Tag Archives: opinion

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.

Democracy and Political Ignorance

I’m in the process of reading a fascinating book on the political process, and the lack of rationality in democracies. The book is Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, by Ilya Somin. While the American experiment in democratic government has always recognized the dangers of mob rule and populist manipulation, our understanding of these issues has sharpened in recent years as political scientists dissect the issues of education, influence, class, gender, and race on voting – the core act of creating a government.

For many Americans, there is no more apt time than now to be thinking about these issues. Well, perhaps two years ago would have been more apt.

I can tell you in advance that I find the subtitle provocative. I don’t ‘believe’ in small government or big government, I want a right-sized government for its expected function. “Smaller” government can be like “thinner” for an anorexic – you can always be thinner.

Nor is smaller government fully compatible with limited or decentralized government, other qualities that the book (and its author) advocates. The experience of the capital market is that there really is such a thing as ‘economies of scale.’ If you want make organizations smaller for the same set of functions, merge them and fire the middle management, that is the lesson of corporate raiders, outsourcers, and shared service centers.

It’s great to read a well-written book on an important topic, and even better if you don’t agree with the author 100%. I’m looking forward to sharing more of those disagreements here.

No Stress Please, We’re Euro

The European Banking Authority (EBA) recently decided to hold off on performing stress tests on Eurozone banks until 2014, citing asset reviews being conducted by the European Central Bank (ECB). The EBA last conducted the stress tests in 2011. You remember 2011. Despite ‘lessons learned’, the EBA gave Dexia a pass in the adverse scenario. Three months later, Dexia wrote down the value of its Greek sovereign debt (as did everyone else) and posted a loss of EUR 4 billion.

My lessons learned from that episode: Continue reading No Stress Please, We’re Euro