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.


1 thought on “Democracy and Political Ignorance – Summary review

  1. Maybe we’d get more voter participation if we turned the election into a show like Survivor, and the presidency went to the last man on the island.

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