Democracy and Political Ignorance – Why smaller government is smarter

Ilya Somin

Stanford University Press

ISBN 978-0-8047-8661-4

Does the ignorance of voters matter in a system of representative democracy? Somin thinks it has very serious consequences because it leads voters to make “wrong” decisions and laments the low level of political knowledge in the USA.  (I put wrong  in inverted commas because unfortunately he has a political bias which often makes him equate wrong with “these are not my politics” which are broadly liberal left.  This seriously taints his work).  The book  is primarily concerned with the effects and implications of  voter ignorance on the American political system,  but has implications for any political system, democratic or otherwise,  for as anyone who follows politics closely will be only too well aware  political ignorance is not restricted to voters but afflicts politicians and their advisors.

Listen to a vox pop or phone-in on a political subject  and  the ignorance of the general public can be startling when it comes to the detail of  politics,  not least because  educated respondents are frequently as at sea with political subjects as the uneducated.  Somin cites a large number of prime examples of crass political ignorance amongst Americans. For example, two  2006  polls respectively found that only 42% of Americans could name the three branches of the federal government, the executive (President), legislature (Congress) and judiciary (Supreme Court)  and only 28% could name two or more of the five rights guaranteed by the first amendment (p19). As for specific policies,   a 2010 survey showed that 67% of the population did not know that the economy had grown the previous year, despite the economy being judged as one of the most important policy areas by Americans (p21).

This may be dismaying at first glance, but in practice  it is irrelevant how limited is the detailed political knowledge of an electorate. This  is because no individual,  however diligent, erudite, insightful and intelligent,   could be seriously  knowledgeable about all but a very small proportion of  the problems and policies  arising in a  minimalist state constructed on  the Hayek model, let alone the vast ocean of  policy areas which are  covered in the modern industrial state.   That would apply even if political power was devolved. Indeed, in a devolved situation (and Somin is strongly in favour of devolved power)  the position could be even worse because there could be more to know and understand with multiple jurisdictions to vote for on important issues.

Does this mean that representative democracy should be done away with? Not a bit of it. Even though he is worried about democratic outcomes based on ignorance and sceptical about the chances of improving political knowledge amongst  voters, Somin in the end comes down in favour of it: “Despite political ignorance, democracy retains many advantages over rival systems of government.” (P199).

Indeed it does. Whether electors can make considered decisions on all matters or even the vast majority of issues  is not really the point of representative democratic politics.  What matters is the fact that such a political system  can best restrain the naturally abusive tendencies of elites and provide by far the best  legal mechanisms for the formal and peaceful transition of power, something which  makes coups and civil war much less probable.

Voters  can meaningfully answer the big political questions. They can oppose mass immigration on the rational ground that this is an invasion of territory which utterly changes their country. They can say whether they  want their country to go to war. The can approve or disapprove of whether political correctness should or should not be part of their country’s legal system. They can say whether they feel more comfortable with a welfare state or no welfare state. They can make a meaningful choice on whether they wish their country to be part of a supranational bloc such as the EU. They can decide what punishment should be meted out to criminals. They can say yea or nay to whether  essential industries should be  in public hands. Electors can also make purely rational  decisions  (for example, those made simply on arithmetical grounds) on competition for resources, for example, it is perfectly rational to oppose immigration on the grounds that it increases competition for housing, education, jobs and welfare.

The fact that voters’  answers to such questions, if they were ever allowed to vote on them in referenda,  would  generally run contrary to the wishes of elites in  countries such as the USA  and Britain and are routinely  thwarted by those  elites,   tells us that the real reason  voters are denied the chance to directly make decisions about policy is not that they are incapable of doing so on  many major issues,  but rather that the opinions of voters are opposed to those with power, wealth and influence.

A major problem with the book is the fact Somin  wants politics to be a science, to have an objective reality like physics. In the long  distant past when I was a history and politics undergraduate I had  to take a compulsory  course  entitled Modern Political Analysis. This involved flow charts, graphs and formulae which  purported to elevate the  study of politics to the level of a science. Politics students were solemnly expected to take seriously, say, a flow chart which started with a box marked electorate, had boxes marked with words such as election and  government before ending  with a box marked democratic outcome (I kid you not).     Democracy and Political Ignorance is cut from the same misdirected intellectual cloth, nothing like  so crudely but still in a marvellously wrongheaded manner which assumes that the democratic process can be reduced to quantifiable  data. He even has a few formulae such as this  gruesome  example:

“Assume that UV equals utility of voting, CV equals the cost of voting and  D equals the expected difference in welfare per person if the voter’s preferred candidate defeats her opponent. Let us further assume that this is a presidential election in a nation with three hundred people,, that the voter’s ballot has only a one  in one hundred chance of being decisive , and the they voter values the welfare of his fellow citizens an average of a thousand time less than his own. .. thus we get the following equation D(300 million/1000)/ (100 million) – CV = Uv  (p67).

That is the general error of the book, to imagine that human behaviour can be reduced to a miscellany of objective fact which can be used to determine how people  should (or even would of necessity)  behave if only they were in full possession of these facts.  This matters greatly because the vast majority of   political decisions have no objective truth or falsity.

The particular mistakes Somin makes are  to imagine that there is such a thing as perfect information which leads to  objectively  right answers to political questions and  to approach the subject of political ignorance  from a politically correct starting point, something he banally and  tiresomely signals by  assiduously alternating  she and her with he and his as a generic term for humanity  throughout the book.

It is true that Somin attempts to give an appearance of even-handedness, splattering his analysis  with qualifications, but somehow he always comes down on the liberal left “right on” side. Take the question of judicial review to which he devotes an entire chapter.  He hums and haws over how undemocratic this is  because it overrides the majority will but in the end concludes “Once we  recognise that ignorance is a pervasive element of modern democracy, the counter-majoritarian difficulty turns into a much less than previously assumed.” This is because “Much of the legislation subject to judicial review is not actually the product of informed democratic consent.”  (p169).

His political correctness also drives him to the conclusion that some political knowledge can be damaging: “Why might political knowledge exacerbate the harm caused by an electorate with bad values? Consider an electoral majority that is highly racist and wants to inflict as much harm as possible on  a despised racial minority. If such racist voters become more knowledgeable about the effects of government policies, they might force elected officials to implement policies that increase the  minority group’s suffering.” (P54).

That might seem a reasonable position at first glance, but a few moments consideration will reveal the dangers involved in it. What would constitute racism? After all, governments of all colours routinely favour incidentally or deliberately one group over another,  whether the group be defined by race, ethnicity or class. At the present time governments in the Western world, and especially the USA, have favoured the have over the have-nots in their economic policies. This means the poor have been most disadvantaged by the policies. Ethnic and racial minorities tend to be poorer on average than the majority population,  Does that mean the policies are racist? Trying to objectively define what was racist behaviour by a government would in practice would be impossible because inevitable judgements would be highly subjective.  A real can of worms.

Somin gives a further hostage to fortune when it comes to subjectivity with ‘This book does not provide a defense of any particular vision of political morality. But unless we adopt the view that all values are equally good – including those of racists and Nazis [note that he does not include Marxists who have been responsible for far more deaths than the Nazis] –  we must admit that good political knowledge might sometimes be put in the service of “bad” values.’ (p55)

Political correctness also damagingly colours  Somin’s judgement of what is a fact.  Two examples. First, he claims  that the  mistreatment of blacks in post slavery  USA was in part built on the belief of  whites  that blacks were prone to excessive criminality and every black man was just waiting to rape white women; second,  that hostility towards homosexuals and lesbians is in part the result of  ignorance about the likelihood that sexual orientation is genetically determined (p10).

The danger with overt human reasons is that they are often a mask for the real covert ones. Hence, whether post-slavery white America did genuinely fear black criminality is not necessarily the real issue. Human beings will use justifications for likes and dislikes which are not the real reasons for their choices when they feel either that they simply do not like something without having any clear idea why (everyone has probably experienced an immediate dislike for someone as soon as they have been introduced) or are afraid for legal and social reasons that their motivation for holding a view  would be unacceptable or even dangerous for them if expressed. That is the position with anything which is deemed non-pc today . Whites  in the old slave owning states may  have used any number of rationalisations  for segregation post-slavery,  while their actual motivation was  that they did not see blacks as their equals or,   more fundamentally,  simply as different, as not part of the national American “tribe”. There is, incidentally,  nothing inherently irrational about that. Human beings have, as do  all social animals, an innate desire to  associate with  those whom they see as sharing the same characteristics as themselves. Ultimately, humans are driven by desires not reason because it is from emotions that motives arise.  If this were not so, humans would be automata.

Another serious problem with Somin’s examples of false information is that he routinely presents  baldly asserted or weakly supported opinions  as  either  hard fact or as having a high probability of being true.  His  position on homosexuality and lesbianism is a good example.  There is no conclusive evidence that homosexuality or lesbianism are genetically determined, but even if it was so proven it would not mean that it was irrational to dislike such behaviour  or feel uncomfortable with its existence. There could be sound evolutionary reasons why people are hostile to homosexuality and lesbianism, for example,  the rejection of the individual who does not breed and help the continuation of the “tribe”.  That does not mean there should be persecution of gays and lesbians. Rather, it is a plea to not to pretend that something is an objective fact when it is not.

There is also the fundamental difficulty of how any objectively true information could exist in some instances. Take Slomin’s post-slavery claim.   It is not  irrational to have a fear that an enslaved group once set free might wreck physical revenge on the group which had held them enslaved.  That being so, it is difficult to see how American whites who believed that could have their fears assuaged by more  knowledge. In the nature of things there could be no such knowledge available to decide  the question  of whether freed slaves and their descendants  would be violently criminal if left to live without any strict social control,  for  that knowledge could  only exist  by testing the matter with the removal of   the repressive conditions under which blacks lived.  If whites feared mayhem would result if such conditions were removed,  they could not make a rational decision to end those  conditions.  In this context it  is worth noting that there has been a considerable growth in the  number of violent crimes perpetrated by blacks on whites in the USA since the civil rights movement and the end of segregation in the 1960s and they are now pro rata hugely greater in number than  crimes of violence committed by whites on blacks (http://www.examiner.com/article/federal-statistics-of-black-on-white-violence-with-links-and-mathematical-extrapolation-formulas). There is also the experience of  post-Apartheid South Africa where black murders of whites, and particularly white farmers, has been considerable. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22554709).

None of this is to  argue for slavery or segregation.  I am simply examining the situation from the viewpoint of the  mental state of whites, especially those in the slave states, after the end of slavery. Whether or not their fears were justified is not the issue.  What matters is that it would be a rational fear and,  indeed,  it was precisely the fear expressed in all the cases of ending slavery or other forms of unfreedom, from the British ending of slavery to the freeing of the serfs in Russia.

Somin  also has a full blown faith in laissez faire economics. That might seem to sit oddly with his political correctness but, that ideology does not have  a fixed menu. Its core ancestral beliefs are the triad of race, gay rights and feminism, of which race is by far the most toxic and is the springboard which has allowed the other parts of political correctness to develop and grow.  However, other things have been added over the past forty years. One of those is a belief in laissez faire economics and free trade (the two are distinct for free trade merely means the exchange of goods and services produced between radically different economic systems).  That laissez faire  and free trade are an integral part of political correctness at present can be readily seen from the fact that support for globalism (which of course includes free movement of  peoples and the undermining the nation state) is now a core part of political correctness. That does not mean laissez faire and free trade  will remain a core part and, indeed,  I see the first signs of the pc wind changing on the matter of economics, but it is as yet a nascent development.

Somin’s  belief in it provides another example of  a highly contentious claim  which is effectively unsupported – he  merely says it is the opinion of most economists “…voters who support protectionist policies in the erroneous expectation that they will benefit the economy as a whole rather than weaken it will also end up undermining their own goals” (p6)

The reality is that  historically, protectionism has often been very successful, for example, the British industrial revolution occurred behind one of the most comprehensive and successful protectionist walls in the shape of the Navigation Acts and the Old Colonial System the world has ever seen.  All the countries which followed the British lead most successfully did so behind protectionist barriers.

Interestingly, Somin does not address the fact that it is not just a lack of interest or education which stops people becoming politically knowledgeable, but also lack of innate qualities such as intelligence, intellectual inclination and  extroversion. Perhaps that is because his politics debar him from believing that people will or will not do or be something because that is the way they are born. That would fit into his modern liberal mindset.  IQ is particularly important because the lower the IQ the less ability to handle abstractions or complex data. This is not a trivial matter because at least ten percent of the population of Western states have IQs of 80 or less . That is the level which most psychologists working in the field of IQ believe that a person begins to struggle to live an independent life in an advanced modern society.

Somin is much taken with the concepts of rational ignorance and rational irrationality.  Rational ignorance  is the idea that voters do not devote time to educating themselves about political issues because they make a rational decision that  their votes will count for next to nothing. I sincerely doubt whether anyone actually makes a decision to remain ignorant on that basis, although they may use it as an excuse for being politically ignorant.

But even if voters did make a considered decision to remain ignorant it would not self-evidently be a rational decision. To begin with there are  many electoral circumstances  where a vote is important. That is true where the electorate is small or a seat is marginal. Under the first past the post system used in Britain there are a considerable number of seats where the main party candidates are near enough in their support to make voting a far from redundant business. But even where there is no  main party candidate who appeals to an elector  or one of the main party candidates is odds on certain to win there is still a point in voting. To begin with if turnout is persistently low it could be used  by those with power to argue for a restricted franchise or even no franchise at all.  Then there is the overall vote a party gets. If, for example, a party or presidential candidate gets elected with less of the popular vote  than their main opponent their mandate is weakened.  If all else fails, a vote for a candidate of a minor party such as UKIP in Britain,  the  minor  presidential candidate in the USA  or a spoiled ballot sends a public message about the state of elector dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties. Somin is not entirely blind to such objections,  but mysteriously and annoyingly they appear to carry little weight with him.

Rational irrationality  is the brainchild of the  economist Bryan Caplan. The idea is  that voters not only have incentives to remain ignorant but also incentives to “engage in highly biased  evaluation of  the information they do have” (p13).  The tempting response to this is a sarcastic “Dearie me, who would have thought it?”

Pursuing the idea of rational irrationality,  Somin likens  the politically interested who are seriously committed to supporting political parties to  fans of sports teams who support their team blindly,  generally give weight to information which boosts  their team and disregard that which does not.  The rewards for doing so are emotional. This of course is not irrational behaviour  because it is natural for human beings to indulge their “tribal” instincts and defend their position and that of their group.

Where rational ignorance and rational irrationality come together, they are to Somin’s mind the most toxic political democractic cocktail, one which could only be overcome or at least ameliorated if those pesky voters would just become “correctly” informed.

What are Somin’s solutions to reduce what he sees as the harm of voter  ignorance?  It is to reduce the amount which government does (with much of the slack being taken up by private enterprise)  and bring as much as possible of politics to the local or regional level, viz: . “Despite political ignorance, democracy retains many advantage over rival systems of government. Nonetheless  , political ignorance will probably continue to be a serious weakness of democratic government. We are unlikely to eliminate that weakness completely. [another example of the blindingly obvious] . But we can reduce its dangers by limiting and decentralising the role of government in society”  p199

There are real  problems with both of these policies. In a large industrialised society government of necessity has to do a considerable amount, whether that is at the local or national level.  There have to be good communications for people, goods and information. A universal school system is unlikely to exist  if it is not in large part funded by the taxpayer. Defence and the maintenance of law and order cannot reasonably be left to private initiatives. Foreign policy, especially for a super-power such as the USA, has wide-reaching ramifications for domestic policy and is frequently very complex to master.

As already mentioned, it would not matter how rigorously the areas of action for government were curtailed, that pruning would not come close to making the voter’s task of informing themselves sufficiently to make considered decisions when voting light enough to be practical. If the present burden of legislation was halved in countries such as the USA and Britain it would not make a blind bit of difference to the problem of political interference because there would still be vastly more for the individual to master than any individual could manage. Even in the minimalist libertarian state there would still be a good deal of legislation and government administration, far too much for any one person to master in sufficient detail to make them informed on all or even most issues.  This limitation also applies to elected full time politicians.

It might be objected that the Internet has made the acquiring of information vastly simpler. That may be true, although it presupposes that people will know enough to look for what they need. But even if they find the information how is the ordinary person to know whether the information is correct or the whole truth? The answer is that they cannot possibly be expected to do so. However intelligent a person is, they are not going to be able to judge the veracity and completeness of claims from seemingly unimpeachable sources if they  do  not have access to the raw data  on which research conclusions are made. Such data is rarely available. There is also the problem of who controls public information.   If   government agencies and the large media corporations are the main sources of such information, the public will only get the received opinion of the elite most of the time there being a great deal of  shared ideology and collusion between the various parts of the elite:  politicians and the public bodies they control,  the mainstream media, big business and not-for-profit organisations such as the larger charities.

As for decentralisation of  politics,  the more local the decision making the smaller the pool of political talent available. This may well result in poorer decisions being made, especially where the policy is complex.  It is also true that if the number of political bodies which can raise and spend taxes  increases, the opportunities for corruption  increase and this generally means more corruption.

Then there is the question of exactly what should be devolved from the centre. There would never be anything approaching  general agreement on that.  Even within the individual there would be intellectual confusion and inconsistency. Take Somin as an example. He would have a conflict between the idea of decentralisation and his politically correct view of the world. One of the reasons Somin favours  the idea of decentralisation is because it offers the opportunity for foot voting, that is,  a person moving from one jurisdiction to another in search of policies more to their liking, literally voting with their feet.   But for  someone of his  political orientation, there is the  unfortunate fact that the more local politics becomes,  the greater the opportunity for racial and ethnic groups to exploit their dominance of an area to their advantage. It is difficult to imagine Somin thinking that federal action to enforce politically correct behaviour throughout America would be damaging or that he would  readily  tolerate  a local jurisdiction which, for example, refused to apply equal rights laws.

Overall all Somin is gloomy about the likelihood of political knowledge increasing.  He glumly points to the fact that despite rising IQ scores, educational standards and the great ease of access to information because of the Internet over recent decades,  there has been little increase in political knowledge during that time (p199) or of rationality (in his terms).

Perhaps most damaging  for Somin’s desire for greater political knowledge is research (which he cites)  that suggests that the more knowledgeable voters are  “more biased in their evaluation of  new evidence than those with less prior information”( P80).  If this is true – and it is very plausible because the more data someone has, the greater the material from which  to construct arguments – then the whole idea of a better educated electorate producing superior outcomes falls completely to pieces.

The primary problem with democracy at present is not voter ignorance – which in any case cannot be reasonably expected to improve – is the way in which elites have hijacked the process by adopting very similar policies on all the major issues – a commitment to ever more restrictive political correctness, the use of the law to effectively ban dissent from their views, their control of the mainstream media and perhaps most damaging for democratic control, the movement of national politics to the supranational level. The most complete example of the last is the EU which now controls a remarkably wide range of policy areas in whole or part, everything from immigration to labour laws.

The answer to this is to constrain representatives both in what they promise and what they deliver or fail to deliver. This can be done in various  ways, for example,  by tying the representative firmly to a constituency which they have lived in for a long time, by making any candidate standing for election put forward his policy position on all the major issues, by making it illegal for any elected representative to renege on his policy as stated in an election manifesto and outlawing any system of party coercion such as the British practice of whipping MPs (that is instructing those of a party to vote en bloc in support of the party’s policy) .

There is an important book to be written about voter ignorance  within a democracy.  Sadly this is not it. I don’t deny that he has written a densely argued book which systematically works out his ideas.  The problem is that he is completely wrong headed in his premises. Consequently, his arguments count for nothing. However, the book is  worth reading as a first rate example of the attempts of those working in what are mistakenly called the  “social sciences” to pretend that these subjects  are bona fide sciences just like physics and chemistry and a very revealing look into the modern liberal mind.

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