Sep 07 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – The Second Problem With the Way Things Are: Bad Voters

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politics,rightsJames @ 8:20 am

Last post we talked about problems with our politicians, but most voters aren’t any better. In fact, they’re often worse. Most politicians at least know something about the major issues of the day; most voters don’t.

Economists say that voters’ ignorance is rational: because each persons’ vote has such a small marginal impact on an election result, it doesn’t make sense to spend much time learning about the candidates or issues. What makes sense for each voter to do on an individual level, though, has disastrous consequences in the aggregate. The result is collective stupidity.

And rational ignorance isn’t the only problem—natural ignorance is too. Some people are dumber than others, yet everyone’s vote counts the same. Many good, sensible policies can’t be enacted because ignorant voters misunderstand them and oppose them on spurious grounds, often because the media and the entertainment industry have warped popular perceptions about what is right and true. Elected representatives thus sometimes can’t do what makes the most sense because ignorant constituents will vote them out of office if they do.

Surveys since the 1950s have consistently shown that most Anericans are poorly informed about basic, important civic facts about our country, government, and political situation. A majority of Americans were unable to answer sixty percent of such basic questions. Astoundingly, a majority of Americans didn’t know the answers to questions about

definitions of key terms such as liberal, conservative, primary elections, or the bill of rights; knowledge of many individual and collective rights guaranteed by the Constitution; the names or issue stands of most public officials below the level of president or governor; candidate and party stands on many important issues of the day; key social conditions such as the unemployment rate or the percentage of the public living in poverty or without health insurance; how much of the federal budget is spent on defense, foreign aid, or social welfare; and so on.*

Defenders of our current system may ask, isn’t having a republican form of government designed to solve this problem? We elect representatives who can inform themselves about the issues and vote for what would be best for us, so what difference does it make if voters are ill-informed? A lot, actually. How can an ill-informed citizen know how to pick the best representative in the first place? Indeed, research shows that people’s

political knowledge seems to increase citizens’ ability to consistently connect their policy views to their evaluations of public officials and political parties, as well as to their political behavior. For example, more-informed citizens are more likely to identify with the political party, approve of the performance of office holders, and vote for candidates whose policy stands are most consistent with their own views.**

Moreover, the better-informed demonsttate good citizenship beyond just choosing the optimal candidate or political party. Professor Michael X. Delli Carpini explained that

the larger literature strongly suggeststhat informed citizens are “better” citizens in a number of ways. Specifically, research has found that more-informed citizens are more accepting of democratic norms such as political tolerance; are more efficacious about politics; are more likely to be interested in, follow, and discuss politics; and are more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways, including voting, working for a political party,and attending local community meetings. Research also suggests that more-informed citizens are more likely to have opinions about the pressing issues of the day, are more likely to hold stable
opinions over time, are more likely to hold opinions that are ideologically consistent with each other, and are less likely to change their opinions in the face of new but tangential or misleading information but more likely to change in the face of new relevant or compelling information.***

Beyond rational ignorance and basic stupidity, other voters vote against the public welfare act not out of ignorance, but out of naked self-interest, voting for benefits for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens and future generations. The Baby Boomers have turned this into an art form.

To fix our system, we need voters who are informed, engaged, and public-spirited, rather than ignorant, apathetic, and selfish.

*Michael X. Delli Carpini, “An overview of the state of citizens’ knowledge about politics,” in M. S. McKinney, L. L. Kaid, D. G. Bystrom,  and D. B. Carlin (Eds.), Communicating politics: Engaging the public in democratic life, pp. 29-30,

**Same, p. 35 (citations omitted).

*** Same (citations omitted).

Jul 14 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – Introduction

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politicsJames @ 10:45 pm

Many of us feel like something is going wrong. We feel a deep and growing unease we are moving in the wrong direction, that we’re becoming strangers in our own country. This series of blog posts is an extended essay that explains what is going wrong in the United States and what we can do about it.

But first you must realize that the solution won’t come from going back to the way things were. The past is behind us. Things will never be the way they used to be. But we can learn from the past. We can adapt and take from what worked before to make new solutions that fit our present circumstances.

As this series progresses, I may tweak my planned structure a bit, but roughly speaking it will start with a series of 12 posts each dealing with one of our current problems, followed by 12 more posts giving solutions. Finally, there will be some concluding posts discussing a few overlapping ways of implementing the solutions. When the series is all done, I’ll revise and compile it into a short book of about 100 pages.

It may be surprising that a written work about how to solve the most pressing political problems of our day wouldn’t be longer. But, more often than not, correct explanations and solutions are concise. Occam was on to something. And brevity has the added benefit of making this work more accessible and widely read. I provide footnotes for readers who want to explore these ideas in greater depth. If needed, and time permitting, I may follow up with a longer, more academic book that explores these ideas in more detail.

In this essay series, I am frequently critical of various institutions and actors in our political system. My intent is not to single out specific individuals who work within that system for criticism. In fact, I have worked in, or worked closely with people in, all three branches of government. The vast majority are decent, honorable people trying to do the right thing, as they see it. They are no different from the rest of us, and most of us would act the same way if we were in their position. The problem with our current system is not that it is run by bad people, but that the system has serious flaws that bring out the worst in us and encourage counterproductive behavior. The problem is not some nefarious cabal or conspiracy undermining our country, but rather that the incentives in our system lead to pathological results, in spite of all the good people working within it.

This essay might give the impression that I believe our government is terrible and irredeemably broken. On the contrary, our system is quite good. I feel lucky to have been born an American. I think we have one of, if not the best, systems of government in the world. If you look at the full scope of human history, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better time or place to live than the United States in the 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to make it better. It is not wrong to strive for improvement. Sometimes improvement for everyone only comes when the best strive for better. We have a long traditon of this in the United States. In colonial times, our ancestors enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the entire world, better than those in England and most other countries.* Even taxes were lower in the 13 Colonies than they were in England. In 1765, per capita tax burdens in the American colonies were 25 to 50 times lower than they were in Great Britain and 6.5 to 13 times lower than they were in Ireland.** Taxes were seven times higher for Americans after independence than they had been under the British.***

From a purely economic perspective, taxation without representation was actually working pretty well for the colonists. But, we are not rational economic robots, seeking to maximize our prosperity at the expense of all our principles, and neither were the Colonists.  Things were good in the colonies, economically speaking, but the political system was unfair and rigged against them—it was taking away more and more of their power to govern their own affairs and transferring it to unaccountable elites in far-off London.

The system was unfair and could have been—should have been—better, so our ancestors fought to make it so. As one of the Minutemen who fought at the first battle at Lexington said, the colonists didn’t fight because of taxes or repression but because “we always had governed ourselves and always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”*** The colonists fought to keep their right to govern themselves, because the British had been trying to take it away. And what they did set in motion a revolution in governance across the world. Ever since, the government they fought to establish has been an example to the world showing the way to freedom and prosperity. Let us seek to set that example for the world once again.

The next post will discuss the first problem with our system, a bad way of selecting our politicians.

* Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History: from Colonial Times to 1940, 2d ed., 1994, p. 50 (“[C]olonists in 1775 enjoyed a . . . standard of living . . . [that] made them among the richest in the world at the time . . . . This is borne out in the estimates of the height of Americans fighting in the French and Indian War [often used by econonic historians as a proxy for economic well being, given the relationship of diet to height]. At five feet eight inches, colonists were much taller than those in lower classes who had stayed behind in England rather than risk all in a transatlantic adventure, suggesting few, if any, serious dietary and nutritional deficiencies.” Americans have always been willing to take risks to improve their lot in life, even since the beginning.)

**Atack and Passell, p. 68

***Stanley Lebergott, The Americans, 1984, p. 40

**** As quoted in Lebergott, p. 39.

Nov 04 2011

Meet the 18 non-Christian American presidents

Category: government,history,politics,religion,United StatesJames @ 6:00 pm

Over at GNXP, Razib Khan points out the errors1 some media commentators have made when they’ve claimed that if Mitt Romney wins the 2012 presidential election, he would be the first non-Christian president in the United States, or least the first president outside of “orthodox” Christianity.2 3 Razib points out that this is simply not true – we have had non-Christian presidents before, and cites President Taft (a Unitarian) as an example.

Well, as it turns out, we have had a lot of Presidents whose religious beliefs placed them outside of orthodox Christianity – including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – and other presidents whose devotion to Christianity are highly doubtful – including Eisenhower.

I’m not interested in the debate about whether Mormons are Christians or not; frankly, I find that debate to be fruitless and boring. But I do think it is very interesting to see just how many of our presidents have been irreligious or held non-traditional religious beliefs. It is nice to help dispel people’s ignorance about American history and about the purported orthodoxy and piousness of our forefathers, especially when people who are historically misinformed try to justify their religious prejudice on the basis of ignorant misunderstandings of American history. Some of these presidents were closer to traditional Christianity than others, but likely none of them would meet the strict definitions for orthodoxy being bandied about by commentators and conservative Christians. So, without further ado, the following is my list of America’s irreligious and non-Christian presidents:4

George Washington

Washington did attend church, but not regularly (for example, attending just sixteen times in 1760 and fourteen times in 1768).5 Ministers at the churches where he attended mentioned that he did not take communion.6 After he had died the minister at one of the churches Washington frequently attended was asked about Washington’s religious beliefs, to which the minister replied, “Sir, Washington was a Deist!”7 Deists generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and rejected the idea of a personal god who intervenes in the affairs of humankind. They were definitely not traditional Christians.

John Adams

John Adams was a Unitarian.8 Unitarians reject trinitarianism, and are thus not traditional or orthodox Christians.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the miracles of the New Testament.9 He also rejected the doctrine of the trinity.10 His beliefs seemed to have incorporated elements of Deism11 and Unitarianism.12

James Madison

Deism / Unitarianism.13

James Monroe

At least one scholar, Franklin Steiner, has concluded that it was doubtful he had religious beliefs,14 and others have classified him as a Deist.15

John Quincy Adams


John Tyler


Millard Fillmore


Abraham Lincoln

Historian Mark Noll explained that “Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian belief.”19 Wikipedia explains that

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated that Lincoln admired deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. “He soon grew into a belief of a universal law, evolution, and from this he never deviated.”20

Some people claimed that Lincoln converted to Christianity after his son died and as the Civil War raged on. Several of his close associates, however, denied this. Lincoln’s private secretary, Colonel John G. Nicolay, stated in 1865 that “Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way change his religious ideas, opinions, or beliefs from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death.”21 Judge David Davis , Lincoln’s lifelong friend and executor said that Lincoln “had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.”22 And finally, Wikipedia explains:

His biographer, Colonel Lamon, intimately acquainted with him in Illinois, and with him during all the years that he lived in Washington, says: "Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men." Both Lamon and William H. Herndon published biographies of their former colleague after his assassination relating their personal recollections of him. Each denied Lincoln’s adherence to Christianity and characterized his religious beliefs as deist or skeptical.23

Ulysses S. Grant

He was unbaptized and was never a member of any church, but he did accompany his wife to her Methodist church.24

William Howard Taft


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Until he became president, he did not belong to any church and had never been baptized. He was baptized as a Presbyterian only after he was elected president.26


The following presidents were not members of any church:27

William Henery Harrison

Andrew Johnson

Rutherford B. Hayes


Thefollowing presidents have been classified as most likely being unbelievers:28

Martin Van Buren

Zachary Taylor

Chester A. Arthur


So,by my count, out of the United States’ forty three presidents, eighteen were non-believers or unorthodox. That means 42% of the Presidents were not “traditional Christians.” If the next president is not a Christian, he will be joining a distinguished body of some of our country’s best leaders, a body that includes close to half of our presidents!

Update: Honorable Mentions

Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quakers. The Quakers are a religious group which has no set dogma, and there is a variety of belief amongst Quakers. Many, if not most, Quakers would self-identify as Christians. Some conservative Christians, however, have accused the Quakers of not being Christian (much like they have done with Mormons). If you include Hoover and Nixon on our list, the number of non-Christian presidents rises to 20.


2 "Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.”

3 “[T]heological honesty demands that we recognize that Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.”

4 Most of my sources come from the citations to this Wikipedia article:

5 Ford, Paul Leicester. The True George Washington (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1897), 78.

10 Holmes, David Lynn (2006). The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. US: Oxford University Press. pp. 225 pages. ISBN 0195300920; Clark, J. C. D.. The language of liberty, 1660-1832. p. 347. (letter to J.P.P Derieux, July 25, 1788, Papers vol 13, p 418)

11 Thomas Jefferson (1803). H.A. Washington (1861). ed. April 9, 1803 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley; Albert Ellery Bergh, ed (1853). May 5, 1817 letter to John Adams.

14 Steiner, Franklin (July 1995) [1936] (Paperback,190pp). The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents: From Washington to F. D. R.. Freethought Library. NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879759755.

22 Id.

28 Id.