Educated Fools

Glenn Reynolds links to this Reason Online discussion in which journalists and mainly-libertarian intellectual types discuss whom they’re voting for and why.

Some of these people, including Reynolds himself, seem mature and reasonable. But quite a few of the others come across as frivolous, apathetic, foolish or all of the above. Michael Shermer thinks it’s important that Kerry is a bicyclist. Richard Epstein doesn’t remember for whom he voted in 2000, thinks the major parties are essentially identical and won’t vote for either of them in 2004. And the guy from The Independent Institute doesn’t want to soil his hands by voting. (Somehow his attitude doesn’t surprise me — see here and here for some background on an exchange I had with another guy from The Independent Institute.)

So, with some notable exceptions, these extremely bright people, many of whom spend a lot of time giving the rest of us advice on how to make decisions about public affairs, are a bunch of idiots in their personal voting behavior. Yeah, I know: most individuals’ votes are not decisive, voters are rationally ignorant, the major parties are effectively a cartel, etc. These objections are narrowly true but miss the big picture. Voting should be treated as a civic sacrament, because on the margin our system can live or die depending on how carefully the voters vote, and they are more likely to take voting seriously if intellectuals don’t denigrate it as an activity. This is especially true now, when the main issue of the day is of overwhelming importance and the major-party candidates have profoundly different approaches to that issue.

One shouldn’t over-intellectualize this stuff, but I think it’s valuable to look at what people think is important enough to spend their own time on. If ordinary people in places like Afghanistan appreciate how important elections are, both symbolically and practically, even when none of the candidates is perfect, why do so many smart people here miss the point?

Maybe we should skip elections altogether, and appoint leaders randomly (with strictly limited terms, of course) from the telephone book. That might work better than decisionmaking by what Thomas Sowell called “articulated rationality” — the main decisionmaking method used by the people interviewed in the Reason forum. Certainly they sound impressive, but do they make better decisions than does the typical voter? Experience, and now disclosure, suggest not.

22 thoughts on “Educated Fools”

  1. “…it’s valuable to look at what people think is important enough to spend their own time on…”

    GOP lawyers are volunteering to go to Donk strongholds and be poll watchers on election day to preserve the integrity of the process. That eats at least a day of billable time. And it means going into hostility and confrontation, probably, at a minimum. I have zero respect, zero, for people too blase to even remember who they voted for or who think their hands are too pristine to come into contact with democracy. The process works if we make it work. The people who risked their lives to vote in Afghanistan, or who stood all day in the rain in Nicaragua to vote the commies out are a much better guide to the value of democracy.

  2. Maybe we should skip elections altogether, and appoint leaders randomly…

    In the early to mid nineties I was actually going around prostletizing that idea to anyone who listen (which weren’t many) regarding the House of Representatives. I thought it might be invigorating to our democracy to have citizens serve in the House the same way they serve on juries. I kinda like the idea of common citizens arguing over the problems and voting on the solutions facing our country. Especially since all spending authorizations must originate in the House. Bet we’d see some serious revisions in our spending allocations.

    The problem, of course, is that the idea violates the fundamental tenet of representative democracy, since the representatives would be unelected.

  3. The Reason discussion was astounding to me. The childishness, superficiality and petulance on display was the antithesis of Reason. Nick Gillespie has certainly dragged the whole enterprise down — bring back Virginia Postrel!!!

    Everyone keep in mind that it is not just the members of the over-intellectual left who live in cloud-coockoo land.

  4. “…on the margin our system can live or die depending on how carefully the voters vote, and they are more likely to take voting seriously if intellectuals don’t denigrate it as an activity.”

    Well said.

    Gillespie shouldn’t have allowed the contributors who used simplistic fallacies to brush off the question to get away with it. Does he honestly believe political writers “don’t remember” how they voted in a contested election four years ago? Or that willful ignorance (or dubious claims thereof) doesn’t matter in an article on how individuals will vote in the future? An editor of a magazine deserving of the title, Reason, should be embarrassed to allow a contributor to defend his political conclusions (vote) with unreasonable premises or flawed logic (Example: bicycle riding is a Non Sequitur, and not remotely related to Leadership of the Republic.)

    Otherwise, the responses should be qualified (defended? perhaps apologized for…?). “Free Minds and Free Markets” is obviously no longer defined in a manner that’s collectively understood at Reason.

    The editors were cynical when they selected from the “Reason universe”, in that said ‘universe’ was left unbounded and undefined. This allowed them to include a ‘representative’ sample that skims past the Libertarian Right and most of the die hard Center in order to appeal to the tastes of the Libertarian Left, which for various reasons is the growth sector of the LP spectrum (the GOP has been snatching up righty Libertarians by the bucket from the Federalist Society, Cato, and etc.). Because playing the role of principled opposition requires such a beast actually exist, Kerry gets a free ride, else we’d have to defend the dreaded GW from the center, rather than merely pointing out his flaws.

    Cynicism is also to blame for many other Libertarian vices on display in that article. One is acting smarmy to the point of insincerity. Gillespie himself points out it’s “possible” that he didn’t vote for anyone in 2000, although he “thinks” he voted for Browne (and he wonders why NeoCons suspect Libertarians smoke too much pot). Another is the use of joke reasoning to avoid seriously defending our positions, such as when Penn Jillette suggests he’ll vote for Bush to win a $100 off a friend. Another is habitual Question Begging… “Both Parties are the same, so why…X, Y, or Z?” The truth is that although Libertarians claim to be the Party of Reason, we’re as addicted to rhetorical gimmicks as the next.

  5. Good insight here: “the Libertarian Left, which for various reasons is the growth sector of the LP spectrum (the GOP has been snatching up righty Libertarians by the bucket from the Federalist Society, Cato, and etc.)”

    This is progress. If good ideas are moving to the mainstream of one of the REAL parties (and in this country under this system there are always only two real parties) then that is a success for libertarian ideas which should be noted, celebrated and built on. CATO, for example, is effective at advocating particular policy initiatives (mainly) to the Republican Party. That is the correct, i.e. effective and meaningful, way to do it.

  6. Individual libertarians, like everyone else, tend to be more interested in some issues than in others. I think that Bush’s presidency has assuaged a lot of gun libertarians, who I speculate are now marginally more comfortable with the Republicans than was previously the case. Meanwhile neither the drug libertarians nor the privacy libertarians have much reason to prefer either major party. And a lot of erstwhile libertarians (not unlike many Democrats in this regard) may have been driven to the Republicans by the organized libertarians’ unsatisfying response to the war. So it’s a mixed bag, as always, but the central tendency of the mix may have shifted a bit leftward.

    Another thing that has shifted, that may be relevant to this discussion, is the editorial focus at Reason, which once emphasized techno-optimism but now seems a bit more driven by drug issues.

  7. “… neither the drug libertarians nor the privacy libertarians have much reason to prefer either major party….”

    It’s mutual. The drug libertarians focus on an issue that would be a sure vote loser, at least as they present it. On privacy, the liberals in the Democratic party already have the ACLU and like-minded people. Libertarians who say this is not enough are pushing for more of something that is already a vote-loser, probably. So, these issues will stay outside the mainstream unless their advocates can repackage them in a way that is a vote-winner.

  8. The Democrats favor privacy for people who engage in consensual sexual behavior, but not for gun owners, home-schooling parents or anyone who wants to keep his financial affairs to himself. The ACLU isn’t any better (remember how they count to ten? “1, 3, 4, . . .”). The Republicans are a bit better on most issues, perhaps because they tend not to believe that a powerful, intrusive State as many Democrats favor is a good idea. Neither party is good on the kinds of privacy issues that arise from the nexus of technology and government (and of technology and major government constituencies such as the data-mining and recording industries). This is a wide-open area in which Democrats could challenge Republicans, but the Democrats appear to lack the imagination — not to mention any sincere interest, in most cases, in promoting privacy or individual autonomy — to do anything about it in a systematic way.

    Drug prohibition may be politically unpopular but so was abolition and, more recently, Social Security reform. These are all important issues that deserve attention and can only be dealt with politically. If the Democrats and Republicans won’t touch it, then third parties like the Libertarians perform an important service by keeping the issue alive, even if they do so ineptly. I eagerly await the day when the center of interest in drug-law reform passes from bumblers like the Libertarians to the fringes of the major parties. I suspect that day will come sooner if there are third parties to keep the issue alive than otherwise.

  9. “I suspect that day will come sooner if there are third parties to keep the issue alive than otherwise.”

    That is true. As an idea on the fringe starts to be a way to gain votes, it will be appropriated by one of the main parties. But the drug issues is some guy with a grey pony tail and a bandanna and a pot-leaf t-shirt with a hand-drawn sign on the street corner. You need some respectable looking guy to advocate the issue. Issues start to be effective in direct proportion to how boringly they can be packaged, and a key indication of success is the sense of betrayal felt by that issue’s most ardent advocates

  10. “That is true. As an idea on the fringe starts to be a way to gain votes, it will be appropriated by one of the main parties.”

    Yep. In Free to Choose, Freidman pointed out that the American Socialist party, while winning zero elections, got practically their entire platform enacted into law within twenty years. Damned impressive achievement, and one that the forces of good need to duplicate.

  11. In the end, I suspect that the government has no business with our sex lives, what we ingest in our homes, whether we have a gun, telling us how many hours to work, etc. Still, I’d like to observe another perspective.

    Few of the libertarian arguments come from a parental perspective. Parents vote lnow that while their lives may not be heavily affected by whether Bush or Kerry is elected (America is a big economy and military force; it will not turn on a dime). But they vote because their children are likely to feel long-range effects of major changes in policy and vision.

    Those interviewed seem proud of their cynicism, their aloofness; this is adolescent – something I see in my freshman and sophomores. Lex was right. It betrays an essential lack of seriousness, one we see in the misanthropy of Mencken. But deep wit arises from a sense of proportionality. These people seem to me to lack a sense of the tragic (but wonderful) nature of life, to be playing with the inessentials.

    But, my point: I suspect there are subgroups that might be teased out. For instance, some, opposed to “privacy for people who engage in consensual sexual behavior”, think such behavior is, well, wrong. They just don’t want it happening. They also may find drugs – and what they do to those addicted – to be so terrible that these should be abolished with fervor. They may find prayer or words on a radio station, in their nature, so deeply offensive they don’t want them to exist in a public sphere.

    I suspect, however, that that is a smaller number (or at least a different one) than those who see potential intrusions that are likely to affect their lives in quite material (in terms of time and money) ways. They may well not care who does what with whom. They may not care much about drugs. They just don’t want to bear the consequences. For instance, they may not want certain acts privileged–they have seen quotas and affirmative action and don’t really want to see it expanded. They don’t want to have to take someone’s sexuality into concern when hiring them or firing them. Nor do they find either bigotry against nor proslytizing for (my children came home with reports of both) homosexuality a concern of the schools to which they have given their children during the years in which those children are defining their sexuality.

    And it is the parents who welcome their children’s friends into their homes, aware that the child on their doorstep has left the chaos of a home where choices for the adults were free, but the consequences are that very child on their doorstep, alone for the night. Their taxes will pay for the children born out of wedlock when the condoms the school’s sex classes so cheerfully promote don’t work.

    That is to say, some people are busybodies (or morally righteous) and others are just libertarians–the righteous of both camps might call them selfish–who believe their rights are likely to be infringed.

    Of course, some of each group may take on the protective coloring of the other in social situations, even convincing themselves their motives are different than the ones they feel at gut level.

  12. “Few of the libertarian arguments come from a parental perspective. ”

    There’s a time and a place for a parental perspective, and their comes a time in our lives when the parental perspective should not be the perspective underlying the rules that we live by. Childhood is a necessary evil, and we should not spend our entire lives watched over by caretakers charged with keeping us from putting dangerous things in our mouths, corrupting our innocent minds with indecency or unacceptable opinions, or foolishly buying and selling on terms that aren’t good for us.

    I guess a lot of libertarians, by objecting to lifelong parental guidance, come off sounding like rebellious teenagers. Part of the problems is that we have labeled as “rebellious teenagers” people who are quite reasonably objecting to the fact that their childhood should already be over and is instead, thanks to dumbed-down, excruciatingly slow lessons in our schools, a general decrease in the expectations of individual responsibility across the board, and a consequent slowness in the training in responsible adult behavior that is now customary across our society, extended over nearly a decade of our prime childbearing years.

    At any rate, this is not to excuse the foolish people in the article that treat the vote with such frivolity. It seems to me that a large part of their attitude comes from despair – from the sense that the losses in our liberties sustained over the past century are irrevocable and the future holds nothing but a grim struggle to slow down the rate of additional outrages and the removal of remaining liberties. I must confess that it is sometimes difficult for me to escape this sense of despair myself, although I recognize the need to resist its siren call so long as no America 2.0 yet exists above the atmosphere and we must live our lives in this one or migrate someplace even worse.

  13. “… one that the forces of good need to duplicate.”

    Hear, hear.

    Ginny’s point is a good one. Childhood and adolescence are the rocks on which much libertarian theory break. If the world wre composed of only free, mature decision-makers, all would be simpler. But it will never be that way,. Parents vote. Parents need to constrain choices which can seem intensely appealing to people who as yet cannot grasp the consequences of their actions, which can frequently be fatal or terribly destructive and occur very quickly. Other adults are constrained in the process, and chafe at it, particularly if they have no children or adolescents in their care or still think like children or adolescents while being chronological grownups. The constraints imposed necessarily reflect moral judgments that other adults may not share. This too chafes. One instrument used to imnpose this constraint is the law. It is a blunt instrument, a harsh one. It is probably over-used. However, removing it where it is in place will be perceived as a signal that the conduct previously disallowed is now something to be celebrated, leading to an atmosphere of carnival or a jail-break. This is worsened becasue no other social forces are in play where the law has usurped the field. Hence even where the law, particularly the criminal sanction, is ill-fitting, it is with great hesitancy that it is removed where it has long been in place. This is in addition to the deep and usually salutary inertia that blocks most major changes in law, barring the judicial usurpation we have grown too used to in recent decades. Parents in particular are extremenly risk averse and perceive their job as virtually imnpossible as it is now without making our society into more of a jungle than it is. Libertarians need to frame arguments that address these worries if they wish to be politically effective. Merely asserting a right based on a reading of Locke or Ayn Rand won’t convince most voters. That doesn’t mean they are wrong. It just means they don’t work.

  14. Ken:

    Nah, life is better than that. There’s a lot of things going on in the world, and it’s human nature to select just a few of them, usually the worst ones, to focus on. Certainly some things have gotten worse, but many others have gotten better, sometimes profoundly so.

    Also, almost everyone is bad at making long-term predictions. Think back a few decades and try to imagine if you would have imagined the world of 2004 accurately. I know that I wouldn’t have, because I didn’t. We don’t know what’s coming, and not all of the surprises will be bad. A lot of apparently-unstoppable trends have reversed, and in hindsight they always do so from their strongest points. We might gain freedom, who knows? Pessimism is sometimes justified, but extreme pessimism, such as I hear from some libertarians in these not-so-bad times, tends be a contrary indicator.

  15. Ken, add a dash of Conservative bitters to your libertarian cocktail, stir, drink and then make another to sip. And when we are at last done with our worries and ambitions, we will be left saying [t]he world, it was the old world yet, after all, not how I wished it would be. This is not a prescription for inaction. It is a prescription against despair. Expect the world to be flawed, for plans to go awry, for high hopes to fall short. That is simple realism. And when all goes well, or some great goal is reached, it is that much more precious. Then, expect on the other side that the good things are very good indeed, and the best things are both free and priceless. Life is good. It could be better, it could be worse. Jonathan is right. Things are usually both worse and better than they seem.

    The future is unwritten, and will be full of surprises. I’ll bring the bourbon. Hats on! Let’s go!

  16. You’re right, of course. Things could be a whole lot worse, and there’s no doubt I’ll see a lot worth sticking around for.

    Hell, if a Burt Rutan is still possible, then the American Dream is alive and well.

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