Monthly Archives: July 2017

Foot voting and political ignorance

Chapter 5 of Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance covers the interesting topic of foot voting and related issues. This is also a chapter where the author wanders significantly from the topic of political ignorance to discuss several aspects of the interplay of the structure of government and possible outcomes for the population. While many of these issues deserve discussion, they deserve more than the fragmented and passing coverage they often get here. Somin acknowledges that the book can’t address some of these topics in the depth they deserve, but it is still frustrating.

What is foot voting?

Foot voting is the heavy artillery of political expression.

To differentiate foot voting from any selection decision we have to focus on the actual change of location – the voter is physically moving to change jurisdictions.

To compare, a voter in the US might vote annually from 18 to 78 years old. There could be 10 decisions to make in each election, from choosing the President to ballot propositions. A dedicated voter might also vote in primaries. So a voter in the US might vote between 600 and 1,000 times during their lifetime. In contrast, adults in the US move only a few times during their lives. By one estimate, after 18, Americans move a little more than eight times, on average. (I think this estimate of number of moves is significantly higher than the one Somin uses in the book.)

Foot voters are exchanging all of government from some level down, even officials and policies not on the traditional ballot, with another package of officials and policies. If they meet residency requirements, they might even vote in the same year they move, getting even more power.

While the voter swaps governments, the governments gain and lose the voter. Not just the vote, but the economic contribution of that person and any associated family members.

Why foot voting?

Americans relocate for education, job opportunities, and to avoid negatives of the current locale. Historically, the size of these opportunities and negatives was larger than they are today. People moved to the frontier, blacks moved to the North to avoid lynching and murder – few of our moves today have such large motivational aspects. But to overcome the high transaction costs of moving, foot voters must be highly motivated, and that motivation level can translate into acquiring more political knowledge.

At this point, it would be great to actually have hard data to talk about. If surveys of public knowledge asked the questions “How long have you lived in your current residence?” “What are your current and previous zip codes?” we could actually compare levels of ignorance between recent arrivals and long-time residents. Somin does not present any data like this (it might not exist), so we are back in the world of making persuasive arguments rather than discussing data. For the same reason, we can’t examine whether foot voting is extra powerful, or less powerful, as the size of the move scales up or down.

Given that the evidence presented in Chapter 1 motivated the entire discussion to this point in the book, the lack of data to motivate arguments and conclusions about foot voting is strongly felt.

Advantages of foot voting

Once the ‘Bayesian prior’ of the decision to move has been established, Somin argues that several advantages compared to ballot-box voting are activated. First, the mover is acting as a ‘responsive voter’, so their information needs are low. The mover has access to ‘opinion leaders’ – their friends and family that may have already made a similar move and chosen a particular locale. They also can use information shortcuts such as party dominance in a locale to infer policy positions rather than researching each government official.

In chapter 2, we saw that even the responsive voter theory suffered from an excess of ignorance. In chapter 3, we saw that opinion leaders and information shortcuts were also inadequate to mitigate ignorance.  Somehow, somehow, the extra motivation of foot voting carries them over the line.

But does it really? These are good arguments, but without data that is all they are. There is also an unresolved tension between the idea that foot voters are highly motivated and therefore less ignorant, and the idea that whatever the level of ignorance foot voters actually have, it is irrelevant because the non-political benefits of foot voting outweigh the political considerations. The first of those is a testable hypothesis. The second is just hand waving in favor of a pet theory.

Retirement foot voting

In the current US economy, there is a special class of foot voting  Рseniors making end-of-life retirement decisions. These decisions are made with a very different set of assumptions than other moving decisions. And given the growing size of the retirement population and their willingness to also ballot-box vote, this is a significant sub-population of foot voters.

I would expect that these differences skew results of some statistics looking at all foot voters as a class, for example their preference for small government, low tax and low service jurisdictions. If we subtract out this group the remaining foot voters would be looking for a substantially larger government, accepting a larger tax burden in return for higher services.

Neither group can be ignored, but we have to be careful about accepting an argument (Foot voters are well informed, foot voters chose small government, therefore small government is ‘obviously’ better) based on summary statistics that mask significant variation.

Private government

Speaking about retirement communities allows chapter 5 to segue to the topic of private substitutions for local government. There are many variations and gradations this substitution of private for public can take.

Sometimes there is talk of local governments allowing multiple service providers to operate within the jurisdiction, on the theory that they will compete. I once lived in a town with multiple garbage collection firms. Many places have Internet service through both phone companies and cable companies.

In practice, this does not usually work out as intended. Rather than compete, the firms form a loose cartel and divide up the business. In the town I used to live in, each garbage collector kept to their own streets, so each street effectively was a monopoly. In the town I currently live in it is impossible to get fiber optic Internet services from the phone company in apartment buildings that were built with an agreement to use cable internet. The result is still a single provider, with poor service and high prices.

This is no better than a government provider, and arguably worse from the point of view of transparency. Breaking up such a cartel is a high cost to residents, so it is usually tolerated. Chapter 5 does not discuss this point.

Some local governments have retained the responsibility to provide services, but outsourced the staff to do so. Sandy Springs, Georgia is an example. In this model, the argument is that the contract negotiation process allows the government to entertain competing bids and choose the lowest cost service provider.

In the case of Sandy Springs, it is too early to tell how this will turn out. The city founders have been diligent and proactive in contract negotiation. The city benefits greatly from being carved out of Fulton County, gaining a strong tax base but somehow avoiding responsibility for pre-existing debt and pension obligations. Nice work if you can get it, but not necessarily replicatible.

Sandy Springs seems to be getting FTE (full time equivalent) services for less that $100K per FTE, which is what I spitballed personnel costs would be in that part of Georgia. The outsourced employees are in places like Ireland and India.

Of course, the government can do the same thing. I deal with a Federal shared services center in West Virginia, a low cost locale compared to DC. Outsourcing is not the magic here, contract negotiation skills by the city management is.

Condos, developer communities and sprawling retirement venues such as The Villages are a different level of substitution. In these cases, the physical infrastructure is owned by a business entity. Residents can own units, but pay fees to the property management firm for basic services.

This is a complete flip-flop from the Sandy Springs model. In Sandy Springs the city was still owning the infrastructure, but contracting for competing service providers. In the condo or retirement community the infrastructure ownership is private and the service provider is a monopoly of the developer/property manager complex of firms. Competition happens at the level of the community vying with other communities for residents willing to relocate.

Implications of private government

Even huge developments such as The Villages are not governments. In a dispute with the IRS over bonds that were issued by The Villages as tax-free ‘municipal’ bonds, the IRS found that the board running the core community was merely an arm of the property owner – a private entity.

A citizen has certain rights that they retain, no matter what. A condo resident agrees to a business contract, often including the demand to use binding arbitration. To me, this is the biggest distinction between public and private – the substitution of citizen rights for contract stipulations.

On the ‘happy path’ of a contract, residents can focus on lower costs for services, if in fact they are lower. They might feel an emotional satisfaction of being ‘in control’ that comes from choosing and owning something, and this is no small thing. However, once the relationship sours the resident can find their freedom to obtain information or influence policy is sharply constrained.

This is important in a book about ignorance and the influence of the citizen. It feels as if a law professor could have done a better job of elucidating the differences between public and private rights. Chapter 5 doesn’t do this.

Rogue government

Sometimes governments do not serve their citizens well. Large corporations and sports franchises can play off communities against each other, seeking tax abatements and other forms of corporate welfare. This rent-seeking behavior works against voters’ interests. State and local governments can also raise exclusionary barriers with licensing and zoning.

Worse, we get communities such as Ferguson, Missouri. As was brought out in detail by the Michael Brown case, the government sustained itself on a tax-farming system of traffic tickets and bench warrants and maintained a sharp racial distinction between the governing officials and the citizenry.

Ferguson would seem to be a classic foot voting opportunity. The government was preying on its citizens. Well, Ferguson is a good example of the kind of foot voting known as white flight. Even as Ferguson’s population shrank across recent decades, the black population rose. The urban poor moved into Ferguson because it was even worse elsewhere.

Here we see the limits of foot voting. As pointed out earlier, the level of opportunity represented by the frontier, by the oppression of the Jim Crow South, doesn’t exist anymore. Arguments for foot voting based on trans-national flows motivated by famine and mass murder are irrelevant to what foot voting means in contemporary America. Instead, we have foot voting based on affordable housing with no particular consideration for the politics of the community. Foot voting doesn’t work if the prior is despair, not motivation. Good government has to work even for such citizens.


Chapter 5 is probably the weakest chapter in Political Ignorance. The author seems to have taken a well researched book about data, theory, and rationality, and inserted a topic that is at best marginally relevant. This topic is obviously the pet enthusiasm of the author, so it succeeds in ‘rent seeking’ more space with less justification than the other chapters. The author relaxes his standards of argument and throws out multiple justifications for foot voting, each with little support or evidence in its favor.

Democracy and Political Ignorance – Summary review

I finished reading Ilya Somin’s provocative book (henceforth Political Ignorance) over my summer vacation, and I think I want to write quite a bit about it so this will get spread across several blog posts.

Yes, readers concerned with the democratic process and constitutional design should read this book. It provides clear evidence that by whatever process you think democracy arrives at good governance of society, our current electorate is so woefully ignorant that it cannot be working properly. Further, this situation will be incredibly difficult to fix. While that might sound quite depressing, the author surveys many suggestions for trying and agrees that trying is necessary. Our basic government structure of federalism offers hope that experiments will have room to be tried, and successful experiments replicated.

No, readers should not be swayed in their decision by the subtitle, “Why smaller government is smarter”. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, arguments about the ‘size’ of government make up a relatively small part of the book’s content. Political Ignorance does not make a serious attempt to address the question.

Somin presents the problem in chapter 1, with a review of recent surveys of voter knowledge from US federal elections, both Presidential and mid-term. Whether you look at all adults, registered, or likely voters, the results are appalling. Easily 25% of the country just has no fucking clue, just no clue at all about headline issues facing the country that their vote might affect. A key finding, repeated later in chapter 4, is that swing voters are the most ignorant of all.

Let that sink in – our elections are being decided by the dumbest of the dumb.

If I had any wishes for chapter 1, I would wish for a longer baseline of data and breakdown between factual knowledge of the issues vs. a knowledge of the system.

Chapter 2 examines four different theories of democratic governance, each of which seems to hold voters to a different standard of knowledge about the issues. “Responsive government” assumes democracy is a ‘throw the bums out’, reactive process. Old leaders are punished for large failures such as losing wars or causing famines, and replaced with new leaders. This is certainly a step up from monarchy or other forms of dictatorship, but suffers from many emotional biases and information deficits. What leader or policy was responsible for the problem? Can Chris Christie be blamed for shark attacks driving down tourism on the Jersey Shore? (Answer: yes.)

Burkean trusteeship holds that voters are actually selecting trustees for the work of governing society, and as such the important part of the process is choosing the person for an elected office according to their qualities of education, personality, moral compass, etc. Here again, we find that voters know very little about the people they are electing. Think birtherism for an example.

Issue-driven majoritarianism simply asks if a candidate is siding with the majority on specific issues. In this view, reflecting the majority desire is more important for democracy than any attempt to lead the entire nation. However, the likelihood that a poll-following politician will be elected is confounded by the ignorance of voters on the issues, who holds what position, and who is relatively closer to the majority view.

Finally, deliberative democracy assumes that voters are researching and discussing the facts, the proposed policies, and the likely outcomes in an informed and conscientious manner before stepping into the voting booth, and exercising their franchise with the solemnity deserving of the act. Obviously, this is not happening. Exchanging Facebook memes with your friends does not count as deliberative democracy.

While this survey of process theories is not exhaustive, it does show the span of levels of knowledge that different theories can assume. Even the most lenient, reactive model won’t work if voters don’t know who to blame for what. However, we can take some small comfort from work on the evolution of cooperation, such as Axelrod. In this research we can see that the best strategy for the Iterated Prisoners Dilemma is Tit-for-tat, the reactive model. If we view government as a long IPD held between the class of politicians that run for office and the class of voters that elect them, then there is small hope that over long periods of time the system can evolve to stable payoffs. Is this ‘perfect’? No. Is it better than revolution? Yes.

Hello Darkness, my old friend

In chapter 3, Somin introduces the idea of rational ignorance. Since everyone is working with scarce resources of money, time, and energy, it is necessary to choose where to invest those resources. For most voters, becoming politically knowledgeable is not the best use of their resources.

If we compare voting to other selection processes such as jury voting, product buying, and choosing where to live it is easy to see a proportional relationship between personal motivation and acquiring knowledge. If we value the outcome of the decision more, we will be more likely to devote the resources necessary to acquiring the knowledge to better make the decision.

From this perspective we can see that modern American voters just don’t think the act of voting will change very much in their lives. Voters that are choosing freedom or slavery, monarchy or communism, have a lot at stake, and consequently political discussion dominates the public square in a more informed manner than when thinking about Medicare Part D.

If this ignorance is rational, Americans have a pretty good thing going and they doubt that any one election can change that very much. Most of the time, they are right. But there is a ‘long tail’ of times they are wrong, and being wrong in those decisions means being catastrophically wrong. The price of freedom is eternal resource allocation at higher than rational levels.

What can be done about this situation? Americans are so fat and happy, the system has worked so well for the majority, that we have fallen into a post-Thanksgiving-dinner coma. If only we cared as much about politics as we do about college football, we might wake up!

Chapter 4 looks at some workarounds to ignorance. Maybe we are smarter than we seem at first glance, or have the answers hidden up our sleeve. If we can be more informed for a lower cost, that would be a good thing. Some of the strategies that are looked at include political parties, opinion leaders, knowledge from ordinary life and retrospective voting. Sadly, none of these are theoretical possibilities that have not been tried. The existing data showing extreme political ignorance already has all of these strategies and more already baked into the result. Shortcuts will not help us.

I’m going to save Chapter 5 for a separate post. Foot voting is obviously a pet enthusiasm of the author’s. Chapter 6 looks at the concept of judicial review with respect to political ignorance. This has the feel of a separate essay, and can safely be skipped if legal theory is not your thing.

Chapter 7 asks if voters can be made smarter somehow. Again a range of possibilities are examined, including shrinking the franchise to the well-informed through tests. This chapter can help dispel the depression brought on by constant drumbeat of negative results from the previous chapters. There is hope, because these and other strategies are just starting to be tried.

Political Ignorance has two punchlines. We can reduce the dangers of political ignorance by limiting and decentralizing the role of government in society, and democratic control of government works best when there is less government to control. I can understand why Professor Somin has buried these thesis statements at the end of the book, rather than presenting them at the beginning. This book, as valuable as it is, does very little to prove either statement. Again, more on this in another post.

Bottom line – this book is an important survey of a difficult topic. It will reward your scarce resource allocation! Buy it, read it, talk about it.