Saturday, July 31, 2010

Interest, sensibility, soft paternalism, etc.

Jonathan Bernstein, re horse-race politics:
Pick something that you pay no attention to.  For my dad, I always suggest NASCAR. [...] If you asked him to name a NASCAR driver he'd probably look at you as if you were nuts...but if you named some of them, he'd probably recognize the names.  The idea is that lots and lots of people have about that level of knowledge about most of what happens in politics.  It's just background noise.  We, the people who write and read political blogs, and watch debates, and pay attention to politics even in the off season --we're the minority.

Of course, with politics unlike sports, we're "supposed" to be paying attention, and a lot of people probably don't like to admit that they really aren't. 

This is related to a general set of issues about "paternalism." There's some evidence that poor people are relatively uninformed about (say) the nutritional content of various kinds of food, the correct approach to diet and exercise, etc. By a quirk of character, I'm also clueless about this stuff, because it bores me to death. Really a lot of things bore me to death. When people start talking about carbon footprint or omega-3 fatty acids, or anything of the sort, my eyes glaze over and I start thinking about something else; this is a tendency I can't help, there is just nothing about the subject that engages my imagination. I also absolutely hate shopping. When I'm forced to go to Walmart or a supermarket to buy X, I try to find the aisle that has X, then grab the first item I can find and move on. Labeling requirements would have no impact on my buying habits because I don't look at labels. When I want to buy a computer I pick a manufacturer's website at random and navigate as rapidly as possible to the "buy" button. And so on. This leaves me with the same take on things like ethical shopping and informed consumerism and the rest; yes I agree that one ought to do it, but it's a colossally tedious waste of my time. I would much rather have a trusted agency of some kind tell me what it's OK to buy, and keep me from getting swindled or poisoned or from leaving a "carbon footprint," than have to try and wade through the information myself. I believe a lot of others are similarly situated, esp. the poor, except that it's because they're more preoccupied than uninterested.

(Similarly, regarding Yelp reviews of restaurants, or Amazon reviews of electronics: is there anything quite as dispiriting as wading through 20-30 barely grammatical and usually off-topic rants? It's almost as bad as NYT blog comments. I would much rather just have someone reliable/accountable just certify that certain things work. Similarly, an hour that I spend comparing ticket prices is an hour of mild suffering that I would pay a finite amount to avoid.)

Now, given that I interact mostly with highly educated people, who care about these things, I can make things easier for myself by trusting their judgment. Besides, the market goes some way towards taking care of these issues as long as a critical mass of customers care enough to do their homework. However, customers who care are largely people of a certain socioeconomic status, and in markets that cater largely to poorer people, one presumably does not have such a critical mass, and the arguments for regulation of some kind become fairly strong.

Of course, one must weigh this against the interests of people who do care; who have done their homework, and want to experiment with things that might harm them -- or, for that matter, with people who simply aren't that invested in not being poisoned. It is bad to forbid people from doing things they might have chosen rationally: even if most people make such choices because they're clueless, odds are that you are blocking a fair number from doing something that's victimless. So one is led to a form of soft paternalism according to which it is hard to find something potentially bad for you unless you're really looking for it. In some respects the Great Firewall of China is exemplary: it imposes slight barriers that anyone can overcome if they want to.

However, I do find it rather irritating when such people get sanctimonious about the need for others to be informed browsers or customers or whatever. This shouldn't be necessary: we live in a highly specialized world in which people have better things to do than read labels and compare prices and be well-informed about random stuff that they're not experts about: there are actual experts out there. In addition to the sheer waste of time, "a little learning is a dangerous thing" -- as well as being intellectually rather unsatisfying -- as I guess the example of WebMD suggests.

As for politics -- I think the political scientists' picture of swing voters voting based on whether they feel well-off or not leads to an OK equilibrium, which is quite possibly the best equilibrium achievable with an uninformed public. Would having a more informed public improve political outcomes by enough to overcome the cost to individuals of becoming more informed? I don't know, but I would guess not.

PS in the third world the real choice is between rule by the uninformed and rule by the uniformed.

No comments: