The Fox and the Hedgehog: How Do We Achieve Political Accountability Given What Voters (Don’t) Know?

Ilya Somin’s new book is one of the most recent and most interesting contributions to the burgeoning work on political ignorance. For a long time, voter ignorance was almost exclusively the province of political scientists. The subject attracted the interest of a few law professors writing about ballot design and the like, but the yeoman’s work was done by social scientists.

While late to the game, legal scholars like Somin have nonetheless made a distinctive contribution in this area during the last few years. Perhaps because they are less constrained by disciplinary bounds, law professors have been more inclined to write broadly about the normative and institutional implications of the empirical research than the political scientists who did the research in the first place. That’s why most of the law professors to work on these questions have ended up looking like a bit like bomb throwers. Evidence of voter ignorance raises tough questions about democracy generally and majority rule in particular. The empirical work casts doubt on whether the majority is capable of forming intelligible preferences, let alone vindicating those preferences through the ballot box.

Law is a problem-oriented field, however, and legal scholars rarely stop with the critique. Somin is no exception. The most novel arguments in his book, in fact, are the ones aimed at solving the problem of voter ignorance. Those arguments pose fundamental questions about what shape our democracy should take.

To get a sense of what’s at stake, it’s useful to juxtapose Somin’s ideas against those of another legal scholar working on the same problem – David Schleicher. Both hail from George Mason (which also houses Bryan Caplan, one of the most prominent social scientists in this area). Somin and Schleicher start with the same empirical research but end up endorsing markedly different visions of democracy: Somin wants us to treat voters as fleet foxes, while Schleicher thinks we should treat them as homebody hedgehogs.

Isaiah Berlin famously categorized thinkers as foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes, Berlin insisted, know lots of little things. Hedgehogs, in contrast, know one big thing. These two categories loosely capture the differences between Somin’s and Schleicher’s reform agendas.

Somin wants us to imagine voters as nimble and detail-oriented as foxes. After canvassing the disturbing number of things voters don’t know, he turns to what they do know: Voters know whether they’d like to live in Portandia or Fort Worth. They know whether they want to live in a neighborhood with good schools, or low taxes, or lax zoning regulations, or mass transit. Voters aren’t just able to make better judgments about these small-scale issues, on Somin’s view. They also have more incentive to acquire information about local conditions (when they move) than they have to acquire information about national policy debates (when they vote).

Somin’s voters are foxes in a second sense. They don’t just know lots of small things, á la Berlin. They are also fleet of foot. Somin argues that voters can and do move based on their preferences. All of this leads Somin to conclude that we should privilege “foot voting” over ballot-box voting.

Schleicher, in sharp contrast, sees voters as hedgehogs. Like Somin, he worries about the many things voters don’t know. But he insists that voters do know one big thing: the basic difference between the two major parties. Like many political scientists, Schleicher believes that party identification – Democrat v. Republican – provides a sensible shorthand for individuals casting a ballot. One group of political scientists explains the significance of the party heuristic in this way: If a voter “knows the big thing about the parties, he does not need to know all the little things.” (Somin doesn’t have the same faith in party heuristics, as is evident from his chapter on the “shortcomings of shorthand”).

For Schleicher, then, accountability depends on voters acting like hedgehogs. Because voters understand the difference between the national parties, Schleicher says we should trust their choices in national elections. He worries, however, that while the party heuristic helps voters hold national politicians accountable, it prevents them from holding state and local officials accountable. When people vote in state and local elections, Schleicher argues, they’re voting based on how they think the national parties have performed, which may not have much to do with local performance. Schleicher’s best evidence is the fact that state and local votes almost always mirror votes on national races. To offer a crude example, Barack Obama’s success in managing the economy doesn’t tell voters whether their mayor is doing a good job with local schools, but the shorthand people use nonetheless leads them to vote in city elections based on their views of Obama. Schleicher’s reform proposals pivot off his belief that voters know one big thing. He is interested in providing voters with a form of party identity that helps them make good decisions at every level of governance.

Schleicher’s argument meets Somin’s in another way. Somin’s fox-like voters move in order to access better policies. Schleicher’s hedgehogs, in contrast, are homebodies. While some may vote with their feet, the inexorable logic of economic need and industry concentration (agglomeration economics, in academic speak) is primarily what draws and holds people to one city or one region. It’s a classic Hirschman tradeoff between exit and voice. Schleicher thinks that exit (voting with one’s feet) is costly given economic realities. He thus wants to facilitate voice by making elections work better. Somin is skeptical that voter preference can be voiced through elections, so he wants us to make exit easier.

Framed this way, you can see how much is at stake in this debate. If Somin is right, we should treat voters as fleet foxes, and the solution to voter ignorance lies with local government law, federalism, and the judiciary. If Schleicher is correct to depict voters as homebody hedgehogs, we should look to politics and election law for solace. Somin wants us to facilitate exit, not voice, and would push us toward tightly bounded microcommunities – enclaves that can develop distinctive policy packages without interference from outsiders. Indeed, Somin doesn’t just want smaller polities, but smaller government. Schleicher’s emphasis on voice over exit suggests we should focus our efforts on large, economically bounded political communities, where there are enough political and media resources for local political identities to develop. His paradigm is New York City. There people seeking jobs in finance or the arts find themselves stuck with high taxes and a history of bad management, but politicians have the political resources to rebrand themselves as “Giuliani Republicans” or “Bloomberg Independents.”

Our choices, then, don’t just involve empirical judgments about what makes voters tick, but deep normative questions about what kind of democratic communities we want to encourage. Thanks to Somin’s vigorously argued and clearly articulated proposals, we now have a clear sense of the choices before us and, more importantly, a better understanding of why those choices matter.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Ilya Somin argues that political ignorance is pervasive and extends to an alarming number of elementary topics. Voters simply don’t have the information that they need to make informed decisions. Increasing education seemingly hasn’t alleviated the problem, and voters tend to choose based not on facts or values, but on the basis of team-like partisan allegiances. This behavior is to some extent rational, because the payoffs are essentially zero for any one voter becoming more informed. It may thus be unreasonable to expect voters to become highly educated on matters of public policy. What we need, he argues, is instead a structural change: Make government a smaller and less consequential part of our everyday lives.

Response Essays

  • Heather Gerken finds much of interest in Ilya Somin’s work on political ignorance, a topic that has only gradually come into its own among law professors despite considerable social scientific research demonstrating political ignorance among real-world voters. She characterizes Somin’s view of political ignorance as “fox-like,” in the sense used by Isaiah Berlin: A fox knows a little about a lot of different things. Like Berlin’s fox, Somin’s voters will be apt to move from one environment to another. But she wonders whether this is a proper description of American voters. She contrasts Somin’s thesis with the work of David Schleicher, who suggests that most voters rely on party affiliation as an information shortcut. Gerken argues that the debate between Somin and Schleicher raises fundamental questions about the future of our democracy.

  • Sean Trende argues that while political elites may find voters startlingly ignorant, the system doesn’t really seem to be broken. It has often functioned quite well despite voters’ ignorance. He suggests that this is so for two reasons: First, much of what passes for expert knowledge is really nothing of the kind, so adding it to voters’ heads does not therefore constitute an improvement. Second, public opinion on many normative matters is ultimately more or less decent, and from it, relatively good policies flow.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that rational ignorance theory is false. Voters vote because they mistakenly believe that their votes are likely to matter. They remain ignorant not because they think their votes are irrelevant, but because they mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place. In such a world, it would take very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in; in reality, political decisions are complex and difficult. Friedman argues that both genuinely ignorant voters and blinkered ideologues fit this model, and that it conforms better to the available data on voter motivations than does the theory of rational ignorance.