This has been something that I have been thinking about for the entire duration of the election: in what meaningful sense am I qualified to vote based on the policy prescriptions of the candidates in an epistemological uncertain environment?
In other words: how am I qualified to vote if I don’t know shit about the candidates’ policies?
And by “knowing” the candidates’ policies, I do not mean knowing just what they are, but actually how they work, what their rationales are, what evidence they have presented, and what empirical consequences their proposed policies might have, and finally, what alternative policies have been put forth.
I set the bar for “knowing” this high because I think it is nowhere near enough to know what their policies are. For instance, in the Democratic primary elections, it is not enough to “know” that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have policies that will supposedly achieve universal healthcare coverage, because if you already value universal healthcare as a policy goal, such as I do, then this knowledge nothing to tell you how you ought to decide between them.
But let’s go to a higher level of abstraction: what qualifies me to think that universal healthcare is desirable? In asking myself this question, there are both deontological and utilitarian considerations that I have to take into account. First, I might have deontological reasons to think that widespread access to healthcare promotes an important moral value. Second, however, there might be utilitarian considerations that could possibly demonstrate that a government-run universal healthcare program might not promote the value that I want, or might not do it in a way that is consonant with other moral values that I might have.
Again, it is apparent to me that it is not enough just to know what moral values I want promoted, but also to know the actual, empirical policies so that I can decide whether those policies promote my moral values in a way consistent with my other moral values, or even whether such policies promote my moral value in any effective, meaningful manner.
The problem lies in this: I do not have the necessary knowledge to take into account the utilitarian considerations of any given public policy. In this specific case, I have no idea whose healthcare policy would best promote my desired value of widespread access to healthcare; nor do I have the policy knowledge to decide whose policies promote that value in a way that is most consistent with my overall value framework.
I do not have any advanced degrees in the relevant fields, such as economics, public health, or public policy. If I were to look at the candidates’ white papers, I would be lost. If I were to look at the raw data from which the candidates drew their policy conclusions, I would also be unable to make sense of them.
Furthermore, I cannot turn to experts to settle the question, because the experts disagree. Some say that Obama and Clinton have no meaningful differences when it comes to their healthcare policies; others say that there are. Some say that one candidates’ policy is better than the other, while others reject both candidates’ policies altogether and propose their own alternatives.
Again, to whom should I turn to settle the question? Surely the answer cannot be a higher set of experts, because that would go into an infinite regress. In order to stop this regress, I would have to be able to make my own decision. But the question still remains: what qualifies me to make a meaningful judgment about the experts’ judgments if I lack the qualification to make a direct judgment on the policies themselves?
And if I cannot use knowledge to arbitrate between experts, what else is left to me? Ideology? Perhaps; after all, that is how many people decide whom to trust. To oversimplify a bit, a voter who lack the necessary knowledge might trust the conclusions of the Heritage Foundation if his political tendency leans to the right.
But this method of deciding whom to trust is arbitrary: there is no necessary or logical connection between the empirical claims made by someone and their ideology. I might be politically left-leaning, but I cannot make any kind of a priori argument that an expert at the American Enterprise Institute is never to be trusted and that an expert at The Brookings Institute is to be always trusted.
So again, I am left the question: how am I to decide? Again I am left with no reliable method of determining which candidates and which policies would promote moral values important to me in the most effective way that is consistent with my other moral values.
Thus, I am forced to conclude that I, for all intents and purposes, do not have the qualifications to make choices of healthcare policies.
Connected with that conclusion is my continual and increasing doubts about the basis of legitimacy for democratic voting procedures. If the policies that affect the state are increasingly scientific and technical, based more and more on empirical evidence and considerations, then what makes democratic procedures legitimate if most of the participants cannot consider the evidence which make up policy prescriptions?