The Challenge of Political Ignorance to American Democracy

Democracy and political ignorance

The argument in The Federalist that the Constitution seeks to control majoritarian excess is well known. It seeks to control the influence of state-level majoritarian factions by nationalizing some policy areas for national rather than state control. And it creates national-level checks and balances, not to be anti-democratic, as so many critics would have it, but as a political version of “count-to-ten-when-you’re-angry-before-saying-anything” strategy to avoid taking action in a fit of passion that we might regret later.

So important are these topics that their consideration have tended to overshadow a subsidiary theme developed at length in The Federalist, that of acquiring and generating information and knowledge for use in the policy process. Writing in The Federalist No. 62, Madison observes

A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained. Some governments are deficient in both these qualities; most governments are deficient in the first. I scruple not to assert, that in American governments too little attention has been paid to the last. The federal Constitution avoids this error; and what merits particular notice, it provides for the last in a mode which increases the security for the first.

In the US of the 1780s, news at best communicated at the speed of horse or sailing ship, access to policy-relevant information was at a premium. Madison frankly assumed not only that most citizens would be ignorant of some of the most important aspects of policy-making, but that most elites would be as well.

Another defect to be supplied by a senate lies in a want of due acquaintance with the objects and principles of legislation. It is not possible that an assembly of men called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature, continued in appointment for a short time, and led by no permanent motive to devote the intervals of public occupation to a study of the laws, the affairs, and the comprehensive interests of their country, should, if left wholly to themselves, escape a variety of important errors in the exercise of their legislative trust. It may be affirmed, on the best grounds, that no small share of the present embarrassments of America is to be charged on the blunders of our governments; and that these have proceeded from the heads rather than the hearts of most of the authors of them.

Madison argued for a U.S. Senate with relatively few members and relatively long terms because those would conduce to allow the leading citizens elected to those positions (by state legislatures, at the time) to acquire the expertise needed to enact informed legislation. As he explains in The Federalist No. 53,

No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate. A part of this knowledge may be acquired by means of information which lie within the compass of men in private as well as public stations. Another part can only be attained, or at least thoroughly attained, by actual experience in the station which requires the use of it. The period of service, ought, therefore, in all such cases, to bear some proportion to the extent of practical knowledge requisite to the due performance of the service.

The Electoral College as well bears witness to the assumption of the Constitution’s framers that the vast majority of citizens would operate in an information-poor political environment. So poor, in fact, that they would not know leading statesmen of the time well enough to cast an informed ballot directly for them as presidential candidates. Hamilton explains in The Federalist No. 68:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

The U.S. Constitution sought to create institutions in part to mitigate the effects of political ignorance among the American elites who would populate the national government and among the citizens themselves. Expectations of widespread political expertise did not exist; expectations were that American democracy needed to work in an information-poor environment.

Despite modern communication technology that now transmits information in milliseconds instead of days or weeks, political ignorance has not changed markedly since the founding era. In his book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Better, Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, rehearses modern studies in political science showing widespread ignorance among U.S. voters of many policies and politicians, and even ignorance of much of the general policy-making process.

Somin argues that we should not be surprised at this. Drawing on the rational voter model and the theory of rational ignorance, Somin points out that, because the probability of being pivotal in a given election is almost always vanishingly low, elections provide voters small inducement to inform themselves even regarding important policy issues. After all, the thought goes, if you can’t influence the outcome even in significant policy debates, why bother to be informed. Might as well turn to the sports page rather than waste time with the front page.

Somin observes that the incentives existing for producing good policy are weak: Policy making requires that large groups of people take collective actions that result in even more collective actions by government officials. The production of policies share characteristics of economic public goods: There is non-rivalry in consumption (e.g., my consumption of nuclear deterrence does not diminish the amount of deterrence left for you to consume), and non-excludability in consumption (e.g., I cannot opt out of consuming nuclear deterrence that is provided to my neighbors). As a result, voters have incentives to “free ride” in the policy-making process, remaining rationally ignorant by, again, turning to the sports page rather than reading the front page.

In contrast, Somin argues that incentives for people to acquire information are greater when [a] there are multiple policy jurisdictions in which people can choose to reside, and [b] when individuals make their own consumption and production decisions rather than the government. Argument [b] largely tracks the well-known Hayekian argument on information and markets, so I will focus on argument [a], where Somin’s book contributes to the literature on political decentralization and federalism.

In laying out the informational case for preferring multiple, decentralized jurisdictions for policy relative to a single, centralized government, Somin draws on the insightful work of economist Charles Tiebout. Tiebout argued that as people “voted with their feet” in choosing among a set of communities in which to live, they reveal their preference for public goods (and associated tax levels). This “sorting process” therefore provides a non-governmental means by which to solve the classic problem in economics of how to gauge people’s true preferences for public goods. In the classic economic problem, if how much you pay for a government-provided public good depends on how much you say you want that public good, then according to economic theory the rational person will say “I want zero.” Doing so means that the person pays zero cost for the public good while nonetheless being able to consume the public good. Of course, that all individuals have the same incentive then means that even a public good that is unanimously preferred by the residents of a jurisdiction at a given tax level will usually be underprovided by the government.

The basic insight is this: In a single, centralized political jurisdiction everyone has to “consume” the one, homogeneous policy adopted by the centralized government. But by decentralizing policy choice to multiple, local jurisdictions, people can sort themselves into the communities with the policy mix they most prefer. Some folks will choose high-tax, high-government-service jurisdictions, other folks will choose low-tax, low-service jurisdictions. But just as people have different tastes regarding, say, where to eat dinner – with some preferring an inexpensive hamburger at McDonald’s and others preferring an expensive dinner at a fine steak place – people also have different preferences for the provision of government services at associated tax levels. As with different products in private markets, people are better off in general when there are multiple localities with heterogeneous policy mixes for people to choose among.

In addition to the benefits of the sorting effect for residents, the mobility of residents among the jurisdictions can also induce competition between the local governments, thereby impacting and constraining the policies they implement.

Somin’s analysis compares the acquisition of information by voters in systems of ballot voting with the acquisition of information in systems of “foot voting.” He argues that, because of the weaker incentives individuals have to acquire information when ballot voting relative to foot voting, “foot voting” on average generates informationally superior policy outcomes relative to ballot voting. He concludes that there should therefore be a presumption in favor of decentralized policy implementation relative to centralized policy implementation (and a presumption in favor of private consumption and production decisions relative to government decisions).

From all this, Somin concludes that “widespread political ignorance is a serious problem for democracy, one that should lower our confidence in the effectiveness of the modern democratic state as a tool for making important policy decisions.”

Somin doesn’t want to push the argument too far, however. While he argues that it should lead us to be “skeptical” of government intervention, it does not rule out centralized decision making. “Political ignorance does not by itself justify absolute libertarianism or any other theory of the appropriate size and scope of government. In any given case, opposing considerations could outweigh the risks of political ignorance. Some market failures are even worse than the political failures that ignorance helps facilitate.”

Consider the argument for the delegation of some power from the states and people to a new, more-centralized national government when the U.S. Constitution was proposed. It was not a question of local administration or central administration, but both/and, depending on the conditions underlying different policy areas. Thus, Madison writes in The Federalist No. 10, “The federal constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests, being referred to the national, the local and particular to the state legislatures.” Alexander Hamilton similarly refers to “the utility and necessity of local administration, for local purposes” in The Federalist No. 32. And earlier in The Federalist No. 17 Hamilton listed subjects “which are proper to be provided for by local legislation,” which included “the administration of private justice between the citizens of the same state; the supervision of agriculture, and of other concerns of a similar nature . . .”

Nonetheless, the Constitution’s framers recognized that incentive structures that states faced in interaction with each other, sometimes limited their ability to coordinate their policies effectively in some areas, and even invited mutually debilitating competition in others. These interstate pathologies prompted the proposal for a stronger, more centralized national government relative to that created by the Articles of Confederation. The language suffuses the argument of The Federalist. Hamilton laments “the want of concert” among the states “arising from the want of a general authority.” He points to “obstacles to an [sic] uniformity of measures” among the states and to “competition between the states.” He points out how the effect of state actions “embarrass the administration” of the national government and “destroy the energy of government.”

We should note that the framers’ concerns are not restricted to prisoner-dilemma like “race-to-the-bottom” relationships among the states. (Somin concedes that race-to-the bottom incentives exist and can justify centralized administration. Nonetheless, he concludes that “races to the bottom turn out to be far less prevalent” than critics say they are). Looking at the powers delegated to the national government in article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, it is obvious that the framers sought gains from coordinated and uniform policies in given areas across the states even when the lack of coordination and uniformity are not induced by competition among the states.

I assume that Somin would accept that modest supplement to his concession of when centralization is justified. The difficult constitutional question, however, is to determine when pathological incentives structures exist among states, whether because of competition or because of discoordination, thereby justifying centralization in Somin’s analysis. And here Somin leaves the argument just when it gets hard – and interesting.

Secondly, even conceding voter ignorance as Somin summarizes the literature, as the passages quoted above from The Federalist suggest, political ignorance is nothing new to the American experiment. Indeed, if anything, the framers held a more pessimistic view of the level of policy-relevant knowledge that not only voters would have, but that political elites would hold as well. But in a sort of “democracy-is-the-worst-form-of-government-except-for-all-the-others” step, the framers saw political ignorance as something to engineer around. Contrary to Somin’s repeated claim that current average levels of political knowledge “fall well short of requirements of normative theories of political participation,” the framers had a robust commitment to representative democracy while holding the assumption of widespread political ignorance.

The difference, I think, lies in a couple of areas. First, the framers frankly assumed that policy-makers would have to learn on the job: They assumed that policy expertise was largely unattainable by the general public and even by most elites not in government service. But they engineered the structure of the national government to respond to this challenge. The structure of different branches of Congress, for example, would combine to produce outcomes superior to either chamber acting independently. House members would have lots of “local information” to bring to Congress, and Senators would have longer terms to extend their policy time-horizons and the time to develop more legislative expertise. These and others were important “auxiliary precautions” to limit poor policy-making when voter attentiveness was insufficient to do.

The argument of The Federalist suggests that the authors did not believe that sustained, high levels of public attention to policy were necessary to generate good policy outcomes, or for republicanism more generally. But this does not mean that the framers were anti-democratic (as is often surmised). Voter attentiveness to politics is, in the jargon of political science, “endogenous.” Much like potential competition in a market with only a single firm in it can make that one firm that looks like a monopolist nonetheless behave as though it has competition to deter the entry of other firms, the possibility that an action will make voters attentive to what’s going on in the state or national capital can be sufficient support for the “auxiliary precautions” that outcomes are generally in line with broad voter sentiment. Additionally, different branches and level of government, as well as organs of civil society, can act as the proverbial “canary in the mineshaft” to notify voters when to turn from inattentiveness to attentiveness.

None of this is to suggest that Somin’s argument that there should be a presumptive preference for implementing policies at the most decentralized level is wrong. Nonetheless I would suggest that, for better or for worse, the current size and scope of the U.S. national government is broadly consistent with general voter sentiment, and has been for generations. This is not to say that there is not a lot of slack in the system due to voter ignorance, but I am unconvinced that big government today exists because power-grabbing politicians over the long run have pulled one over on inattentive voters.

Finally, I want to take issue with what I take to be a bit of rhetorical legerdemain that Somin, following Tiebout, sets up with the language of “foot voting.” It is supposed to suggest a parallel with ballot voting. But Tiebout’s theory is about decentralization, not about the internal organization of those jurisdictions. Tiebout’s results hold even if the internal governments of all of the local jurisdictions that putative residents choose among are autocracies. Indeed, Tiebout’s argument for decentralization might work even better if the separate jurisdictions were headed by monarchs or autocrats who seek to maximize the economic productivity of their respective jurisdictions relative to the comparatively slow and complicated policy-making process of representative democracy.

The upshot of Tiebout’s theory as originally presented, and as it developed in the economics literature, is not so much anti-democratic as it is that democracy as a decision-making process is largely irrelevant to whether Tiebout’s theory works. In making the explicit comparison with ballot voting, however, Somin sharpens the implicit criticism by focusing on the limitations of ballot voting as a preference-revelation device for public goods.

In The Federalist No. 39, Madison writes of “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all of our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” Somin implicitly takes issue with that claim, arguing instead that the right of exit should be the critical commitment of every votary of freedom. Rational ignorance, and “rational irrationality,” suggest that people do not have the capacity for self-government. At bottom, Somin provides a provocative challenge to that theory underlying the American project.

James Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and is a fellow with the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. He also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

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