Taking Advantage of Our Weaknesses As Voters Radical Bleeding Heart image


It Is Hard to Be Rational. There have recently been a number of books, mostly by psychologists, about the irrationality of human decision making. Two that have been very popular are Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan (2007, 2nd ed. 2010) and Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? by Philip Tetlock. Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is particularly useful because it incorporates the work of many others as well as his own research.

Kahneman's thesis is essentially that our reasoning avails itself of two different systems. System one is fast, more or less automatic and unconscious, and subject to many biases and prejudices. It is very useful in familiar situations where past experience is in accord with the present circumstances but can lead us seriously astray in an unusual setting or when we do not have access to the facts. System two is slow but rational and empirical. It requires more effort and energy. That is particularly true when we do not have the facts. Then, if we must make a decision, system one takes over. And system one is easily manipulated.

Our political machinery is perfect for those who seek to play with system one, our automatic, unconscious, and highly biased decision-making process. That includes, not merely the politicians and the lobbyists who own them, but the media who profit immensely by them. And worse, it includes us, the voters.

We don't want the facts because learning and thinking about them is hard work. The politicians don't want us to have the facts because then they would be held responsible for actually doing something. The media know we will pay more attention when our biases are being stroked than when we are actually learning something (how boring!) and of course they make gadzillions from all those manipulative political ads. The lobbyists, naturally, run the show.

It's the System, Stupid! Actually it is the system that is stupid, not the voters. The system works to keep us in a state of emotional upheaval and ignorance of the facts. The only question is: How can we change it so that it works better for us? Better for our responsible long-term interests, not our lazy short-term inclinations.

You Have Heard This Before. Well, to repeat what we have said before many times, first we must take our elections off the money market and put them back on the idea market, where they belong. If you are tired of reading that, just remember that absolutely nothing can be done until that is accomplished.

As long as elections can be bought, we do not have a democracy, and there is not much point in talking about how to improve something we do not have. But once that is done, there are a number of ways to make democracy work better. Let us start with a truly revolutionary and very interesting proposal.