Why Polls are a Danger to Democracy


Does this poll reflect the true preferences of the Dutch population?

It is 13 March 2017, and the intermediate polls of the Dutch election suggest that it is going to be a close call between the Dutch Liberal Party (VVD) and the populist Party for Freedom (PVV). Who is going to be the biggest party of the Netherlands? Both parties are currently leading in the polls, and the winner will lead the formation of a new government, and most likely provide the new prime minister. So the stakes are high.

Now suppose you don’t agree with the VVD. You prefer a more progressive party (such as GroenLinks or D66). However, one thing is for sure: you don’t want Geert Wilders (PVV) to win, let alone become the prime minister. What do you do, knowing that it is going to be a close call between the VVD and the PVV? Do you vote for the party that truly reflects your preferences (GroenLinks or D66 in this example), or do you vote for the Dutch Liberal Party, knowing that you prefer the Liberals to the Populists?

The last option (to vote ‘strategically’, or not on your most preferred candidate) is handed to you only because of the information you derived from the intermediate polls. It is only because you know what the result of the election will be – given that people will vote as indicated in the poll – that you can adjust your vote to it.

But this raises a question: do we want people to have the opportunity to vote strategically? Or differently: should we allow for intermediate polls?

Democracy as a reflection of voters true preferences

This basically comes down to another question: what do we want the election results to be a reflection of? Do we want the results to be a reflection of the true preferences of the members of a population (meaning: if 20% of the people most prefer the VVD, then the VVD will get 20% of the votes, etc)? Or do we want the results to be a reflection of both true preferences and insincere preferences (i.e., 30% of the people vote for the VVD, even though only 20% has the VVD as their preferred option, with the other 10% preferring the VVD to the PVV).

I think no reasonable person would say that we hold elections to elicit insincere preferences. After all: what is the point of a democratic election in case we want to end up with election results that don’t reflect the population’s true preferences? This might even contradict the notion of democracy itself. So we want to elicit the true preferences of voters through an election.

However, by publishing intermediate polls, we entice people to cast votes that don’t reflect their true preferences (i.e., voting for the most preferred candidate), as shown by the example above. Hence the election result will not be an accurate representation of people’s preferences, hence not an optimal form of democracy.

Bandwagon effect

But there is another argument to be made against polls: the bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect implies that the rate of uptake of beliefs increase with the number of people already holding the belief. In practice this means that people, seeing a poll in which party x has more seats than party y, become more inclined to vote for party x than y, ceterus paribus. The result is that x gets more votes than it would have gotten in case the polls wouldn’t have been published, and another party – possibly y – less. Still: we end up a with election results that are different from what they would have been in case we didn’t publish the polls.

But you can also approach the issue from another angle by simply asking: what is the added value of polls? What do polls contribute to society? ‘Information,’ one could say: ‘information about the voting behaviour of the population.’ But what can we use this information for? We cannot use it to change the voting behaviour of others. So for that purpose it’s useless. It can only be used to change one’s own voting behaviour.

Banning polls

So it seems that the only contribution of polling is that it allows for changing your vote in light of the voting behaviour of others? Well, we have just established that this is not a good thing in a democracy. Therefore polling has no added value to society.

Assuming that all of the above is true, why then allow polls? Banning polls is not some far-fetched idea. It already happens in many countries, including France (on the day before the election) and Italy (15 days before the election).

And given the negative effect of polling on the democratic process, this might not be such a bad idea.

Why Voting on Trump Now is Especially Bad

Today another terrorist attack hit a major city in Europe. After Paris, today Brussels was hit. Naturally people are scared, and want to feel safe. Hence it seems attractive to support a political party which implements policies that at first sight seem to increase one’s safety. Think about people such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, or Donald Trump in the USA.

Geert Wilders for example wants to close its country’s borders, and stop emigration from Muslim countries. Wilders’ policies are part of a much broader agenda; an agenda that is characterized by a core of anti-Islam. He condemns pretty much anything that has to do with the Islamic ideology. Donald Trump might be even worse: he wants to ban any Muslim from emigrating to the USA.

Although such measures might appear to improve the safety of the average citizen, one can legitimately doubt whether such policies will make our lives safer, instead of less safe.

For suppose more people vote on Wilders or Trump. Then Wilders/Trump will implement more anti-Muslim policies, which not only creates a more apparent difference between Muslims and not-Muslims, but might also make Muslims feel more oppressed in their own country, which in turn could cause resistance. They might start thinking: ‘If you guys won’t accept us and our ideas, then we might have to force you to respect us another way’. Or: ‘Given that you don’t respect us, we see little reason to respect you’. This feeling might not directly cause terrorism, but it could lead to an increased sense of suppression within the country’s Muslim community, which might stimulate the occurrence of a breeding ground for (violent) resistance.

But even without political anti-Muslim measures being implemented, increased support for anti-Muslim politicians might in itself make Muslims feel like they are not accepted, not even in their own country, thereby creating resistance. After all: how would you feel to live in a country (such as the Netherlands) in which 1 in every 3 people on the street votes for a party whose main message it is to suppress your kind of people. I can imagine that you won’t feel much compassion for your fellow citizens.

Especially in this time, when the tensions between Muslims and not-Muslims seems relatively large, voting for people who increase this tension even further might be particularly problematic.

What do you think?

Violence against Public Servants: Should It be Punished Harder?


Should ambulance personnel receive extra protection from the state?

Ambulance personnel, police officers and firemen: people that, day in and day out, prevent our society from turning into a complete chaos. They support us so that we can live our lives without having to worry about our human rights being infringed upon. But what if these servants themselves become infringed upon their basic human rights? What if they are violated, both mentally and physically? There are governments, including the Dutch one, that have made explicit their intention to punish violence against public servants harder than violence against ‘regular’ (non-public servant) citizens. But, is this decision justified? And, more importantly, why would that be so?

Let’s think about it. You could claim that abusing a public servant is more severe than abusing a regular citizen because, by abusing a public servant, the perpetrator not only violates the rights of the servant but also the rights of the other members of society who are entitled to the services of the servant. After all, attacking the staff of an ambulance not only harms the ambulance workers, but indirectly also the patient that is (supposed to be) treated by these men and women. The same goes for police officers: abusing these men and women not only harms them, but also the citizens waiting to be helped by the police officers. Thus the physical or mental abuse of a public servant not only hurts the servants themselves, but also the citizens who are supposed to be served by the servants. And therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished harder than the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, by abusing a public servant you are infringing upon what might be the controlling or correcting power of the state, which might be a violation in itself. That is, public servants are appointed to guard the laws we have set as a society, including the law condemning violence against other persons. Therefore, by abusing a pubic servant, you are not only attacking a member of our society, but you also resist the authority (ambulance personnel, police etc.) a (democratic) society has decided should safeguard our rights. Hence, abusing public servants is more wrong than abusing a regular citizen, and thus should be punished harder.

One the other hand, a public servant is just as much human as a regular citizen. Therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished equally hard as the abuse of a regular citizen. There is no reason why the live of a public servant would be worth more than the life of a regular citizen, right? Just because he or she fulfils a certain position within our society? Isn’t someone’s profession totally irrelevant when it comes down to our most fundamental rights, including the right not the abused by others? If that would indeed be the case, then there would be no justification for punishing the abuse of a public servant any differently from the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, you could say, the abuse of a public servant is in no way a more severe violation against the state and its controlling power than is the abuse of a regular citizen. That is to say that the violation of another person’s well-being is just as much a violation of a fundamental right as would be the violation of the state’s controlling power, and thus should be punished equally hard. After all: the state’s integrity is no more important than any citizen’s integrity. Hence, attacking the former should be punished equally as attacking the latter.

Personally, I believe that both positions are well defensible. However, I consider the first position to be more reasonable. By taking away another person’s right to be saved or defended by a public servant, more parties seem to be hurt in abusing a public servant than in the abuse of what is ‘only’ a regular citizen. And surely, it might not only be a servants’ duty to assist other people when they are in need; you and I might be just as capable in doing that. This might cast doubt on the idea of granting them an extra form of protection. But that doesn’t change the fact that a public servant is explicitly appointed to fulfil this duty within our society; and that might have to be taken into account.

But what do you think?

I Find it Offensive that You Find it Offensive

A while ago, I was watching a YouTube video of Hans Teeuwen (a Dutch comedian) having a discussion with three Muslim women. The women invited him to talk about – as they claimed – his discriminatory beliefs about Muslims. Teeuwen is a comedian who intents to provoke, make you think and attack dogma – not only the Islam. At a certain point in the interview, the women asked Teeuwen: ‘Don’t you mind offending people?’ Teeuwen responded: ‘I don’t think I’m offending anyone. Who do you think I’m offending?’ The women said: ‘Well, us for example. We are offended by your claims about Allah.’ Teeuwen said: ‘Really? Well, I’m offended that you’re offended by my claims about Allah.’ ‘I think it’s of great importance to be able to say what you want in a democratic society, without people like you trying to silence me. That’s what I find offending.’

I found this a very accurate observation. Religious groups – but other minorities as well – have a tendency to act like they’re being victimized, like they’re are being attacked just because their beliefs differ from those of the mainstream. This is a trick they’ve taught themselves, and that they use as a shield whenever they’re being ‘attacked’ by non-believers because of whatever it is they happen to believe. They crawl back into their shell of convictions and claim to be offended, thereby hoping that the ‘offending’ party will stop throwing its beliefs at them, and just leave them alone.

But what if the beliefs of the offended party are considered to be offensive by other people? What if non-Muslims find headscarves to be a sign of suppression, a sign – religious or not – that should not be tolerated in a democratic society: a society in which equality of rights is considered to be a great good. What then? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who is the offender and who is the offended? Or are both parties occupying both roles at the same time?

This is an important question because it points to the heart of democracy. In a democracy – especially through freedom of speech – people should be able to express themselves and, as a logical consequence of that, should lend others this right as well. And since it’s impossible to say what claims are offensive in any absolute way (see the Teeuwen example) we should be tolerant towards all claims, and hope that the ones we find most reasonable will be the ones that become accepted by the majority. And, since democracy is such a widespread institution in this world of ours, it seems that the majority of people has the same set of fundamental beliefs as you and I have, one of which is freedom of speech: whether we find this offensive or not.

But what do you think?

Elections and the Duty to be Genuine

Voting: the only legitimate manner in a democratic society for distributing power. The question is: how do we want to distribute this power? Do we want liberals in charge and hope for the government to back off? Or would we rather see our state becoming more social; helping those that have been unfortunate? In this relatively long article, I want to make claim in favor of being anti-social, or at least not being disingenuously social. But why would that be a good thing? In order to see that, we first have to understand a little about free markets and prices.

Maybe you have heard the name of Friedrich Hayek. He was one of the, if the not the most, prominent economists of the 20th century. Hayek was a leading figure in the battle for free markets. He condemned intervention by the government in the market, and he condemned central planning by the government even more. By “central planning” I am referring to the state deciding where its resources should be allocated to. The reason Hayek objected against central planning was as follows: Hayek believed that the economy was incredibly complex; that there is an infinite amount of interests that have to be dealt with. And, Hayek said, it is impossible for a state to get to know all the interests and all of the individual preferences of its citizens. That is, it is impossible for a state to know that John likes shoes and that he is prepared to pay a lot money in order to buy some, and that Susan absolutely hates shoes and doesn’t want to pay any money in order to buy some.

The only manner, according to Hayek, by which to get a clear insight into the tremendous complexity of people’s preferences is through the market. Or, to be more specific, through the price that comes about in the market. Only by taking a look at the price that comes about through totally unhindered supply and demand, we would be able to come to grips with the (possibly) conflicting preferences of society’s members. And it is not just that the market informs us about the value of goods: it also regulates buyers’ and sellers’ behaviors.

You can see why central planning doesn’t provide this opportunity to extract all the relevant information from its citizens: there is no price mechanism that can take care of the interplay of individual preferences, and make sure that goods (or services) are distributed in a fair manner. Thus, it is only when the state starts messing around, when it takes control of the market process, that the only source of tremendously valuable information get’s ruined.

I want to take a look at Hayek’s explanation of the price as being the most perfect indicator of the individual preferences of the members of society. That, through the market mechanism, each member of society can obtain all the information (s)he needs in order to make a reasonable decision. Thus, and I am sorry if I am repeating myself, if every member of society would act according to his or her set of desires, the market would take care of the rest; the prices will come about in such a manner that everyone’s interests are taken care of. This is the closest we would be capable of getting to know all the relevant information required to allocate resources perfectly.

Now, let’s imagine that we would apply Hayek’s free market idea to the election process in a democratic society. The process in which the citizens of a state decide who they want that represents them in parliament. We could interpret the number of votes a party receives to be equal to the notion of price in a free market, and the parties people vote for to be an expression of their individual preferences. But this is not “just” an expression of their individual preferences; it is the most complete expression attainable. Parliament is, given that all of society’s members act in line with their true beliefs about how society should be, a direct representation of the preferences of society. And it this representation that could have never been attained by even slightly deviating from a fully genuine voting system. The only difference between an economy and politics seems that, instead of the price, the resulting equilibrium is the distribution of seats in parliament.

So, what are the implications of this observation? First of all, a rather obvious implication is that dictatorial regimes can impossibly posses all the relevant information in order to distribute its resources (the seats in parliament and thus, indirectly, the state’s money) in perfect harmony with the complexity of the preferences of the state’s members. Another, less obvious, implication is that each member of society should be completely genuine in expressing his or her individual preferences in the election process. That is, we should not vote according to the preferences of our mother or daughter, or not even because of our “empathy” with the sick, unless this empathy is genuinely meant by the voting person. If not, the ideal of a perfect representation of society has become unattainable.

Thus, the moral of this story is, don’t be disingenuous in expressing your vote. Don’t vote for a party if you don’t genuinely consider this to be the best possible option. Don’t vote for a party because society finds this the “most decent thing to do”. Because it is only by being fully genuine about what you believe to be right or wrong that all individual preferences can be listened to and processed in the market mechanism called election.

But what do you think?