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The deceitfulness of the “will of the people”

A democracy should be guided by what its citizens want, not by a caricature constructed by politicians

Koen Smets
Dec 2, 2016 · 7 min read

This time of the year, many children are writing their letters to Santa Claus, emphasizing how good they’ve been, and setting out what gifts they would like to receive. Some of the items on these lists will be modest — a doll, a toy car — but others less so. The phrase “I want a pony” has its origins in the more unrealistic demands of some children.

Children don’t always have a good idea of the cost of what they wish for, and parents need to make the trade-offs that are lacking in the expectations of their offspring. Were they to carry out the will of the children, the acquisition and maintenance of a pony might mean no family holidays for the next 12 years, and definitely no pocket money.

As we escape the naïveté of childhood, most of us learn that fulfilling wishes comes at a cost. Since we have limited resources, we realize that if we splash out on a new kitchen, we’ll have to keep our old car for a few more years, and if we must living in a house in the countryside, we’ll be facing a much longer commute than if we lived in a flat right in the city.

Wishful thinking

Yet it remains tempting to believe it is not always necessary to make trade-offs. Would it indeed not be nice to be able to get rich quick, without effort or running risk? Purveyors of Ponzi schemes are very good at finding that wishful thinking weak spot in people — Bernie Madoff got found out, but there’s little doubt new crooks are busy reeling in the suckers as you read this. So are suppliers of weight loss pills (15.3 million Google hits) or journalists with few scruples.

But the most egregious examples are found in politics, where promises are made as if there are no trade-offs to be made. Even if politicians are not openly promising voters they can have their cake and eat it, it is very rare for policy proposals to be explained fully, with all the consequences and costs it entails. They may not explicitly state “all else being equal”, but because they fail to spell out or even hint at what else would change or need to change such promises do very much imply that the ceteris will be paribus*.

Not official government policy

Thankfully increasingly active fact checkers expose the most blatant of such cases during political campaigns and in public policy setting. Nevertheless people are still hoodwinked by their biases — they believe what they want to believe, and for some no amount of fact checking is capable of making them reconsider. Even if it is pointed out that getting a pony will mean no holidays and no pocket money, they simply won’t believe it.

Such one-sided promises are the trademark of populists, who claim they are only seeking to implement the will of the people. And inevitably we end up back with Brexit… Some people (including the Prime Minister) believe they heard the people say “we must control immigration” when they voted in the UK’s EU-membership referendum, and maintain on that basis that the UK must also leave the single market*, since a condition of membership is the free movement of people between the member states.

Is that really the will of the British people? The 2013 Social Attitudes Survey found that ’77 per cent of people want immigration reduced “a little” or “a lot”, with 56 per cent wanting a large reduction’. The problem with surveys like this, says Professor Robert Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester, in a recent episode of the BBC programme More or Less, is that people typically imagine the kind of immigration they dislike when they answer the question. Using a single question boils down to asking people something like would you like less of something you don’t like. He refers to a different survey that produces a more nuanced picture: the British Future survey found that 46% of people want more highly skilled migrants, while 12% want fewer; 47% would like to see an increase in immigrants that are doctors/nurses/scientists, and 13% would prefer a reduction (in both cases, the balance are happy with the present levels of immigration).

In addition, if all else is assumed equal, asking people whether they want more or less immigration with nothing to trade off is as if the pony on the Christmas list is free. Ford points out that “if you make the trade-offs salient to the voters — what would you be willing to pay? — you get a different picture.” People may prefer fewer immigrants in principle, but may be unwilling to pay any significant price for achieving the desired reduction.

A survey by Eric Kaufmann, a Professor of politics at the University of London, carried out by Yougov, asked how much people would be willing to pay to see immigration numbers brought down. 62% said they would not be prepared to pay anything to reduce the numbers. The result is quite interesting:

Source: YouGov survey, August 20, 2016 — via Eric Kaufmann

This makes those who claim that a ‘hard’ Brexit — severing all ties with the EU, the single market and the customs union — is the will of the people are at best disingenuous, and at worst downright deceitful.

A different kind of voting

Clearly, a referendum with a single question is unsuitable to describe the will of the people, but is there anything that could be done to gauge it more accurately? How could nuance and trade-offs be introduced in the voting process? Enter Quadratic Voting.

The idea behind the mechanism, developed by Steven Lalley and Glen Weyl of respectively the University of Chicago and Yale University, is to make use of a fundamental economic concept: scarcity. If we value something more than something else, we will be prepared to allocate more of our scarce resources to it.

Lalley’s and Weyl propose to give voters the chance to acquire extra votes at a cost that increases quadratically, i.e. 2 votes cost 4 units, 3 votes cost 9 units and so on. This allows people to express the intensity of their preference (but at a cost to them*), and thus provides unique new information.

Imagine for example that there is a referendum about a new national anthem. The ordinary setup might have revealed that 52% of the population would quite fancy a change (even though there was no clarity as to what the alternative would be), with 48% preferring the current national song. But if just over 10% of this group (5% of the total voters) is feeling strongly enough about it to buy a second vote to keep God Save The Queen top of the pops, that would have been the victorious decision.

Even in market research and opinion polling, where questions customarily ask people to answer on a Likert scale from “strongly disapprove” to “strongly approve”, the relative intensity of opinions across different questions remains unknown. Quadratic Voting in the Wild: Real People, Real Votes, a fascinating paper co-written by advertising and marketing man Rory Sutherland, explains how the approach can also help address that problem. This is done by giving people a limited ‘vote budget’ that they can spread around a set of issues according to how much they matter to them: what they feel most strongly about gets the most votes. (Sutherland and Weyl wrote a very accessible article about the method.)

If you are really interested in the “will of the people”, then quadratic voting is an excellent method to find out, for example, where the population’s preference lies when they have to choose between taking back control of immigration and leaving the European Single Market. Making assumptions about the motivation of the voters on the basis of a vague and unrelated question is a terrible method.

A grown-up democracy should not just firmly reject the vacuous use of the phrase ‘the will of the people’. Those who bandy it around without providing robust evidence deserve our contempt.

Allowing people to believe they can get a pony at no cost is the same thing as promising them not just a pony but a unicorn. Politicians who do so are no better than the frauds and charlatans behind get-rich-quick schemes and bogus remedies. Far from serving the will of the people, they are perverting it.

*: The charge that such a system would be undemocratic, as it would give people with deep pockets the chance to influence the vote unduly, can easily be countered by the fact that to make a real impact, the purchase of many thousands of votes would cost tens of millions of units.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on December 2, 2016.

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#NoDust on Brexit

Posts relating to the questions surrounding Britain's relation with the European Union

Koen Smets

Written by

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

#NoDust on Brexit

Posts relating to the questions surrounding Britain's relation with the European Union

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