Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter by Ilya Somin (Stanford University Press 2013), 280 pages.
In Democracy and Political Ignorance, law professor Ilya Somin looks down into the apparently fathomless depth of voter ignorance and concludes that dividing and decentralizing the power of the federal government can alleviate many of the ills attending such ignorance. Somin begins by asking whether we ought to care about political ignorance — indeed, whether we are justified in caring. He acknowledges early on that, for the vast majority of us, disregarding practical politics and its questions is actually a kind of “rational ignorance,” a condition in which the costs of acquiring political knowledge far outweigh the meager, even negligible, significance of any one vote. It simply makes sense to sit Election Day out entirely. Ordinary citizens just lack the incentives to pay close attention to the issues. But Somin argues that, rational or not, all of this pervasive ignorance about politics is something that ought to concern us as citizens of an ostensibly democratic polity. In support of his claim that we are justified in “worry[ing] about political ignorance and advocat[ing] measures to reduce its impact,” Somin observes the “‘public goods’ problems” associated with voter ignorance, scenarios where “rational individual behavior … leads to potentially dangerous collective outcomes.” Analogizing environmental pollution to contamination of the political atmosphere, Somin points out that serious incentive problems may justify some active intervention into the mechanisms of voting.
Given those concerns, Somin argues, tweaking of the political system is not just an instance of unlibertarian paternalism, but is instead a means of shielding legitimate individual prerogatives. Among the premises of Somin’s thesis is the contention that public opinion affects policymaking in important ways, that how ordinary voters think actually does matter. That premise implicates public choice theory, a tradition originating with economists such as James Buchanan and aiming to (paraphrasing Buchanan) excise the romance from the way we think about the motivations of political actors.
In a book that dealt with many of the themes Somin grapples with (The Myth of the Rational Voter), economist Bryan Caplan also discussed the dangers to democracy posed by political ignorance: “According to Classical Public Choice, voter ignorance transforms politics from a puzzling anomaly into a textbook example of the explanatory power of information economics. Voter ignorance opens the door to severe government failure. Interest groups — not to mention bureaucrats and politicians themselves — walk straight in.” Pitted against and compared with the knowledge and savvy of elites, ordinary citizens are vulnerable. The political process becomes not an expression of the public will, but an instrument of special interests.
Related to that view, in his 1983 paper “A Theory of Competition among Pressure Groups for Political Influence,” another influential economist, Gary S. Becker, attempted to build a theory that would explain the way in which the interest groups compete among themselves, apart from the results of elections. The work of economists such as Caplan and Becker bears considerably on the arguments contained in Somin’s book, giving us the framework for analyzing them. For if we develop a more accurate picture of the forces that dominate politics, we will be better equipped to gauge the role and relative importance of voter ignorance.
Becker notes that while the literature has “identified selfish pressure groups with democratic capitalism,” other less-free systems of political economy may in fact be more vulnerable to the influence of pressure groups to the extent that such systems consign more resources to the control of the state. Thus, as the American political economy veers from legitimate free-market principles to what Charlotte Twight labeled “participatory fascism,” worries about the sway of special-interest groups are increasingly well justified. As coercive, centralized control increases, economic success becomes — rather than a function of free and open competition — a function of effective, concerted interactions between organized interests and the holders of political power. In such a system, the electorate and their votes matter either not at all or very little; they function instead as a veneer that in fact protects and legitimizes tyranny. Distinguishing special-interest fascism from free markets, Becker writes, “This tyranny of the status quo is not the same … as laissez faire because the political sector would protect the status quo against many shocks and changes in the private sector.”
Somin’s thesis, while it identifies significant infirmities in the American democratic process, may seem to underestimate the depth of the political class’s control over the political-economic system, and therefore the scope of pressure groups’ command of public policy. Under that view, public opinion doesn’t enjoy the weight of influence that we might otherwise expect, at least not on the decisions of policymakers and bureaucrats. On the other hand, Somin’s arguments do recognize the problem of “elite manipulation of the public” and diagnose it as just another result of voter ignorance. The suggestion, one appealing to radical libertarians, is that if people only knew what the political class was up to, there’s no way they would submit to it. As in George Orwell’s 1984, it is the proles who ultimately hold the power, albeit a power that lies dormant. And it remains that way, a mere untapped potential, owing to the eternal question of how to make the general population “become conscious of their own strength.” In Democracy and Political Ignorance, Somin offers several possible explanations for continued voter ignorance, for this failure to realize the potential of democracy.
One such explanation is what we might call partisanship as a spectator sport: There is a Blue Team and a Red Team; both have their fans and supporters, almost all of whom care far less about specific policies and positions than about the sense that they have of their team, the feeling they get from rooting for it. Virtually identical policies are, in point of fact, treated and reacted to in opposite manners, depending on whether it is the Blue or Red team pursuing them — that is, depending on the dictates of team loyalty. Given the vagaries of the two-party political system, then, even most Americans who regard themselves as interested in and paying attention to politics are actually arriving at their positions not on the basis of consistent principle or even ideology, but rather on allegiance to the home team.
Americans who are more interested in politics, Somin observes, are actually more likely to simply collect information tending to “confirm their preexisting opinions” as against acquainting themselves with several different perspectives on a given issue. Party identification and adherence to ideology beget a willingness both to swallow patent falsehoods and to tune out verified truths, depending on whether they square with the narratives of the home team. Healthy skepticism toward the claims of politicians and other interested parties is the first casualty of the team loyalty that is partisanship.
All of this Caplan labeled “rational irrationality,” which Somin explains as “a decision not to make an effort to carefully evaluate one’s views in an unbiased way.” As a decision either to ignore the truth or to avoid probing for it, it is irrational-al; but as a way of sheltering the pleasure derived from “taking part in a political ‘fan’ group,” we may regard it as rational — hence “rational irrationality.”
Both the theory of rational ignorance and that of rational irrationality demonstrate that there are countless opportunities for our hallowed democratic process to go awry. Reasons abound for voters to sweep aside the limited information they have at their disposal or else to allow preexisting biases to color their perception of the issues. On the other side of the electoral process, the lawmakers are no less susceptible to the problems associated with incomplete information and imperfect interpretations of voter behavior. Remarking on the inability of politicians “to know precisely how an electoral outcome will be linked to a specific policy action,” Robert Higgs observed that “most likely the politician will behave contrary to the interests of his constituents even if he wants to serve them faithfully” (emphasis added). Not only, then, are the incentives created by the current democratic process problematic, but so too are the informational problems.
Addressing those problems, Somin prescribes a smaller central government that leaves broader decision-making power and discretion to local jurisdictions, enabling a system in which individuals can vote with their feet. In his 2013 book Politics on a Human Scale, political scientist Jeff Taylor made a similar and compelling case for political decentralism as a “tool to ensure equilibrium, promote proportionality, and to obtain appropriate scale.” Taylor contends that with “government functions … as close to the people as practicable,” citizens “are not at the mercy of an impersonal bureaucracy led by a faraway few.” With the principles of decentralism operating to diffuse power — limiting the potential of government destruction and dissipation — both the Hayekian information issues and the warped incentives generated by voter ignorance are tempered. As a decentralist mechanism, the foot-voting that Somin endorses deploys the advantages of market competition to forestall undesirable public policy. Just insofar as libertarianism is in principle individualistic, it is also necessarily decentralist. In an age of gigantism, libertarians should be apt to recapture the decentralist strains in our history, to challenge the idea that social and economic progress must mean ever larger and more centralized and hierarchical institutions, whether public or private. Somin’s book successfully demonstrates that while smallness isn’t a good in and of itself, what it means in practice is increased answerability and transparency.
But while we are suggesting libertarian measures to devolve governmental powers to smaller units — those more likely to possess the information and motivation to make good decisions — we might not stop at the states or even municipalities. If foot-voting and contracting the federal government serve to mitigate the fundamental problem with allowing some special group to arbitrarily reign over everyone else, they nevertheless stop short of striking at the root. In making the moral case for liberty, we gain nothing by genuflecting to reformist patterns, by accepting the terms of debate established by those conditioned to oppose any movement in the direction of individual freedom. Strategically and in principle, libertarians are at their most compelling when our arguments are uncompromising, our solutions radical. If we can persuasively defend the claim that smaller governments at more-local levels produce smarter, more-just policies, then we can even more easily defend the right of all individuals to make all the decisions about their lives — provided, of course, that they do not aggress against anyone else.
Democracy and Political Ignorance is an instructive and illuminating contribution to the libertarian discussion of American democracy, underlining both the practical difficulties of reining in the United States’s powerful, centralized government and the potentialities of decentralism as a means to accountability. Practical, electoral politics is shown to be little more than a distraction and source of entertainment, with information on all sides skewed, contorted, and misinterpreted in ways that make decent public policy unattainable under present conditions. Still, lest we are too disheartened by the level of ignorance among voters or by the terrifying inertia of a massive government, we should recall the words of Benjamin Tucker: “Education is a slow process, and for this reason we must hope that the day of readjustment may not come too quickly.” Ironically, when ignorance about the nature of politics and government is truly remedied, individuals will not turn to the ballot, but away from it, casting rulership in all its forms aside as a relic of a dark past.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.