Despite all the unexpected, entertaining events during the primaries, most people have given little notice to the candidates’ specific policy proposals. Even this year’s record turnout for the presidential primaries does not change this reality.
Democracies rest on the ability of the general public to hold their elected officials accountable. But what happens when a large segment of voters knows very little about today’s policy debates or even the basic workings of American government?
The just-published second edition of Ilya Somin’s book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, tries to answer these questions and many more. In what follows, Somin explains why voters tend to remain politically uninformed, and what that means for public policy debates and American democracy.
Jared Meyer: You provide a lot of numbers in your book to show just how clueless Americans are when it comes to what is happening in Washington. I have some of my favorite examples (one third of Americans think that foreign aid is the government’s largest expense, and nearly half of Americans think cap and trade has to do with healthcare or financial regulation instead of the environment), but what do you think is the most powerful statistic to back up your central thesis?
Ilya Somin: No one survey question is all that important by itself. What matters far more is the cumulative weight of widespread political ignorance across a wide range of issues. But one good example of the extent of public ignorance is that only about 34% of Americans can even name the three branches of the federal government: executive, legislative, and judicial . It is not that familiarity with these terms is absolutely essential—it’s that anyone who follows politics even moderately closely is likely to know them. The fact that most people do not know is a strong indication of their ignorance about politics and public policy generally.
JM: Yet you argue that when using the term political ignorance you do not mean stupidity or apathy. Can you explain why you avoided using these two terms?
IS: Ignorance and stupidity are often conflated, but they are in fact two very different things. A smart person can still be ignorant about many things. No matter how smart we are, all of us are ignorant about the vast majority of the information out there. Given our limited time and energy, we have to pick and choose what we learn. It is rational for us to be ignorant about many, many subjects, and instead devote our efforts to seeking out knowledge that interests us or might make a difference in our lives.
For most people, including many smart people, it is also rational to be ignorant about politics. If your only reason to learn about it is to cast a better-informed vote in an election, that turns out not to be much of an incentive at all, because the chance that your vote will make a difference to the outcome is infinitesimally small (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential election, for example).
Most people don’t know these exact odds, but they do intuitively realize that there is little payoff to devoting lots of time to studying government policy. The problem is further exacerbated by the enormous size, scope and complexity of modern government, which makes it hard for even relatively well-informed voters to know about more than a small fraction of what our government doing.
But while political ignorance is often rational behavior for individuals, it can lead to terrible collective outcomes. It does not matter much if any one voter is ignorant, but it does matter if we have an entire electorate that is that way. The situation is comparable to air pollution: one gas-guzzling car makes little difference, but thousands or millions of them could potentially cause great harm to the environment. Similarly, widespread voter ignorance is a kind of pollution of the political process.
It is also possible to be ignorant about a subject without being apathetic. For example, I am by no means apathetic about the search for a cure for cancer; I very much hope it succeeds. But I devote very little effort to keeping up with the relevant science. Similarly, a politically apathetic person just does not care what the government does. But an ignorant person might well care, but still not devote much time to learning about politics because doing so is highly unlikely to have any effect.
JM: I agree with you. I get paid to work full-time reading policy proposals and evaluating them, yet I cannot speak coherently about some of today’s federal policy debates. The vast majority of people rightly have much better uses of their time than reading proposed legislation or regulation. So what threat does the necessity of political ignorance pose to the democratic (and even republican) parts of our system of government?
IS: If voters are poorly informed about government policy, they will often make poor decisions. They often support counterproductive or contradictory policies.
For example, as you note, most voters greatly overestimate the percentage of the federal budget spent on foreign aid (actually, about 1%), while massively underestimating the amount devoted to big entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. As a result, they believe we can solve our fiscal problems without either cutting entitlements or raising taxes on the vast majority of Americans. That delusion makes it very hard to do budget policy in a rational way.
Voters also often reward and punish elected officials for events they did not cause, such as short-term economic trends and even droughts and sports team victories (all of which have been shown to influence election results).
Beyond that, there are a host of issues where governments routinely pursue harmful and misguided policies that appeal to relatively ignorant voters, even though policy experts across the political spectrum recognize their flaws. In some cases, the harmful policies persist because voters do not even know about them, or do not understand their effects.
JM: A major part of your book is devoted to ways that we can combat the negative effects of political ignorance. Given that having a perfectly informed voting population is both impossible and impractical, what can be done to channel this rational ignorance into better outcomes?
IS: At least in the short to medium term, we are unlikely to see a major reduction in political ignorance. But we can mitigate the effects of that ignorance by making more decisions by voting with our feet, and fewer at the ballot box. In the book, I discuss two types of foot voting: when we make choices in the private sector (e.g. deciding what products to buy or what civil society organizations to join), and when we decide which city or state we want to live in, within a federal system.
If you are like most people, you probably spent more time and effort acquiring information the last time you decided which car or TV to buy than the last time you decided who to support for president or any political office. That isn’t because your TV is more important than the presidency, or deals with more complicated issues. It’s because when people choose a TV, they realize that the decision is likely to make a difference.
By contrast, when you vote for a presidential candidate, there is very little chance that your decision will change who actually ends up in the White House. The same is true of people’s decisions about where they want to live. Most of us also devote far more effort to making such choices, than we do to ballot box decisions.
If we devolve more power to state and local governments and to the private sector, we can make more of our decisions by foot voting, and fewer through ballot box voting. For example, if healthcare and education policy were controlled at the state or local level, or by the private sector, we would have many options to choose from, by voting with our feet. And those choices are likely to be better-informed than ballot-box decisions about the same issues are.
JM: Since you are a constitutional law scholar, I have to ask you what role the judiciary plays in constraining political ignorance. Clearly there are times when courts act as a force to override popular sentiment (you bring up the legal term “countermajoritarian difficulty”), and this has led many prominent conservative and progressive legal theorists to question the practice of judicial review. What points from your book should judges be sure to read?
IS: Perhaps the most influential longstanding criticism of robust judicial review is that it is anti-democratic. How dare unelected judges override the will of the people, as represented by the laws enacted by the politicians they vote for? Scholars call this objection to judicial review the “countermajoritarian difficulty.”
Widespread political ignorance undermines this critique of judicial review in two separate ways. First, if the public is generally ignorant about government policy, then many of the laws enacted by legislatures may not represent the will of the people in any meaningful sense. This is even more likely to be true of regulations enacted by government bureaucrats. This reality greatly diminishes the extent to which striking down legislation is genuinely anti-democratic, in the sense of going against the considered “will of the people.”
Second, judicial review can actually empower the people by facilitating foot voting. Judicial enforcement of constitutional limits on federal power leaves more issues under the control of state and local governments, which in turn increases the range of questions on which the people can vote with their feet as well as at the ballot box.
In some cases, judicial review can remove an issue from the political agenda entirely, leaving it under the control of private individuals and organizations. That is what happens when, for example, courts strike down laws that violate freedom of speech, freedom of religion, privacy rights, or property rights.
My book doesn’t give judges a complete blueprint for exercising the power of judicial review. But it should lead both judges and the rest of us to downgrade the countermajoritarian difficulty as an objection to striking down laws.
JM: In many ways, the American system of government was designed to limit the problems caused by political ignorance. Policymakers should realize that there are many other, more productive ways that people can vote outside of the ballot box. “Voting” in the private sector through freely choosing which goods and services to buy, or “voting” by moving to a different city or state within a federalist system are decisions about which Americans are better informed. With the increasing size and complexity of our government, it is no wonder many people know more about the Kardashians than they do about Congress.