A Species of General Disapproval

A Species of General Disapproval

“It is true, as has been before observed that facts, too stubborn to be resisted, have produced a species of general assent to the abstract proposition that there exist material defects in our national system…”
Alexander Hamilton[1], The Federalist Papers No. 15

Sure, I know that it’s always possible to find a founding father with whom you agree and whittle an intentionally broad or abstract statement into a narrow political view. And so I think the above quotation is broad enough and certainly abstract enough to appeal to a great majority of us—given that congressional disapproval numbers are consistently above 75%. And since I do not intend to talk about political views, I can safely say that we agree: something is wrong. However, what’s wrong is not high unemployment, not declining high school graduation rates, not increasing gas prices, not high poverty rates, not inadequate healthcare, not even that the rent is too damn high. Those are all results of “material defects” like the kind Hamilton refers to, and I argue that we do not have an efficient mechanism to determine what the defects are nor how to fix them.[2] We are a new species—of disapproval—borne from a relentless misrepresentation of facts, too egregious to be ignored.

 Uninformed Electorate

If the unfavorable situations listed above are results of material defects in our national system, high public political disapproval numbers reflect material defects in our nation’s voters.

Much research has focused on our lack of knowledge. In a 2006 research paper on theories of voter behavior, Ilya Somin[3] writes, “More than 40 years after the pioneering work of Philip Converse (1964), political ignorance remains as widespread as ever.” Despite the near-universal acceptance that a great majority of voters possess inadequate or incorrect information, obviously elections do take place. On this phenomenon, Elemendorf and Schleicher note:

Though there is no disciplinary consensus about whether elections “work,” given what voters know, political science has revealed certain mechanisms through which a low-information electorate may behave as if reasonably well informed. To the extent that the electorate performs well, the credit is largely due to political parties, and to the statistical properties of aggregation (which can neutralize uninformed votes). At their best, political parties provide voters with simple, reliable, and easily learned cues about candidates’ ideology and policy preferences.

In other words, in the best case, voters may have a vague idea about what to expect if that candidate were elected should that candidate be a simple representation of a broad ideology and then act perfectly in line with the national party. In practice, we see that candidates are complex and continually break outright promises much less live up to ideological expectations—an empirically weak indicator of future behavior. Furthermore, given that recent experimental evidence suggests that informed voters do make better decisions, we can infer that relative to an informed electorate, an ignorant electorate has a lower probability of also being a happy electorate.

Regulating Ourselves

Between the two types of actors in this republic, the citizen voting population and everyone inside the system of checks and balances, the latter group has dedicated a significant amount of their legislative time thinking of ways to prevent themselves from taking advantage of the former group. The timeline of campaign finance reform shows an almost 150 year history of representatives changing the rules of their influence. Among the voting population, there have been diverse efforts made to study the ways citizens learn political information, influence the information they learn, increase the number of people who vote, and rally behind specific causes. If we are indeed this species of general disapproval, this implies that both groups have been unsuccessful.

Last summer, Scott Adams[4], wrote a series of thought exercises for his blog that developed the abstract for a “user interface” of political information easily accessible by all citizens. His idea gained enough attention that he was asked to write a piece for the Wall Street Journal that November. Two days later he posted about how poorly it was received: “Check out the comments if you want to lose all faith in humanity.” Despite the negative reaction to the article, it introduces several intriguing ideas that I will explore on this blog:

Perhaps what we need is a fourth branch of government[5], smallish and economical, operating independently, with a mission to build and maintain a friendly user interface for citizens to manage their government….

Imagine being able to go to one website to see the best arguments for and against every issue, with links to support or refute every factual claim. And imagine that professional arbitrators would score each argument. A good judge can believe a defendant is guilty and still rule that the prosecutor didn’t make his case. Arguments can be graded for context, accuracy and logic….

A cleverly designed user interface could compare the positions of your elected representatives to the opinions of smart citizens who have done their homework, and to experts as well….

In theory, the Internet could make the cost of running a campaign almost trivial by modern standards. The new user-interface branch of the government would be in charge of making it easy for voters to see video clips, interviews, debates and useful comparisons of the candidates’ positions.

I think we are in general agreement that such an interface seems like a wonderful idea despite its abstractness. I also understand that there are numerous problems involved in implementing the interface: creating an educationally efficient design, ensuring the ethics of the people overseeing it, maintaining trustworthy contributors, investigating any accusations of malfeasance, and then getting people to actually use it. And I hope that each post in this series will make an incremental step toward finding a general solution.

Now for the grandiose conclusion: In the proximal years following Hamilton’s essays, the citizens of the United States voted on significant changes to the structure and power of this country’s legislature. I hope that through identification and discussion of our current material defects we will be able to make the significant and major changes we find necessary.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Under the pseudonym Publius. The Federalist Papers were written by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay shortly after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention. The “national system” to which Hamilton refers is the one under the Articles of Confederation. The federalist papers were written in support of a document, then freshly circulating the states, that would later be ratified as The Constitution of the United States
  2. I intend to go over the Scott Adams piece in detail and eventually propose a legitimate framework that solves for the many obstacles preventing us from getting there
  3. Who I’d like to thank for his correspondence
  4. of Dilbert fame. I credit him in full for inspiring my research into this subject and being the origin of many of these ideas.
  5. The “fourth branch of government” phrase scared a lot of people away from the other merits of the article. I am currently agnostic to a position about who should implement the system, but I will explore that in the future