Political ignorance and the Founding Fathers

In a thoughtful recent review of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, political scientist James Rogers argues that my position that political ignorance is a serious problem for democracy that justifies limiting and decentralizing government power is in some respects at odds with the views of the Founding Fathers:

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….

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.

It is indeed true that Framers sought to “engineer” the Constitution around the problem of political ignorance, thereby diminishing its harmful effects. But they did so in part by trying to do the very thing I advocate in the book: placing tight limits on the power of government, especially the federal government. James Madison famously emphasized in Federalist 45 that the powers of the central government are to be “few and defined.” In a passage from Federalist 62 that I quote in the book, he emphasized that “[i[t will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read.” I doubt that Madison meant that adequately informed voters literally need to read every provision of every law. But he did clearly imply a tradeoff between the quantity and complexity of law and the ability of voters to understand it. He clearly was not confident that what Rogers called “canary in the mineshaft” democracy would work well in a situation where the role of government in society is massive and complex. The greater the size and scope of government, the less likely it is that rationally ignorant voters will pay attention to more than a tiny fraction of the many canaries competing for their attention.

Moreover, Madison ultimately concluded that increasing political knowledge was an important objective for making representative democracy work effectively. As he explained in an 1822 letter advocating the use of publicly financed education to increase political knowledge (I quote the letter at the start of my book): “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.” Thomas Jefferson and some of the other Founders expressed similar views. Unfortunately, as I also document in the book, public education has been much less successful in increasing political knowledge than Jefferson and others hoped.

Rogers also quotes Madison on “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all of our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government,” which he argues is a sharp contrast to my own view of freedom. It is true that Madison believed that representative government was an important element of freedom. On the other hand, he also emphasized that limits on government power were essential to the preservation of freedom. As he put it in his 1792 essay on “Property.” “[t]hat is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations.” He also argued there that “[i]f the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights.”

I do not mean to imply that my analysis of political ignorance fully tracks that of Madison and the other Founders. Far from it. Among other important differences, they don’t seem to have recognized the central point rational ignorance is less of a problem when people “vote with their feet” than when they make choices at the ballot box. In addition, I argue in the book that such Founders as Jefferson and Madison were overly optimistic about the ability of public education to increase political knowledge. But at least some of them, especially Madison, were more worried about political ignorance than Rogers suggests. In an era where government has grown far larger and more complex than the Founders ever expected, we have even more reason for concern than they did.

UPDATE: For readers who may be interested, I explored the question of the relationship between foot voting and political freedom in much greater detail than in my book, in this forthcoming article.

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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Eugene Volokh · June 9, 2014