Democracy and Political Ignorance
Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, Second Edition
Ilya Somin

BUY THIS BOOK


Introduction

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.

—James Madison1

Much evidence suggests that there is widespread public ignorance about politics in America. Weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, which decided party control of Congress, only 38 percent of Americans realized that Democrats controlled the Senate, and the same percentage knew that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives.2 The biggest issue in the important 2010 congressional election was the economy. Yet two-thirds of the public did not realize that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year.3 In the aftermath of that election, the majority of Americans did not realize that the Republican Party had taken control of the House of Representatives but not the Senate.4

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, his administration and the Democratic Congress pursued an ambitious agenda on health care and environmental policy, among other issues. The media covered both issue areas extensively. Yet a September 2009 survey showed that only 37 percent of Americans believed they understood the administration’s health care plan, a figure that likely overestimated the true level of knowledge.5 A May 2009 poll showed that only 24 percent of Americans realized that the important “cap and trade” initiative, then recently passed by the House of Representatives as an effort to combat global warming, addressed “environmental issues.”6 Some 46 percent thought that it was either a “health care reform” or a “regulatory reform for Wall Street.”7 It is difficult to evaluate a major policy proposal if one does not know what issue it addresses. In 2003, some 70 percent of Americans were unaware of the recent enactment of President George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug bill, the biggest new government program in several decades.8

The existence of such ignorance does not by itself prove that there is anything wrong with our political system. Perhaps these polls were somehow unrepresentative. In any case, maybe voters do not need much in the way of knowledge. Perhaps they can make good decisions even if they know very little. Still, these examples and others like them are at least cause for concern. If the public really is often ignorant, we might have a serious problem on our hands.

WHY POLITICAL IGNORANCE MATTERS

Democracy is rule by the people. The Greek word demokratia—from which “democracy” is derived—signifies exactly that: rule by the demos, the Greek word for the people. The day-to-day business of government may be conducted by elected officials. But those leaders are ultimately responsible to the public. If they fail to serve the interests of the voters, we can “throw the bastards out” and elect a new set of “bastards” who will hopefully do better. In this way, the democratic process is supposed to ensure that we get what Abraham Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”9 The key to the entire system is the accountability of elected officials to voters.

Some political theorists value democratic control of government for its own sake.10 Others do so for primarily instrumental reasons.11 Either way, accountability is a crucial part of the picture. But effective democratic accountability requires voters to have at least some political knowledge. Voters generally cannot hold government officials accountable for their actions if they do not know what the government is doing. And they cannot know which candidates’ proposals will serve the public better unless they have at least some understanding of those policies and their likely effects.

Accountability is also difficult to achieve if voters do not know which officials are responsible for which issues. If the public schools perform poorly, should the voters blame the local government, the state government, the federal government, or all three? Which officials, if any, can be blamed for economic recessions? Are mistakes in the conduct of the War on Terror the responsibility of the president alone, or does Congress deserve a share of the blame? Answering these questions and others like them requires at least some degree of political knowledge.

Even if an individual voter does not care about political accountability or does not mind if the government performs poorly, he or she may still have a responsibility to become informed for the sake of his fellow citizens. After all, the winners of the next election will govern not only the voter but everyone else who lives in his society. Casting a ballot is not a purely individual choice that affects no one but the voter. In the admittedly highly unlikely event that it influences the outcome of an election, it will also affect the lives of thousands or millions of other people. Even the citizen who is personally uninterested in the quality of public policy may justifiably feel a moral obligation to become informed if he or she intends to vote.12

Obviously, it is not enough to conclude that voters need to have at least some political knowledge to make democracy work. We also need to know how much knowledge is enough. If it turns out that voters know too little, it would be useful to know why. Even more important, we need to know what if anything can be done to alleviate the harm caused by excessive political ignorance.

These questions are the focus of this book. I doubt that I or anyone else can answer them definitively. It would be arrogant to assume that any one book can settle issues that have been debated for over two thousand years. But I hope to at least make a useful contribution to the discussion.

The first half of the book analyzes the nature and extent of the problem of political ignorance in American democracy. The evidence shows that political ignorance is extensive and poses a serious challenge to democratic theory. The severity of the problem is exacerbated by the reality that, for most citizens, political ignorance is not primarily the result of stupidity or selfishness. Rather, ignorance turns out to be rational behavior—even for many who are far from stupid and are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the nation. The insignificance of any one vote to electoral outcomes makes it rational for most citizens to devote little effort to acquiring political knowledge. They also have little incentive to engage in objective, unbiased evaluation of the information they do know.

The last four chapters consider potential solutions. While it may be possible to make voters more knowledgeable at the margin, I conclude that a major increase in political knowledge is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the problem of political ignorance may be more effectively addressed not by increasing knowledge but by trying to reduce the impact of ignorance.

This can be at least partially achieved by limiting and decentralizing government power in ways that enable citizens to “vote with their feet” as well as at the ballot box. People choosing between different jurisdictions in a federal system or between different options in the private sector often have better incentives to become informed about their options than ballot box voters do. Unlike ballot box voters, foot voters know that their decisions are likely to make a difference. As a result, they are more inclined to seek out relevant information and evaluate it logically.

Is Concern About Political Ignorance Paternalistic?

Concern about political ignorance strikes some critics as unduly paternalistic. Perhaps citizens should be free to choose policies and leaders for whatever reasons they wish—even if those reasons are the result of ignorance. A democrat committed to this view might find the issue addressed in this book at best irrelevant and at worst an unjustified attack on the rights of the people. Even if ignorance leads voters to make poor decisions, we would not be justified in imposing constraints on democracy because the voters have a right to rule as they please. As Robert Bork put it, “[i]n wide areas of life majorities are entitled to rule, if they wish, simply because they are majorities.”13 H. L. Mencken famously satirized the same point when he wrote that “[d]emocracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”14

Unfortunately, when voters make poor decisions out of ignorance, everyone “gets it good and hard,” not just those who voted for the wrong candidates and supported their harmful policies. That is what makes voting different from individual decisions that affect only the decision makers themselves and those who voluntarily choose to interact with them. As John Stuart Mill put it in his 1861 book Considerations on Representative Government:

The spirit of vote by ballot—the interpretation likely to be put on it in the mind of an elector—is that the suffrage is given to him for himself; for his particular use and benefit, and not as a trust for the public. . . . [D]emocrats think themselves greatly concerned in maintaining that the franchise is what they term a right, not a trust. . . . In whatever way we define or understand the idea of a right, no person can have a right . . . to power over others: every such power, which he is allowed to possess, is morally, in the fullest force of the term, a trust. But the exercise of any political function, either as an elector or as a representative, is power over others.15

As Mill emphasized, voting decisions involve not simply an individual choice but the exercise of “power over others.” For this reason, we are justified in urging constraints on the scope of that choice if ignorance or other factors lead voters to make systematic errors. Such constraints, of course, are only defensible if we have reason to believe that alternative arrangements might handle information problems better. This book makes precisely that argument.

There is a second reason why it is not a paternalistic infringement on voters’ freedom to worry about political ignorance and advocate measures to reduce its impact. As discussed in Chapter 3, widespread ignorance about politics is in large part the result of a collective action problem. An individual voter has little incentive to learn about politics because there is only an infinitesimal chance that his or her well-informed vote will actually affect electoral outcomes. Political ignorance is therefore an example of rational individual behavior that leads to potentially dangerous collective outcomes.

Economists have long recognized that outside intervention may be needed to address situations where individually rational behavior otherwise leaves everyone worse off.16 Such intervention is not necessarily paternalistic because it may actually be giving the people that which they want but lack the incentive to produce for themselves through uncoordinated individual action.

In the same way, it is not necessarily paternalistic to advocate the restriction of air pollution. Individual citizens and firms may produce more air pollution than any of them actually want because they know that there is little to be gained from individual restraint. If I avoid driving a gas-guzzling car, the impact on the overall level of air pollution will be utterly insignificant. So I have no incentive to take it into account in making my driving decisions even if I care greatly about reducing air pollution. Widespread public ignorance is a type of pollution that infects the political system rather than our physical environment.

Finally, even if voters do have the right to select whatever policies they please regardless of their effect on fellow citizens, ignorance might still be problematic. After all, a person making a choice based on ignorance might well fail to achieve his or her intended result. If I buy a lemon car based on the erroneous belief that it is in good condition, my purposes in purchasing it are likely to be frustrated if it quickly breaks down.17 Similarly, voters who support protectionist policies in the erroneous expectation that they will benefit the economy as a whole rather than weaken it will also end up undermining their own goals.18 Voters may not be able to effectively exercise their right to choose the policies they wish if their choices are based on ignorance.

Political ignorance might be unimportant if public opinion had little or no effect on policy. In that event, voters would not actually be exercising any genuine “power over others” after all. However, a large literature shows that public opinion does have a significant impact on at least the broad outlines of policy.19 Voters’ views are, of course, far from the only influence on policymaking. As discussed later in this book,20 there are often individual issues on which public opinion has relatively little impact because the voters are unaware of what is going on. Such other influences as bureaucratic discretion and interest group lobbying also have important effects. But there is little doubt that voter opinions have considerable influence over many policy decisions, even if other factors also matter.

Even relatively ignorant voters can influence policy in cases where some effect seems easily traceable to a government action or when the government is rewarded or blamed for some highly visible event.21 Ignorant voters can also influence policy by creating opportunities for politicians, activists, and interest groups to manipulate that ignorance.22 These effects make voter knowledge a potentially important input into the policymaking process. Politicians who wish to be elected and reelected must enact policies that win voter support. And the distribution of that support may be affected by ignorance.

Even if public opinion did not influence policy in the status quo, most major normative theories of democracy assume that it should do so, at least to some substantial extent. As explained in Chapter 2, these theories also imply knowledge prerequisites that voters must meet in order to exercise that influence effectively.

In focusing on the importance of voter ignorance, I do not mean to deny the significance of ignorance among political elites and expert policymakers. Such elites also sometimes suffer from political ignorance, either because there are some types of information they inherently cannot know,23 or because they choose to ignore relevant social science data that are readily available.24 But whatever the knowledge levels of elites, voters have a vital role in democratic political systems, and their ignorance is significant regardless of whether political elites have similar shortcomings of their own. Moreover, a more knowledgeable electorate would be in a better position to choose leaders who are knowledgeable themselves and remove ignorant ones from office.

The Historic Debate Over Political Ignorance

The problem of political ignorance is not a new one. Political philosophers have debated the implications of voter ignorance for democracy since that system of government first originated in ancient Greece, in the city-state of Athens. Early critics of Athenian democracy argued that Athens was doomed to failure because its policies were set by ignorant common citizens.25 In The Gorgias, the great philosopher Plato contended that democracy is defective because it adopts policies based on the views of the ignorant masses and neglects the better-informed counsel of philosophers and other experts.26

Aristotle was more optimistic about political knowledge than Plato was. Although he admitted that citizens usually have little knowledge individually, Aristotle argued that they could access far larger amounts of information collectively.27 Nonetheless, Aristotle still asserted that women, slaves, manual laborers, and others he considered incapable of achieving adequate levels of virtue and knowledge should be excluded from political participation.28

In more recent centuries, even some thinkers generally supportive of liberal democracy have sought to limit the power of voters for fear of giving free rein to political ignorance. The American founding fathers inserted numerous anti-majoritarian elements into the Constitution in order to provide a check on what they saw as ignorant and irrational voters. As James Madison put it in Federalist 63, checks such as an indirectly elected Senate were needed “as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”29 John Stuart Mill, perhaps the greatest nineteenth-century defender of liberalism, very much feared political ignorance and argued that it justified giving extra votes to the better educated and more knowledgeable.30

In the twentieth century, totalitarian leaders on both the left and the right resuscitated Plato’s claim that voter ignorance justifies the abolition of electoral democracy in favor of concentrating power in the hands of a small elite. Vladimir Lenin’s 1902 book What Is to Be Done? argued that workers cannot be expected to develop sufficient political knowledge to launch a socialist revolution on their own. Left to itself, a “spontaneous” working class cannot get beyond mere “trade union consciousness” and will not recognize the need for a full-blown reordering of society along socialist lines. Therefore, Lenin concluded that the transition to communism required firm leadership by a “vanguard” party whose members would better understand the political interests of the working class than the workers themselves could.31

Adolf Hitler, too, rejected democracy in part because he believed that voters are ignorant and easily manipulated, a problem that could be solved only by instituting a dictatorship headed by a far-seeing leader. In his view, “[t]he receptivity of the great masses [to information] is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous.”32 The exploitation of political ignorance helped pave the way for the Nazis’ rise to power in 1930s Germany.

On the other side of the fence, many modern scholars—economists and political scientists—have argued that political ignorance is unimportant or easily surmounted through the use of “information shortcuts.”33 “[G]ive people some significant power,” writes political philosopher Benjamin Barber, “and they will quickly appreciate the need for knowledge.”34

Unlike Plato and the totalitarians, I do not argue for a complete rejection of democracy. I accept the evidence that democracy generally functions better than alternative systems of government.35 Democracies tend to be more prosperous and peaceful than dictatorships or oligarchies, and usually provide greater freedom to their citizens.36 They are also more likely to avoid major policy disasters and do not commit mass murder against their own people.37

As an immigrant from the Soviet Union to the United States—one with relatives who were victims of both communist and Nazi repression—I am acutely conscious of the advantages of democracy over dictatorship. But the superiority of democracy over other forms of government leaves open the possibility that democracy might function better if its powers were more tightly limited.

Notes

1. James Madison, “Letter to William T. Barry, Aug. 4, 1822,” in Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999), 790.

2. Annenberg Public Policy Center survey, July 8–14, 2014, http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-know-surprisingly-little-about-their-government-survey-finds/.

3. See Table 1.3.

4. Ibid.

5. Siegel-Gale survey, September 18, 2009, http://www.siegelgale.com/media_release/new-poll-americans-still-confused-by-president-obama%E2%80%99s-health-care-plan/. The figure probably overstates the true level of knowledge because many survey respondents are reluctant to admit ignorance. See the discussion in Chapter 1.

6. Rasmussen Reports, “Toplines—Cap & Trade I—May 7–8, 2009,” http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/toplines/pt_survey_toplines/may_2009/toplines_cap_trade_i_may_7_8_2009.

7. Ibid.

8. See Chapter 1.

9. Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy P. Basler (New York: Da Capo, 2001), 734.

10. See, e.g., Charles Beitz, Political Equality: An Essay in Democratic Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Thomas Christiano, The Rule of the Many (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).

11. See, e.g., Richard J. Arneson, “Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just,” in Justice and Democracy: Essays for Brian Barry, ed. Keith Dowding, Robert E. Goodin, and Carole Pateman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 40–58.

12. See Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); Jason Brennan, “The Right to a Competent Electorate,” Philosophical Quarterly 61 (2011): 700–24.

13. Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America (New York: Free Press, 1990), 139.

14. H. L. Mencken, A Little Book in C Major (New York: John Lane, 1916), 19.

15. John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958 [1861]), 154–55 (emphasis added). For a modern elaboration of an argument similar to Mill’s, see Brennan, Ethics of Voting.

16. See, e.g., Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965); James M. Buchanan, The Demand and Supply of Public Goods (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1999 [1968]); Paul A. Samuelson, “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,” Review of Economics and Statistics 36 (1954): 387–401.

17. See George Akerlof, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 84 (1970): 488–500.

18. For evidence that voters systematically overestimate the economic benefits of protectionism, see Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 50–52.

19. See, e.g., James L. Stimson, Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Stuart N. Soroka and Christopher Wlezien, Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Robert Erikson et al., Statehouse Democracy: Public Opinion and Policy in the American States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Lawrence R. Jacobs, The Health of Nations: Public Opinion and the Making of American and British Health Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro, The Rational Public (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

20. See Chapters 2 and 6.

21. See the discussion of retrospective voting in Chapter 4. See also R. Douglas Arnold, The Logic of Congressional Action (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 48–51, 72–74.

22. See the discussion in Chapter 3.

23. See, e.g., F. A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review 4 (1945): 519–30; Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus, Engineering the Financial Crisis: Systemic Risk and the Failure of Regulation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

24. See, e.g., David Schultz, American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

25. See Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 48–92. For an excellent analysis suggesting that ancient Athenian democracy was able to overcome the problem of ignorance, see Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). I have argued that Athens’s relative success in this regard depended on advantages not enjoyed by modern democracies. See Ilya Somin, “Democracy and Political Knowledge in Ancient Athens,” Ethics 119 (2009): 585–90, available at Social Science Research Network, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1428612.

26. Plato, The Gorgias, trans. Walter Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 1971). The great historian Thucydides blamed popular ignorance for the failures of democracy. He believed it was responsible for the decision to undertake the invasion of Sicily during the Peloponnesian War in 415 b.c.—a choice that led to the worst defeat in Athenian history and caused the loss of most of its armed forces and eventually its empire. According to Thucydides, the citizen-voters undertook the Sicilian expedition because they were “ignorant of the size of the island” and the power of Syracuse and its allies. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1954), section 6.1.1.

27. Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T. A. Saunders, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1981), book III.xi, 202–3.

28. Ibid., book III.iv–v, 181–86.

29. James Madison, “Federalist 63,” The Federalist, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: Mentor, 1961), 384.

30. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 140–42.

31. Vladimir I. Lenin, Chto Delat? [What is to be done?] (Moscow: Lenin Institute, 1925 [1902]), chaps. 2–4.

32. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1971), 180.

33. See works discussed in Chapter 4.

34. Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 234.

35. For a summary, see Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael M. Weinstein, The Democracy Advantage: How Democracy Promotes Prosperity and Peace, rev. ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), chaps. 1–2.

36. Ibid.

37. See the discussion in Chapter 4.