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Week of: July 8, 2001

Catch Lots of Trash with Fishy Polls

by F.R. Duplantier

"Contemporary polls tell us almost nothing worthwhile about the policy choices facing the nation."

Political science professor Robert Weissberg emphasizes that "the United States did not begin as a direct democracy under majority rule. The Framers of our Constitution hoped to create a constitutional republic," he comments, "which required constraints on the power of the majority. Such restraints both prevented the tyranny of the majority and promoted the stability of the new regime. The Framers did not doubt that the legitimacy of the American republic lay in the consent of the governed," Weissberg acknowledges, "but they did not ask the people to decide every last detail. They did not expect that the people could or should govern directly."

In a report published by the Cato Institute, Weissberg reflects on how far we've come "from the Founders' balanced, representative democracy. Public opinion has achieved a remarkable, though largely unnoticed, ascendancy," he laments. "The burden of proof is now on those who oppose public opinion." Weissberg worries that "reverence for unrestrained majority rule is growing," and he rejects the assertion of poll makers that "their polls convey legitimate advice about policies and political strategies."

Weissberg charges that conventional polling is "inherently unsuited to making policy choices regardless of expert claims to the contrary." The reason is "polling industry economics. All survey organizations," he points out, "must monitor the bottom line. Getting the public's two cents is expensive," Weissberg explains. "Though modern technology (especially the telephone) has sharply reduced costs, even the most perfunctory technically acceptable study exceeds $20,000. The price tag for a quality poll, one with lengthy face-to-face interrogations conducted by specially trained interviewers, can easily exceed $100,000."

Weissberg argues that the need to constrain polling costs "results in a pervasive dumbing down of the entire enterprise. The typical telephone solicitation virtually precludes conveying information indispensable to rendering an informed judgment. Hugely complex issues become catch phrases," he remarks. "Even if vital information was dutifully communicated to respondents, today's telephone poll is unlikely to engender heightened sophistication. The telephone is inherently unsuited to conveying prodigious, unfamiliar detail on subjects boring to most respondents."

Weissberg charges that "contemporary polls are seducing respondents, not offering them hard choices of the type faced by legislatures or policy analysts. Given the typical survey's inattention to costs, indifference to risk, and other shortcomings [associated with the survey topic], it is a miracle that polls do not find unanimous support for more social spending," he remarks. "Polls do not provide worthwhile advice about policy; they measure only wishes for a world of benefits with no costs."

Weissberg refuses to surrender to "those pollsters ever willing to seduce the public with appealing nostrums that quickly become 'programs' to opportunistic office seekers." He recommends attacking "the way polls are used, not the surveys themselves. Absolutely nothing can impede the issuance of unreflective cravings," Weissberg concedes, but their value to decision makers must be challenged. "Abstract cravings for public largesse should be treated as 'interesting curiosities,'" he advises; "under no circumstances should they inform policymaking or determine policy choices."


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