Friday, August 19, 2016

Is Voter Ignorance a Reason to Shrink Government? Ilya Somin and "Voting with your Feet"

Vote and Fight, or Leave?
Democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In our republican form of government we delegate governance to elected representatives whose performance we periodically review. In order to do a proper job of reviewing the performance of elected politicians, therefore, we should have political knowledge. But we have a problem. Most voters are deficient in their political knowledge. Therefore it is difficult for us to meaningfully hold our elected representatives accountable for their performance. How do we manage this problem?

The Optimists

Consider the optimism of John F. Kennedy speaking in 1963:
"The educated citizen knows that .... knowledge is power, that only an educated and informed people will be a free people; that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all; and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, enlighten the people generally, tyranny and the oppression of mind and body will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day; and, therefore, the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist, at every level of government, the improvement of education for all Americans." 
                                                        --John F. Kennedy, May 18, 1963.

We live in a less optimistic time. President Kennedy in 1963 was aspirational and inspirational. He reflected a hopeful attitude that we can have an enlightened and engaged citizenry, that progress is possible, and that our democracy can work. Today, after 20 years of Fox News and its imitators, we have our doubts.

Yet Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi and their cognitive democracy project (the subject of my last post) are keeping the faith. They start off with the realization that the biggest problems democracies face are complex and technical; they acknowledge the vagaries of human nature--that we are subject to confirmation bias and prone to motivated reasoning; they acknowledge that many voters are sorely lacking in knowledge: yet Farrell and Shalizi remain hopeful that the best way to find solutions to society's difficult problems remains through maximizing the diversity of perspectives, through education, social media, and other communication tools, and that despite the flaws and limitations of individual voters, democracy remains our best hope for coming up with good solutions to our complex societal problems (achieving full employment with low inflation, providing security, safety, and stability, protecting the environment, educating the population, making sure everyone has healthcare, a dignified retirement, stimulating culture and scientific development, and resolving competing views on such things as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, etc.)

Nobody said it would be easy! Nobody promised us a rose garden. But I'm on board with optimism and hope. I think we have no choice.

The Pessimism (or is it just motivated reasoning) of Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University, and a libertarian since high school, looks at the challenges and throws up his hands. Voter ignorance is rational, he says, and therefore the citizens of democracy will never be able to provide effective government oversight. Because people do a poor job with government oversight, the solution is.... we should eliminate government!

O.K., not quite. Somin's proposal is to shrink government and to keep it small. He is as pessimistic about the democratic process as Kennedy was optimistic. On the other hand, being a libertarian, Somin has great confidence in individual action and the power of markets for solving complex social problems. Let them vote with their feet, he says.

Somin has outlined his arguments in a book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, which has just been reissued as an expanded second edition. For a succinct statement of his position, take a look at his article in Cato Unbound (October 2013). He has also advocated his position in many other articles in the popular press.

There is the suspicion, of course, that since Somin's small government conclusions are in line with his libertarian principles held since high school, what we have here is book length motivated reasoning. On the other hand, just because reasoning is motivated doesn't make it wrong. So let's take a closer look.

There is the point that when we look about at the deplorably inane level of our political discourse across the spectrum, when we behold Trump and the fact that 40 million people appear ready to cast their vote for him as president of the United States, when we take stock of the level of voter ignorance about basic political facts (see e.g. Ilya Somin), many of us wonder: how can an uninformed electorate subjected to demagogic misinformation possibly act as an effective check on our political leaders and their performance?

There is also the fact that we lack political knowledge despite attaining higher educational levels across society than in the past. We may even have higher IQ levels than our great-great-great grandparents. Yet we lack political knowledge, says Somin, because we don't spend the time required to become sufficiently knowledgeable. We spend more time considering the purchase of a new television than we do considering our vote for president, senator, member of Congress, or local government representatives. Moreover, we are more likely to be objective in our evaluations when we buy a new television than when we vote for presidential candidates. We take consumer decisions more seriously than voting decisions. This should not be a surprise, says Somin. It's rational to spend more time on purchasing a television than casting a vote for president because our TV purchase will affect our lives in a tangible direct way, whereas our individual vote will never (for all statistical purposes) make any difference.

In San Francisco this November we will vote on 25 local ballot measures. A conscientious review of these measures will take 50 hours of my time. Why should I spend this time when my individual vote will never be determinative of the outcome? It's irrational, says Somin, so we should not expect it. And so we don't. But rather than worry about this problem, Somin embraces it as a rallying cry for shrinking the size of government.

It's true that in our modern world government has become ever more complex. Government expenditures constitute a larger share of the world economy than 50 years ago. According to World Bank statistics, the average government share of GDP world-wide has increased from 13 percent in 1960 to nearly 18 percent in 2015.  In developed countries this number is considerably higher: the range for OECD countries is 33 percent (Switzerland) to 58 percent (Finland); the United States is 38 percent (2014 figures). Increased complexity and increased size of government, says Somin, makes the citizen's task of understanding, evaluating, and voting meaningfully ever more complicated.

Forget it, implies Somin: voters will never be able to properly evaluate government performance, or the performance of individual elected politicians in a world where government comprises 38 percent of GDP. The solution, he says, is to diversify and shrink government, leaving private actors to solve complex social problems through civic groups and by voting with their feet.

What is voting with your feet, and why should we favor it over elections?  Here's Somin in the Cato article:
There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. But we can significantly mitigate it by making more of our decisions by “voting with our feet” and fewer at the ballot box. Two types of foot voting have important informational advantages over ballot box voting. The first is when we vote with our feet in the private sector, by choosing which products to buy or which civil society organizations to join. The other is choosing what state or local government to live under in a federal system - a decision often influenced by the quality of those jurisdictions’ public policy.... 
[F]oot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. ... [F]oot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get....
The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is usually much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government, and much easier to do it against a state than against the federal government.
It is also usually easier to foot vote in the private sector than the public. A given region is likely to have far more private planned communities and other private sector organizations than local governments. Choosing among the former usually requires far less in the way of moving costs than choosing among the latter. 
Reducing the size of government could also alleviate the problem of ignorance by making it easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor its activities. A smaller, less complicated government is easier to keep track of.
Shareholders engage in foot-voting. If a stock ceases to perform, they sell and move on...., they don't get involved in evaluating leadership and making efforts to replace it with better leadership. Somin suggests we should approach politics the same way. In his Cato article Somin provides the example of southern Blacks moving north for a better life during the Jim Crow era.

But it is not at all clear how Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South for a better life in the North has any relationship to the size of government. Or that it has any relationship to voter ignorance. The problem faced by the woman protesting in the photo at the top of this post is not voter ignorance. She is painfully aware of the problem.

The proper size of government is itself a political question. As a libertarian Somin wants to shrink government. But the democratic consensus over the last half century has not been that government should be smaller. It's been a Republican talking point, but they don't mean it. Government has grown under all administrations since the 1950's.

In order to shrink government, we would need to make value choices. Should we reduce military expenditures? Prisons? Social security? Education? Infrastructure? Environmental regulation? Regulations monitoring a safe food supply? Police? National security? School lunches? Head start? The Space program? How much?

All of these are political questions.  Voting with your feet won't help us resolve any of these questions.

The argument Somin is making--that we should reduce the size of government in order to make it easier for a disengaged electorate to provide oversight--appeals to our democratic process. He is providing reasons why we should vote for elected officials who will bring this about. But that is not different than arguments that voters should vote for representatives who will protect the environment, or increase social security, maintain the TSA, or vote for the earned income tax credit. And in the process we'll have to evaluate which candidates would likely follow through with what we want.

Does Somin have in mind some magic size of government where voter ignorance ceases to be a problem? He's not telling. But it seems unlikely. Any country with a $16 trillion economy must have a sizable government to operate smoothly.  Whether our government spending is 20 percent of GDP  or 38 percent, it won't solve the problem of voter ignorance.

Somin is sympathetic to efforts to improve voter knowledge. A week ago in the Washington Post he favorably reviewed some advice to voters in Scientific American: don't just go with your gut,  don't get all your news from social media, watch the next debate with your eyes, closed, and abstain from voting when you really haven't had the chance to engage at all. These are positive voter virtues, he says, but in the long term "the most effective solution is to reduce the size and complexity of government." I don't think the size of government has anything to do with it.

In the long run I think we'll do better if we harken back to the optimism president Kennedy expressed in 1963. I think we'll do well if, on November 8, the Electoral College map approximates the results of the 1964 election as much as possible.  And I think we'll do well if we adhere to some of that idealism expressed by Kennedy in his speech (above). We'll do well if we remember that citizenship is not just an exercise in rational self-interest because we think our vote will make a difference; if we remember that citizenship is a value;  that taking an interest in political affairs matters; that if we model proper engagement it will influence our children, our friends, our peers.... and that our vote will not just be our vote but the vote of our children, friends, and peers, and their friends and peers, and that we are ultimately all connected in this great venture that is America. We'll do well if we remember that democracy does not consist of making individual market decisions.


  1. Professor Somin responds (reprinted with permission):

    "Thanks! In extremely brief response:

    1. There is zero evidence that "optimism" about government and democracy increases voter knowledge.

    2. My point about blacks and Jim Crow is not that they left because the North had smaller government (although it most certainly did with respect to restrictions on the freedom of blacks!), but that the example shows how foot voters can do a good job of seeking out information even under highly adverse conditions. Ballot box voters, by contrast, do poorly even under good conditions.

    3. The benefit of shrinking government is not just that it makes things easier for ballot box voters, but that it enables more of our decisions to be made by foot voting, which is far better from an informational point of view. It's true this does not by itself tell us what the right size of government is (or the right degree of centralization). But it most certainly counsels shrinking and decentralizing government to a substantially greater degree than we would otherwise. ....

    Whether we can muddle through depends on how high a standard you want to hold the system to. Voter ignorance causes an enormous amount of harm, and also (as discussed in ch. 2 of the book) ensures we fall far short of what leading versions of democratic theory consider to be an acceptable quality of political participation (including even those that are generally considered relatively undemanding).

    Finally, I would note that the "motivated reasoning" claim applies equally to almost everyone involved in this debate. Most of the people on the other side of it are longtime left-wingers or populists, and therefore have "motivated reasoning" incentives for concluding that democracy works well."

  2. My friend Victor Rauch responds (email reprinted with blanket license):

    Interesting as is often the case. One small bone.

    You say: "But it is not at all clear how Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South for a better life in the North has any relationship to the size of government. Or that it has any relationship to voter ignorance. The problem faced by the woman protesting in the photo at the top of this post is not voter ignorance. She is painfully aware of the problem."

    Not sure there is much factual basis for the cause of this migration. It is possible, likely perhaps, certainly Marx would agree, that this migration was at least partially and perhaps significantly caused by the trend to industrialize agriculture. I don't know the numbers, but we know modern farms work vast tracts of land with a very small workforce. This has caused a reduction in the requirement for a large labor pool and displacement of populations from rural areas to cities. This is the case throughout the US and Europe. (probably Asia as well).

    I think in fact that the aforementioned paragraph was more or less a throw away on your part and certainly not a part of your central thesis.

    Your diligence on these matters is impressive.