December 04, 2004

The First Data Point on Anti-Terrorism

David Estlund: December 4, 2004

Left and Right can agree that there are competent and devoted people hoping and planning for more large attacks on U.S. soil. There's a lot of common ground to be tilled here. Still, maybe the first data point is not, as Jerry Dworkin suggests, that there have been no more attacks, possibly owing to effective prevention. That's the second data point. The first is that the devastating attack of 9/11 was planned and achieved with hardly a hitch, possible owing to ineffective prevention. I'm all for solidarity against these enemies. But the Bush administration might really be partly to blame for 9/11. Their ability to protect us is hardly an unambiguous selling point (and Jerry wasn't saying that it is).

The election's over (at least outside of the wide world of blogs), so is there anything constructive in reminding ourselves that Bush was our protector when 9/11 happened? I think there is. All evidence suggests that the administration had no ears for career professionals who know what to watch for. The Bush team saw themselves as firebrands who needed to keep the tired old bureaucracy from coopting their idealistic plans. This turns out to be dangerous.

What's puzzling about this, of course, is that the intellegence bureaucracy turns out, indeed, to have been dysfunctional in many ways. So is there really a lesson? I suppose this is merely speculative. The Bush administration was not just prudently skeptical. It was, and is, allergic to a careful, balanced, open-minded, approach, especially when it smacks in the least of academia or scientific research. This is a profoundly reactionary element in this administration, and I fear that it is part of the positive appeal these guys have for many voters.

There is this bigger question about how left and right can correct this tendency in prevailing Republican power-holders. But for the moment, I just note that it might not only bear on the teaching of evolution, or the denials of global warming, but also, maybe, on the failure to return phone calls from the eggheads claiming to have arguments (arguments? pfft) showing that Al Qaeda could accomplish a Pearl Harbor on U.S. soil. Yes, the eggheads also designed the Vietnam War. The idea isn't that the intellectuals should be the rulers. There was plenty of ink spilled in an intellectual style by the developers of the Bush approach. The question isn't quite intellectual vs. anti-intellectual. It is more like a lack of the intellectual virtues, especially an inability to understand one's critics, and to let arguments and evidence lead where they may. And my point is not that the Left is generally more virtuous in these ways (though, I'm not sure it isn't). Rather, the point is about the intellectual vices of those particular people who are in power now, and the implications for, even, homeland security.

December 15, 2004

The Ignorance of Voters (and Parents)

David Estlund: December 15, 2004

I hear some on the left saying that democracy itself is in question if voters are so badly informed that they don't even know, for just one example, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Tests of the political knowledge of potential voters regularly turn up a disturbing degree of ignorance. As Don Herzog suggests, we ought to think about how and whether this situation can be improved. Suppose, though, that it can’t be fundamentally changed. Suppose that the costs of obtaining good information, or of identifying good opinion leaders are higher than we can expect the general run of voters to bear. Suppose, that is, that people’s knowledge can be improved, but that there is no realistic hope that the problem of really striking voter ignorance can ever go away. It is natural to wonder if this would be a devastating objection to democracy.

Consider an analogy: suppose we turn the knowledge checkers loose on parents and their ability to make good decisions about the lives of their children.

Here are some things the checkers might want to know: Do parents understand the psychology of child development enough to know what parental strategies are effective? [Survey Reveals Child Development Knowledge Gap Among Adults,] Do parents know which of the available schools perform better? To know that adequately, do they understand the debates about standardized testing versus other methods for evaluating school performance? Do they know the name of the head of the school board? Do they know the name of their child’s guidance counselor? Do parents know the publicly available facts about the pediatricians in the community, such as the place of their degree? Their additional certifications? Their years of experience? Their malpractice records? Do parents understand the importance of preventive medicine? Do they know which of the available doctors emphasizes prevention adequately? Do parents understand the investment options available in order to effectively save for their children’s education? Do they know the facts about the value of a college degree in promoting later happiness and success? Do they understand the differences between term and whole life approaches to life insurance? Do they know the dangers of having guns in the home? Do parents understand basic nutrition, such as the facts about fat, fruits and vegetables? [“What do parents know about vitamins?” Ko ML, Ramsell N, Wilson JA. Arch Dis Child. 1992 Sep;67(9):1080-1] Do parents know the difference between a scientifically supported health recommendation and a mere fad or unsupported alternative approach? Do they know how AIDS is and is not transmitted? What do parents know about contraception? [“What do parents know about contraception?” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2004] Do they know basic first aid? Do parents understand the risks of lead poisoning? [Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med>. 1998 Dec;152(12):1213-8. “What do parents know about lead poisoning? The Chicago Lead Knowledge Test.” Pediatric Practice Research Group. Mehta S, Binns HJ.]

Are parents up to the task of raising children? Beyond the few studies I’ve cited, we can conjecture that good further research would show a disturbing degree of ignorance and misunderstanding on matters that would seem to be important to intelligent parenting decisions. Should we be convinced that parents cannot make good decisions for their children? The fate of children is presumably as important as the direction of a political system. Do the data support a severe indictment of both democracy and what we might call free parenting (the legal right to make these decisions within broad limits free from interference by the state)? In both cases, there is little doubt that there are experts who know more and might be just as virtuously motivated. I don’t mean the question entirely rhetorically. Of course, if parental performance is bad enough, and there were alternatives that were good enough, the case for free parenting would be seriously weakened. My question is simply this: is the case for free parenting badly damaged by the kinds of parental ignorance I have conjectured or documented? Not to my mind.

Certainly, we should want parents and voters to be well-informed. But the desirability of democracy is no more undermined by voters’ demonstrable ignorance than the desirability of free parenting is undermined by parents’ demonstrable ignorance. That is, the ignorance is relevant in both case, but not as alarming as discussions of voter-ignorance often suggest. I don’t mean that the quality of the decisions doesn’t matter, as if there is some prior and absolute right to free parenting or democracy. I doubt that there is such a right in either case; it depends in certain ways on how well free parenting and democracy tend to perform. Rather, part of what I get from the analogy with parenting is that the sensational instances of ignorance probably don’t give a fair picture of the ability of parents to make good decisions. I suspect the same is true in the case of democracy. Obviously, the analogy has its limits, but I think it is telling nonetheless.