Sunday, November 15, 2015

The democracy we have

Prof Adam Grant writes about "The Virtue of Contradicting Ourselves ... We don't like flip-floppers, but we should consider voting for them." (today's NY Times.) A good way to test our views is to see how they stand up against other views we hold dear. But we should be open to attaching some weight and some importance to views we hold that are not consistent with the otherd. Do we abhor war? Do we resist military adventures abroad? Do we recoil at the idea of taking no action against the Paris bombers and their ilk?

Grant also writes, "Using neuroscience to track activation in different brain regions, Professor [Eddie] Harmon-Jones and his colleagues found that inconsistent beliefs really bother us only when we have conflicting implications for action. People have little trouble favoring both abortion rights and tax cuts. But when it comes time to vote, they confront a two-party system that forces them to align with Democrats who are abortion rights advocates but against tax cuts or Republicans who are anti-abortion but for tax cuts. ..."

The democracy we have forces us to live with binary choices. Some people complain about too many toothpastes and detergents at the super-market, but shelf space is scarce and products that do not sell are quickly pulled (and sent to the 99-cent store). Fewer choices does not make things simple. If we choose to vote, we have just two options. The winner of the binary-choice election will make many appointments (judges, commissioners, others) and promote many causes and policies. We cannot fine tune to match our preferences; we are obliged to "purchase" vast bundles.

Place this next to the Adam Grant comment and notice that the problem grows as the scope and size of government (run by the people we elect) expand. The binary choice problem is less onerous where a smaller set of policies is involved. The problem grows as the scope and size of government grow.