Book Commentary: “Democracy and Political Ignorance”

Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter-Ilya Somin (Amazon)

It’s a rainy Tuesday. For the past few weeks your TV viewing has been interspersed with commercials contrasting a destroyer of family values with a man who saves puppies from oncoming traffic. (The latter happens to sponsor said message.) Your social media feeds have been full of posts from otherwise apolitical friends exhorting you to vote for candidate X. On this day, they switch to messages of pride for having voted for candidate X, or just voting period.

But you’re not sure who to vote for. You don’t pay a ton of attention to the issues, and, aside from a partisan leaning gleaned largely from that of your friends and family, you’re not really passionate about the candidates. Meanwhile, the weather sucks and you have to work. The nearest voting station is a 10-minute drive and a line-wait away during your already busy day. So you join the other 45 percent of Americans: your conscience takes a hit for it, but you go about your day and don’t vote.

Popular culture and elites would have you think you made an immoral choice. They wonder why you wouldn’t take the chance to participate in self-governance.

Did you do the wrong thing? And, apart from right or wrong, did you do the self-interested thing?

For the former, I would argue that you didn’t. For the latter, George Mason law professor Ilya Somin has made a convincing case for why, by not voting, you actually made a rational choice.

That voters are ignorant is unquestioned in academic literature. Whether examining the basic structure of American government, institutional and bureaucratic powers and responsibilities, specifics about timely policy areas, or information about candidates, voters are extremely unknowledgeable. A sample: “A 2006 Zogby poll found that only 42 percent of Americans could even name the three branches of the federal government” (Somin, 19).

Furthermore, such trends have not changed in the face of improved educational attainment and access to information. The issue, as Somin notes, is one of knowledge demand, not supply (76).

At this point, elites tend to divide into two camps. One claims that, despite these poor results, the functioning of our government indicates that voters have taken “information shortcuts” that have allowed them to successfully maintain control over their elected officials. To this, Somin points out the various weaknesses of said shortcuts. He also notes that the lack of a French Revolution-type episode doesn’t prove our citizens know enough to maintain a republic.

The second group throws its hands in the air, bemoaning the masses’ lack of desire to be as steeped in the Iowa caucuses and parliamentary intrigue as they are. This group believes common citizens are either too dumb or too apathetic to realize that voting is a good decision. Refuting this claim is where Somin’s book truly thrives.

There are a number of factors that, collectively, combine to make voting-and the information gathering necessary to cast an informed vote-illogical. The costs are too high: because the federal government makes policy in a vast swath of our affairs, it’s tough for even dedicated policy professionals to keep tabs on important developments, let alone for a nurse with kids to do so. To have even a rudimentary understanding of candidates and issues requires many hours per week, time that most of us don’t have.

Similarly, the benefits are minuscule. It’s almost mathematically impossible for one’s vote to matter, whether by tipping the scales of an election (winning) or even shifting the balance towards a certain party (changing perception). Campaigns may hyper-analyze data, but they won’t notice that their guy won 32.002 percent of the vote in your district vs. 32.003.

Even if one were capable of single-handedly deciding the result of an election, though, the benefits would not be as massive as one may think. First, even candidates most-closely aligned with voters’ ideologies still have many different views from them; the issue is even more pronounced when you look at the 2-3 choices a voter has in their actual state/district. Furthermore, each politician is one of only many voices competing for control over an enormous policy-making apparatus. So even if you could somehow hand-pick your favorite senator, they’d be fighting against 99 other senators, 435 congressmen, the president/vice president, Supreme Court, and a sprawling federal bureaucracy employing millions of people. In sum: your vote really can’t change anything, at least on an individual basis.

Some citizens truly enjoy politics (myself included). For weirdos like us, this pleasure represents additional utility, which may make the act of following events and voting rational. Indeed, interest in politics is the single-biggest indicator of political knowledge. “Holding all others variable constant,” Somin notes, “a change in interest in politics from the lowest to the highest level on the scale increases political knowledge more than the expected difference in knowledge between a middle school dropout and a holder of a graduate degree.” (83) But for those who don’t like it, they gain little by casting uninformed votes or taking the required time to cast informed ones.

Somin sees a huge problem in the lack of voter interest, knowledge, and control over their own affairs. His final chapters are dedicated towards solutions, most of which revolve around limiting the scope of government control through various mechanisms. By reducing the amount of policies the federal government oversees, it would be easier for each voter to properly track the issues. And by delegating more political control to localities, citizens could easily “vote with their feet” by moving to different states/towns to find political regimes more to their liking.

In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, I’ll be paying a great deal of attention to the candidates and issues likely to be debated. I studied politics in college and I find it to be a nice change of pace, intellectually, from my day job. I’m in the minority. Your time is likely better spent hanging out with your kids, exercising, or doing just about anything else. The country will live on regardless. And if your favorite social media sites, celebrities, or friends plea with you to vote, give them a copy of “Democracy”.

Notes

-There is much in this book that I didn’t cover for the purpose of length. For political junkies or readers who don’t buy some of these arguments, I’d urge you to read it in its entirety. Somin backs up every one of his contentions with a ton of empirical research.

-Even if they don’t say so, the vast majority of people and organizations urging you to vote aren’t so much concerned with maintaining a healthy republic as much as they are having you vote for their preferred candidate.

-Political satirist PJ O’Rourke has his own take on the issue of voting. It’s hilarious, and if you can tolerate some bad language, well worth a read.

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