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Good Intentions, Bad Consequences: Voters’ Information Problems
Phillip Nelson
AuthorHouse, 164 pages, (paperback) $4.99, 9781524673796
(Reviewed: January 2018)

Economist Phillip Nelson, diving deeply into the rich research about why people vote the way they do, surfaces with a new and interesting, albeit challenging, model.

While many analyses of voting behavior focus on factors such as self-interest, Nelson introduces the concept of “naïve altruists” who, in their resolve to “do good,” too often ignore information about the important consequences of the public policies they advocate. For them, intentions are more important than outcomes. Just trying to do good is good enough.

Information in this Internet age certainly is readily available to everyone, yet Nelson maintains that political ignorance is rampant. He argues that naïve altruists intentionally avoid information that would upset their pre-conceived notions of doing good. It’s a matter of “confirmation bias”—choosing to accept only information that ratifies their pre-conceived notions.

Nelson also contends that naïve altruists are more characteristic of liberals, who tend to avoid accurate cost-benefit analyses of programs they advocate. Thus, they prefer to ignore studies that show, for example, the negative effects of raising the minimum wage. Or the anti-growth consequences of income redistribution.

Obviously, liberals will find much in this to dispute, although Nelson cites myriad social science studies to support his thesis. His conclusions may be arguable, but not easily dismissible. To be understood, this book requires thoughtful reading, with frequent pauses to reflect on the argumentation. This is not for readers looking for a skimmable polemic. Written in an academic style, it confronts laymen with the language of the soft sciences, such as “cohort effect” and “externalities.”

While its audience is decidedly niche, Good Intentions, Bad Consequences will appeal to academics, policy wonks, politicians and those more familiar with voting behavior research. Such readers will find it a valuable addition to literature devoted to understanding a topic vital to a successful democracy.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.


The US Review of Books

Good Intentions—Bad Consequences: Voters’ Information Problems
by Phillip Nelson


“Everybody would like to wrap their political position in the mantle of altruism. That wrap also improves their evaluation of themselves.”

The author has published this book as a new approach to understanding voter choice. Nelson’s impressive economic credentials give weight to his argument that more information about bad consequences could have changed the results of recent elections. He predicts that in the future such information can sway the votes of conservatives, liberals, altruists (liberal and naïve), and even Republicans and Democrats.

The book starts with explaining the good intentions that have caused a clash among voters. Those who exercise their rights at the polls often share similar altruistic motives. Most people want to help the less fortunate. Many believe it will take a redistribution of wealth. Altruists want to improve the world but cannot define just what that entails. Conservatives want to stop foreign trade agreements. As a result of altruistic ideals, bad consequences to economics are being ignored. Where will the wealth that is to be distributed come from? How will non-trade impact the economic status of a modern government? Which voter groups will suffer real loss?

The author helpfully defines some of the phrases swirling around today that can confuse conscientious citizens of a representative democracy. Shouldn’t we know the meaning of “reciprocity partner,” “confirmation bias,” “xenophobia,” or “the disincentive effect”? Can we spot real differences between liberal altruism and charitable giving? We will after reading his 164-page, authoritative book. Nelson’s target audience is his social scientist peers and concerned citizens. These readers can glean information from the written word, but the technically-inclined voter would rather see survey percentages delivered in comparative graphs. The included index is useful, but a table organizing opinions/standards held by various voter types would have been a nice addition. With the significant potential that good intentions impacting voter dynamics could undermine a representative democracy, Nelson’s book is a must-read!

RECOMMENDED by the US Review.