In American elections, we hear a lot of talk about ‘the issues’. As near as I can tell, ‘issues’ are specific, concrete problems facing the politicians in power. Politicians who would like to gain (or retain) power attempt to explain to ‘the people’ how they would deal with these issues. ‘The people’, in their infinite wisdom, evaluate each of these solutions and choose the best ones. They then pick the candidate who they believe offers the best solution on the most issues.
At least, that’s the theory. But it’s stupid.
Why is it stupid? Well, first, we need to back up. What are we doing (again, in theory) when we elect a Representative to Congress, or a President? Essentially, we are hiring someone to govern.
The American theory is that the power of government, in some metaphysical sense, rests with the people, but that in practice, they cannot exercise it well themselves, and therefore it behooves them theoretically to delegate it to ‘representatives’ who will make, enforce, and interpret the laws on their behalf.
Now, there are two basic models of hiring. I will label them sub-skill and super-skill.
In the sub-skill model of hiring, you hire a person to do something that you could do, or at least that you know how to do. The reason you hire him is probably because you have more money than time. This is the model you use with the guy who mows your lawn. It’s not that you dont know how to mow your lawn, but you prefer to pay the money rather than do it yourself. In this model of hiring, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to examine the methods used by the people who would like the job and pick the one you think best.
In the super-skill model of hiring, you hire a person to do something you dont know how to do; this person is normally known as an ‘expert’ or ‘consultant’. For example, if you dont speak Italian but you need to communicate with someone who only speaks Italian, most likely you will hire a translator.
In the super-skill model, you cannot evaluate the person’s methods directly. If Giorgio and Giovanni both offer to translate to Italian for you, you cant ask them detailed questions about Italian grammar, evaluate their answers, and then determine who is the better translator on that basis. Why not? Because to understand the responses, you would need to speak Italian, and if you spoke Italian, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.
When you’re hiring someone to deal with problems you dont understand, there are a number of strategies you can employ. You can look at his education, his experience, and his track record of results. You can ask people who’ve employed him in the past. The one thing you cant do is ask complex questions about topics you dont understand and then try to judge answers that you wont understand either.
And yet this is precisely what ‘issues voting’ amounts to. The vast majority of voters do not understand the issues. How could they, especially when it comes to complex topics like the budget or foreign policy? Therefore, they are incompetent to judge proposals on these issues. Instead they should be judging persons based on their credentials and track record (if they must be judging anything at all).
Judging candidates based on their issue positions defeats the whole point of representative democracy by putting the choice of issue positions back in the hands of the people. It treats politicians like sub-skill labour, as if the people as a whole could make all these decisions themselves, but we simply dont have the time.
If the model of reality in which ‘issues voting’ worked were true, then we should all be voting on policy questions themselves. Instead of picking a ‘close match’ candidate, we should all get to vote on, for instance, whether to go to war, or what programs to cut.
Obviously, the people are not capable of doing this competently. We’re insufficiently informed and insufficiently trained for such a task. That’s why we have representatives. Why, then, do we promote the idea that we should select candidates based on their ‘issue positions’?