantier. The best evidence is the efforts of spending advocates to hide costs, though there can be other reasons for some of these efforts. For example, deficits make some sense during recessions but not through the whole business cycle.

I have excluded one group in our great divide — less naive altruists. One objective of this book is to determine where they belong in the liberal- conservative spectrum. So that is a conclusion to be reached rather than a presupposition. We do look at the behavior of the less naive voters, but outside the framework of the "great divide".

The divide between naive altruistic and non-altruistic voting can be somewhat confusing. Different people can vote for the same policy for altruistic or self-interested reasons. Those on welfare can vote for greater welfare payments while those neither on welfare or potentially on welfare can vote similarly for altruistic reasons. But the comparison for our purposes is between altruistic voting and self-interested voting in the aggregate. There are many self-interested who do not gain from an increase in welfare payments so that aggregate self-interested votes would be less in favor of increased welfare payments than the votes of naive altruists.

Then again, some people will vote altruistically in certain contexts but not in others. Still this book provides evidence that the division is clear enough to generate significant differences in voting behavior. Probably, the clearest implication is the case of responses to local environmental problems.

By definition, the self-interested consequences of these responses -- both the benefits and the costs-- are largely confined to a locality. Self-interested voting would, therefore, be confined to that locality. Others, who are at all concerned, would engage in altruistic voting, largely of the naïve sort. They would opt for a better environment without any consideration of costs.

An example of the different voting implications of this phenomenon is the difference in local and non-local attitudes toward oil drilling in ANWAR, the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve. Alaskans are overwhelmingly in favor of that drilling even though it is they who experience any of the unfavorable environmental consequences of that drilling. Non locals are sufficiently opposed so that such drilling continues to be prohibited by the national government. Of course, drilling in ANWAR has consequences beyond Alaska. Most of those non local consequences are favorable to non-Alaskans, chiefly reduced oil prices. However, those relatively minor effects for the non-Alaskans are not enough to counter the returns from environmental advocacy, advocacy that occurs even though they barely experience the environmental impact of Alaskan oil drilling. It should be noted that this opposition occurred before concerns with climate change created opposition to fossil fuels in general. It was concern about the fate of caribou and the wilds in general that were the dominant foci of the opposition to oil drilling in ANWAR.

Many phenomenon that are otherwise unexplained make sense because of the great divide. University teachers, especially those in the humanities and the non-economic social sciences, are more liberal than others. One of the rationales for the existence of social scientists is to find ways to make society better. In fulfilling that job they are naive altruists for the most part. All that is required is advocating government actions favoring the same causes that charities have favored. In consequence, naïve altruism is the natural starting position of altruists. Because altruists start out as naïve altruists, confirmation bias tends to keep them in that state of naivety. Some universities have even institutionalized confirmation bias. They have created "safe spaces" where students can go to avoid ideas that make them uncomfortable, though most universities hardly need those spaces for students to avoid sparse uncomfortable ideas. The easiest way to practice confirmation bias is to avoid uncomfortable ideas which many in universities do by avoiding them with or without "safe spaces."

There is one group of social scientists who share an altruistic interest in policy with the others but who are not overwhelmingly naïve: economists. Many systematically examine the unintended consequences of government policy. For example, a standard feature of elementary microeconomics is a demonstration of the reduced real income resulting from price controls. In consequence, their views on policy are dramatically more conservative than the rest of the social sciences. This is because the bulk of unintended consequences of the policies of naïve altruists are unfavorable, as demonstrated later in this book. However, economists play a relatively minor role in determining the overall effect of colleges in determining political positions, as witnessed by the overwhelmingly liberal character of universities.

Because of their important influence on many, including the media and lawyers, university teachers play an important role in determining political attitudes. Take the positive relationship between age and conservatism. Most people with altruistic tendencies start as naïve altruists. Their exposure to the educational system fortifies that naïve altruism. They then are influenced by their friends and associates. If their friends are all fellow naïve altruists, they continue in their naïve altruistic ways. The more non-naïve altruistic friends they have, the more they modify their voting away from naive altruism. The average of these effects must be toward self-interested voting and traditionalism because the educational influence is more than averagely toward naive altruistic voting. One's friends on average will be more conservative than the educators people have encountered. The longer the impact of socializing after education, the more conservative we would expect a person to be.

In a world where education is liberalizing in the political sense one would expect any process that increased socializing to make one more conservative. That explains why church attendance makes one more conservative in spite of church sermons which are often quite liberal. Church attendance is an important way to make and keep friends.

But socializing changes political positions only if that socializing involves people whose political positions are different from one's own. People, however, prefer to socialize with people with similar political views. The denser the population, the easier it is to make that preference a reality. In consequence, the conservative impact of socializing would be smaller for big cities.

All these predictions are turned on their head when universities are opposed to more government intervention in the economy. Such a situation occurred in Eastern Europe after the Cold War. The past was a past of massive government intervention in the economy. The importation of ideas from the West made intellectuals oppose such behavior. Then, the aged and the countryside would be relative proponents of that past of massive government expenditures.


Excerpted from "Good Intentions–Bad Consequences"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Phillip Nelson.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Overview, 1,
Chapter 2 Self-Interest, Traditions And Naïve Altruism, 12,
Chapter 3 Colleges: The Heartland Of Naïve Altruism, 40,
Chapter 4 Evidence: Naïve Altruism And Information, 68,
Chapter 5 Evidence Of The Great Divide, 79,
Chapter 6 Policy, 94,
Chapter 7 Democracy, 108,
Chapter 8 Examining Liberal Ideas, 131,
References, 143,
Index, 159,

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