On The Possibility of An Ethical Election Experiment

The recent events in Montana have sparked a broad debate about the ethics of field experiments (I’ve written once and twice about it, and other recent posts include this letter from Dan Carpenter, this Upshot post by Derek Willis, and this Monkey Cage post by Dan Drezner).  I wanted to continue a point that I hinted at in my first post:

[T]he irony is that this experiment is susceptible to second-guessing precisely because it was carried out by academics working under the auspices of research universities.  The brouhaha over this experiment has the potential to lead to the next study of this form—and more will happen—being carried out outside of such institutional channels.  While one might not like this kind of research being conducted, it is ridiculous to claim that is better that it be performed outside of the academy by individuals and organizations cloaked in even more obscurity.  Indeed, such organizations are already doing it, at least this kind of academic research can provide us with some guess about what those other organizations are finding.

Personal communications with colleagues and readers indicated that Paul Gronke was not alone in interpreting my message in that passage as something like “well, others intervene in elections in unethical ways, so scholars don’t need to worry about ethics.”  That was not my intent.  Rather, I was trying to make the point that interventions by academic researchers are more likely to be transparent and, accordingly, capable of being judged on ethical grounds, than interventions by others.  Of course, that is a contention with which one might disagree, but I’ll take it as plausible for the purposes of the rest of this post.[1]

Reflecting further on the ethics of field experiments led me to a classical social choice result known as the liberal paradox, first described by Amartya Sen.  The paradox is that respecting individual rights can lead to socially inferior outcomes.  The secret of the paradox is that sometimes our preferences over our actions depend on what others’ do (also known as “nosy preferences”).

The link between the paradox and the ethics of experimenting on elections in the following simple way.  Let’s choose between four possible worlds, depending on whether scholars and/or political parties do field experiments on elections, and let’s take my assertion about the value of open academic research as given, so that “society’s preference” is as follows:[2]

  1. Nobody does any field experiments on elections, (the “best” option)
  2. Scholars do field experiments on elections, political parties do not,
  3. Both scholars and political parties do field experiments on election, and
  4. Partisan researchers do field experiments on elections, scholars do not (the “worst” option).

Then, let’s suppose that we have two principles we’d like to respect:

  • Noninterference in Elections: Field Experiments on Elections are Unethical if They Might Affect the Election Outcome.
  • Free Speech: Political Parties Are Allowed to Do Experiments If They Choose to.

It is impossible to respect these (reasonable) principles and maximize social welfare.  Here’s the logic:

  1. If a field experiment might affect an election, then some political party will want to do it, but the experiment would be considered unethical.
  2. Thus, if a field experiment is unethical and we respect Free Speech, then some political party will do the field experiment.
  3. But if scholars behave in accordance with Noninterference, then they will not perform a field experiment that might affect the election outcome.
  4. This leads to the outcome “Partisan researchers do field experiments on elections, scholars do not,” which is clearly inefficient.  Indeed, it is the worst possible outcome from society’s standpoint.

It is not my intent to judge the ethics of any particular field experiment study here, and I do believe that there are plenty of unethical designs for field experiments.  However, I am rejecting the notion that a field experiment on an election is ethical only if it does not affect the outcome of the election.  This is because it is precisely in these cases that others will do these experiments in non-transparent ways.  This is not the same as saying “other groups do unethical things, so scholars should too.”  Rather, this is saying “groups are intervening in elections in both ethical and unethical ways, so it is important for scholars to transparently learn from and about election interventions in ethical ways.”  To say that potentially affecting an election outcome is presumptively unethical implies that a scholar who values ethical behavior will never learn about how election interventions that are occurring work, what effects they might be having on us individually and collectively, and how society might better leverage the interventions’ desirable effects and mitigate their undesirable effects.


[1] Relatedly and more generally, my post has (perhaps understandably) been read as defending all field experiments on elections.  My intent, however, was two-fold: (1) guaranteeing that a field experiment will have no effect on the outcome requires the experiment to be useless and thus is too strong a requirement for a reasonable notion of ethicality and (2) coming up with a reasonable notion of ethicality requires taking (social choice) theory seriously, during the design of the field experiment.

[2] One can substitute any private corporation/interest/government agency/conspiracy one wants for “political parties.”