Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The danger of government-by-polling

Unstable Isotope had a good post up a few days back regarding the fact that most polls agree that 72% of the American people want a public option in healthcare. Aside from the fact that you can't get enough information into a single question to move beyond people's preferences for the concept of a public option (which they may or may not endorse when they see the details), I don't dispute the polling.

What interests me is the conclusion drawn by UI at the end:

This is a huge majority of people. I sure hope Democrats can find a spine to get real health care reform. I’m getting a bit tired of the Congress thwarting the will of the people. A public option for health care is not controversial! People are not buying the status quo defenders scare tactics about wait times and protecting the profits of those poor, put-upon health insurance executives.


What I am left wondering is at what polling point the will of the people kicks in.

According to the most recent ABC News/WaPo poll in April, 74% of Americans support stricter immigration controls.

According to the most recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll in May, 66% of Americans support either gay marriage or civil unions.

According to the most recent CBS News/NYT poll this month, 62% of Americans support stricter limitations on abortion or making it completely illegal.

According to the most recent Gallup Poll in March, 59% of Americans support or somewhat support increased use of nuclear power plants to address our energy problems.

Of course, you can often avoid this thorny issue of how much above 50% does a poll have to go before it becomes a magic mandate by simply choosing the poll that fits your pre-existing beliefs.

According to the June 2009 NBC News/WSJ poll, 63% of Americans believe that Affirmative Action is still necessary, while a similarly dated Quinnipiac University poll maintains that 55% of Americans think Affirmative Action should be abolished.

If you select your polling outfit as carefully as polling outfits select their response pools, you can pretty much prove that a majority of the American people believe almost anything.

President Clinton practiced government by triangulation and Speaker Gingrich used only items polling well above 50% in his Contract with America. Both were politically successful with that strategy, but it then raises disquieting issues of exactly why we are supposed to have a republic in the first place.

Do I vote for a candidate because I trust her judgment, or do I vote for a candidate who will always follow the will of the majority?

This is sort of like asking American Christians, do you get to Heaven by being saved [faith] or by living a good life [works]?

To both either/or questions the American answer is usually a resounding YES.

6 comments:

Shirley Vandever said...

I don't think that 72% of the American public could define what "public option" means, let alone be for it or against it.

I don't think even 20% of the population actually reads the legislation they are supposedly for or against.

It seems to me that people agree with polls when they validate their own thinking, then dismiss those polls that don't have the results they want.

I guess in the end I am saying that most people are pretty stupid and will go along with the mantra of the momement if it sounds good.

tom said...

oh please. i'd be happy if 20% of Congress actually read the legislation they are voting to impose on us.

tom said...

and here is an article by a former Clinton pollster about how his recent polling finds that only a minority of americans support increased government intervention in health care, and discussing parallels between today and the failure of HillaryCare 16 years ago.

Miko said...

I think the validty of majoritism depends on the issue, with a Thoreau-esque expediency test. Simply put, the argument "Most people have decided they prefer driving on the right side of the road, so you should too" carries more weight than the argument "Most people are bigots, so you aren't allowed to get married."

One key difference is that the first scenario deals with public resources (or at least publically-used resources) while the second deals purely with private ones.

The health-care example is tricky, as the taxation to fund it is clearly an immoral intrusion of the second sort, while the decision of how to spend the money after it's already been collected is a public matter of the first sort.

Besides, democracy is essentially polling on a massive scale. I definitely don't vote for a candidate because I trust her judgment: the incentive structure of the corporate-lobbying system guarantees that all politicians will have bad judgment.

Townie 76 said...

"Do I vote for a candidate because I trust her judgment, or do I vote for a candidate who will always follow the will of the majority?"

I believe Edmund Burke would answer you with these words, which I quote from Wikipedia:

"...it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." From Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll.

Anonymous said...

There are:
Lies
Damn Lies
and
Statistics

M. Twain