What if I told you that we could solve a lot of problems in American politics if we answered just 5 questions? What if I told you that we could have a much more peaceable, civilized, and rational discourse about our government if we got to the bottom of those questions? Would you be interested in hearing them?
Here’s the catch: these 5 questions are really hard. In fact, I myself do not know the answer to any of them. But if Americans are going to make any progress, we must grapple with these questions because what really divides people goes much deeper than any particular candidate or even any particular political party. So even though I doubt any of us can find a neat answer to these questions, I am presenting them here for you to consider.
1. How Responsible Are Criminals For Their Own Actions?
We know that about half of all prison inmates have a mental health diagnosis. The new chief of mental health for New York City’s prison system has stated that nearly every patient she saw had experienced a broken and abusive childhood. Not everybody in the prison system is mentally ill, but it is clearly a significant component in many crimes.
On the other hand, the vast majority of mentally ill people simply suffer with their condition without hurting anybody else. And a lot of these mentally ill inmates have committed horrible crimes. Their victims deserve some measure of justice, too.
So at what point do we recognize prisoners are often products of their background while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions?
2. How Much of Our Earnings Do We Deserve (and How Much Did We Really Earn?)
We know from various studies in that in the United States, the best predictor of your personal success is the background of your parents. If your parents went to college, you probably will too. If they went to a Top 10 College, your chances of getting into one dramatically increases.
Of course, most would say that doing well in school has to do with character traits. But how inherent are those traits? Am I a hard worker because that’s the way I am or is it because I was lucky enough to be born to parents who taught me the value of hard work? If my intelligence is at least partially due to my genetics, then is it fair for me to earn more money as a result?
If my wealth is due at least in part to luck and the privileged background I was born into, then is it ok to tax my income and give it to other people who are less fortunate?
3. Is Making More Information Available Always a Good Thing?
When we talk about the tug between hiding information or making it available, we are usually referring to government and corporate secrecy. The question of how much information the government should share with the public is its own thorny problem, but I’m asking a much broader question: does having more information always lead us to make better decisions?
Consider medical studies. You once had to go to a specialized library to read them, but now a lot of them are available online to anybody with an internet connection. That has undoubtedly improved a lot of lives, but it has also allowed people to selectively cite evidence in order to assert that vaccines cause autism.
I’m not saying we should institute a censorship regime or make information hidden from the public. Those would be terrible ideas. But whereas people once dreamed that the rise of the internet would lead to people making better decisions due to more widely available information, we now know that’s not true at all. Is it enough to just release information and trust people to figure it out? Do we need to also release interpretations to guide how people receive this information and think about it?
4. When Should We Let People Make Their Own Choices?
Your first reaction upon reading that question was probably, “Everybody should always be allowed to make their own choices. Duh.” But stop and think about that for a second. How far are you willing to take that belief?
We don’t allow people choose an attorney without a legal education to represent them in court. It doesn’t matter how much research the person has done, how carefully they have considered the ramifications of their decision, or how much time they’ve spent weighing costs and benefits. People are allowed to represent themselves in court, but if they are going to have a representative, that person must have a law degree and have good standing in the bar association. We’ve placed this restriction because an incompetent lawyer can do enormous damage to their client.
Similarly, we require that all prescription drugs should undergo clinical trials and be approved by the FDA. We don’t expect that patients will do their own research on a drug, find out its effects, and then make a decision for themselves about what medications to take.
There are certain kinds of complicated investments that members of the general public are not allowed to invest in. That’s because they are so complicated that most people can’t understand them and therefore they cannot properly understand the risk they are taking on.
But if that’s the case, then why do we allow people to choose their own health insurance policy? If you think about it, a health insurance policy is very much like a financial instrument. Choosing the ideal policy for yourself involves making a risk assessment about the future and then evaluating the monetary value of various insurance options to figure out what has the best chance of reducing your financial exposure. Do we really think most Americans are going to be good at making that decision?
Where I live, people can choose which company supplies electricity to them. You would think this is a good idea, but it has led to a lot of scams as power suppliers promise one thing and then hide a lot of costs in fine print. Is it really such a bad idea to just let some appointed panel of experts make that decision for us?
5. Do You Always Know What’s Best For Yourself?
Modern cognitive science tells us that humans are pretty bad at figuring things out. We are prone to react on an emotional level instead of figuring things out dispassionately. We make really weird risk assessments such as being frightened of terrorism or violent crime while not being terribly concerned about automobile accidents. When presented with a change that will make our lives better, we usually gripe about how that change disrupts our routine or makes our lives worse in one way while completely ignoring how that change makes us measurably better.
What’s even worse: we’re all hard-wired to think that we are completely rational. We don’t like to think of ourselves as relatively foolish animals who stumble around the world guided by instincts and primal emotions.
This is one reason why a lot of decisions in the American government is made by appointed experts and bureaucrats who are largely unknown to the public. When it comes time to decide whether we should adapt one particular broadcast spectrum standard or another, we don’t put that up to a vote. We let some duly appointed experts make that decision for us and mostly go along with it.
But if you take this too far, you end up with paternalism and policies such as banning large sugary drinks. There’s no doubt that a soda ban would make all of our lives better, but we have decided that as a moral principle, we won’t allow the government to make that decision.
So the question is where do we draw the line?