Monday, July 10, 2006

The Truth Hurts

Fernando Teson blogs on his new book, RATIONAL CHOICE AND POLITICAL DELIBERATION: A THEORY OF DISCOURSE FAILURE (Cambridge U.P., August 2006). It's one of those things that makes me sick--not because I think it's wrong, but because I fear it's right. Professor Teson explains the thesis about why encouraging deliberation won't create better political outcomes:
The public will not deliberate in accordance with truth-sensitive principles; on the contrary, the public will err in accordance with definite patterns. The idea is that acquiring reliable knowledge about social theory (economics, pol sci, etc) is very costly to the average citizen, so he will rely on theories by default that are mostly false (for example: "we need to protect our industry against foreign competition", "higher crime results from lenient courts", etc, etc). The public, in short, is rationally ignorant. Reliable social science is hard because it is opaque and complex. Folk knowledge is easy to apprehend because it is vivid. Knowing this, politicians and others use, for electoral purposes, a rhetoric that feeds into these false theories. As a result, public deliberation does not bring us closer to the truth. On the contrary, deliberation increases error. We call this phenomenon discourse failure.

In comments, PrawfsBlawg's "resident deliberativist", Ethan Leib, argues that this is a rehash of the old "the people are too incompetent to govern" argument. I think that he's right that this problem may be partially rectifiable at an institutional level (or at least that we have to try), but in general I'm not optimistic.

I've hit on these themes before, most notably in my post attacking the concept of "persuasiveness" equaling "strong rhetoric" in debate, or my post of no-confidence in democracy. In general, I like the idea of "deliberative democracy," as long as "deliberative" has some depth to it--where "rational ignorance" no longer counts as deliberation. Engagement is the key. Unfortunately, I don't see much hope for salvation, and Professor Teson's argument about "rational ignorance" helps explain why.


Disenchanted Dave said...

I know an economist that says that people's "distributed wisdom" is actually quite good and that, while most people are far from the mark when evaluating the true costs of, say, pollution, if you aggregate their answers, they're actually quite accurate. It's possible that there would be too many systemic biases, but he says that for many of the issues that have been studied, there actually weren't.

It's possible that voting could accomplish the same kind of averaging that the economic polls did, but it's less likely since 1) the "output" is discrete (you either vote for it or against it) instead of continuous and 2) the issues are much more complicated and involve ethical questions. Even if everyone agreed that Social Security privitization would increase the deficit by a certain amount, people wouldn't agree on whether that was worth the benefits of increased ownership of one's retirement funds.

jack said...

I have three thoughts.

First: The idea is that acquiring reliable knowledge about social theory (economics, pol sci, etc) is very costly to the average citizen

Presumably one of the methods to encouraging successful deliberation, then, would be to lower the cost of acquiring such information. In that sense the internet is already a fantastic tool. Further, increasing the education level of the populace would also help. Large financial aid programs and better schools (with curriculum designed to foster critical thinking and intellectual curiosity) would go along way to improving the health of a deliberative democracy.

As far as I can see the thesis addresses a problem encountered when trying to create a healty deliberative democracy in this country but not really a reason against doing so. Anything more than a cookie cutter understanding of deliberative democracy generally assumes the public has the requisite knowledge.

Second, that thesis sort of ignores the major institutions of deliberation and the failure of such institutions. The traditional media has utterly failed to encourage deliberation or engage leaders and the public on policy issues in any major way. Instead of deliberative institutions we have fear mongering, propaganda, absurd white girl missing-type distractions, news selected for entertainment value and bullshit repetion of conventional wisdom. So of course the public is going to make decisions and deliberate based on false theories when their major sources for information and engagement in deliberation actively foster such false theories. This is something of a restatement of Leib but I want to emphasize that the present media is such a destructive variable that it destroys any reliable results we might take from this sort of sociology. That is, not only is a large part of Teson's problem institutional but institutional reform is a prerequisite for the sort of study he's done.

Finally, check this out.

Its a study done a year back by PIPA, which does some of the most interesting polls I've ever seen. This particular poll had respondents take Bush's proposed 2005 budget and reallocate funding to different programs and departments. 65% of respondents chose to cut military spending- on average respondents cut the DoD spending by 30%.

The largest increases were to social spending- education, health car, job training etc. The largest percentage increase was for renewable energy and conservation. This was incrased 1040%.

Massive amounts were also allocated for deficit reduction.

All of that pretty significantly undermines Teson's thesis. Its really remarkable how different the priorities of Americans actually are compared to those in power.

I say we wait until we have a deliberative democracy before we start coming up with reasons why it won't work. I'm not sure it could be worse than the status quo.

Of course, he wrote a whole book which I haven't read so he might actually address all of this.

Stentor said...

The general public can't be counted on to deliberate according to truth-sensitive principles -- but neither can any elite.

I don't think discussing deliberation vs aggregation (voting or markets) vs expertise/authority in the abstract is necessarily very helpful. Our challenge is to design a social system that applies each different form of decision-making at the points where it's most useful and where its strengths will compensate best for the weaknesses of the others.