Friday, March 9, 2012

Why People Are Irrational About Politics

Author's Note: This is one of those articles almost guaranteed to make you mad, no matter what your political persuasion. I felt the same way reading the essay that forms the backbone of this column. So please read it all the way through before collecting your pitchfork, lighting your torch, and heading off to the comment section to slay the village monster. Thanks.
We've all had political discussions with people who refuse to think rationally about the issue at hand. In the face of overwhelming opinion, they stick religiously to their own, obviously errant, views. And of course, we've never been guilty of such transgressions ourselves, right?

Dr. Michael Huemer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, has some distressing news for all of us. He recently gave an interesting TEDx lecture that I discovered on YouTube. The lecture is a distillation of his paper Why People Are Irrational About Politics.

Dr. Huemer points out that it's important to solve the problem of irrationality in politics, because as we'll find as we examine his arguments, it's in almost everyone's personal self interest to continue to be irrational about politics, but it's against the best interests of society as a whole. Although there's only a small chance that any one person will influence public policy, if a large number of people are irrational about their political positions, then it's a virtual certainty that society is going to suffer negative outcomes.

He considers this the most serious social problem we face today, more serious than poverty, or pollution, or war, because this is the problem that prevents us from solving other problems.

In his lecture, he first gives two examples of irrational political policies, followed by his theory of why we end up with irrational policies. Finally, he draws some lessons for us as individuals to use in combatting the problem of political irrationality.

Two Examples of Irrational Political Policy

The first example of an irrational political policy he explores is the War on Terror, illustrating two cases of irrationality within the example.

In the first case, the 3,245 U.S. fatalities caused by terrorists are compared to the 801,961 non-terrorist murders that occurred in the U.S. over the same period, a ratio of 247 to 1. Yet the overwhelming focus of attention and political action is on stopping the 4/10th of one percent of deaths that were a result of terrorism.

In the second case, he presents three numbers to illustrate policy irrationality.

3,245 - the number of U.S. fatalities attributable to terrorists over the last 50 years.
6,280 - the number of U.S. servicemen that have died fighting the War on Terror.
236,000 - the number of deaths attributable world-wide to the War on Terror.

In summation, he argues, "If you have a policy that kills 70 times as many people as the problem that you're trying to solve, then that's usually a prima facie indicator that it might be an irrational policy."

The second example of an irrational political philosophy addressed is protectionism; the policy of attempting to discourage foreign imports to protect domestic industries. There are two ways this is done; quotas, which are legal limits on how much of a foreign good you're allowed to import, and tariffs, which are special taxes on imported goods intended to drive up the price so domestice producers can compete.

Many political leaders and ordinary people support protectionism, but virtually every economist of every political persuasion is against it, including liberal economists who are generally pro-intervention, because protectionism harms our own economy. As liberal economist Paul Krugman stated, "If there were an Economist's Creed, it would surely contain the affirmations "I understand the Principle of Comparative Advantage" and "I advocate Free Trade."

Dr. Huemer's summation: "If you think the community of experts on this subject are wrong, and especially if you think that while being unable to state their arguments, then you're almost certainly the one who's wrong."

Two Problems of Political Calculation

Following his illustrations, Dr. Huemer discusses two related problems that help to explain the prevalence of irrational political policies; the lack of knowledge and the lack of rationality.

In the case of lack of political information, he offers the following premises.
  1. Political information is costly. You have to spend a lot of time collecting information about any issue; time that you may choose to spend in ways that are more beneficial to you.
  2. People accept costs only when the expected rewards exceed the cost.
  3. The expected rewards of political information are negligible. Voters realize that their probability of influencing public policy approaches zero.
If you do the calculation in a purely selfish manner, you will naturally come to the conclusion that it's not worth the cost to be politically informed on a wide range of issues.

Therefore, the conclusion of this calculation is that most people are not going to become politically informed.

In the second case, that of political irrationality, he offers very similar premises.
  1. Political rationality is also costly, but for different reasons than those for political information-gathering
    1. If you're rational, then you don't get to believe whatever you want to believe. If you're committed to rationality, you're putting your belief system at risk every day. You may acquire information that forces you to change your belief system. That can be very unpleasant and emotionally disturbing.
    2. It requires effort to recognize and overcome biases.
  2. As with the first problem, people accept costs only when the expected rewards exceed the cost.
  3. And once again, the expected rewards of political rationality are negligible.
Once again, the natural conclusion is that most people will not think rationally about political issues.

Solving the Political Irrationality Problem

Finally, Dr. Huemer addresses the question of what we can do about the problem of political irrationality.

First, he notes that it's relatively easy to convince someone that most other people are irrational about politics. It's much harder to recognize one's own biases and irrational tendencies so we can correct them.

Why is it important to correct one's own irrational tendencies? If you're going to solve a problem, you have to have accurate beliefs about it.

The example he offers is that of a doctor who picks cures out of a hat. You're probably going to be made worse off, and he's certainly not going to cure the problem.

If you're forming your political beliefs in an irrational manner, it's very similar to a doctor picking cures out of a hat.

Finally, Dr. Huemer offers five signs you might be irrationally engaged with an issue.
  1. If you find you're becoming angry during a political discussion, you may be acting irrationally. If another person is advancing a political position and that makes you angry, that's a sign you have certain biases that might be preventing you from thinking objectively about a subject. 1
  2. If you have strong opinions about a subject before acquiring relevant empirical evidence about it, take note. If you haven't reviewed the academic literature, studies and statistics, but you have formed an opinion absent that evidence, then your opinion is probably irrational.
  3. If your opinions don't change as you gather evidence, particularly evidence that challenges your original position, then you're probably being irrational about your position.
  4. If you only seek information from sources that you know you're going to agree with, you might be trying to reinforce your existing beliefs rather than learn new things. The people you're most likely to learn something new from are people who disagree with you.
  5. If you think that people who disagree with you must be evil, the most likely explanation is that you're suffering from dogmatism and are unable to see the arguments for another position.
So the next time you're in a heated political discussion, ready to gouge out the eyeballs of the clueless idiot you're aching to take down a peg or two, take a deep breath, count to ten, and then mentally run through the list of five suggestions from Dr. Huemer above before going for the jugular.

...and that's all I have to say about that.

1 As a personal aside, I was able to confirm the accuracy of this sign very easily by stating the following in a discussion thread concerning welfare programs.
Most people don't recognize the inherent dissonance in a government that sensibly says in their national parks "please don't feed the animals, otherwise they'll grow dependent on handouts and no longer be able to fend for themselves," yet constantly preaches that they are the solution to every human problem.

Or perhaps there's no dissonance there at all.
The reaction was immediate, vehement, and entirely emotion-based, with no effort to dispute or reconcile the two dissonant messages.

Of course, that was just this Tireless Agorist stirring the pot, and it's purely anecdotal, so it may be dismissed at your leisure.


  1. Cool blog, keep it up.

    I've heard Bryan Caplan talking about the Myth of the Rational Voter before, so all of these arguments were pretty familiar to me. This could come across as just a really verbose way of sounding cranky, but I really do think there are some theoretical problems with this sort of moralizing about becoming more informed. First, I think it's important to recognize not only the power but also the value of societal customs, particularly our morals. That means there are certain things we do and actually should be able to react to on a "gut level." For instance, the video deemed the War on Terror irrational--but why? Because it costs many times more human lives than it is designed to save. Notice the discussion ended there. The speaker did not feel the need to explain to anyone why this is a bad thing. Clearly there are some principles which simply may not be questioned, and why not? As many great philosophers have noticed, our morals are ultimately not the product of our reason.

    Second, and related to the first, notice how the speaker never gave a way of actually overcoming all the costs of acquiring more information. Speaking as an academic, I can say quite honestly how difficult it is to stay informed about important issues. Work often has to take precedence. Now, how about the average person? Should the average person really be expected to keep up?

    I just don't think irrationality is a problem that can be "solved" the way other problems can. We as a society, much like we as individuals, stumble along getting a lot of things wrong yet somehow growing and developing new things. I think we owe much more than we think to processes over which we have very little control. I also have a philosophical problem with what the man said toward the end, "Most people are not likely to be evil." I think quite the opposite is true: all of us are inclined to be evil, and it takes a lot to prevent us from being more so.

    Hope these thoughts don't come across as cranky. This is a philosophical conversation worth having.

  2. This was an excellent post! I shall strive to be rational in future arguments with irrational people. ;)

  3. That's a pretty good speech there, Don. I actually went and read the paper, and I think I'm going to write something about it as well. From my perspective, of course. :)

  4. Interesting article, but wrong in at least two places. First, the law of comparative advantage usually doesn't work. Basically, if you move jobs from a place that has worker protections to a place that doesn't, everybody in BOTH places loses, except for the person who owns the factory.

    Second, your "personal aside"... you were comparing people to wild animals. It's not irrational to get angry at that.

  5. Excellent article! I can't imagine what would make anyone angry in it. I must be uber-rational.... :-)