Arnold Kling on political ignorance

Economist Arnold Kling has an interesting post commenting on my recent book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Kling agrees with much of my thesis, but worries that (at least under one possible interpretation of my argument) the dangers of political ignorance may be overstated relative to that of other shortcomings of modern democracy:

In a recent book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter…, Ilya Somin offers extensive evidence that many voters lack even basic knowledge. He suggests that as a consequence, voting is unlikely to yield good policy. The solution he proposes is to scale back the national government and instead leave more decisions to “foot voting,” where individuals can make policy decisions through market choice….

I agree with Somin’s premise, which is that voters are ignorant. I agree with his conclusion, which is that exit is superior to voice. However, I disagree with a possible interpretation of Somin’s work, which is that voter ignorance is the only problem (or the most important problem) with democratic voice as a choice mechanism. I believe that it would be a mistake to suggest that a strong central government would work well under democracy even if voters were well informed….

Somin makes a persuasive case that American voters are woefully ignorant….

However, I do not believe that education in civics can address the real problems in democracy. For one thing, civics education will not eliminate the ideological biases that people bring to issues.

I actually agree that ideological bias in the evaluation of political information is a serious problem and that civics education is unlikely to overcome it. I discuss both issues at some length in the book. In my view, bias in the evaluation of political information is closely linked to the broader problem of political ignorance. Because the chance that any one vote will change an electoral outcome is extremely low, voters have little incentive to either acquire political information or to evaluate the information they do learn in an unbiased way.

I also agree that increased political knowledge will not fully overcome various other flaws of democracy, or even come close to doing so. But Kling is too quick to dismiss the ways in which ignorance exacerbates many other political pathologies. For example, Kling argues that increased political knowledge will not solve the problem of “rent-seeking,” the ability of well-organized interest groups to lobby for policies that benefit them at the expense of the general public. Maybe so. But a well-informed electorate would likely significantly reduce the incidence of rent-seeking because it could more effectively recognize it and punish it at the ballot box. Much rent-seeking succeeds because rationally ignorant voters are unaware of its very existence or wrongly believe that it actually benefits the public. If, for example, voters realized that many agricultural subsidies benefit politically connected agribusinesses at the expense of consumers and taxpayers, they could force politicians to repeal them.

Kling worries that even well-informed voters are overly “enchanted by democracy” and allocate too large a role to the public sector. I largely agree. But it is also true that, controlling for other variables, increasing political knowledge also makes voters less supportive of government intervention in both the economic and social realms. Increasing knowledge might also diminish knee-jerk ideological reactions to political issues, by giving voters a greater sense of the complexity of the issue at hand.

In sum, Kling is right that increased political knowledge wouldn’t solve all the problems of modern democracy, or even come close to doing so. But it would significantly diminish many of them. For reasons I explain in Chapter 7 of my book and (more briefly) here, I am skeptical that we can greatly increase political knowledge in the near future. That’s part of the reason why I argue that the better approach is to make more of our decisions by voting with our feet (where people have stronger incentives to acquire relevant information and use it wisely), and fewer at the ballot box. But I am open to new ideas for increasing knowledge, and believe that the quality of political decisions would be significantly improved if any of these proposals succeed.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."



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