On Military Aid to Egypt, Let's Let the Pros Handle It

Should policymakers and the Obama administration defer to the people, or to the experts? Polling from Pew Research shows that 51% of Americans want Washington to cut military aid to Egypt. Those in favor of cutting aid point to such polls for legitimacy, saying that the government must listen to the American people. Those who are more hesitant, or do not wish to cut aid at all, instead insist that the situation is too complex to rely on the political mood of the moment.

It certainly appears that the government should defer to the people. After all, the United States is a democracy based upon the principles of popular sovereignty in which representatives are elected based on the concerns of their constituents. It is a politician’s job to listen to and take into consideration the concerns of the voters who elected him or her. But it's not so simple.

For one thing, there is no such thing as a pure "will of the people" because the people are not a collective; They are individuals with their own ranked preferences in policy and their own beliefs. Unlike in the market, in politics, candidate choices are much more limited and often people choose whomever they consider to be the least bad choice. Voters cannot always get the candidate or policies they want, nor do they even always get all the things they want even when their candidate wins or preferred party controls Congress.

Consider the issue of military aid. Fifty-one percent of Americans want to cut it, but that is barely a majority and would not be what one might call a "mandate." Twenty-six percent of Americans want to keep issuing military aid and 23% don’t know what should be done.

This leads to the second issue, that what the people want isn’t always consistent or even possible in the long-term. For instance, when asked in the same Pew Research poll about who would provide better leadership for Egypt, 45% of Americans said the military. Only 11% said the Muslim Brotherhood, 19% said neither, and 25% said they didn’t know. Another example are several other polls which show that although the public is concerned about the national debt, they still want to maintain and even increase entitlement and defense spending.

Finally, there is the problem of rational ignorance. It is simply not economical for most voters to spend the time and resources it would take to be fully informed about policy options. Most people are just too busy with their jobs and daily lives to afford it. This is why the elderly are the most reliable demographic when it comes to voting, because they are retired and have the time to keep informed and go to the polls. The Pew Research poll found that only 48% of those surveyed said they followed the news on Egypt "not too or not at all closely."

Compare all this to the experts. Members of academia and scholars at think tanks are better informed because it is their job to be. So are officers of the various intelligence agencies. In addition, career civil servants in the State Department don’t have the same short-term political incentives that politicians do, so are therefore better able to focus on the long-term goals and repercussions of policies. Although they may be subject to the directives of each new secretary of state, they don’t have to worry about being reelected if the public mood changes and they are still called upon by politicians to present their views and recommendations.

To be fair, however, experts should not be the only voices that members of Congress or the administration should listen to. The kind of experts that politicians surround themselves with matters. For example, Bush’s decisions to go into Iraq and Afghanistan were arguably influenced by the fact that most of his advisers were pro-interventionist neo-conservatives. Congressmen or presidents risk locking themselves in an ivory tower if they surround themselves with like-minded advisers only.  

Given these considerations, it would be dangerous to base America’s policy towards Egypt, or any policy, solely on either opinion polls and the national mood or just the experts, whoever they might be.