20 karmaJoined Jul 2019


I'm a graduate student with the philosophy department at Rutgers University. My research interests lie in social and political philosophy, especially as they overlap with political science and political economy. I'm particularly interested in the relationship between good governance and institutional design. Outside of this, I think about various issues in philosophy of language, philosophical methodology, and their intersection.


Hi Matt,

Of course I agree that studies of voter ignorance do not yield evidence of some fixed, immutable characteristic of citizens. It is also certainly true that different voting systems provide different incentives to acquire relevant political information. The pertinent question is whether implementing approval voting would incentivize the acquisition of political information to a sufficient degree that we could be confident in claiming that the mere transition to approval voting alone would have all the benefits that Aaron claims it would have. I am still very skeptical of those purported benefits being delivered. Even on minimally demanding normative accounts of what amount of knowledge voters ought to possess (models of retrospective voting, say), the opportunity cost of acquiring the relevant information is, for very many citizens, simply too high. I suspect this will be true even under a scheme of approval voting, and even if more voters were to think their votes matter more. For all we know, the transition to approval voting might simply increase voter turn-out by prompting citizens who previously abstained to go to the polls, now thinking that their votes matter; and since the sort of evidence about voter ignorance alluded to earlier suggests that non-voters are typically less informed than voters, we might end up in an even worse scenario as far as voter ignorance is concerned. Like you, I don't have a particularly strong stance on this. This is clearly an empirical matter. Still, we shouldn't rule this scenario out entirely.

In my initial comment, I mentioned that I think it is easy to overstate the significance of the demand-side of politics. This is partly because of the literature on epistemic democracy, which you allude to above in mentioning the so-called "Miracle of Aggregation" (i.e. symmetric errors cancelling each other out). Epistemic democrats would indeed dismiss my concerns about voter ignorance, for they claim that, under certain conditions, collective intelligence can emerge from large groups of individually ignorant agents. If that's right, then the evidence from political psychology needn't worry us. However - and with all due respect to the many theorists working on epistemic democracy (it's nice to say "with all due respect" and mean it) - the claims about the collective intelligence of individually ignorant voters often strike me as pollyannish. To take the case of the miracle of aggregation, I don't think the required symmetry holds. Without that symmetry, the collective intelligence does not emerge. To take another favored strategy of epistemic democrats (the Condorcet Jury Theorem), I don't think the necessary conditions for the emergence of collective competence are satisfied.

However, another reason to downplay the significance of the demand-side of politics is worth mentioning, since it is often ignored by various parties to disputes about levels of voter ignorance. The degree to which political leaders respond to voter preferences is often greatly overstated. Policymakers and political representatives enjoy a significant degree of autonomy, and much - if not most - policy-making is done out of the public eye entirely. When you couple this with recent work in political psychology suggesting that voters are often simply happy to toe the party line, this suggests that much of the focus on voters, their knowledge, and politicians responding to their preferences has been misplaced. This is as true of epistocratic worries about voter ignorance as it is about the epistemic democrats who oppose them. I don't think this means that voter ignorance isn't a problem (assuming for the moment that it is indeed a problem), but it's not the only thing we need to be looking at. Many factors other than voter competence contribute to the overall quality of governance, and voting reforms (whether approval voting or otherwise) will not change such factors much, if at all (factors such as the degree to which policymaking can be captured by special interests, levels of corruption, the decision-making methods deployed by legislators and bureaucrats, etc.).

Thanks, David. I should have been clearer. I certainly don’t support interventions that incentivize greater regard for future generations without also attempting to improve the overall quality of decision-making.

In the article above, Aaron claims that a transition to approval voting would benefit future people. For reasons outlined above, I am skeptical of that claim. It is unclear whether greater responsiveness to the preferences of the electorate’s middle would bring about greater regard for future generations. Moreover, the evidence from public polling and political psychology suggests that even if the electorate’s middle had sufficiently high regard for future generations, they would have mistaken beliefs about what sorts of policies would benefit future generations. (Note: I don’t claim that political psychologists have gone out and investigated the degree to which regular voters possess knowledge of future-beneficial institutions and policies. Maybe they have, but I haven’t encountered such research myself. Instead, I claim that given the ignorance of the electorate with regard to even very basic politically relevant facts, we should expect them to be ignorant of future-beneficial institutions and policies.)

Now, we might try something like age-weighted voting. But this strikes me as an intervention that ignores the overall quality of decision-making. At best, it places comparatively more political power in the hands of people who might regard future generations more than their older counterparts. This is the sort of institutional reform that is in tension with my worries about the demand-side of politics.

I favor thinking about ways to both incentivize greater regard for future generations and improving the overall quality of decision-making. I have no settled opinions on what the eventual institutions would look like. Perhaps they would involve independent agencies acting in an advisory capacity, or perhaps they would involve novel governmental bodies tasked specifically with representing the interests of future generations, or perhaps something else entirely. Deliberative reform will probably play some role, but beyond that I don’t know. Institutional design is complicated business and we shouldn’t pretend we know in advance of serious empirical investigation what will work best. Still, I think we currently know enough to know that mere tweaks to the current voting system without improving the overall quality of decision-making will not be enough.

Actually, upon re-reading my comment, I see that I somewhat inaccurately represented my own views. Instead of:

"In general, I think the case for approval voting outlined focuses too much on the supply-side of politics and not enough on the demand-side."

I should have said that there is a combination of focusing too much on the supply-side of politics and overlooking problems on the demand-side.

Hi Aaron! Thanks for the interesting post. I am very sympathetic to the criticisms of plurality voting you outline, and I agree that alternative voting methods are worth pursuing. This certainly seems like a tractable problem (one which we’re already making headway on) and, like the study of institutional design more generally, I believe it is unduly neglected. With that said, I’d like to sketch some reasons to moderate our confidence in the purported benefits of a transition to something like approval voting.

I take it that part of the motivation for transitioning to approval voting is that our current voting system leads to bad policy and bad outcomes. You write:

“It’s hard to overstate how important our work is. We focus primarily in the US—arguably the most influential country in the world given its GDP and heavy reach over foreign policy. You don’t want a country with this stature to have a broken voting method. Bad policies and irresponsible spending are inevitable, and they affect the rest of the globe.”

Of approval voting, you write that it encourages good candidates to run, as well as favoring “the electorate’s middle”. In conjunction with fostering a political environment conducive to the formation and spread of new ideas, it also promises to benefit future people. Later, when responding to a question about the connection between the implementation of approval voting and the electorate advancing better policies, you rightly point out that if it isn’t the voters advancing policy then it may be some other group who may not have our best interests in mind.

That sounds right. But it doesn’t follow from the truth of the relevant counterfactual that approval voting would lead to better policy and better outcomes. The connection between favoring the electorate’s middle and the creation of better policy is tenuous. Political psychologists have studied levels of voter knowledge for decades, and virtually every study shows that voters are ignorant of even basic political facts. Given standard models of rational voter ignorance (and rational irrationality, etc.), this shouldn’t be surprising. Oversimplifying for a moment, the electorate’s middle are in all likelihood systematically mistaken about the sort of policies that would advance their interests; and when you pair these voters with political leaders who are incentivized to pander, we have a recipe for occasional disaster. I see no reason why this wouldn’t occur in a system with approval voting in the same way that it occurs in our current system.

I have similar reservations about the purported ability of approval voting to foster an environment in which good, new ideas can spread. In line with the above, I think approval voting guarantees the spread of new ideas at best, not necessarily new and good ideas. Without the flow of good and new ideas, the alleged benefits for future generations are probably overstated too. (On future generations, I favor thinking about possible institutional reforms which *directly* incentivize greater regard for future generations. Tyler John recently posted about this on the EA forum.)

In general, I think the case for approval voting outlined focuses too much on the supply-side of politics and not enough on the demand-side. Now, it is easy to overstate the significance of the demand-side (for reasons I am happy to get into, if you like). Still, I think this is a serious problem, and one that approval voting does not mitigate as far as I can tell.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this!

Interesting post! Some comments:

(1) "Education levels are rising, so younger people are on average better educated; they also have a more recent education, so are therefore more likely to be more up-to-date on contemporary knowledge."

I think this ignores models of rational voter ignorance. Levels of political ignorance have been consistently high since empirical research into the phenomenon first began, even while education levels have increased. Why? Well, if you take seriously models of rational ignorance, voters in large electoral democracies are simply not incentivized to acquire whatever information helps them to vote competently - the costs of acquisition are too high, while the benefits are too low. Would age-weighted voting ameliorate this problem? I'm not confident that it would. Similarly, if political (epistemic) rationality is not incentivized (or actively disincentivized) in modern democracies, the political preferences of younger people may not be appropriately responsive to the needs of future generations. Ensuring an interest in future generations seems insufficient; regarding such interest in the right way is what we need.

(2) Recent research in political science seems to show that policymakers and legislators are mostly free to enact policy as they see fit, with minimal responsiveness to the political preferences of the electorate. Voter preferences do exert some pressure, but most policymaking is done out of the public eye. If that's right, we might get more bang for our buck if we focus on efforts to improve the long-term decision-making abilities of legislators, bureaucrats, policymakers, and the like. Of course, others (like Jess Whittlestone) have already advocated for improved institutional decision-making as a priority. That line of research is deeply important. However, we might also consider institutional, structural reforms that foster long-term decision-making. I'm thinking of proposals like Bruce Tonn's Futures Congress, Berggruen and Gardel's work on intelligent governance, Alex Guerrero's lottocracy, and more. It's a truism that incentives matter, but what incentives we possess is in part a function of the broader structures we inhabit; if we change the institutional structure, we change the incentives. If feasible, then, we should consider changing institutional structure.