Thursday, December 1, 2016

Foot Voting vs. Ballot Box Voting: Exploring Ways to Make Democracy Work Better

Democracy and Political Ignorance: 
Why Smaller Government is Smarter
Ilya Somin
Stanford University Press, 2d Ed. 2016
312 pages.

"I'm shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here," Captain Renault famously feigns to Rick in Casablanca. Ilya Somin's newly reissued and updated book has a bit of Captain Renault about it: "I'm shocked, shocked that voters in modern democracies are woefully ignorant and uninformed when it comes to choosing their leaders; we should immediately reduce the size of government, privatize many government functions, and let voters make decisions for themselves in the private realm, or let them vote with their feet by moving away from jurisdictions whose policies they do not like and towards jurisdictions whose policies they do like because they pay better attention when they do this."

Somin is a professor at the Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. He is a libertarian and his arguments serve the libertarian cause. But Somin is also a generous, intellectually honest, and interesting writer who is genuinely struggling with the problems of democracy and the rule of law. If you care about democracy and the rule of law--and we had all of us better care in this age of Trump--Somin's book presents a thorough and broad survey of the challenge posed by voter political ignorance, and suggests some places to look for solutions.

The Extent of Voter Ignorance

Somin begins with an assessment of the extent of political ignorance. It's bad. "Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing" Jesus cried out on the cross, and he might well cry out today after 62 million voters have made Donald J. Trump President elect of the United States.

Before the 2014 election, Somin reports, 62% of voters did not know which party controlled Congress. In August 2013, 44% of voters did not know whether Obamacare was still in effect. With Trump appointing Obamacare foe Congressman Tom Price to run the Department of Health and Human Services, it looks like the answer may soon be "No," even as many Trump voters have come to rely on Obamacare.  See NYT 11/25/16.

A September 2014 Pew study found that two in three Americans mistakenly thought that we spend more on foreign aid than on social security. In reality, foreign aid accounts for less than one percent of the budget while social security accounts for ~25 percent of the budget. It's hard for the electorate to evaluate political talking points when they have such a high level of misunderstanding about the underlying facts and issues.

We've been talking about income inequality for the past few years, yet only a small sliver of Americans can recognize the shape of our income inequality on a chart.

How can we have a meaningful public discussion about income inequality when most voters cannot recognize what income inequality looks like on a chart? 

As the Bush v. Kerry campaign was heating up "in late 2003," says Somin, "more than 60 percent of Americans did not realize that a massive increase in domestic spending had made a substantial contribution to the then-recent explosion in the federal deficit.”  With the federal deficit a hot campaign topic, it's hard to imagine voters who don't have any sense why the deficit increased (Bush tax cuts, Iraq war, medicare drug benefits) making an informed choice between the competing policy directions on offer in the 2004 election.

As we might expect, a corollary to this is that most of the public is unaware of the wide range of government programs structured as tax deductions, or the massive extent to which many of these programs transfer wealth to the affluent. 

In 2007, after more than three years of war in Iraq, and non-stop news coverage about the Middle East, 68 percent of the public could not identify “Sunni” as a major branch of Islam when prompted with “Shiite” as the other branch. It's this level of ignorance that has enabled Donald Trump to ride the xenophobic mob specter of "radical Islam" among the 90 million white non-college educated crowd who favored him with nearly seventy percent of their votes. 

Most voters lack an ideological framework for processing political information, says Somin. As a result they miss the connections between issues and their views are very fluid and subject to crass manipulation. 

There is a large political knowledge underclass, “know nothings” who possess little if any basic political knowledge, says Somin. This voting army of "know nothings" riding roughshod over the field of politics seems to comprise as much as 25-35% of the U.S. public.

Here's G.W. Bowersock , NYR 11/10/16,  characterizing where this all can lead in light of the most recent election results: “The present election process has revealed that an ignorant, mendacious, and inherent bully can find support among important segments of the American people. The impact of this support is potentially catastrophic…. The people, whom the Greeks called demos, whence democracy derives its name, can be easily swayed by plainspoken leaders who speak directly to their deepest anxieties.” What price we will all pay for this particular election outcome remains to be seen.  

Do Voters Know Enough

Can we make democracy work with an electorate that lacks basic knowledge about the important issues of the day and doesn't seem to care?  "Do voters know enough?" asks Somin. 

It's a rhetorical question. Of course we voters don't know enough, and when we do know things we often apply our knowledge irrationally. But what choice do we have? Smaller government, and making more political decisions through people voting with their feet, says Somin. When citizens move away from government policies they don't like towards jurisdictions that have policies more to their liking, says Somin, citizens take their information gathering more seriously, they know more, and they make better decisions. We should be looking for opportunities where foot voting is feasible.

In 1950 Joseph Schumpeter observed that “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interest. He becomes primitive again.”  Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1950). 

Somin tries to steer us to the conclusion that, yes, democracy may be the best thing going, but as actors in democracy we are not nearly as competent than we are as actors in our spheres of real interest--our jobs, our hobbies, our passions. The more we can shift the burden of collective decision-making to our private spheres of real interest and away from ballot box voting, therefore, the better off we'll be. 

There are four common notions of how democracy works in theory, says Somin.  They are fictions, really, thought-props. Looking at the amount of knowledge required from voters, from least to most, says Somin, these are: 1) retrospective voting, 2) Burkean trusteeship, 3) representation of popular preferences on specific issues, and 4) deliberative democracy. Lets just focus on the least demanding, retrospective voting. 

Schumpeter advocated for the retrospective voting model. “Electorates normally do not control their political leaders in any way except by refusing to reelect them,” said Schumpeter.  Somin claims that the idea of retrospective voting assumes that citizens can assess the performance of incumbent officeholders.   “At the very least retrospective voting requires that the electorate possess sufficient knowledge to determine how well political leaders are performing their assigned duties.”  Kindle Loc 964. When voters lack knowledge, retrospective voting can be counterproductive, says Somin: with lack of knowledge voters are at risk of elevating scoundrels and incompetents over smart, experienced, technocratic leaders.

There are four knowledge prerequisites for competent retrospective voting, says Somin. Voters must: 1) have some understanding of which problems are caused by poor government policies, or what problems can be alleviated by good government policies; 2) voters must know which incumbent officeholders are responsible for which issue areas; 3) they must know at least the basic facts about what happened with respect to those issues during the incumbent’s term; and 4) they must be able to determine, at least to some extent, whether the incumbent's policies were the best available under the circumstances, or whether their opponent’s ideas might have fared better.  Loc 986.   “[Retrospective voting] calls for a much greater level of political knowledge than the theory’s more enthusiastic advocates acknowledge,” Somin concludes. Kindle Loc 993.

But why "must?" We clearly don't meet these "prerequisites," but what of it?

As Brad DeLong notes, "Democracy has never been a particularly good way of choosing smart, technocratic leaders." Democracy's main virtues are that (a) it rules out the mirage of violent revolution as a solution to current disappointments, and (b) that, despite all, it provides powerful insulation against certain rent-seeking by the currently rich, who are always in favor of wealth extraction from the rest, and always opposed to the creative destruction that economic growth brings (because it is their wealth that is being destroyed). But the problem of "being ruled by the current group of clowns" that the people chose, when the people can vote to change the "current group of clowns"--even if the people were incompetent in appointing the "current group of clowns," and may be incompetent in appointing the next--is a more benign problem than the problem of people being oppressed by a tyrant that they are stuck with, no matter how technocratically incompetent, corrupt, or venal that tyrant may be.

But surely we can do better. How do we improve?

Somin thinks voters don't know enough and we, therefore, need mitigating measures to guard against misguided voter action. "Do no harm" is the gist of the Hiipocratic oath, and the majority who voted for Hillary Clinton in the election might well be wondering how to minimize harm over the next four years. But what are such mitigating measures?

Democracy and Political Ignorance sets out to open our minds to the possibility that improvements might be found in smaller government, more foot voting, and more private action in the marketplace, thereby reducing the scope of issues that must be decided (or overseen) by an unknowledgeable electorate at the ballot box.

The Rationality of Political Ignorance

Somin seeks to reduce the range of issues to be decided at the ballot box because he feels there are no effective shortcuts to actual knowledge that are available to the electorate (there is a whole chapter on this) and because he does not believe that the level of voter knowledge can be significantly raised in the foreseeable future (and he has a chapter on that).  A real problem, suggests Somin, is that it is rational for voters to take no more than a superficial interest in voting because an individual voter has virtually no chance of influencing the outcome of an election—possibly less than 1/100 million in modern U.S. presidential election, says Somin. Kindle Loc 1460. 

We have a rough general sense that devoting more than minimal time and effort to acquiring political information is rarely worth the trouble.  Loc 1448.  The task of becoming adequately knowledgeable is too daunting. Take, as one example, the Trans Pacific Partnership: even experts have a hard time assessing its merits, how could the rest of us ever hope to evaluate it? 

But does this say anything about whether the TPP is a net positive or negative? Whether we, as a country, should go through with it or not?  It seems to me the conclusion "We should not have the TPP" does no follow from the premise "the electorate is not able to meaningfully evaluate it rationally!"  

Somin ponders the question "why do people vote at all?"  Rational choice models seem to predict that people wouldn’t vote unless they have some reasons for casting a ballot that is unrelated to the likelihood of changing the result, he says. But if the core of the problem is that we are partisan and irrational, we use our reasoning skills, our argumentative skills, and the little knowledge we gain to advocate for the stories we tell ourselves (and the stories we tell ourselves are highly dependent on which tribe we belong to), then rational choice theory does not appear to be the correct place to be looking for answers. 

It seems silly, for example, to suggest that 129 million people voted in this election because they mistakenly (or irrationally?) thought their individual vote might be determinative. Voting is a social act of civic involvement. We have to look at the psychology of crowds, at our civic values--or lack thereof, not to the rationality or irrationality of individual voters. Voting is something we do as a community because we have internalized certain civic virtues. We vote in spite of the fact that we know our individual vote will make no difference. We vote because we trust in our fellow citizens and because we believe that collectively we can make a difference. All those non-college educated whites in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida who came out to favor Trump in this election determined the outcome. They may have been less than rational in their choice, but who is to say they were irrational in showing up to vote and responding as a group? 

As Matt Yglesias recently noted: "It's important to remember that 2016 fundamentals favored the GOP and Trump underperformed. There is no secret political magic to his candidacy." The shocking thing about the election, of course, is that Trump, given his inexperience, his dishonesty, his extreme and disturbing rhetoric, and lack of any clear program managed to garner 46.4% of the vote and a majority of the Electoral College. For the 48.2% plurality of voters who voted for Clinton, this is a problem, but it's not clear that it's a problem that smaller government would have avoided. 

It's ironic that the harm feared by the majority who voted for Hillary Clinton in this election is the very "remedy" that Somin advocates: the shrinking of government. The Clinton plurality fear the federal government will retreat from environmental oversight, from consumer protection, giving tax cuts to the wealthy and providing fewer benefits for the elderly, the sick, and the poor.  There is talk of privatizing medicare and government providing less support for education. All of this might shrink the size of government, but savy electorate or ignorant, it's not at all clear how this would make most of us better off.  

Somin is exploring whether we'd be better off with more foot voters and smaller government than our current size of government that ballot box voters are not able to properly oversee.    

Prospects for Foot Voting over Ballot Box Voting

So what is foot voting and how would it make us better off?

Somin cites three different kinds of foot voting: (1) voters physically leaving one jurisdiction and moving to another jurisdiction to live; (2) residents abandoning state services of that jurisdiction and using private services as a substitute (sending our kids to private school would be an example); and (3) consumers making purchasing decisions in the market place. 

Mormon migration West 1846-47
Federalism enables citizens to “vote with their feet” by moving from one jurisdiction to another. Within the United States it is easy to pack your bags and move from one state to another. We have many ways to learn about specific conditions in other states: we can visit, we have friends and family there, and the official news media and social media provide us with information about relative conditions. Want to live among self-reliant survivalists?  Move to Heyden Idaho. Want to live in a vibrant LGBTQ community? How about San Francisco, Seattle, or New York? It's a lot easier to move to San Francisco, property values and rents notwithstanding, than it is to convince Mississippi to pass legislation to protect LGBTQ rights.  Want to make a living in the marijuana industry? Move to Humboldt County, California.

Somin points to both historical and current examples. There was the migration of the Mormons to Utah in the 18th century. Then between 1880-1920 one million southern born African Americans migrated to the North or West.  Relatives and acquaintances already living there provided information. Black media encouraged migration.  There were emigrant agents recruiting for businesses seeking to hire African American Workers.

Foot Voting against Jim Crow
Black migrants had good reasons for leaving the South: lynchings, racial discrimination, and other hostile government policies. But the choice they faced was complex because there was extensive racism and government sponsored discrimination in the North as well. Most scholars agree, Somin reports, that Blacks benefited from moving to the North overall and that in doing so they made effective use of the knowledge that they acquired and, that generally, they chose their destinations wisely. They displayed better information gathering skills than ballot box voters.

African American foot voting during Jim Crow (about 10 percent of the African American population migrated) had positive effects for those left behind. In response, southern states were forced to provide a better education to Blacks and to provide better protection for their persons and property in order to keep the labor force. And these improvements came about without ballot box voting, and probably could not have been achieved through ballot box voting.

Today, libertarians are flocking to New Hampshire. The state collects neither a sales tax nor an income tax. If that's what you like, it's easier to move to the granite state (population 1.3 million; median household income of $61,000) than to convince California it should abandon its income tax and sales tax through an initiative.

And foot voting opportunities exist even without having to pack up your bags and leaving your state. State residents can choose to opt out of state services, or state services can be streamlined in ways that facilitates foot voting over ballot box voting. Privately planned communities such as condominium associations are examples of foot voting, says Somin. These associations take care of many needs traditionally provided by government, such as trash removal, tree pruning, security, environmental protection, local land-use rules, etc.  A single metropolitan area can contain many planned communities, making it easier for potential residents to find a community that best fits his or her needs. Unlike local governments, planned communities are entirely self-supporting. This increases their incentive to compete for residents. The profit motive introduces incentives to make good decisions in a way that is often missing from government services. At the same time, planned communities must be keenly attuned to their member's desires because people have fewer ideological commitments to planned communities than to municipalities.

Local governments can be structured to promote foot voting. Bruno Frey, a Swiss economist, says Somin, is working on developing models for government services with overlapping jurisdictions. These models would allow citizens to choose between different government service providers across jurisdictional lines, thus forcing government service providers to compete with each other. Current common examples are companies choosing which jurisdiction will govern a commercial transaction, or selecting the jurisdiction where a business is incorporated.

The more issues that fall under control of regional or local governments, as opposed to national, the greater the range of policy choices over which citizens can exercise leverage through foot voting.   Information gathering advantages inherent in foot voting suggests that we should be looking for opportunities to take more issues outside the control of government entirely, leaving them in the hands of the private sector and vibrant engaged foot voting citizens. 

James Madison in Federalist 62 said: “It 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, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” He had a point. Smaller government, suggests Somin, could help with voter ignorance because there is less government for voters to know about. The greater the size and scope of government the more voters have to know to control the policies through the ballot.

Consumers, of course, routinely make foot voting decisions through their loyalty to and abandonment of competing products and brands.  In the private sector, voting with your feet against a product or service entails minimal moving costs. The same holds true for most civil society organizations. To the extent that some government services can be devolved to the private commercial sector or to civil society organizations, voters can be given a greater opportunity for foot voting, and voting will be better informed and effective.

Foot voters have greater and better incentives to make well-informed decisions, to acquire accurate and reliable information, than ballot box voters do, says Somin. The consequences of foot voting decisions are real, tangible, and result in more immediate consequences than ballot box voting. Take the Bush administration's prescription drug bill, passed in 2003: although seventy percent of ballot box voters were unaware of this legislation when it passed, most seniors were able to act in a way to take advantage of the new law, says Somin. It's an example of low information at the ballot box, but effective information gathering sufficient for foot voting.

Friedrich Hayek, argued that rational behavior causes individuals to be successful, and forces others to imitate this rational behavior to also be successful. Such positive imitation is absent among ballot box voters. Ballot box voters have no need to be more rational (or as rational) than the rest. In the marketplace, foot voters have the incentive to become fully informed in a way that ballot box voters simply do not. The effect can be nearly magical. A Yale study reported by Somin found that subjects who were able to properly interpret statistical data regarding the effectiveness of skin cream to eliminate rashes were unable to properly interpret the same data applied to politically charged issues, like gun control, when it cut against their ideologies. 

Foot voters in the private sector, of course, also make mistakes due to ignorance or irrationality, says Somin. But much research suggests that cognitive biases that show up in laboratory experiments largely disappear under conditions that closely approximate real world market decisions. Foot voters are apt to learn from their mistakes; ballot box voters forget their mistakes the next morning and proceed as if nothing ever happened.

Foot voting, of course, has its disadvantages as well. These include moving costs; destructive races to the bottom in which competition between regions enables harmful policies to prevail; and danger that federalism might lead to the oppression of minority groups. Economic externalities such as pollution, global warming must be taken into account and guarded against in any system that attempts to promote foot voting over ballot box voting.


We humans have been living in complex societies, cities and states, for only 150 generations or so. That's about four fruit-fly years. It's not a long time to fine tune how to live in a complex social, peaceful, and mutually beneficial manner. On the whole we've not done so well. As the Marcus Turner tune goes: "... these eternal executions, and the bloody revolutions, and the ultimate solutions too, have all been seen before."

Somin's work in Democracy and Political Ignorance is preliminary exploration. Opportunities for effective foot voting in a manner that benefits society as a whole must be fleshed out, and how broadly foot voting can effectively replace ballot box voting remains to be seen. This work should be pursued independently of any ideological commitments to "smaller government" for its own sake.

As the TPP example shows, "government should be smaller" does not necessarily follow from the fact that voters don't know enough. A question left hanging is whether smaller government providing fewer services might in fact be significantly worse for some? Somin does not here try to describe what smaller government would look like, or why it would be better for most people. He makes no comprehensive effort in this book to come to terms with the question of how small?

But the fact that foot voters are better at gathering information, and that they are more responsible in their choices seems persuasive. We should all be looking for ways to make democracy better for all, and exploring where we might productively rely on foot voting over ballot box voting seems like useful and productive work.

You can purchase a copy of Somin's book at Stanford University Press  HERE and at Amazon HERE.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

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