Archive | Political Ignorance

Are People Too Dismissive of Others’ Arguments or Not Dismissive Enough?

Economist Tyler Cowen argues that people too readily dismiss others’ arguments:

One of the most common fallacies in the economics blogosphere — and elsewhere — is what I call “devalue and dismiss.” That is, a writer will come up with some critique of another argument, let us call that argument X, and then dismiss that argument altogether. Afterwards, the thought processes of the dismisser run unencumbered by any consideration of X, which after all is what dismissal means. Sometimes “X” will be a person or a source rather than an argument, of course.

The “devalue” part of this chain may well be justified. But it should lead to “devalue and downgrade,” rather than “devalue and dismiss.”

“Devalue and dismiss” is much easier of course, because there then will be fewer constraints on what one can believe and with what level of certainty. “Devalue and downgrade” keeps a lot of balls in the air and that can be tiresome and also unsatisfying, especially for those of us trained to look for neat, intuitive explanations.

His George Mason Economics Department colleague Bryan Caplan responds that, in reality, most people aren’t dismissive enough:

I’m tempted to object, “Thank goodness for dismissal, because most ideas and thinkers are a waste of time.” But on reflection, Tyler’s overly optimistic. Dismissing ideas often requires rare intellectual discipline. Psychologists have documented our assent bias: Human beings tend to believe whatever we hear unless we make an affirmative effort to question it. As a result, our heads naturally accumulate intellectual junk. The obvious remedy is to try harder to “take out the trash” – or refuse to accept marginal ideas in the first place.

I think both Bryan and Tyler capture some of the truth. When new information or arguments cut against are strongly [...]

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Gun Control, Mass Shootings, and Political Ignorance

Law professor Josh Blackman and Yale student Shelby Baird have posted an interesting paper entitled “The Shooting Cycle,” on the reaction of public opinion to mass shooting incidents, like the tragic events in Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard in 2012 and 2013. Political ignorance plays an important role in their explanation for why such events result in temporary spikes in public support for gun control, followed by reversion to the mean. Here is Josh’s more detailed description of the findings:

The pattern is a painfully familiar one. News breaks that an unknown number of victims were killed by gunfire at a school, store, or other public place. The perpetrator wantonly takes the lives of innocent people. After the police arrive, the perpetrator is soon captured or killed, often by suicide. Sadness for the losses soon gives way to an emotional fervor for change. Different proposals for gun control are advanced—some ideas that were proposed earlier, but never obtained popular support, and other ideas that are developed in response to the recent tragedy. Politicians and advocates are optimistic for reform. However, as time elapses, support for these laws fades…..

This contribution to a symposium issue of the Connecticut Law Review on the Second Amendment peels back much of the rhetoric surrounding gun violence, and, distant from the passions, explores how the government and people react to these tragedies. This article offers a sober look at what we label the shooting cycle, and assesses how people and governments respond to mass killings….

We address this important issue in five parts. In Part I, we define the term “shooting,” and quantify how frequent they occur. Shootings, labeled “mass murders” by the FBI, are killings where the “four or more [murders] occur[] during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the

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Upcoming Talks in Boston on Democracy and Political Ignorance

This week on Thursday and Friday, I will be giving three talks in Boston on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, sponsored by student Federalist Society chapters at their respective law schools:

Thursday, Jan. 16

12:15: Boston College Law School, East Wing 115A

3:30 PM: New England School of Law, Cherry Room

Friday, January 17

Noon: Boston University School of Law, Room 620 [...]

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Why Write a Book About a Seemingly Intractable Problem like Political Ignorance?

Some VC commenters and readers of my recent book and other work on political ignorance, wonder whether there is any point to writing about this subject if my argument is correct. If most voters are ignorant about politics because such ignorance is rational, and that problem is unlikely to be overcome by information shortcuts, education, or media reform, won’t they simply ignore my argument that we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government? If so, limitation and decentralization might prove to be just as unfeasible as more traditional strategies for alleviating political ignorance.

I can’t deny that this is a genuine dilemma. One possible answer is that there is value to understanding a problem better even if we can’t immediately come up with a workable solution. Other writers might be able to build on my analysis and use it to help develop more effective proposals of their own. The issue of the rationale for writing Democracy and Political Ignorance came up often enough in various presentations I gave about the manuscript before it was published, that I decided to provide a more thorough answer in the book itself. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote (footnotes omitted):

Given the self-perpetuating nature of the problem of political ignorance, readers might wonder whether there is much purpose to a book such as this one. Even if the case for limiting and decentralizing government is correct, rationally ignorant voters could easily ignore it, just as they do a great deal of other relevant information.

The challenge is indeed a daunting one. Nonetheless, there is at least some reason for cautious optimism. Past experience in several countries suggests that substantial liberalization and decentralization can be achieved in modern democracies. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, New Zealand greatly

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Exposing the Nefarious Plot to Make Me a Federal Judge

Perhaps the strangest reaction to George Will’s Washington Post op ed about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance is this post at the Democratic Daily blog, which claims it is all part of an effort to “groom” me to become a GOP-appointed federal judge:

OK: Smart. Then “guided.” (GOPs recruit out of Yale and Harvard just like Dems.) Poly sci at Harvard and Law degree from Yale. And then apprenticeship to an appeals court judge — which is a specific kind of grooming in the legal culture. Remember, John Roberts clerked for William Rehnquist, and the fact that they are successive Chief Justices is neither surprising nor, save for historical accident, coincidental.

Now, since Ilya was clerking for Texas Judge [Jerry] Smith (appointed by Ronald Reagan) in 2001-2002, it’s safe to suggest what his politics were becoming, with the blue-ribbon certification: Harvard, Yale, Hangin’ Judge Smith (who served an apprenticeship under a Texas Judge who had, otherwise worked for Humble Oil Company — former Standard Oil division — his entire career until LBJ put him on the bench).

So, we have an idea that Ilya of George Mason is being groomed for a Federal Judgeship, and is laying out his “popular”/academic work which is being touted as a favor to someone by George Will.

Whoever has been grooming me to become a federal judge is doing a very bad job of it. In reality, no one with my lengthy paper trail of controversial and often unpopular positions is at all likely to be appointed a federal judge. And the GOP in particular is unlikely to appoint someone who has publicly called for things like the complete abolition of the War on Drugs and near-open borders immigration, and argued that laws banning gay marriage are unconstitutional sex discrimination. Much of [...]

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Rational Behavior is Not the Same Thing as Morally Praiseworthy Behavior

In this recent post commenting on George Will’s column about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, Bill Quick of the Daily Pundit blog commits the understandable and common mistake of conflating rational behavior with good behavior. He claims that my argument that voter ignorance is rational must be wrong, because voter ignorance has harmful consequences:

I like Ilya, but his hackneyed apologia for individual rational ignorance when it comes to politics is pretty easy to shoot down…. You see, dead is dead, and dead doesn’t care whether it comes from an individual or a collective decision.

Nor does the dead individual care, either. Dead comes only on an individual basis, whether the terminal stroke is delivered by a single fist, or a nuclear explosion. What this means is that if you decide that it’s okay to remain an ignorant dumbass because your one single vote isn’t likely to decide anything, you may think you’ve offered a perfectly rational, unshakeable argument for doing so. But your ignorant dumbassery is painfully exposed when the collective decisions from which you have deliberately excluded yourself squashes the individual you like a bug.

It’s the same thing with the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons: It may seem perfectly rational for the individual to misuse the common field for his own benefit – until that field is destroyed and he dies because of his suicidal fecklessness….

Bottom line: If your individual actions lead to your own destruction, it doesn’t matter whether the destructive outcome arrives on an individual or collective basis. There is no way such suicidal actions can be rational as a general proposition.

Quick assumes that by calling political ignorance rational, I am offering an “apologia” for it. But, as I explain in the book, and here, individually rational behavior [...]

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Upcoming Talk on Democracy and Political Ignorance at McGill University

On Thursday, January 9, I will be doing a talk about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter at McGill University in Montreal. Th lecture is sponsored by McGill’s Research Group on Constitutional Studies, will run from about 4:30 to 6 PM (including time for questions), and will be held in Leacock 232. I may even do a small part of the talk in French!

As co-blogger Eugene Volokh notes, Washington Post columnist George Will recently made the book the subject of his most recent op ed. Here is an excerpt:

It was naughty of Winston Churchill to say, if he really did, that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Nevertheless, many voters’ paucity of information about politics and government, although arguably rational, raises awkward questions about concepts central to democratic theory, including consent, representation, public opinion, electoral mandates and officials’ accountability.

In “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter” (Stanford University Press), Ilya Somin of George Mason University law school argues that an individual’s ignorance of public affairs is rational because the likelihood of his or her vote being decisive in an election is vanishingly small. The small incentives to become informed include reducing one’s susceptibility to deceptions, misinformation and propaganda. And if remaining ignorant is rational individual behavior, it has likely destructive collective outcomes.

I am, of course, very flattered that George Will decided to write a column about the book, especially since I have been reading his work since I was in high school. [...]

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The Benefits of State Polarization

Many commentators decry the increasing polarization between “red states” and “blue states.” This recent Washington Post article summarizes some of the standard criticisms. But as my George Mason colleague Michael Greve explains, state polarization also has some valuable benefits:

Polarization (whether measured by single-party control over states, policy outcomes, or whatever) has its downsides. Single-part states may start to work like the House of Commons and “overshoot” in a red or blue direction. At the federal level, a polarized system is bound to produce politicians who aren’t used to compromise…..

On the other hand:… [the] “competitive” kind of federalism requires a certain degree of polarization (or sectionalism). And the price may well be worth paying. Consider a few well-understood but underestimated advantages:

Competitive federalism reveals information. We can debate the abstract advantages of “red” or “blue,” “American” and “European” social models until the cows come home: there’s no substitute for observing the actual effects in real life.

Competitive federalism satisfies preferences. A thoroughly blue or red United States would leave one half of the country very unhappy. That’s not true under federalism—not when preferences are heterogeneous across states and (relatively) homogeneous within states. As, increasingly, now.

Competitive federalism reveals preferences and reduces ignorance. People move across states lines in response to a ton of factors (climate, jobs, housing costs…)—many of which are policy-dependent. “Foot-voting” is a pretty good political feed-back mechanism: sooner or later, (state) politicians will pay attention….

You can’t have those sweet advantages without the bitter; the trick is to minimize the costs. Here, that means national-level solutions that allow the states to go their own way, instead of entangling them in federal schemes.

As Michael notes, I have explained why foot voting often leads to better-informed decisions than ballot-box voting in my recent [...]

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Upcoming Talks in Britain on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Next week, I will be giving four talks about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter
in the United Kingdom. Here is the list:

November 25, 7-8:30 PM: Oxford Hayek Society, Oxford University, Christ Church College, Lecture Room TBC, Oxford (more details and RSVP link here).

November 26, 6:30 PM-8 PM: Institute of Economic Affairs/Adam Smith Institute, Adam Smith Institute, 23 Great Smith Street, London SW1 (more details and RSVP here).

November 27, 4-5:30 PM: University of Winchester Law Department, The Stripe, King Alfred Campus, Sparkford Rd., Winchester Hampshire SO22 4NR (details and RSVP information here).

November 28, 4:30-6 PM: King’s College, London, Virginia Woolf Building VWB 6.32 (this event is primarily for King’s College faculty and students). [...]

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Book Signing at the Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention

Next Friday, November 15, from 11 to 12 AM, I will be signing copies of my recently published books Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter and A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case, at the Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention, in the main promenade of the hotel hosting the event. Both books will be available for sale at a discounted price.

A Conspiracy Against Obamacare is coauthored with five of my VC co-bloggers (Jonathan Adler, Randy Barnett, David Bernstein, Orin Kerr, and David Kopel), and some of them are likely to be around as well. If you are going to be at the convention and are interested in getting your book signed, or just want to come by to talk about the books, I hope you will drop by. [...]

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Video of my Cato Institute Book Forum on Democracy and Political Ignorance

For readers who may be interested, the video of my recent Cato Institute Book Forum on my recently published Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. is linked below.

The event includes commentary by George Washington University political scientist John Sides (coauthor of an important new book on the 2012 presidential election), and was moderated by Cato’s John Samples. Note also several appearances by Willow the golden retriever in my power point presentation.


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The Rationality of Political Ignorance Revisited

Bruce Ramsey of the Liberty website isn’t happy with either participant in my recent debate with Jeffrey Friedman over the the rationality of political ignorance at Cato Unbound. He claims that we misrepresent each other’s positions, and that in any case the question we are debating doesn’t matter much.

Here is his critique of my argument:

For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error…” “Inadvertent” is a loaded term. It implies a voter who is trying reasonably hard but just messing up, again and again. That’s not really Friedman’s position.

If voter ignorance were “inadvertent,” Somin writes,“We could probably [reduce it] simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information.”

Actually, the kind of political information Somin would want voters to have is complicated and detailed, whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple: Quit smoking. Use a condom. The comparison is not apt.

Even if “inadvertent” is a loaded term, I was not the one who first used it to describe Friedman’s position. He did so himself in a series of articles going back several years (I cited some of them in my book on political ignorance). In the Cato Unbound debate, he later repudiated it in favor of “radical ignorance” (a term borrowed from Austrian economics). Regardless, throughout the debate and in his earlier work, Friedman has consistently argued that voters are ignorant because they believe they already know enough [...]

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Concluding Thoughts on the Cato Unbound Symposium on Democracy and Political Ignorance

The Cato Unbound symposium on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter is wrapping up up today. I am grateful to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, and Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics for their thoughtful critiques of the book, and to Jason Kuznicki of Cato Unbound for his excellent work organizing and hosting this event. Here is a link to my final post in the exchange, which summarizes the discussion as a whole, and responds to final posts by Jeffrey Friedman and Sean Trende. [...]

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Two Upcoming Talks about Democracy and Political Ignorance

Next week, I will be giving two talks on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

The first will be at Duke Law School, Rm. 3037, on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 12:15-1:30 (with commentary by Duke Professor Jonathan Anomaly).

The second is a book forum at the Cato Institute, on Wednesday, Nov. 6, noon to about 1:30 (with commentary by George Washington University political scientist John Sides, and John Samples of the Cato Institute). Discounted copies of the book will be available for purchase at this event, for those who might be interested. Online registration is available here. [...]

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