Sunday, May 20, 2012

Deliberative defense budgeting

Most voters don't know very much about politics. This has been a consistent finding in public opinion polling for decades, a finding that some commenters find vexing. But the finding doesn't surprise economists, because economists know that people respond to incentives, and there's little incentive to stay informed. The chance of a single vote affecting an election is vanishingly small, so why bother? In this situation, rather than research the issues, most people will prefer to spend time with friends and family, do homework, work overtime, or watch a movie. Economists call this rational ignorance.

Some political scientists have argued that voter ignorance doesn't matter, because voters can use shortcuts to reach reasonably accurate decisions. For example, they may vote along party lines, or they may mimic the views of a favorite politician or talk show host. In reality, sometimes this seems to work, and sometimes it doesn't.

Looking for a better system, another group of political scientists have been experimenting with alternative forms of democracy, in particular deliberative democracy. In a deliberative democracy, voters are provided with relevant information to help them deliberate before voting. Researchers use a variety of approaches. Sometimes they have participants deliberate together, among themselves. Other times participants decide on their own. They select participants and the information to present in many different ways. (My favorite variant is the policy jury.)

Last Thursday, the Program for Public Consultation released the results of a deliberative democratic poll focusing on the defense budget. The participants, 665 Americans, were selected using random telephone numbers and street addresses. They were presented with arguments over the internet for and against cutting defense spending. The arguments were vetted by experts at non-partisan, non-profit organizations. Participants without internet access were provided with laptops and internet. Throughout the process, participants answered questions about their opinions.

Their responses suggest that the shortcut theory fails in the case of defense budgeting. Old-fashioned polls repeatedly find that large majorities of Americans oppose cuts to defense spending. After being presented with arguments from both sides, however, participants in this deliberative poll—Democrat, Republican, and independent alike—overwhelmingly supported significant spending cuts. Among Republicans, about two thirds supported spending cuts, with an average preferred spending level 15% lower than the 2012 budget. Nine out of ten Democrats supported spending cuts, with an average 28% cut, and about two thirds of independents called for cuts, with an average 26% reduction.

Unfortunately, since politicians work within a system of old-fashioned, non-deliberative democracy, the results of this poll are unlikely to provoke policy changes. In order to keep their jobs, politicians must satisfy rationally ignorant voters, even if that leads to poor outcomes. But the first step to recovery is admitting that we have a problem.

You can read the official release here.

HT: The Economist.

No comments:

Post a Comment