Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Viktor Ivanković

How democratic are pre-election polls?

In most Western democracies nowadays, pre-election periods are littered with polls. Some polls, conducted by polling organizations, are sophisticated and more likely to be challenged for their accuracy (as are the media houses that publish them). Other polls are simple. For instance, a news website may ask its readers who they would vote for if the election happened on that day. Polls represent a simple and cheap commodity for the commercial news media to offer to their audiences. As Jesper Strömbäck notes, polls generate fresh and often dramatic news items that are easy to analyze for journalists and easy to digest for audiences.

But how do polls, and particularly pre-election polls, fit into a normative vision of democracy? Do they enrich our democratic practices and institutions, or do they undercut democratic ideals? Despite being an epitome for divisive issues (49% of countries restrict the publishing of pre-election polls in some capacity, as Petersen notes), pre-election polls have attracted little interest of democratic theorists. Reaching a verdict on whether they are normatively compatible with democracy has been left almost entirely to political scientists and journalists.

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Distributing the Deliberative Forum

There is an argument, appearing in both the higher and lower tiers of public debate, that goes something like this:

You can raise as many arguments as you want about solving Problem A (say, adoption rights for gay couples), but what you’re missing is that we should be dealing instead with the more prominent Problem B (say, how the budget is being balanced). It is there that we need to place our focus.

A first-semester philosophy student will easily recognize the red herring fallacy here. The proponent of the argument is not addressing the points presumably raised about how Problem A should be solved, but sidesteps into a different subject altogether. Some further claims might be made by the proponent that Problem A is being used as a smoke screen for Problem B, and that to deal with Problem A itself indicates a certain susceptibility of those involved to being distracted by ‘the powers that be’.

In an important sense, the philosopher’s annoyance is well warranted. The particularities of Problem B hardly bear any relevance to Problem A. But in at least some cases, I want to suggest that the ‘red herring’ could stand for a legitimate concern about how we are distributing our deliberative forum. The claim raised might not be an attempt to solve Problem A, but that another problem, Problem B, requires attention and is being overlooked without justification.

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Private Wrongs and Public Resignations

Public officials are often called to resign their posts if they commit grave moral or legal wrongs as private persons. Consider a few cases. It is discovered that a Minister of Education had plagiarized multiple parts of his academic work before taking up his position in the government. Another high official is caught expressing bigoted ideas against ethnic and religious minorities in personal Facebook comments and posts. A county prefect is charged for beating his wife. Should such acts call for resignations? Can they ground the decisions of political bosses to sack these individuals, or justify the general public in exerting pressures on the government to drive them out of office?

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Nudging and Market Influence: Why the focus on government nudges?

Most moral objections to nudging–the practice of altering choice environments in order to subconsciously steer behavior–have been grounded in the value of personal autonomy. The autonomy of the nudged are claimed to be undermined because the control individuals have over their evaluations, deliberations and decision-making is effectively reduced, if not fully bypassed. More so, nudging seems autonomy-threatening because the architects look to supplant the wills of their targets with their own.

When nudging was first discussed by its main proponents Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge in 2008, it was proposed as an innovative supplement to government policy-making. In response, most of the autonomy-related objections focused on the paternalism of governments carrying out the nudging. Surprisingly, few have paid much attention to similar forms of influences in the market setting–behavioral techniques used in advertising, pricing, and other market interactions. I claim the standard autonomy-based objections against nudging raise more worries about current market practices than emerging and prospective policy practices.

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