On Feedback and Data Gathering

Expressing an opinion is free.  Everyone will tell you they think your idea is good.  That’s not the same as giving up something to read it or listen to it or purchase it.  Focus groups, surveys, polls, and research can’t tell you as much as putting a product or idea out into the world.  In a marketplace where people have to trade-off other opportunities to take advantage of what you’ve made, you’ll learn more about its value than any test-case or lab experiment.

It doesn’t mean you can’t gather some facts or be informed.  But it’s more important to have a sound theory, and a clear bet on what gap you’re filling or value you’re creating than it is to have a lot of cost-less expressions from disinterested parties of whether or not they imagine it will be valuable.

Do it if it’s valuable to you and if you believe in your unique vision.  Do it if the process of answering the question, “Is this a good idea?” is exciting in and of itself.  Do it if you’re willing to fail to get the answer.

If You Did Vote, Don’t Complain

Sometimes people say, “If you didn’t vote, don’t complain.”  Nonsense.  Everyone can complain.  Complaining about pompous politicians and oppressive regulations doesn’t require participation in popularity lotteries.  In fact, if one were to stipulate who has less reason to complain, it would be those who do vote, not those who ignore the charade.

To the extent that voting is a kind of ascent to the political process, those who do it are implicitly agreeing to abide by the outcome.  I don’t really think voters can’t complain or that voting means you submit to any outcome of politics, but for many who believe in the process, the ritual is an attempt to cleanse oneself of guilt.  Your show of support for thug A means you can feel self-righteous when nearly identical thug B advocates bad things.  Yet it’s the process, the institutional setting itself not those elected within it, that creates the bad things.

Voting is not the way to cleanse yourself from guilt or attempt to achieve social objectives.  Many people argue that voting shows you are civic-minded and highly engaged.  This is a lot of horse manure.  Voting makes you less engaged, less humane, less civic-minded, and less effective at creating the kind of world you want to live in.  There are three primary reasons voting is problematic:

1) Sometimes it works.  If your candidate wins and implements the policy you like, you might feel good because now people will be told to do things the way you prefer.  But consider what this really means.  It means violence.  It means your preferred social change is being generated by force.  That’s an ugly reality any decent person should want to distance themselves from.  If you can’t get there peacefully, maybe you shouldn’t try to get there at all.

2) Whether or not it works, it has side-effects.  If your person or policy wins or loses, whatever political ploys are put into practice have myriad deleterious effects on the world.  Well-meaning minimum wage laws make the poor less employable.  Well-meaning environmental laws encourage waste, fraud, abuse, and price the poor out of many markets.  The list goes on.  You probably don’t know enough about the complex world to know the unintended consequences of top-down enforcement of any policy.  Let the more dynamic, adaptable, open social process figure out the trade-offs instead of a zero-sum either/or ballot box.

3) It reduces the incentive to engage in civil society.  When you vote for something you relieve the pressure to do something more meaningful.  Voting offers just enough satiation for your heart and mind so you can return to your regularly scheduled programming.  It makes people self-righteous and annoying.  It incentivizes signalling you care instead of figuring out how to really care enough to bring about change.  It turns friends into enemies.  It saps creativity by offering a brute, ham-fisted quick-fix.  If you get a bunch of kids together and they disagree about toys or rules of a game they’re less likely to find a creative solution if you also give them a magic authority hat that anyone who wins a vote can wear, thereby conferring the power to dictate all rules and dole out punishments and favors.  Voting makes us little barbarians.

Don’t let people tell you a good citizen must vote.  Quite the opposite.  Abstain, and get busy building your own life and world in a positive, productive, cooperative, and civilized manner.

Voters are Liars

I recently heard a political commentator bemoan the results of surveys and elections.  He said the sad truth, whether libertarians wanted to hear it or not, is that Americans want big government.  They want handouts, high taxes, regulatory interference, and on and on.  They vote for people who talk about it.  They re-elect them when they deliver it.  On opinion surveys they favor entitlement programs and broad intervention.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

A person who studies only quarterbacks is likely to interpret an NFL game as the result of QB play.  A person who immerses themselves in politics is likely to interpret society as the result of political opinion and activity.  In the former case, there is at least plausible evidence that QB’s are a major factor.  In the latter, it is almost entirely an illusion that politics and political sentiment reveal the broader health of liberty.

Voters are liars.  They tell the truth about their opinion in the abstract, free from trade-offs and constraints, but this has little to no meaning when translated into the real world.  If I asked you to vote between a person who offered a better world, and one who offered a less bad world, and promised that your vote was guaranteed to not change the outcome either way, what would you do?  What could I conclude about your preferences from your vote?

If I polled you and asked whether or not you like the idea of someone giving you something for free, again promising that how you answered had no bearing on the real world, what would you say?  What could I learn from that about your values?

Voting and surveys are free ways to express a sentiment or indulge in a real or desired preference.  Not only that, the sentiments expressed are not about the real world.  Politics is a zero sum game, completely unlike nearly every other arena of life.  Imagine how different your preferences would be if everything were zero-sum like politics.  What if you had to choose once for all between brands of coffee, cars or clothing?  What if you could not go back, at least not for several years, and try another?  What if whatever a majority in your area voted on would be applied to everyone else?  Under this scenario we could poll people and ask which of three or four brands they prefer.  We’d get some data, but it would reveal nothing whatsoever about what people actually value if they were choosing in the non-zero-sum marketplace and bearing the full costs and benefits of their choices.

Back to society today.  Do people really favor less liberty and more government?  Elections and polls are a very poor measure.  Let’s not look at stated preferences about the artificial political world, but revealed preferences in the real world of win-wins, marginal decision making, internalized costs and benefits, and trade-offs.  If you examine the market, what would you say people are “voting” for?  Radically individualistic technology.  More and more choice.  Freedom from being lumped in with groups.  The ability to choose everything.  Private alternatives to government dominated services like transportation, information transmission, education, protection, rule-making  social norms and values, health maintenance, and on and on.

Don’t listen so much to what people say, look at what they reveal by their actions.  Nobody admits to loving Barry Manilow, but the guy sells a ton of records.  No one says they want to abolish public education, but they keep putting their resources into alternatives to it.

Frankly, I don’t care what people say in polls or who they vote for in the fairyland of politics.  What I see around me – the revealed preferences of billions of earth’s citizens – is a vote, indeed a mandate, for more freedom.