Often in life we are required to make decisions or act when we are not fully informed. At times we are unaware of our relative ignorance, or are in a circumstance where we must make a decision regardless. In these circumstances we often rely on previously developed heuristics.
Heuristics are a type of mental shortcut which act as a guide to making decisions based on more general ideas without extensive knowledge. Though imperfect, they are a necessary element in human behavior. It is impossible for one to know everything about everything, or even enough to discuss something at the level of an expert on a wide range of topics. Frequently we are in situations where applying our imperfect knowledge, often garnered through a process like trial and error, is good enough for the time being even though it may not be optimal. In terms of a cost-benefit analysis this tends to save us large amounts of time and effort in research and learning when it may not be easily attained or reflects a low pay-out.
However, heuristics can be harmful as well. Stereotyping is one example, though not always so, of a heuristic that can lead to undesired social or personal outcomes. There is even an area of psychological study that explores heuristics and related cognitive biases, some of which may be problematic in certain situations. Arnold Kling, an economist, also has an excellent book discussing three linguistic heuristics each found predominately in the more common political ideologies. Kling discusses how these heuristics have strengthened political divides and how we can learn the heuristics of others to better be able to communicate across ideological divides. I agree with his assessment and advice, however, I think there are broader political heuristics people rely on in political decision-making, related to those discussed by Kling, but instead of illustrating how we engage in public discourse, explain how we view political decision-making, particularly when voting for and supporting candidates and issues. Of the two major political decision heuristics, one advocates that “the government solve x” while the other says “allow people to be as free possible in order to solve x.” Of the two neither is completely dominate in traditional voting blocs. In fact, each traditional party has adopted a bit of each depending on the topic, as have voters. Also, neither is perfectly represented in each political decision as each political choice is not presented as a clear cut selection between intervention and freedom. For my purposes, I will refer to these two political decision-making heuristics as the intervention heuristic, denoting a desire for a government body to intervene, and the freedom heuristic, which reflects reliance on free-market and other self-organizing methods.
It is worth noting that there is the appearance of a third heuristic, that of pragmatism. However, the pragmatism heuristic will almost inevitably lead to the intervention heuristic (though not always). Due to the fact that the pragmatic approach often assumes a “do something” mentality. In the context of political decision-making the result suggest that a central solution be pursued. Particularly in contrast to the freedom heuristic which often looks like “doing nothing.” To restate and clarify, when faced with two opposing political decisions a pragmatic approach will favor the interventionist approach as it has the appearance of problem solving while the freedom approach has the appearance of maintaining the status quo or doing nothing.
Though I feel, for reasons to be outlined, that the freedom heuristic is superior, I do not think that heuristics alone are sufficient for good political decision-making. However, they do serve as placeholders until more fully informed opinions are developed. It is also worth noting there is a tendency to replace one heuristic with the other when we are challenged. But replacing one heuristic with another doesn’t expose either to the rigor necessary to determine the reliability of either, this is particularly true when the heuristics are in tension or mutually exclusive. Indeed, the value of the heuristic, when challenged, must be tested against a more refined standard.
Heuristics are generally challenged when confronted with factual scenarios that do not initially match our held heuristic, at which point one may either double-down on the previous heuristic (and as a result appear insensitive, selfish, out-of-touch, regressive, ignorant, etc.), adopt the challenging heuristic (“the market failed therefore intervention is the answer”) or begin to fill in the heuristic with more accurate, often nuanced arguments. Since heuristics may be vulnerable to particular facts or arguments that push against their weak points, we at times are confronted with dissonance between assertions from others and our own heuristics. As our heuristics are often related to our closely held beliefs they tend to bleed into political decision-making, and when dissonance arises we double-down more often than adopt the alternative heuristic. However, I believe we are more likely to adopt the alternative heuristic than we are to fill an old heuristic with knowledge and careful analysis. This may sound like a critique of the intellect of those who use this strategy, but adopting heuristics is a time-saving rational behavior (even when based on instinct) and is often sufficient to deal with complex and nuanced scenarios, unknowns, and difficult-to-understand arguments that may be necessary to reach sound intellectual conclusions, but do not yield enough pay-off to be worth the investment. At least until something changes.
The gun debate serves as a useful example. Generally speaking, two competing heuristics exist regarding guns – that of gun rights (freedom heuristic) or of gun control (intervention heuristic- advocating some form of regulation/restriction). When confronted with terrible tragedies those of the latter heuristics are emboldened to challenge the former. Indeed, these tragedies serve as uncomfortable reminders for many and as a result many double down on their preferred heuristics. Feeling challenged often leads to a reactionary response to clutch tightly to one’s preferred heuristic.
Those opposed to gun control are often confronted by those in favor in this context, primarily with the assertion that tragedies of this nature would not occur as frequently or as catastrophically in a counterfactual that includes some restriction on guns. These assertions often are accompanied with common refrains that rely heavily on the intervention heuristic. These arguments also rely heavily on phrases designed to imbue credibility to an argument without actually making one. Phrases such as “why don’t we enact common sense gun control” or similarly “reasonable gun control.” This isn’t committed by just one ideological side. Terms like “reasonable” and “common sense” are employed with regularity to add authority to both respective positions. This is clearly just appealing to the default political decision-making heuristic. Yet we use these terms due to our heuristic nature, in part because we aren’t entirely aware we are relying on heuristics. Thus, when we are challenged to learn about contributing factors regarding a topic such as violence, we have the tendency to fall back on our previously held beliefs. To be clear, I am in no way advocating unaltered allegiance to heuristics. Instead, I’m recognizing that they are unavoidable, yet if we are willing to replace them with better arguments for our positions instead of the alternatively proposed heuristic we can engage in better political decision-making and more fruitful conversation.
As with most topics, the topic of gun control can yield a significant amount of important information necessary to help form ideas, but this information can also strengthen previously held beliefs instead of form into well thought out opinions. Looking into the relevant facts and context can paint a different picture than we often receive from those more focused on reflexive sloganeering, most of it mentioned to reinforce political allegiance. Yet, honestly pursuing the relevant information of most political topics often delves deep into moral and political philosophy, economics, or topics concerning the right to self-defense, constitutional limits, legal arguments, or utilitarian and empirical claims, and history – all of which are significantly more complex than the heuristical maxims frequently relied on when discussing the right to keep and bear arms.
Alas, such knowledge is challenging to acquire, it requires time and can often be intellectually rigorous. Further complicating the scenario is we are often in a position to make political decisions before we are fully informed on a multitude of topics. The result is an unavoidable reliance on heuristics until they are supplanted with a more complex and nuanced understanding of the topics at hand.
In light of the fact that knowledge is costly to acquire (it consumes resources, primarily time) and heuristics are ultimately inevitable, one should simultaneously adopt a heuristic which allows for better decision making while not reject outright more nuanced replacements or challenges. A default heuristic combined with a diligent effort to uncover the difficult contributing factors, underlying theories, moral concerns, or political theories will push the political process to better outcomes.
Regarding which heuristic to adopt, one is left with two basic choices outlined above (discarding the pragmatic heuristic for the reasons outlined). The intervention heuristic and the freedom heuristic. I believe the freedom heuristic deserves priority over the intervention heuristic for two reasons: Skepticism of centralized action and moral hesitation regarding the compulsion of others.
One may feel skeptic of freedom and the ability of others to make good, socially beneficial decisions. However, the default position regarding skepticism should err toward freedom. As Hayek pointed out, there is knowledge that cannot be known by a central body. As a result, central bodies tend to make rather significant errors. This limitation is often ignored because many have an unrealistic conception of government. As Mike Munger illustrated, we often have a “unicorn” conception of government. As a result we are often comparing our skeptical versions of freedom and free markets with our idealistic view of government and democracy. Instead one should be more skeptical of a body of a few over a more flexible body that arranges itself in voluntary arrangements to solve problems. One is a small group with imperfect signals, information, and an unclear mandate (due to public choice problems) while the other is a large group of people with the freedom to explore and apply the magnifying or synergistic effects associated with mutual voluntary association and responding to the demands of others. Thus a skeptical position errs on the side of freedom unless significant evidence compels otherwise. In other words, it sufficiently overcomes a burden of proof showing the inability of private actors to solve dilemmas of general concern. This narrows the list of possible interventions to a short list of clear market failures. (Though I’m not always convinced each termed market failure requires government action, I think this is a good jumping off point and default heuristic).
The second point is that it is difficult to overcome the moral issues associated with compelling others to act against their interest or preferences. In fact, this point is so compelling that many philosophers who deal with these arguments, even those who are of a more centralized or leftist philosophy, tend to agree. In simple terms it is difficult to suggest that one person, or group of persons, has moral authority over any other individual. Overcoming these moral concerns should require some evidentiary burden demonstrating that it is necessary to impose restrictions on others via government intervention. Thus the default freedom heuristic should only be replaced by narrowly tailored solutions designed to solve well established problems that impose a moral cost on others. This is essentially the process of replacing the freedom heuristic with a well-informed developed case against it. No matter how necessary one feels government is, caution should be exercised when engaging in a morally dubious act, i.e. the political decision-making process.
In closing, it is important to recognize our inability to have even sufficient knowledge regarding most topics to be informed political decision makers. As Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan and most recently Jason Brennan have pointed out, political ignorance is a real and substantial problem, one which isn’t overcome at for most at the individual by the time they are eligible for participation in the political decision-making process, i.e. democracy and voting. However, adopting a heuristic of freedom can help fill the knowledge gap and improve the political process.
James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Some of his favorite ways to break down heuristics include listening to EconTalk with Russ Roberts (@econtalker), The Cato Daily Podcast with Caleb Brown (@cobrown), and Free Thoughts with Trevor Burrus and Aaron Ross Powell (@TCBurrus and @ARossP respectively). Though he is always looking for good information heavy podcasts that address political, economic, and legal issues. He also enjoys reading from different viewpoints and participates in discussions with friends and acquaintances from all parts of the political spectrum. Follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1. All views are representative of author only and not of any affiliate or employer.