Title: Good Intentions Bad Consequences: Voters' Information Problems
Author: Phillip Nelson
Genre: Social Science/Sociology
A new approach to understanding voter choice with important implications. There is a substantial class of voters who would like to do “good” but ignore important consequences of their attempts to do so—naïve altruists. The book both shows why such a class exists and tests the implications of that group’s behavior in a setting where other voters are self-interested, others are traditionalists, and imitation plays a big role in voter choice. The book also looks at the policy implications of such behavior accepting as desirable, but not fully achievable, the democratic ideal in which sufficiently informed citizens are given equal weight in political choices. Naïve altruists ignore the anti-growth consequences of redistribution from the rich as a class to the poor as a class. That ignorance produces too much of that redistribution in terms of the democratic ideal.
Could you please tell us a little about your book?
Why are university professors so liberal? The obvious answer is the wrong answer. Their
liberalism is not the result of their knowledge function. One of the important functions of universities is the development and dissemination of knowledge. The STEM fields and other research clearly perform that function but that is not where campus liberalism comes from.
Professors want to do good, that is, doing what is generally accepted as good, as witnessed by the goals of charity, helping the poor and producing a better environment. The difference between their advocacy and charity is professors want to achieve those goals through government. The problem is that they ignore the unfortunate side-effects of so doing. They are subject to confirmation bias, ignoring any information contrary to their preferences. This results in knowledge suppression rather than knowledge dissemination.
There is ample evidence of this suppression. Universities commonly try to prevent their students from feeling uncomfortable from conservative ideas. They provide safe spaces if by a small chance any conservative idea should appear. And they do all in their power to make sure no such ideas do appear.
The closest argument I have seen to a knowledge defense of campus liberalism has been a defense of diversity in the non-intellectual sense. For example, Blacks have different life experiences than whites, and those experiences should be incorporated in our view of the world. Curiously enough, the majority on the campus adopt the views of the Blacks without the Blacks’ life experiences. The problem is that experiencing poverty does not provide an answer to why there is that poverty, and that why is crucial to knowing what to do about it. Is Black poverty due to the evils of capitalism or is it due to features of the Black ghetto that have nothing to do with capitalism: single motherhood, low education levels, drugs, government dependency etc. The latter topics are rarely a part of university teaching.
There is also evidence for confirmation bias being a dominant source of campus liberalism. English professors are more liberal than most social science professors, and by the very nature of their toolkit, English professors do not examine the untoward consequences of their preferences in operation. In contrast, Economics professors are the least liberal of the social scientists and many do look at the consequences of government action.
“Why universities are so liberal?” is a crucial policy question. If that liberalism was the result of unbiased knowledge, then the more of it the better. It would also be an argument for more liberal government policies because that is what the more knowledgeable favor. But the story is quite different if campus liberalism is just the result of professor preferences. Most of us accept the democratic ideal as a criterion for good policy: where each person’s preferences would be given equal weight and all were well-informed. Many liberals believe those conditions are violated because the rich have too much influence. But the reality is that in virtually all democracies redistribution is from the rich as a class, not to the rich.
A more serious charge against our own democracy is that professors have undue influence. The college educated were one of the most important sources of Clinton support in spite of their having higher incomes than most. Colleges have also had an important liberalizing effect on the media. The result is more liberal policies than would be chosen in an ideal democracy Consequences.
Phillip Nelson has specialized in two fields. The first is information economics in which he has produced seminal work in consumer economics. The second is public choice in which he has written many articles and the book, “Signaling Goodness.” This book melds these two fields producing new insights about voter information problems. He has spent a lifetime teaching graduate courses in these specialties and microeconomics theory at Binghamton University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago.