The Demands of Political Competence (part 4)

The Extent of Demandingness

Let me elaborate a bit on the demandingness of the account I’ve given. We’ve seen that empirical research consistently shows that a significant amount of voters—between a quarter and a third—already fails the first category of conditions (information about choices). We should be even more sceptical about people having sufficiently sophisticated predictive and evaluative models for competence. We have seen that voters have troubles with having minimally coherent belief systems. Lots of evidence suggests that voters base their choices on minimal, highly filtered amount of information, which they process in badly biased ways.

But I also think that most politically informed, highly-educated voters would not pass the competence test I’ve outlined. Focus on the politicos who keep up with political developments on a day-to-day basis, who have a good degree of civic knowledge, identify and organise along party lines, and participate in politics outside elections. Stereotypically, this is the person who reads a daily newspaper like the New York Times or Washington Post, consults “high-brow” political websites like Slate or Vox, and so on.

My suspicion is that while people falling in this category have highly articulate opinions and are generally up-to-date with the news, they might nonetheless lack competence in deciding a variety of political issues. Here I can only offer my own experience. I believe, for example, that austerity policies as a response to the financial crisis have been economically and socially disastrous. Lots of commentary I read by economic experts supports this view.

But uncertainties surrounding this belief surely outnumber the certainties. If I were presented with a tightly presented argument for austerity, I would not have the capability to argue against this view on my own. I would have to judge the disagreement on the basis of secondary features—the reputability of the source, say, or whether the argument seems to be partisan and self-serving. I could also not competently judge, if this question were to come up, how the badness of austerity should be traded off against benefits from other policies—for example, how I should deal with a political candidate that opposes austerity but also free trade.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for scepticism about economics, or against the possibility of knowing the answers to questions like these. I’m also not arguing that laypeople should withhold judgment about economics. In the case given, I’m relying on the testimony of economic experts, and if I consider that evidence carefully, this might well be enough to justify me in holding those beliefs. What I’m disputing is that those beliefs would be sufficient in making me a competent judge on austerity policies.

To use an analogy, my skimming through some medical journals, or listening to some medical experts, might be enough to give me some rough-and-tumble medical knowledge. But it would hardly qualify me as a competent doctor—e.g., qualified in making medical choices that concern others (even if we put the question of practical skill aside).

I suspect that there is often a misidentification of competence with “following the news”, or being a political partisan in other ways. But I’ve come to think that even many of the “educated” forms of political debate—e.g., political talk shows, the feuilleton in the big newspapers, political Kabarett—often fall short of conveying political competence.

Some Possible Misunderstandings

In short, we should consider the possibility that political competence is incredibly demanding, and thus, rare. (I don’t take myself to have established this result—but it’s useful to explore the issue.) I’ll turn to some attempts to lessen the demandingness of competence in part 5. But for now, it is useful to highlight why this result isn’t as counterintuitive as it might first seem.

First, we are dealing with individual competence, not collective competence. The question is not whether democracy as such is competent or efficient. Governments, for example, might be collectively capable of making political choices competently. Perhaps it’s also the case that the electorate as a collective is competent in making political choices. But that’s simply a different question.

Second, you might reply that a theory which qualified most voters as incompetent should be rejected straight out of hand, as any political theory should deliver the result that most voters are competent. It’s not clear to me, however, why it should. Nothing guarantees a priori that most people (or indeed, anyone) are competent in fulfilling some task—say, knowing about quantum physics, or tying one’s shoe laces. When it comes to competence, we must look and see whether voters are competent, not presume so.

You might take it as an intuition that many or most people are competent in making political choices, and you might think this intuition so strong that any theory must account for it. It’s not clear to me that I have this intuition—or more precisely, I am not sure that I have it pre-theoretically, independent from other commitments regarding the value of democracy. I return to the issue in part 6, when I ask how the current result would fit into democratic theory more broadly.

Note also that denying that people are competent in this one, very narrow respect—making highly complex political choices—is compatible with accepting that they’re competent in a wide range of other choices. To what degree one is actually competent in some issue is also independent from whether one should be considered legally competent to make such decisions. I am not actually competent at making sports bets, but there are various reasons to give me the legal ability to make such bets.

Some Reasons Why Competence might be rare

There are also some principled reasons to think that competence is rare.

First, I would simply offer a thought experiment which clarifies the demands of political choice. Start by focussing on only one area of policy, say, housing. Assume that you are tasked with designing an economically efficient housing policy for a local area—e.g., you’re tasked to design a city ordinance, and you only have to take into account one aim, its economic viability. This is a huge, demanding problem. Few of us would be competent in tackling it.

However, shift now to a bigger problem, of which this problem is merely a subset: designing an economically efficient housing policy for an entire country. Fulfilling this task is significantly more demanding than fulfilling the more local task. Whatever information you need to gather for tackling the first task, and whatever skills and knowledge you needed for it, will need to be significantly amended.

Now consider two further shifts. First, imagine that you are tasked not merely with solving the economic problem with housing, but also the moral problem—i.e., to design a housing policy which is not merely economically viable, but also just. Now the problem grows an entirely new epistemic dimension, about which your thinking so far might have been seriously inadequate.

Lastly, imagine that the issue is not merely limited to housing policy, but designing the entirety of policy—e.g., it expands to drug policy, immigration policy, welfare policy, foreign policy, and so on. Each of these shifts requires you to have serious magnitudes of additional knowledge. So however many people are competent at the narrower tasks, we should only expect a small subset to be competent at this broader task.

Schematically, if “>>” denotes “is significantly more demanding to solve than”:

the national moral problem of policy >>

the national moral problem of housing policy >>

the national economic problem of housing >>

the local economic problem of housing

Few people are competent, I believe, even at solving the lowest-order problem. So we should expect a vanishingly small number of people to be competent at the highest-order level—and it is precisely this problem which is at stake when we vote.

This is just a simple heuristic to drive home the point that government is an incredibly, almost inhumanely complex task. I think few of us would be individually competent to decide even a single dimension of public policy. Indeed, it is hard to think of any choices in every-day life that even come close to have the same complexity as political choices. The lives and fates of millions of people depend on our political choices; no decisions we make in our every-day lives come remotely close to having the same degree of impact.

We can return to Brennan’s doctor analogy at this point. Brennan suggests that it would be wrong if laypeople operated on me when the services of a competent doctor are available. Let’s estimate how many people are “medically competent”. According to the Worldbank, there were on average 2.8 physicians for a thousand people in an OECD country. If we generously multiply this number by a factor of 10, still only 2.8% of the population in OECD countries would count as medically competent.

Now, medical knowledge is very different from political knowledge. But we can accept that it is on a roughly similar level of complexity (I suspect that this is actually too generous). Thus, if only 2.8% of the population is competent to do a medical operation, I think it wouldn’t be outrageous to think that only 2.8% of the population are competent to understand and decide the complex socio-economic-moral issues that underlie electoral choices.

Continue to part 5

Start from part 1

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