Friday, May 27, 2011

On election 41.

It really is amazing how difficult it is to drag oneself back into longer writing after a significant time away.

Anyway, I just want to run with an idea regarding the recent Canadian federal election that's not being well-discussed (or discussed at all, really). It probably generalizes beyond that, to be fair.

There's a strong tendency, particularly amongst politics nerds, to try to deduce something about the ethical outlook of the citizenry from the results of elections. For example, 40% of the citizenry who voted, voted Conservative, thus 40% of the citizenry "believes in" Conservatism, or conservatism. The Liberals' percentage of the vote declined dramatically, so Liberalism, or liberalism, is on the decline.

These are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid inferences. Really fundamentally asinine.

The first problem with the inference is the crudity of elections themselves. When someone casts a ballot there is literally no way to determine what that casting of the ballot means. Suppose that, in my riding of Beaches-East York, I vote for Matthew Kellway, the NDP candidate (and current MP). What does that vote mean about me? It could mean:
  • I agree with the NDP
  • I like the NDP's leader, Jack Layton
  • I like Matthew Kellway
  • I believe in social democracy or socialism generally
  • I believe in the specific form of social democracy or socialism promoted by the NDP
  • I agree with the majority of the NDP's policies
  • I don't disagree with the majority of the NDP's policies
  • I find the other candidates in my riding distasteful
  • I disagree strongly with the Conservative Party and voted to stop their candidate
  • I disagree strongly with the NDP, but voted incorrectly
  • I picked a name at random
  • etc.
Nothing short of a structured interview with an individual is going to get you anywhere close to a clear read on what their ethical/political views are -- and even then, it's only going to get you what they believe their views are, under your interpretation.

Determining what someone's ethical commitments actually are is very, very messy; looking at just a single vote means nothing. So, everyone freaking out about the "country going Conservative" needs to calm down -- there's no evidence of that. Everyone rejoicing about "the destruction of the Liberal Party" needs to similarly calm down -- there's no evidence of that, either.

The second problem with the inference is that it takes a long time, and a lot of work, to get one's ethical principles into some sort of coherent state. It also requires a certain degree of humility, particularly a willingness to acknowledge that everything one currently believes, even deep down at the most basic level, may be wrong.

This is most obvious when trying to teach people about ethics; I teach moral and political philosophy at the university level, and it's (a) shockingly easy to get students to commit themselves to blatant contradictions in their ethical views, and (b) shockingly difficult to get students to accept that they've contradicted themselves.

Two things follow from this. First, that you can get most people to agree to most anything, as long as you present it the right way. Those 40% who voted Conservative, except for the hardest of the hardcore, could be convinced to vote Liberal, Green, NDP, Bloc -- even Marxist-Leninist.

The trick is presentation. If an idea is presented in such a way that it is consistent with what someone already claims to accept, then they will be likely to accept it as well. If someone claims to endorse liberty, then they are more likely to respond favourably to another idea -- say, universal healthcare -- if it can be presented in such a way as to contribute to liberty. If someone claims to endorse equality, then they can be encouraged to respond favourably to another idea -- say, progressive taxation -- if it can be presented in such a way as to contribute to equality.

Part of the problem progressives are having is an unwillingness to meet people on their own turf; our leaders, Layton's NDP aside, and our thinkers are too willing to insist that everyone come over to them rather than going to where everyone else already is.

Second, that you can't expect most people who cast ballots in elections to do so in a rational way. Their views are not even logically consistent; the suggestion that they have to have reasons for voting is simply too much of a stretch. Having good policies that make sense is a good thing, but it's not going to win you elections. It doesn't even win you debating points -- academics like to pretend that they're dispassionate debaters, but anyone who's tried to get published in a peer-reviewed journal knows that they're just as irrational as anyone else.

The reason for having good ideas is that they're most likely to be successful, when implemented. The reason for having well-presented good ideas is that you're most likely to get that chance.

(No go home line, I'm afraid. Just some things I've been thinking about.

I've also been thinking about rights, and whether they make any sense. Maybe I'll have something to say about that next week.)

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