Archive | Political Ignorance

“Democracy” and “Republic” Are Not Mutually Exclusive Terms

If you write about democratic theory, as I do, you will periodically get complaints that it is inaccurate to refer to the United States as a “democracy” because it is actually a “republic.” For example, several Facebook commenters and others have suggested that I should have titled my book Democracy and Political Ignorance (which focuses primarily on political ignorance in the United States) “The Republic and Political Ignorance” or something to that effect.

In the 18th century, “democracy” and “republic” were relatively distinct terms, with the former referring mainly to what we would today call “direct democracy,” of the sort practiced by the ancient Athenians. But today, the word “democracy” is routinely used to describe any government where all or most political leaders are chosen by popular election. Moreover, governments are regularly described as “democratic” even if they have a variety of constraints on the powers of elected officials, such as federalism, separation of powers, judicial review, and so on. By this definition, the United States surely qualifies as a democracy, even if it can also be called a “republic.” The two terms have become largely interchangeable, with the exception of the fact that a democracy that has a figurehead constitutional monarch as head of state will usually not be called a republic.

This is not a recent innovation. The terms were often used interchangeably, including in reference to the United States, by the mid-19th century. For example, Abraham Lincoln described the United States as “a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people” in this 1861 message to Congress.

People who insist on a sharp distinction between “republic” and “democracy” may simply dislike modern usage and prefer a return to that of two hundred years ago. But if so, they should not claim [...]

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Debating the Impact of Political Ignorance

At Cato Unbound, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, and I have continued our debate over the impact of political ignorance. Sean contends that it is a less serious problem than I sugggest in my book and my lead essay at Cato Unbound. Here are Sean’s latest post on the issue, and my rejoinder.

One point from the exchange worth mentioning is that, although I believe that there is a good deal of evidence indicating that political ignorance has caused great harm at various points in American history, scholars have only begun to systematically study its effects on past policy decisions. The well-known cases that we already know about (e.g. – the impact of ignorance in promoting racist and homophobic policies) could well turn out to be just the tip of a much larger iceberg. At the very least, there is room for a lot more research on the subject by historians, political scientists, legal scholars, and others. [...]

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More on Voting With Your Feet and the Poor

At America Magazine, Robert D. Sullivan has responded to my post in which I criticized his earlier post claiming that “voting with your feet” only benefits the affluent.

Sullivan’s most recent post actually outlines many areas of agreement between us. He now recognizes that foot voting can in fact benefit the poor, and that the US should strive to promote interjurisdictional mobility and foot voting opportunities. He also correctly points out that foot voting is sometimes inhibited by local land use regulations, which artificially increase the cost of housing, thereby making it difficult or impossible for the poor or the lower middle class to move to the area. I have criticized such regulations myself. But it’s also important to recognize that, even if such laws continue to exist in many jurisdictions, the poor and lower middle class can still engage in effective foot voting so long as there are many others that don’t have them.

In discussing the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north in the early 20th century (which I noted as an important historical example of successful foot voting by the poor), Sullivan points out that it was in large part driven by job opportunities. This is certainly true. But job opportunities were better for blacks in the north than the south in large part because the former had different and better government policies – including far less in the way of policies designed to segregate and otherwise oppress blacks. Black migrants of the era also cited Jim Crow as an independent reason for the leaving the South, even aside from its effect on job opportunities. I discuss these issues at greater length in this article and in Chapter 5 of my book. Sullivan similarly claims that the Great Migration was prompted by the availability [...]

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Why Both Political Ignorance and Political Irrationality Matter

In a recent post, co-blogger David Bernstein asks whether political ignorance (voters’ lack of knowledge) matters, or only political irrationality (voters’ biased evaluation of the information they do know). David suggests that ignorance might not matter much if ignorant voters, like many consumers, make good use of information shortcuts, such as relying on the judgment of those more knowledgeable than themselves.

The question of whether ignorance matters independently of irrationality is one that I have long debated with Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. I respond to Caplan in greater detail in my own book on political ignorance (pp. 71-73). The short answer is that both matter because, even if voters are doing a good job of analyzing the information they have, it’s easy to make mistakes that could be avoided with greater knowledge. This is particularly true when voters lack very basic information about what is going on in politics, such as being ignorant of the very existence of major polices, or failing to understand which issues political leaders can affect and which ones they can’t. Such basic errors are extremely common.

Moreover, as I discuss in greater detail in my book, ignorance of basics makes it difficult to find effective information shortcuts, including finding reliable “super-consumers” of political information of the kind that David discusses in his post. Voters seeking to defer to the judgment of such “opinion leaders” (as they are known in the political science literature) should find ones who have a good understanding of policy and a strong track record of predicting its effects correctly. In reality, however, the most popular opinion leaders tend to be people like Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart, who are notable primarily for entertainment value and eloquence rather than accuracy. Some of this [...]

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Debating the Rationality of Political Ignorance

At Cato Unbound, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman and I are continuing to debate whether widespread political ignorance is primarily the result of rational behavior (my view) or mostly inadvertent (his view). Friedman argues that most voters simply don’t realize that there is lots of political information out there that might help them make better decisions at the ballot box. In my view (outlined in greater detail in my book), this theory cannot account for the depth and persistence of political ignorance even about many very basic facts. Here are Jeff’s most recent reply to me, and my most recent rejoinder.

To some extent, this debate may be of only academic interest. Whether political ignorance is rational, inadvertent, or some combination of the two, it is still a serious problem. But, for reasons I explained in my initial response to Jeff, the two explanations have different implications for efforts to remedy the problem:

Widespread political ignorance is a menace regardless of whether it is rational or inadvertent. But the difference between the two explanations for it matters. Inadvertent ignorance is a much easier problem to address than rational ignorance.

We could probably make a major dent in the former 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. It could also lead them to be more objective in evaluating that information.

With rational ignorance and rational irrationality, by contrast, such simple solutions are far less likely to work.

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Some Upcoming Talks on Democracy and Political Ignorance

For those who may be interested, I am doing three talks about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter next week that are open to the public:

October 29, 1-2:15 PM, Yale Law School, Rm. 128: Yale Law School Federalist Society (with commentary by Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken).

October 30, Noon-1:30, UCLA Law School, Rm. 1447: UCLA Law School Federalist Society (with commentary by UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman)

October 31, 12:30-1:30: Pepperdine Law School, Appellate Courtroom, Pepperdine Federalist Society (with faculty commentator TBA). [...]

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Voting With Your Feet Works for the Poor, Too

At the America Magazine website, Robert David Sullivan responds to my book and Cato Unbound essay arguing that foot voting leads to better-informed decisions than ballot box voting by claiming that foot voting is only likely to benefit the wealthy:

I haven’t seen the book, but Somin’s essay reads like a whispered call for solidarity among highly educated (which usually means high-income) Americans. The message is: Why let those people make demands on government when they don’t even know what government does? Shifting power to smaller and smaller political jurisdictions also has implications for the well-being of Americans who don’t live in affluent communities. Look at public schools, which in most states are largely funded at the local level. Our public education system allows for “voting with your feet,” if you’re financially able, by moving to a county or town with high property values. But in this case, “decentralization” is a legitimate-sounding way of banishing from your mind poorer neighborhoods just a few miles away.

In reality, as I discuss at length in the book and elsewhere (e.g. here and here), foot voting historically has benefited the poor as much or more than the affluent. This is true for several reasons: the poor usually have more to gain from moving to jurisdictions with better job opportunities and policies (in part because they are so much worse off to begin with), and they are less likely to own immobile assets such as land that are difficult or impossible to take with you. Dramatic examples of effective foot voting by the relatively poor include the movement of millions of poor African-Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the twentieth century, and the movement of poor and lower middle class people to Texas and various southern and [...]

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My Response to Jeffrey Friedman’s Critique of Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has now posted my response to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman’s insightful criticism of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

Here is an excerpt:

In his critique of my book, Jeffrey Friedman continues his longstanding efforts to show that most political ignorance is inadvertent rather than rational. In his view, voters are ignorant because they believe our society “is a mighty simple place” and “think they have information adequate to [the] task.” They simply don’t realize there is lots of other information out there that could help them make better decisions.

Friedman is a top-notch political theorist who has made valuable contributions to the literature on political knowledge… But on this point, I think he is barking up the wrong tree… Moreover, the mistake is of more than theoretical importance. Inadvertent ignorance has very different implications for political theory than rational ignorance….

Inadvertent error might explain why voters ignore highly abstruse (though potentially relevant) bodies of knowledge. But it cannot account for widespread ignorance of very basic facts about politics and public policy. For example…., two-thirds of the public in 2010 did not know that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year, even though most said that the economy was the single most important issue in the election. Similarly, most had little if any understanding of the Obama health care plan, another major issue. If you think the economy or the president’s health care plan is the biggest issue on the public agenda, it isn’t rocket science to figure out that these basic facts are highly relevant. Yet the majority of the public is often ignorant of such basics….

The inadvertence theory also cannot explain why political knowledge levels have remained largely stagnant for decades, despite massive increases in

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My Response to Sean Trende’s Commentary on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted my response to RealClearPolitics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende’s thoughtful commentary on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

Here is an excerpt:

Sean offers three important criticisms of the argument advanced in Democracy and Political Ignorance: that voters know enough to make good decisions on really important issues, that they can make good choices between the two options on offer in major elections, and that the historical success of American democracy suggests that political ignorance may not be such a serious problem. Each of these points has some merit. But each is overstated. Political ignorance does not prevent voters from making good decisions in some important situations. But it does make the performance of democracy a lot worse than it would be otherwise….

Sean cites the 2010 midterm election as one where the voters were well-informed about big issues. According to the majority of Americans at the time, the most important issue was the state of the economy. Yet preelection polls showed that 67% of voters did not even realize that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year. The majority also did not know the basics of the 2009 stimulus bill, the most important policy adopted by the Obama administration to try to promote economic recovery. Moreover, a plurality believed that the 2008 bailout of major banks enacted to try to contain the financial crisis and recession that occurred that year – had been enacted under Obama rather than under President George W. Bush (only 34% knew the correct answer)….

This kind of ignorance about major issues was far from unique to 2010. There was comparable ignorance in numerous other elections, some of which I discuss in detail in the book….

In addition, ignorance sometimes

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The Case for Designer Babies

Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan has an excellent post defending a prospect that many people find repugnant: the possibility that we might soon have “designer babies,” such that parents can use genetic engineering to increase their babies’ intelligence and other abilities. One major concern about designer babies is that it would lead to huge inequalities between the rich (who, it is assumed, will be the only people who can afford designer baby technology) and the rest of society.

Jason points out that if designer baby technology follows the same trajectory as most previous technological innovations, it will, over time, become available to the vast majority of society, even if initially only to the rich. More interestingly, he contends that designer baby technology would be a net benefit to the rest of us even if it does greatly increase cognitive inequality. That’s because increasing the proportion of people with unusually high intelligence or other abilities creates valuable potential trading partners for the rest of us. For example, if humans someday make contact with race whose intellectual and physical abilities are vastly superior to others, (such as Star Trek’s Vulcans), we could benefit enormously from the resulting relationship, in part precisely because of the Vulcans’ intellectual superiority (at least so long as they did not conquer or enslave us, which is not a likely prospect with high-IQ designer babies, even if it might be more of a concern with super-intelligent extraterrestrials).

Another way of putting Jason’s point is to ask whether we would support the mandatory application of a technology that would ensure that all babies in future generations have IQs no higher than 120 (but the rest of the IQ distribution would be the same). That would greatly reduce cognitive inequality in our society. But it would also make the vast [...]

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My Response to Heather Gerken’s Comment on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted my response to Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken’s thoughtful critique of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Over the next day or two, they will also post my response to the insightful commentaries by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics and political theorist Jeffrey Friedman. The conversation will continue over the next couple weeks, as each commentator will have the opportunity to respond further to me or to each other, or to raise new issues related to the book and my lead essay.

Here is a brief excerpt from my response to Prof. Gerken:

Gerken raises two important potential criticisms of my argument that people make better decisions through foot voting than ballot box voting. First, she contends that knowledge of the two major parties’ positions can enable otherwise ignorant voters to make good decisions at the ballot box. Second,…. she worries that foot voting may often be too difficult because of moving costs.

These are legitimate points, and I address both at some length in my book… On balance, however, neither seriously undermines the informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting….

Gerken interestingly contrasts my “fox”-like view that informed voting requires knowledge of a range of issues with the “hedgehog” view that all voters need to know is the difference between the two parties. It’s worth noting that Philip Tetlock’s important research on the predictive accuracy of policy experts shows that “fox” experts who take many variables into account make far more accurate judgments than “hedgehogs” who focus only on one or two big ideas.[5] Voters obviously don’t need to know as much as policy experts. But narrowly focused hedgehog decisionmaking is unlikely to work well even for them. It is especially problematic in a

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The Superiority of Democracy Over Dictatorship is No Reason to Ignore the Problem of Political Ignorance

In this recent American Scene post, Pascal-Emanuel Gobry argues that I and other libertarians who focus on the problem of voter ignorance as a major flaw of modern democracy are wrong to do so, because democracy is still superior to other forms of government:

Libertarians who live in America look around them and see cops shooting unarmed pedestrians, people getting arrested for growing pot or selling (delicious) raw milk, taxes and government spending and debt going ever higher. In short, disaster. And all of these things are bad and it is very good that we have libertarians railing against them.

But where it leads them astray is that they are often taken to make the following sorta-syllogism: “America has terrible policies. Most of the people around me are either for them or just not up in arms about them as I am. The combination of most people being dumb and democracy produces terrible policies….”

The only problem with that is that if you take a little bit of a broader perspective (both geographically and historically) you realize that democracies are actually really awesome and that they kick the sh** out of all other forms of government. I mean, it’s not even close! On every front: protecting civil liberties, developing markets, etc.

Almost all the countries that have the best policies are democracies. It’s really quite lopsided.

This would be a powerful critique of libertarianism if libertarians were using the problem of political ignorance to argue for the replacement of democracy by dictatorship (the prevalent form of government in most of the nondemocratic nations in the world). But, in reality we are advocating for a combination of democracy with greater decentralization and much tighter limits on government power. Even if present-day democracy is superior to dictatorship, democracy with greater decentralization [...]

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Upcoming Georgetown University Law Center Event on Democracy and Political Ignorance

On Tuesday, October 22, noon-1:30 PM, I will be speaking about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter at the Georgetown University Law Center. There will be commentary by economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, and Georgetown law professor Louis Michael Seidman. There will also be substantially discounted copies of the book on sale, for those who may be interested.

The event is co-sponsored by the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, the Georgetown Federalist Society, and the Federalist Society Faculty Division, and will be held in McDonough Hall, Room 203, 600 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington DC. [...]

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Sean Trende on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted a thoughtful critique of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter by Sean Trende, Senior Elections Analyst at RealClearPolitics. Sean argues that, despite considerable ignorance, voters know enough to make good decisions on major issues, and to select the better of the two major party candidates. He also contends that the relative success of American democracy over a long period of time is evidence that political ignorance is a comparatively modest problem. Cato Unbound will post my responses to Sean and the other commentators (Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken and political theorist Jeffrey Friedman) early next week. [...]

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Heather Gerken on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken’s insightful response to my lead essay on “Democracy and Political Ignorance.” The Cato Unbound symposium focuses on the arguments presented in my new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

In her critique, Gerken argues that political ignorance is significantly by mitigated by voters’ ability to use political parties as information shortcuts, and that voting with your feet is problematic because of the associated moving costs. There will soon be additional comments by political theorist Jeffrey Friedman and Sean Trende, Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics. I will, in turn, post rejoinders to these critiques, after which the discussion will continue further. [...]

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