The Difference that Political Ignorance Makes: Rejoinder to Sean Trende

In his thoughtful most recent post, Sean Trende suggests that voters might sometimes offset their lack of basic political information with other knowledge and that – on some issues – even extensive knowledge may be of little help, because experts disagree on the subject. Sean also returns to the broad questions raised in his initial response essay concerning the implications of American history for the broader debate over political ignorance.

Sean makes interesting points. But, overall, basic knowledge is still of great importance in making political decisions. And while some issues really are so difficult that mistakes are likely even with extensive knowledge, in most cases lack of basic knowledge significantly increases the risk of error. Finally, the overall record of American history suggests that voter ignorance often does lead to bad public policy, and that much of America’s relative success is the result of foot voting rather than ballot box voting. Nonetheless it is important to emphasize that we are only beginning to understand the impact of political ignorance on government policy throughout much of the nation’s history.

Voter Ignorance of Basic Facts Matters 

Sean argues that voters’ ignorance of very basic facts during the 2010 election ultimately did not matter much. His defense is clever, interesting, but ultimately unpersuasive.

For example, he contends that it did not matter that two thirds were unaware that the economy was growing rather than shrinking, because they did know that it was in bad condition overall.  But in evaluating the performance of incumbents, it is important to consider not just the absolute state of affairs, but the trend. After all, Obama and the Democrats had inherited a recession and financial crisis from George W. Bush in 2008. The key question for voters in 2010 (most of whom said the economy was the biggest issue in the election) was whether Democratic policies were making the situation better or worse, and whether the GOP alternative was likely to be superior. If we want to assess the performance of a surgeon, it’s not enough to know that the patient is still bedridden after his operation.  We need to know whether the patient is getting better. Obviously, knowledge of directional trends may not have been sufficient to analyze the quality of Democratic economic policies. Perhaps the economy would have grown faster under GOP policies. But it is at the very least useful and relevant information. It’s difficult to believe that voters unaware of even such a basic fact had well-informed opinions on the economic policy debate.

The same can be said of Sean’s claim that it didn’t matter that a plurality of voters wrongly believed that the TARP bailout was enacted under Obama rather than Bush, because Obama (as a senator) had voted for TARP and expressed support for it. In apportioning the blame for TARP (which most voters in 2010 opposed), it would have been useful to know that the Democrats were not solely responsible for it. The Republicans deserved a hefty share of the blame as well. The same goes for apportionment of credit, if you believe that TARP was a success.

I don’t claim that it was impossible for any voter to be well-informed about economic policy in 2010 without knowing these two facts. One can imagine voters who happened to be unaware of them, but who actually knew a great deal of other information about economic policy at the time. In practice, however, people ignorant of such extremely basic information are likely also to be ignorant about economic policy more generally.

What if Experts Disagree or Don’t Have any Useful Knowledge Either?

Sean advances a more far-reaching defense of voter competence by suggesting that in many situations even knowledgeable experts either disagree about important political issues or have no real idea of how to address them. In such cases, perhaps it does not matter much if voters are ignorant, because more knowledge would not help them solve the problem anyway.

I don’t deny that such difficult issues exist. On average, however, greater knowledge makes it easier to solve a wide range of policy problems, even if it cannot completely solve all of them. As I noted in my earlier reply to Sean, historically more knowledgeable voters have had more enlightened views on a wide range of political issues.

Some of the cases that Sean cites as examples of intractable expert ignorance or disagreement actually illustrate the benefits of political knowledge. For example, Sean cites experts’ ignorance of how to address the Great Depression in the 1930s. Although 1930s economists may have been ignorant of how to end the Depression (an issue on which economists disagree even today), most of them did realize that adopting the massive Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 and a wide range of programs cartelizing large sectors of the economy was likely to make things worse. Then as now, economists tended to support free trade and oppose cartels. Had the median voter at the time understood as much as the median economist, the Great Depression probably would not have been averted or even shortened.  But at least we might have avoided a number of dubious policies that made the situation even worse.

But what about those cases where it is really true that experts and knowledgeable voters don’t have any more useful knowledge than the average voter does? In situations where no one has any useful knowledge, we want to maximize the incentive to obtain new information and evaluate it wisely. For reasons I explained in my lead essay and my book, ballot box voters have little incentive to do either. By contrast, foot voters have much better incentives to do both. Where new knowledge is essential, they are more likely to seek it out and use it wisely than ballot box voters are.

In dealing with problems that are genuinely intractable given the current state of our knowledge, decentralizing power to lower levels of government and to the private sector is often even more important than in cases where all we need to do is effectively apply existing knowledge. Such decentralization enables different public and private actors to experiment with different solutions. And the possibility of foot voting gives citizens strong incentives to learn about the results and evaluate them objectively.

I do not claim that all intractable problems can be solved by foot voting mechanisms. Far from it. But in cases where the solution depends primarily on incentives to seek out and evaluate new information, foot voting mechanisms have major advantages over ballot box voting.

Sean understandably complains that I don’t specify exactly how much decentralization and privatization we should have. I deliberately chose not do so, because the problem of political ignorance is not the only issue we have to consider in analyzing those questions. However, I do believe that the evidence shows that the informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting are very large. Therefore they counsel in favor of substantially more decentralization and privatization than we would favor otherwise. Readers who agree with my argument need not become as libertarian as I am, or even close to it. But they should become significantly more libertarian than they themselves would be in a world where political ignorance is not a serious problem.

They should become significantly less unwilling to either take issues out of the political sphere entirely or leave them to be handled by state or local governments. The latter is especially true in a nation as large as the United States, where many states are bigger than many relatively well-governed European nations, such as Switzerland, Denmark, and Luxembourg.

Political Ignorance and American History

A final theme Sean emphasizes is that the quality of voter decisions seems to be no worse today than in the nineteenth century (when government was smaller), and that the United States has been relatively successful throughout its history, notwithstanding widespread political ignorance.

There is some truth to both claims. But I take much less comfort in them than Sean. Like modern voters, 19th-century voters made plenty of ignorance-induced errors. It is difficult to say whether they made more such mistakes overall than modern voters, or fewer – especially since we don’t have modern-style polling data for periods prior to the 1930s. But the average 19th-century voter had far less education or access to information than  modern voters do.[1] If they nonetheless performed roughly as well as modern voters do, that suggests there is a significant advantage to having a more limited and decentralized government. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that political ignorance has caused great harm throughout much of our history. It contributed to many of the worst failures of American public policy. 

And the greater the scope of government power, the greater the likelihood that political ignorance will help cause other catastrophes in the future.

That said, we have only begun to analyze the impact of public ignorance on government policy in American history. There is even less research that systematically compares its impact across multiple nations.  Hopefully, future scholars will increase our knowledge of the history of ignorance.


[1] Contrary to Sean’s insistence that the electorate was more “elite” in that era, it was not actually especially elite once virtually all white males got the vote, which happened early in the nineteenth century in most states.

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.