Money, voting, polling and measuring our preferences
Mar 11, 2011

Money, voting, polling and measuring our preferences

It is often difficult to measure objectively what peoples genuine subjective preferences are. Our society functions based off of systems that use some form of proxy that approximates subjective preferences and acts accordingly aiming to put those preferences into effect.

There are three main such proxies. The democratic one uses votes to measure peoples subjective preferences - one typically votes for politicians one think is most effective at achieving ones preferences. The economic proxy uses what people spend money on as an indicator. Additionally one can measure what people say they desire in various ways such as polls or studies and the like.

These proxy metrics are all imperfect indicators but the best we have. What is interesting is that the different metrics often result in contradictory results. Studies show what people say they want and what they actually buy are often very different. This raises considerable questions about the nature of our social institutions and the relative rolls of democracy and markets. When societies purchases reflect different priorities than their votes, how best to discern the true social preferences? Do we use the lofty New Years Eve goals as a measure of ones desires or do we take the spending habits a month late when these goals are broken?

There are several consequences of this for our political system. There is the issue that the person people vote for may - and indeed surprisingly commonly - does not stand for the things people tell pollsters they want. This may be merely an issue of poor voter knowledge, distorting political advertising and the like, but I think it demonstrates the fallibility of this metric in the sense of accessing a subset of peoples preferences. People often vote for reasons of personalities of politicians and because the party affiliation is a strong identifying characteristic. Thus when a specific issue like healthcare is polled what people say may be quite different than what the politicians they vote for do.

Our political system has been increasingly monetized with the advent of enormously expensive political campaigns. As this money spent is so effective at translating into won elections, the perspective gets skewed away from one person, one vote to one dollar, one vote. This becomes more than merely a descriptive question as posed earlier, but a normative one. Increased egalitarianism, for instance, is a values objective directly challenged by the effectiveness as money in buying election results. When polls indicate the public believes a certain thing with a strong majority that is not necessarily reflected in the policies of politicians. Removing the extensive influence of the money from relative few will hopefully result in elections that correspond closer to polling data and in so be a better proxy for the preferences of society.

This problem is not solved, as libertarians sometimes claim, by doing away with elections and letting money be the singular proxy of peoples subjective preferences. Indeed, similar discrepancies between how people spend their money (for instance on products that are very harmful to global warming) and what they say (that they care about global warming) and how they vote (politicians that campaign for action against global warming).

These different proxies for peoples preferences have different advantages in different areas. The financial proxy is absolutely excellent at determining an individuals preferred flavor of ice cream but it is far less good at determining what ones preferences are for, say, foreign policy towards Israel. The idea of externalities is particularly apt for government often acts to disincentivize negative externalities and incentivize positive externalities that by definition do not result come under effect of the price mechanism. Voting allows for an expression of peoples preferences about these externalities to occur.

The idea here isn't that one proxy is categorically better than another, but that each have different advantages and limitations in different places. Moreover, thought of in this way as social institutions that measure our subjective preferences allows the different proxies to be viewed as different sides to the same coin.  

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