Books about political ignorance

Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin

As a refugee from the Soviet Union, I was always much more skeptical about government than most Western intellectuals. The history of communism shows that government power can easily become the cause of horrendous poverty and oppression. But defenders of activist government have an obvious retort: Western governments differ from the USSR because they are democratic. Free elections enable voters to hold political leaders accountable for their performance and incentivize them to adopt good policies.

While democratic governments are indeed generally better than dictatorships, they still routinely adopt a wide range of harmful policies, many of which persist for long periods of time. Traditional explanations for such failures are only partly satisfying. All to some degree stumble in answering the question of why we don’t simply vote out the bums who caused the problem, and replace them with a different set of bums who will change policy for the better. Indeed, if the first set of bums know that they will be punished at the polls for adopting bad policies, they will be less likely to screw things up in the first place.

In college and graduate school, I increasingly saw that the a major part of the answer to the problem is that the voters often have little or no understanding of what is going on, and therefore fail to hold political leaders accountable. Polls show that most of the public has very little knowledge about the issues they decide on election day. Right before the November 2014 congressional election in the United States, only 38 percent of the public knew which party controlled the House of Representatives and the same percentage knew which one controlled the Senate. Survey data shows similar ignorance going back many decades.

Economic Theory of Democracy

Economic Theory of Democracy

But why would voters be ignorant, when political information is so widely available in modern society? The most compelling answer I found was first developed in Anthony Downs’ pathbreaking 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy. I first came across Downs’ ideas in the work of more recent scholars citing him, when I took classes on American politics in graduate school. His theories have been so influential that many scholars imbibe them without even reading his work directly.

Downs explained how widespread voter ignorance is actually the result of perfectly rational decisions by individuals. If your only reason to follow politics is to be a good voter, that turns out not be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example). For most people, it makes sense to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other things.

Downs’ theory suggests that widespread voter ignorance is not caused by stupidity, lack of education, or lack of information. Instead, it is the result of millions of voters’ perfectly rational decisions. His insight is borne out by the painful reality that voter knowledge has stagnated at roughly the same low levels since the time he wrote his book, despite massive increases in educational attainment, the increased availability (thanks to the internet and other new technologies) of political information, and even rising IQ scores.

Downs’ work also gave rise to a large literature claiming that political ignorance is not such a serious danger after all. He himself was guardedly optimistic about the ability of voters to make good decisions. Downs posited that ignorant voters can rely on information shortcuts to make up for the more detailed knowledge that they lack. For example, even if they don’t know much about an individual candidate, they can learn something about his or her likely effectiveness in office by looking at the platform and record of the candidate’s party.

Considerations on Representative Government

Considerations on Representative Government

Many people claim that voters have a moral right to make decisions based on ignorance, if they so wish. This widely held view always struck me as wrong. But I didn’t find a fully satisfying explanation as to why, until I read John Stuart Mill’s 1861 book. In Considerations on Representative Government Mill forcefully argued that voting is not just an expression of individual freedom, but the exercise of “power over others.” The people elected by ignorant voters rule over not just those who voted them into office, but all of society. Thus, voters have an obligation to obtain relevant information analyze it objectively.

The Myth of the Rational Voter

The Myth of the Rational Voter

Economist Bryan Caplan’s 2007 The Myth of the Rational Voter is the most recent work on political ignorance that had a big impact on my thinking. Caplan emphasizes that it is rational for voters to not only learn very little about politics, but to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do have. Good analysis of political information – like learning the information in the first place – requires considerable time and effort that rationally ignorant voters have little incentive to undertake. Instead, voters are likely to make systematic errors in considering political information. As Caplan shows in detail, this helps explain why the majority of voters routinely fall prey to gross fallacies in their analysis of public policy – such as the belief that protectionism helps the overall economy; that the rise of modern technology is a major cause of longterm unemployment; and that foreigners are beggaring the American economy.

Because there is so little incentive to acquire and analyze political information to become a better voter, most of those citizens who do invest in political knowledge are likely to do so for other reasons. These include reinforcing their preexisting biases or using politics as “entertainment. ” Just as sports fans enjoy following and cheering on their favorite players and teams, so “political fans” enjoy following and cheering on their favorite candidates, parties, and ideological movements. When the goal of acquiring information is something other than getting at the truth, it is perfectly rational to be illogical and biased in your choice of information sources, and in the way you evaluate what you learn. Caplan cleverly dubbed such behavior “rational irrationality.”

Democracy and Political Ignorance

Democracy and Political Ignorance

In my own recent book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter I tried to build on the insights of Mill, Downs, Caplan, and others, and trace out their implications for political institutions such as federalism, judicial review, and the appropriate size and scope of government. Among other things, I contend that information shortcuts don’t effectively solve the problem of ignorance and that people are likely to make better-informed and better-reasoned choices in settings where they can “vote with their feet” than when they vote at the ballot box. When foot voters decide what products to buy in the market, or what jurisdiction to live in in a federal system, they usually try much harder to acquire relevant information and analyze it in an unbiased way, than when they vote.  I don’t claim that political ignorance justifies the complete abolition of democracy. But it does strengthen the case for keeping democratic government limited and decentralized. Whatever else can be said about these issues, it is safe to conclude that the problem of political ignorance is unlikely to disappear any time soon, and the debate over it will continue.

Ilya Somin is professor of law at George Mason University. He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2013).

The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Christopher Stribley. 

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