My problems with politics, part 7: policies and stupidity

Calvin and Hobbes

In each election, we are supposed to have some idea of what each candidate or party stands for. In practice, voters tend to vote for a party because it’s ‘their’ party.

If voters are curious enough, they could attempt to find out a bit more detail from the news. They’d have to choose carefully, though; not all newspapers or television shows are dedicated to presenting the facts to their audience. This tactic is advantageous if you want to promote socially-conservative views:

“Keeping people from thinking too much… or just asking them to deliberate or consider information in a cursory manner can impact people’s political attitudes, and in a way that consistently promotes political conservatism.”
~ Dr Scott Eidelman

Party bias affects support for policies. In the USA in 2010, the Democrat Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was essentially identical to a policy introduced in Massachusetts just four years earlier by President Obama’s presidential opponent Mitt Romney (with very few differences). Yet this led to some batshit crazy protests.

Suddenly, a Republican policy was derided as an evil, socialist plot involving death panels to kill the elderly and infirm. And this was by no means an isolated example of the effect of partisan views and biased political reporting on voters’ opinions of particular policies.

Support for policies can depend on who proposes them...

Support for policies can depend on who proposes them…

So, support for a policy depends on who proposes it. It is remarkably easy to trick people into changing opinions of policies, too. Is there any way of regarding policies or manifestos in a more rational way?

One could compare one’s own score on the political compass with those of the various parties or leaders (as measured by However, it should be noted that this method has its limitations. ‘Right-wing’ economic views could be generated by support for free markets (as opposed to more regulated ones), or by support for big business; but one might just as easily support free markets without wanting to support big business. Similarly, one could be seen to support ‘libertarian’ social policies, yet still favour strong controls on firearms. The political compass might give you a very general idea of how your opinions compare with those of the parties, but it lacks nuance.

Perhaps best thing to do is to look at policies without knowing which party came up with them. Websites like voteforpolicies and votematch can help (links apply only to the most recent UK election). Remarkably, policies promoted by minority parties turn out to be far more popular than election results would suggest, particularly the socially-liberal ones.

However, the people who use these sites are self selecting groups, and not representative of the whole electorate. If one is open-minded and curious, then one is more likely to support socially-liberal policies. I think it’s a safe bet that the majority of those who’ve tested their support for different policies in this way will fit this description. Even so, I suspect this is as good a way as we’re likely to get, to decide in a rational way which party to vote for.

But there’s still another problem to consider…

Incompetent people are too incompetent to recognise their own incompetence.

Incompetent people are too incompetent to recognise their own incompetence.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes how incompetent people are too incompetent to recognise their own incompetence. In a political context, if voters lack expertise on particular issues, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts.

žIgnorant people may be the worst judges of candidates and ideas, but we all have this blindness, from our own lack of expertise. In my case, I have no idea how the economy works. As near as I can tell, it’s a religion based on gambling with the perceived value of IOU notes – after that I’m stumped. Yet in each election, I’m supposed to decide who has the best economic policy.


In 2012, German sociologist Mato Nagel ran a computer simulation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect applied to a democracy. In the simulation of žcomputer-model voters, some could recognise good leadership, some not, and most were in between. žEach ‘voter’ was incapable of recognising if the leadership skills of a candidate were better than his or her own.

žUltimately, Nagel found that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders, but they do prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders. Rather than elect the best possible leaders, it’s a good system for protecting us from the worst.

However, I suspect Nagel’s model assumes a level playing field. There are all sorts of ways the proportion of votes can result in different proportions of political representatives – but that’s something to explore in another blog post.

Until then, please enjoy this old take on policies:

“…while it has been government policy to regard policy as the responsibility of ministers and administration as the responsibility of officials, questions of administrative policy can cause confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy especially when the responsibility for the policy of administration of the policy of administration conflicts or overlaps with the responsibility of the policy of administration of policy.”

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