Archive | Democracy

Three Upcoming Talks in New York City

This coming week, on Thursday and Friday, I will be doing three different two talks in New York City, two at NYU Law School, and one at Columbia Law School.

On Thursday, April 11, from 12:10 to about 1:10, Columbia law Professor Theodore Shaw and I will be debating affirmative action and the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Fisher v. University of Texas. The event is sponsored by the Columbia Federalist Society, and will be held in Room 103 of Jerome Greene Hall, 435 W. 116th St.

Later on Thursday, from 4 to 5:30 PM, I will be speaking at NYU about my forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance (Stanford University Press), focusing specifically on the parts of the book that outline how the problem of rational political ignorance can be mitigated by decentralizing political power. This event is sponsored by the NYU chapter of the Federalist Society, and will be in Vanderbilt Hall, Room 216, at 40 Washington Square North.

Finally, on Friday, April 12, at 1 PM, I will again be speaking at NYU at a symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 17th Amendment, entitled “Democracy Unfiltered: Discussing 100 Years of Direct Elections and Modern Issues Affecting the Law of Democracy.” Also on this panel will be Rick Pildes (NYU), Wendy Schiller (Brown), and Bruce Cain (Stanford). The event is sponsored by the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, and will be held in Vanderbilt Hall, at 40 Washington Square North. [...]

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Forthcoming Article on Voter Errors in Attributing Responsibility to Public Officials

In a forthcoming article I coauthored with economists Bryan Caplan, Eric Crampton, and Wayne Grove, we find that voters routinely make major mistakes in attributing responsibility for a variety of policy outcomes to different branches and levels of government. This undermines voters’ ability to properly reward and punish political incumbents for their performance. The article will be published in PS: Political Science and Politics, and a draft is now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Many scholars argue that “retrospective voting” is a powerful information shortcut that offsets widespread voter ignorance. Even relatively ignorant voters, it is claimed, can punish incumbents for bad performance and reward them if things go well. But if voters’ understanding of which officials are responsible for which issues is systematically biased, retrospective voting becomes an independent source of political failure rather than a cure for it. We designed and administered a new survey of the general public and political experts to test for such biases. Our analysis reveals frequent, large, robust biases in voter attributions of responsibility for a wide array of political actors and outcomes, with an overarching tendency for the public to overestimate influence, though there are also important examples of underestimation.

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Prediction Markets and Political Ignorance

In two recent posts, guest-blogger John McGinnis makes a strong case that the US government should legalize prediction markets, that these markets are valuable sources of information, and that claims that prediction markets can easily be “manipulated” are overblown. I agree completely on all counts. Nevertheless, I am somewhat pessimistic that prediction markets will do a lot to overcome the problem of political ignorance.

As I discussed in my previous post commenting on John’s excellent new book Accelerating Democracy, voters are rationally ignorant about politics, and are often unaware of even very basic information about government and public policy. Thus, even if prediction markets make high-quality data readily available for free, most voters may pay little or no attention to it, just as they currently ignore most of the information already available from other sources. In this context, it’s worth noting that there’s little if any evidence that more than a tiny fraction of voters have been paying attention to prediction markets over the last few years that the data has been available. Although I haven’t seen any survey data on the subject, I would not be surprised if a majority of Americans have not even heard of prediction markets, much less been paying attention to the data they generate. Obviously, as John points out, voters who actually place substantial bets on prediction markets do have a strong incentive to pay attention to them. But that is likely to be only a small proportion of the population, just as currently only a small proportion are highly active sports bettors.

Even those voters who do pay some attention to prediction markets may not evaluate their results with anything approaching objectivity. Just as voters tend to overvalue other types of information that confirm their preexisting views, while undervaluing any [...]

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Reflections on John McGinnis’ Accelerating Democracy

Guest blogger John McGinnis’ new book Accelerating Democracy is an outstanding analysis of the ways in which modern technology and social science can improve the quality of decision-making in government and society. It is probably the most important book on that subject in a long time.

Much of John’s thesis is compelling. He is right that modern social science enables us to evaluate the effects of public policy far more accurately than in the past, and that modern technology makes it easier to disseminate the resulting knowledge. I also agree with John’s argument that the technological and social scientific revolutions strengthen the case for political decentralization, enabling lower-level governments to experiment with new types of policies. We can now evaluate such experiments much better than in the past, which increases their value to society. John is especially persuasive in arguing that we should legalize prediction markets, which are an extremely valuable source of information, even if imperfect.

I do, however, have two reservations about John’s conclusions: Because of the problem of rational political ignorance, voters may fail to exploit much of the new information available to them. We will be able to make better use of new data if we make more of our decisions by “voting with our feet” than by voting at the ballot box. And in many cases, such foot voting is best facilitated by limiting state and local government power, as well as that of Washington.

I. How Political Ignorance Reduces the Benefits of New Information.

As John effectively demonstrates, recent technological advances both give us new policy-relevant information and make it easier for the public to access it. The problem is that voters have little incentive to actually learn and make use of the new data. Because any one vote has only an infinitesmal [...]

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What to Do When Illiberal, Anti-Democratic Forces Take Power Through the Democratic Process

When Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship began to collapse two years ago, I expressed the fear that the ultimate outcome might be a new Egyptian government more oppressive than the old. The main reasons for my concern were that illiberal radical Islamists were far better positioned to seize power than liberal democrats, and that Egyptian public opinion was itself highly illiberal, which raised the possibility that radical Islamists could prevail even in a genuinely free election.

Since then, the first Egyptian presidential elections have been won by radical Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who proceeded to persecute journalists who “insulted” him, kill numerous protestors, and assume near-dictatorial “emergency” powers.

Fearing a descent into Islamist dictatorship, more liberal Egyptians have taken to the streets in protest. Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman, a leading academic expert on Middle Eastern law and politics, sympathizes with them, but argues that they should not undermine Morsi’s democratically elected government lest they bring on a reversion to military rule:

I hate to agree with an Egyptian general about anything, but Abdelfatah Al-Seesi, who’s also Egypt’s defense minister, had a point when he warned his countrymen on Facebook that continued violent protest in the streets might lead to collapse.

Ordinary Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with the government of President Mohamed Mursi, which has by turns overclaimed its authority and underdelivered in establishing order. Still, it’s one thing to engage in mass protest when your target is a dictatorship — then you are a democratic revolutionary. It’s quite another to use mass protests to try and bring down a democratically elected government that you don’t like. Then you’re running the risk of becoming an unwitting agent of counterrevolution….

If Egypt’s democrats want to avoid becoming another Pakistan, in which democracy is never more than a

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The Moment of Victory in Minnesota

For an example of a pure, spontaneous eruption of joy it’s hard to beat the moment we learned that the anti-gay marriage amendment had been defeated in Minnesota.  At 1:45 the staff and board of Minnesotans United For All Families, was gathered in a conference room just across from the hall from where thousands had gathered for the main victory party taking place. We had started out with a big lead of 60%-40% early in the night but had seen that lead dwindle hour-by-hour until the “yes” and “no” votes were almost tied. Still, we’d heard that votes in Minneapolis were not yet in and that these should bring good news.  So the mood was cautiously optimistic, intense, focused, and nervous.

Richard Carlbom, the campaign manager, stood up on a chair and began addressing the room of perhaps 100 staff, volunteers, and board members.  They had given everything they could for months to beat the amendment.  Since my phone’s battery was dead, I asked my partner to video what he said.  Nobody expected what happened next.  Carlbom told us how much we’d accomplished as a campaign. He said he was hopeful we’d win but that the race was still too close to call.  Since we had to be out of the convention hall by 2 a.m., he said, we wouldn’t know the result for sure until morning.  As he was about to close, he was interrupted by the campaign communications director, Kelly Schwinghammer, who had been busily checking her smart phone for the latest news.  “Hey Richard,” she said calmly, “the AP just called it.”  To see the speech and the reaction to the announcement, follow the link below (see especially beginning at about the 2:55 mark):

The Moment of Victory in Minnesota

This is the only video that [...]

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Winning Minnesota

Most of the post-election attention to the gay-marriage ballot fights has focused on the inspiring wins in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state, where same-sex marriages will now be legal.  But equally important in the long-term is what happened in Minnesota on Tuesday.  Eighteen months ago, when the state legislature voted to place a ban on same-sex marriages on the ballot, I wrote that “on November 6, 2012, Minnesota will become the first state to reject one of these amendments.”  Many people (myself included) were skeptical of that prediction.  It was more a hope than a forecast. Until midnight or so last night, I still doubted we’d win.  Losing Minnesota, for me and for my family and friends, would be a punch to the gut even harder than losing California.

In 30 states, same-sex marriage had never won a popular referendum.  Minnesota is reliably blue, but is more socially conservative than people realize.  The state GOP had taken both the state senate and house in 2010, which is what permitted the issue to go to the ballot.  Minnesota is more religious, with a higher percentage of weekly churchgoers, than places like Maine and California.  It’s in the middle of the country, not on one of the coasts.  In 2006, neighboring Wisconsin had approved a broader amendment by 59%-41%.  Polls on gay-marriage amendments had always been notoriously unreliable, underestimating opposition by an average of seven percent. The public polls never showed us beyond that error rate.  Opponents had a devastating, if misleading and exaggerated, message about how gay marriage would mean the loss of religious freedom, kids would be “taught gay marriage,” judicial activists would impose their will, and family structure would unravel. Somehow all of this would be caused by the marriages of people like two of my best friends, [...]

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Is it Unjust to Require Children to Pass a Knowledge Test to Vote, but Not Adults?

Canadian legal blogger Leonid Sirota has posted an interesting response to my post advocating extension of the franchise to politically knowledgeable children. He argues that it is unjust to require children to pass a knowledge test for voting, but not adults. He would therefore prefer to lower the voting age to 16 instead:

Pour ma part, je pense que l’option du vote à 16 ans est préférable à celle d’un test. Au-delà problèmes d’administrabilité évoqués par prof. Somin, ce sont arguments qu’il apporte lui-même qui semblent militer contre l’instauration de tests pour les mineurs. S’il n’y a pas de bonne raison de traiter les jeunes différemment des adultes, et les arguments de prof. Somin pour dire qu’il n’y en a pas sont très convaincants, alors il est sûrement injuste d’instaurer un test pour les premiers mais pas pour les seconds. Si les connaissances du système politique devraient être un critère pour pouvoir voter, il n’y a pas de raison pour ne pas appliquer ce critère aux adultes.

Sirota’s post is in French, which I understand, but most of our US readers probably don’t. I would translate the key passage roughly as follows: “If there is no good reason to treat the young differently from adults, and Prof. Somin’s arguments that there isn’t one are very convincing, it is surely unjust to institute a test for the former, but not the latter. If knowledge of the political system should be a prerequisite to getting the right to vote, there is no reason not to apply that criterion to adults.” If I have gotten the translation wrong, I hope Sirota or one of our French-speaking readers will correct me.

I am not convinced by Sirota’s objection. It’s true that my proposal doesn’t eliminate all unequal treatment of children and adults. Children would [...]

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Education and Voting Rights for Knowledgeable Children

In response to my post arguing that we should grant voting rights to politically knowledgeable children, Paul Horwitz of Prawfsblawg makes the following suggestion:

What spurred this post is Ilya Somin’s argument on the VC yesterday that knowledgeable children ought to be allowed to vote. He addresses some standard objections in his post, but a number of his commenters wrote to argue that such a rule, if enforced by knowledge or literacy tests, would end up privileging some groups and disadvantaging others (as, indeed, previous tests have done in the United States). Indeed, given massive educational inequality in this country, it’s hard not to see how this proposal wouldn’t give much more electoral power to the wealthy, well-educated, mostly white elite. Unless….perhaps Ilya would welcome a trade-off: knowledgeable children get the vote, in exchange for guarantees of massive public/private efforts to assure meaningful educational and welfare rights to ensure that the opportunity to be a knowledgeable child voter is fairly and widely distributed among the entire population rather than limiting that vote to enclaves with better resources. I’m just going to go ahead and consider this Ilya’s very subtle case for overruling San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez [the 1973 decision that ruled that there is no constitutional right to equal education spending].

Paul is, of course, entitled to interpret my argument however he wants. But I have no desire to overrule Rodriguez. Setting aside the legal merits of the case, extensive evidence compiled by economists Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth shows that increasing education spending in public schools does little or nothing to increase educational achievement. On the other hand, I would be happy if my child-voting proposal were paired with increased school choice, which does have a demonstrated record of increasing educational achievement among poor [...]

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Suffer the Little Children to Vote

On this election day, as on most others, we will hear a lot about the need to increase turnout and the dangers of voter suppression. But few will even consider questioning the systematic exclusion of a huge part of our population from the franchise: children under the age of 18. We allow even the most ignorant and irresponsible adults to vote, but exclude even the most knowledgeable and insightful children. And to add insult to injury, we saddle them with a mediocre education system and trillions of dollars in public debt that they will someday have to repay.

For reasons I outlined during the last presidential election, this is both unjust and counterproductive. We should at least consider allowing children to vote if they are more knowledgeable than the average adult voter:

The main objection to giving children the vote is that they lack the knowledge to make informed choices. Of course the same is true of most of the adult electorate, who are rationally ignorant about politics and public policy, and often don’t know even very basic facts. Nonetheless, it’s probably true that the average child knows a lot less about politics than the average adult, and that may be a good reason to deny most children the franchise. But why deny it to all of them? If a minor can pass a test of basic political knowledge (say, the political knowledge equivalent of the citizenship test administered to immigrants seeking naturalization), why shouldn’t he or she have the right to vote? Such a precocious child-voter would probably be more knowledgeable than the majority of the adult population. Giving her the right to vote would actually increase the average knowledge level of the electorate and thereby slightly improve the quality of political decision-making. I’ve met twelve-year-olds with

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Foot Voting, Federalism, and Political Freedom

My forthcoming article, “Foot Voting, Federalism, and Political Freedom,” is now available on SSRN. The article is part of a symposium on Federalism and Subsidiarity in the interdisciplinary journal Nomos, which focuses on a different broad issue in political theory every year. Other contributors include a variety of big-name federalism scholars in legal academia and political science: Daniel Weinstock, Loren King, Judith Resnik (Yale), Steve Calabresi (Northwestern), Jenna Bednar, Andreas Follesdal, Vicki Jackson (Harvard), Sotirios Barber, Michael Blake, Ernest Young (Duke), and Jacob Levy (McGill).

Here is the abstract for my article:

The idea of “voting with your feet” has been an important part of debates over federalism for several decades. But foot voting is still underrated as a tool for enhancing political freedom: the ability of the people to choose the political regime under which they wish to live.

Part I of this article explains some key ways in which foot voting in a federal system is often superior to ballot box voting as a method of political choice. A crucial difference between the two is that foot voting enables the individual to make a decision that has a high likelihood of actually affecting the outcome. By contrast, the odds of casting a meaningful ballot box vote are vanishingly small. This reality both enhances the individual’s degree of political freedom and incentivizes him or her to make better-informed and more rational decisions. It is an important consideration in favor of greater political decentralization.

In Part II, I consider some possible limitations of foot voting in a federal system as a tool for enhancing political freedom. These include moving costs, the possibility of “races to the bottom,” and the problem of oppression of minority groups by subnational governments. Each of these sometimes poses a genuine constraint on effective

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Why We Choose Presidents Based on the Wrong Issues

In a recent Slate column, John Dickerson points out that presidential elections typically focus too much on issues the president has little control over and too little on those that he has more effect on:

Nothing tests a president’s temperament like foreign affairs. Though this presidential campaign has only recently touched on the topic, the lack of focus points to another flaw in our election system. If we arranged our campaigns around what a president actually can control, we wouldn’t spend the majority of our time talking about the economy, where a president is a bit player.

Not so in foreign affairs. A president is the last word on decisions regarding military strikes, covert operations, or how to treat political prisoners. George W. Bush signed off on every prisoner that faced enhanced interrogation techniques. Barack Obama personally approves every drone strike of a high-value terrorist target. When the president serves as the country’s chief diplomat, he acts almost entirely alone.

Dickerson exaggerates a little when he suggests the president “acts almost entirely alone” on key foreign policy issues. But he certainly has much more control over them than over short-term economic trends. Yet the latter are the biggest factor in most elections. Voters also tend to ignore or underemphasize other issues that the president has a great deal of control over: issues such as judicial nominations and appointments to federal regulatory agencies.

Why are voters myopic in this way? Because, thanks to widespread political ignorance, most voters have difficulty telling the difference between issues that the president can affect and those he can’t. That’s why studies show that voters routinely reward and punish politicians for events they have little or no control over, including trends in the world economy, shark attacks and droughts, and even [...]

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Just Say No to Terrorism

In the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan famously urged kids to “just say no” to drugs. Although I’m no fan of the War on Drugs, she was certainly correct to point out that saying “no” is a good way of avoiding the dangers of drug use. Co-blogger Eugene Volokh makes a similar argument with respect to violence intended to pressure Western nations into suppressing “blasphemous” speech. Giving in to the terrorists incentivizes further terrorism, while refusing to do so reduces the risk of future violence. This principle applies to terrorism more broadly: An excellent way to reduce the risk of attacks is to refuse to give in to the terrorists’ demands. Over time, a government that develops a reputation for saying no to terrorists is likely to suffer fewer attacks in the first place.

I. Why Terrorists Rarely Target Dictatorships.

Most terrorist attacks are undertaken in the hopes of extracting some sort of political concession from the targeted nation. The terrorists strike because they think they have at least a reasonable chance of achieving the desired result. Governments that refuse to give in suffer fewer attacks. The most striking evidence supporting this conjecture is that terrorists rarely target dictatorships. That certainly isn’t because dictatorships are so nice that few people have grievances against them. To the contrary, they usually generate far more grievances than democracies do.

For example, it is striking that there is relatively little Muslim terrorism directed at Chinese targets, despite the Chinese governments’ brutal repression of its Muslim minority. In the days of the Soviet Union, Muslim terrorism directed against that government was very rare, despite the invasion of Afghanistan and the USSR’s harsh treatment of its own large Muslim population. Even Osama Bin Laden didn’t engage in terrorist attacks against civilians when he [...]

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The Arab Spring and the Video Riots

Ever since the Arab Spring began, I have been concerned that it could ultimately result in the establishment of Islamist regimes as bad or worse than the more secular dictatorships they replaced. One of the reasons for that fear is that public opinion in many Arab nations is highly illiberal and intolerant. As a result, free elections could result in victories for authoritarian and repressive radical Islamists, as has indeed happened in Egypt. The new Islamist Egyptian President has already imposed media censorship and harrassment that activists consider to be worse than Mubarak’s was.

Unfortunately, the recent outbreak of violent riots in many Middle Eastern nations in response to an insignificant anti-Muslim Youtube video is a further indication of the problem. With the important exception of Libya, most Arab and Muslim governments have issued vitriolic condemnations of the video while either ignoring or only mildly criticizing the violent response to it.

In the absence of systematic polling data, it is too early to say what percentage of the population in these countries agrees that violent rioting is a justified response to “blasphemous” speech. But the tepid reaction of Arab governments to the violence suggests that such support is at least relatively common, even if not the view of a majority. And in Egypt, site of some of the worst violence, previous survey data shows that violent religious intolerance does enjoy majority support. For example, a 2010 Pew survey found that 84% of Egyptians believe that Muslims who convert to another religion should be executed.

It would be a mistake to say that such intolerance and illiberalism are an inevitable attribute of Islam. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a centuries-old religion with many different variants, some of them more liberal and tolerant than others. I [...]

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Larry Solum on the Countermajoritarian Difficulty

Georgetown law professor Larry Solum has an excellent post summarizing the ongoing debate over the “countermajoritarian difficulty,” one of the most common criticisms of judicial review. Solum summarizes the “difficulty” as follows:

The counter-majoritarian difficulty may be the best known problem in constitutional theory… The counter-majoritarian difficulty states a problem with the legitimacy of the institution of judicial review: when unelected judges use the power of judicial review to nullify the actions of electedexecutives or legislators, they act contrary to “majority will” as expressed by representative institutions. If one believes that democratic majoritarianism is a very great political value, then this feature of judicial review is problematic. For at least two or three decades after [Alexander] Bickel’s naming of this problem [in 1962], it dominated constitutional theory.

In the rest of the post, Solum provides a very helpful summary of the major answers various legal theorists have developed to address the problem. I recommend the post to students and others who want to get a quick but helpful summary of the issue, along with some useful cites to the literature. It is a worthy addition to Solum’s extremely useful series of “Legal Theory Lexicon” posts.

My only reservation about the post is that it omits one of the most important and influential answers to the difficulty: John Hart Ely’s “representation-reinforcement” theory, outlined in his famous 1980 book Democracy and Distrust. Ely argued that judicial review can, in some cases, actually promote democracy by facilitating political participation. Obvious examples include judicial protection of the right to vote and the right to freedom of political speech. Such representation-reinforcing judicial decisions are not, Ely argues, countermajoritarian, because they ensure that the people can participate in the political process, which is what makes that process majoritarian in the first place.

Ely’s book has [...]

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