Values-Only Voting?

The mean, median, and modal voter is badly informed, and as a result, votes for politicians and parties he would not support if only he were well-informed. As a result, democracies often push bad policies. Of course, not everything a democracy does is a result of what voters want, but voters do have significant influence. Bad voters => bad government.

Some democrats deny the problem of democratic ignorance and misinformation, either by just denying that voters are ignorant/misinformed, or by arguing that the electorate as a whole has wisdom even though most individuals within it do not. Tom Christiano, to his credit, readily acknowledges the problem, at least in print. He says, 

It is hard to see how citizens can satisfy any even moderate standards for beliefs about out how best to achieve their political aims. Knowledge of means requires an immense amount of social science and knowledge of particular facts. For citizens to have this kind of knowledge generally would require that we abandon the division of labor in society.

He’s made similar remarks in his 1996 and 2008 books.

Voters don’t know enough to choose good policy (or to choose among candidates and parties pushing various policy proposals). Ilya Somin thinks we should fix this problem by reducing the scope of government–the less government controls, the lower the epistemic demands on voters.  Christiano personally likes Big Government, and wants at least to leave it on the table. But he also admits that voters aren’t informed enough to choose between, say, a free trade versus a protectionist candidate. His solution to the problem is to limit the scope of what voters may vote on, but not to limit the scope of government power. He argues that voters should only vote on values, but not on policies.

Christiano believes the typical citizen is competent to deliberate about and choose the appropriate aims of government. However, for citizens to know the best means for achieving those aims, they would have to become experts in sociology, economics, and political science. They are not competent to make such determinations. Christiano’s proposed solution is to create a division of political labor: “…citizens are charged with the task of defining the aims the society is to pursue while legislators are charged with the tasks of implementing and devising the means to those aims through the making of legislation.” (2008, 104) Christiano’s proposal is have democracies choose government’s goals, but allow technocratic bureaucracies under the control of somewhat technocratic legislatures choose the means.

Some paragraphs on this idea from Against Democracy. (Incidentally, the German translation of AD made the Spiegel bestseller list.)

As an analogy, consider the relationship of a yacht owner to the yacht’s captain. The owner tells the captain where the go, but the captain does the actually sailing. While the captain knows how to steer the boat and the owner does not, the owner is in charge. The owner can fire the captain, and captain thus serves the owner.

Christiano might argue that in the same way, under his proposal, the legislators serve the democratic electorate. While the legislators set laws that the democratic body must follow, the democratic body told the legislator what direction these laws must go in.

Christiano acknowledges that there are serious worries about implementing this kind of system. Right now we allow citizens to choose not just the ends of government, but also, to a significant degree, the means. Potential legislators and political parties run platforms that contain both aims as well as policies meant to realize these aims. Christiano worries (as I do) that citizens don’t know enough to vote on means. But, as Christiano acknowledges, if they lack the social scientific knowledge needed to choose among different candidate’s policy platforms, they will presumably also lack the social scientific knowledge needed to determine whether the legislators have competently and faithfully chosen policies that will realize citizens’ aims.

In the case of a yacht owner and ship captain, the owner can at least tell whether the captain has gotten him to his preferred destination. He can at least determined whether he’s in Bermuda or Haiti, even if he won’t know whether a better captain could have gotten him there faster. But there’s no parallel here for democracy. To know whether legislators did a good job trying to realize the electorates’ aims, the electorate will need to have the social scientific knowledge that Christiano says they lack. Furthermore, if citizens become accustomed to outsourcing the choice of means entirely to legislators, they’re might become even worse at evaluating means than they already are.

Consider: Suppose citizens pick the Full Employment Party, whose sole goal is to reduce unemployment as much as possible. Four years later, suppose unemployment has in fact doubled. Has the Full Employment Party done a bad job? Not necessarily. Perhaps they did the best anyone could do under highly unfavorable circumstances. Perhaps any other set of policies would have resulted in even worse unemployment. To evaluate whether the Full Employment Party did their job, citizens need a tremendous amount of social scientific knowledge, knowledge which most citizens lack. Or, they would have to identify experts who can evaluate whether the Full Employment Party did their job. But if citizens were good at sorting through expert evaluations, we probably wouldn’t need to follow Christiano’s proposal in the first place.

Christiano devotes considerable space to trying to answer these sorts of objections. But I have a few other worries as well:

…why suppose that citizens are competent even to vote on aims or on purely normative issues? The problems we discussed in previous chapters—severe cognitive biases, political hooliganism, the lack of incentive to think rationally about politics—apply to normative as much as empirical considerations.

Further, Christiano and I have both seen first-hand thousands of times that many people cannot think clearly about values even when they have a strong incentive to do so. For instance, Christiano use to teach large introductory political philosophy classes at his university. Though the standards for these introductory classes are low, and even though students’ grades are at stake, many students cannot muster even a basic understanding of the most basic issues in political philosophy. Yet these students—many of whom will fail out of college—are among America’s intellectual elite.

Finally, it’s unclear how much we can disentangle normative and empirical considerations. Perhaps we can debate or rationally form beliefs about the most abstract or general principles of justice without needing any significant social scientific knowledge. (Whether this is so is heavily disputed in contemporary political philosophy.) But in the scenario Christiano proposes, political parties run on real platforms, e.g., protecting the environment vs. economic growth. We would need to know something about the possible tradeoffs and opportunity costs of such goals before we can form reasonable views of what our aims should be. Once again, this requires tremendous social scientific knowledge, knowledge that most citizens lack.

What do you think?



  • Jeff Sylvester

    You misspelled “Christiano” , the line: “Christians personally likes Big Government, and wants at least to leave it on the table.”

    (feel free to remove this comment).

    • Jason Brennan

      Thanks, probably autocorrect did it.

      • Jeff Sylvester

        Yep, I figured. I did a double take because I thought “Christians personally like what????”

        (not that it was wrong . . .)

  • Nicholas Weininger

    Robin Hanson’s futarchy is a variant of this which replaces legislators with investors who stand to profit if they bet correctly on what policies will achieve the voters’ aims. This answers some of your accountability criticism but might create other problems and I would be interested in your take on it.

    • j_m_h

      Not quite sure how that would work in reality as “voter’s aims” is hardly a well defined result (and largely ignores the underlying problem that only a portion vote and, I believe, only a small portion of those not voting are free-riding). That said, it’s a similar idea as I’ve felt would work for regarding public bond issuance. Don’t base the rates on power to tax — so ability just to take more if needed — but rather hold the tax rates constant and let the market prices inform on the value of the proposed spending to economic growth.

  • DBritt

    I think a more apt analogy than the yacht is to choosing retirement accounts. People routinely give financial advisors clear guidance: “maximize my retirement.” And they routinely are presented and then choose options that are *terrible* in terms of achieving that goal, but of course fantastic for enriching the advisor. The fact that they do this in relatively mundane situations where their direct financial interest is at stake suggests that we’re a long way from an electorate that can tell whether its wishes are being followed. Not to say I have a solution. I just think the yacht analogy is a bad one.

    • King Goat

      Good analogy. Seems like issue of whether people tend to better investing through a financial planner vs other approaches is one that’s been empirically studied. Does anyone know if those studies find that people that take this approach tend to do worse than comparably situated others who don’t?

  • Mike Wasikowski

    Whether voting for values only or for a specific candidate, how would one know that they are well-informed and, thus, someone who should be voting in an election?

  • Greg Diderich

    I vote based on sexual attraction. Evolution has honed our skills at selecting the best chance of success for our offspring for millions of years. I don’t have the expertise or the knowledge to make good policy choices, as noted. And if I did, politicians are expert, professional liars, so there is no way for me to evaluate if they will do what I want them to do.

  • John Halstead

    Christiano only believes in values only voting with significant qualifications. For example, people do not have the right to violate liberal rights, the economic minimum or democratic equality. These are normative matters that high income liberal democracies routinely violate. self plug –

  • DST

    I am continually baffled when people assert that government officials are better than voters at weighing the costs and benefits of government projects.