By James Stacey Taylor
You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about some new poll showing a majority of Americans support or oppose some public policy. Politicians and pundits then cite the same as proof of their policy righteousness while condemning their opponents for opposing the ostensible will of the people. When it comes to surveys of the voting public, however, the answer almost always depends on how and whom you ask.
Two recent examples illustrate the inherent faultiness of relying on polls to dictate legislation. According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans favor raising the minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10. Such a poll ignores the fact that in economics there are no isolated decisions; there are only trade-offs. And when presented with the trade-offs of raising the minimum wage – fewer jobs for low-skilled adults and teenagers – majority support flips to majority opposition, with 57 percent opposing the policy. In other words, it depends on how you ask.
Consider short-term “payday” loans. According to a poll by the activist Pew Charitable Trusts, 72 percent of respondents believed payday loans should be more heavily regulated. But a Harris Interactive poll that focused exclusively on the views of payday loan recipients found fully 95 percent of them felt it should be their choice, not the government’s, to use payday loans.
The point isn’t that the voting public is too dumb to decide matters for itself, but that people are by nature susceptible to supporting cozy-sounding policies when not informed of any offsetting consequences.
Ultimately, the root of the problem is not that people are voting on issues about which they are not fully informed, it’s that people are voting on issues on which they should never be voting at all.
The solution is to return the role of government to a more clearly defined and limited scope, like that enumerated by the 19th century political philosopher John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which [government] power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Applying this philosophy to the above examples makes clear that the government is currently out of bounds. The wages a person is paid, or the conditions that attach to a loan, are private matters of concern only to the consenting adults engaged in such mutually beneficial exchange. They do not harm individuals, and should thus not be subject to government control.
Restricting government as such will be difficult to achieve. However, it is the most effective way to insulate ourselves from the systematic voter ignorance that leads to harmful policies – and prevent politicians from doing the same.
James Stacey Taylor is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey.