In Ilya Somins excellent new book Democracy and Political Ignorance, the public is
ignorant; their ignorance is a problem for American democracy, and it poses a very
serious challenge to democratic theory (p. 6). In the same general vein as Bryan
Caplans wonderful book The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 2007), Somin blames the problem of ignorance on the lack of
weight any one persons vote carries on electoral outcomes. When a persons vote
has little bearing on an electoral outcome, most citizens devote little time to acquiring
political knowledge, and we get ugly electoral outcomes. For Somin, the old computer
science saying garbage in, garbage out seems to apply to politics, and a great
deal of garbage is being inputted into the system thanks to a general lack of incentives.
Ignorance is a problem our founders worried about, and mechanisms were put
in place in 1787 with the hope of protecting Americans from themselves. But, for
Somin, the problems of ignorance are even worse than our founders could have
imagined: people take shortcuts when voting; they are biased; and they rely on
inaccurate information when making decisions over politicians. The birthers who
insist President Obama prove he is a natural-born U.S. citizen, for example, have
gained a great deal of traction because people do not process political information
with any real objectivity. Politics is like sports for Somin, and, like sports fans, the public plays up their teams strengths and downplay[s] anything that cuts the
other way (p. 79).
The strength of Somins book is in the quality of the writing and the up-to-date
evidence he provides the reader with on the scope and scale of voter ignorance. It is
one of the more recent books illustrating how little Americans know about politics
and why it matters, and such contributions are vital.
Somin does not get bogged down in theoretical issues related to political ignorance
versus rational irrationality, which is good for his intended audience. But this
absence of theoretical grounding does make his use of the word ignorance a bit elastic
and a departure from Anthony Downss description of rational ignorance in his 1957
book An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row). For Downs
(and for about fifty years of public-choice economics), rational ignorance among
voters has led to an implicit cancelling out of bias: for every million ignorant people
in favor of trade protections, for example, another million or so favor free trade.
The ignorant mob, moreover, because of the logic of concentrated benefits
and dispersed costs, as outlined in Mancur Olsons The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), has little incentive to organize.
This ignorance and the power of entrenched interestsindustries wanting protections
in the case of tradehave secured the results wanted by the entrenched interests.
Ignorance was rational in the Downsian story, but the bias described in Somins
(and Caplans) work has played no major role in the resultant policy outcomes.
Although using the term ignorance throughout, Somin is explicitly influenced
by Bryan Caplan and seems to be talking more about irrationality. Calling irrationality
ignorance is fine and good for the sake of reaching a larger audience, but there are
important theoretical lines separating the two, thanks to Caplans work. Throughout
his book, Somin seems to be dancing between the two concepts.
After discussing ignorance and irrationality, and after walking readers through
a great deal of evidence on the depth of our political ignorance, Somin turns his
attention to possible solutions to the problem of ignorance (chapters 5 through 7).
Here Somin is at his bestbreaking new ground. In his final chapter (chapter 7),
which would have worked better if placed ahead of his two big solutions chapters,
he says there is little hope for increasing political knowledge through education and
greater deliberation or through changes in media coverage. Restricting the franchise
and delegating politics to experts, meanwhile, are unpopular solutions and have their
own problems. Thus, maybe the best solution to the ignorance problem is for us to
reduce the number of decisions controlled through democracy and return as much as
possible to more local levels of authority.
In chapter 5, Somin discusses the role that voting with ones feet can play
in constraining government and protecting us from ignorance. He argues for more
decentralization because jurisdictional competition assures accountability and decisive
outcomes: each person who moves has, in effect, cast a decisive vote about the
desirability of one set of policies and politicians over another. Somin encourages us to imagine greater decentralization, and he also takes us back to earlier periods
in American history when more decisions were handled locally and people could
move from one place to another if they were unhappy.
In chapter 6, Somin (a law professor at George Mason University) argues for
judicial review over more democratic decisions. Judicial review, although defensible
because it leads to far superior economic outcomes in countries with more of it, has
fallen out of vogue in America. In part, the shift away from judicial review is because it
is perceived as antidemocratic and elitist to let judges override the wisdom of the
democratic crowd. But Somin, of course, takes issue with the idea that democratic
outcomes are good and wise. Democratic decisions are, in fact, often arbitrary,
sometimes stupid, and most definitely grounded in ignorance.
Somins analysis is on the mark throughout, and it quite rightly opens up with a
quote from James Madison about popular government being a farce if lacking in
information. Like Madisons project, Somin is interested in the incentives generating
widespread ignorance on the one hand and ways to constrain ignorance on the other.
But therein lies one of the biggest challenges for Somin and others concerned
about ignorance and Americas democratic failure: the genie is out of the bottle, and
there is no obvious way to turn back. Judicial review, for example, has been pushed
aside in favor of majoritarianismas well as in favor of referendum voting on the
one hand and activist judges on the other. The Tiebout competition highlighted
in Somins menu of solutions has been kicked aside in favor of greater and greater
concentration of power at the federal level. And, as Somin makes clear, there is
absolutely no hope left if we leave things to the American voter.
We are left, then, with a failed American democratic system, one that will wobble
along for decades, if not centuries to come. Somins work is a fine testament of where
we have gone as a country and how the strong incentives we face to be politically
ignorant have driven our decline. His work also offers plausible solutions to our
modern-day problems, but I am skeptical about greater decentralization or a swing
back toward more judicial review happening any time soon.
Somins analysis sheds a great deal of light on Americas democratic failure,
but the issues of transitioning from here (i.e., an American tending toward an
idiocracy) to there (an America where some checks and balances are restored) are
not made clear to the reader. Transition issues are messy, so it makes sense that Somin
tends to sidestep issues involving the implementation of reform.
Along with the issues of transitioning, Somins work also downplays the role
of the political entrepreneur in putting our country on a different trajectory. The
simple version of Democracy and Political Ignorance, as I read it and stated earlier,
is garbage in, garbage out. Ignorant voters have bad information and rely on flawed
heuristics in the political domain. When garbage is going in, it is no surprise, therefore,
to see bad political outcomes being spit out.
Though the Somin story is a persuasive one, other factors matter at the margin.
Leaders, for example, matter, and every now and then countries have moments whena politician or set of policies come along and result in a significant departure from
current political opinion. The shock therapy experiences in eastern Europe, for
example, were one such moment when, despite the broad-based social welfare preferences
of voters in the region, economic liberalization for the better occurred.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in contrast, is an example of an entrepreneurial politician who
overstepped the median voters attitudes during the 1930s, and we all are the worse
as a result. Programs such as airline deregulation of the 1970s, financial market
liberalization in the 1980s, and progress on free trade in the 1990s stand as examples
of political entrepreneurs outmaneuvering the mob. Such examples suggest there
exists some slack in the system, which Somin acknowledges but downplays. Slack in
the system that allows for entrepreneurs to step in may very well be our only hope
given the ugly realities of Americarealities Somin so carefully and so clearly opens
our eyes to one page at a time.