Suppose someone asked you to be CEO of Apple (last year’s revenue: $156.5 billion).

After the initial rush - fame! fortune! magazine covers and speeches and travel! - you’d probably feel pretty overwhelmed. Running Apple wouldn’t be easy, and the chances are very good that you just wouldn’t know enough. We know we certainly wouldn’t. If we wanted Apple to succeed, we might think it best to decline the offer.

Now suppose someone asked you to run Medicare (2011 outlays: $565.3 billion).

The scope of the problem is similarly vast. And we similarly wouldn’t know where to begin.

Nor would most others. Indeed, even finding the right person to run Medicare would be a bit of a challenge. Now – can we identify the right person to run the entire federal government (2011 outlays: $3.6 trillion)?

That’s exactly what democracy asks us to do. It’s an awesome responsibility. It’s also one that most voters don’t seem to give much attention. Surveys continuously demonstrate an appalling ignorance on the part of the electorate. Voters commonly can’t identify their representatives, or the branches of government, or their powers, or the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. They can’t find on a map the foreign countries we invade. They imagine government programs that don’t exist and deny the existence of well-publicized and genuine ones. And so on.

Nor is this ignorance at all surprising. The returns on knowledge are, to each individual voter, quite low. Political scientists term the result rational ignorance: it simply doesn’t make sense for most voters to spend their time on these matters.

In this month’s Cato Unbound, George Mason law professor Ilya Somin considers the implications of this troubling phenomenon. He does not reject democracy, as some have done. On the contrary, he embraces it - combined with a redoubled insistence on limited government. His lead essay draws on his new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

 To discuss with him, we have invited Heather Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School; Jeffrey Friedman, the editor of Critical Review; and Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.

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.

Related at Cato

Cato @ Liberty: “Sequestration and Voter Ignorance,” by Ted DeHaven. March 2013.

Cato Unbound: “Majority Fools? Irrationality and the Limits of Democracy,” with Bryan Caplan, David Estlund, Loren Lomasky, and Jeffrey Friedman. November 2006.

Policy Analysis: “When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy” by Ilya Somin. September 2004.

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