VOTER IGNORANCE IS NOT NECESSARILY A PROBLEM
ABSTRACT: Ilya Somin's case for smaller government and "foot voting" rests on at least two questionable assumptions. The first is that voter ignorance is based on rational calculation. This assumption requires arbitrary stipulations about the degree of voter altruism and the low values voters assign to the victory of their candidates. The second is that voter ignorance betokens bad public policy. But there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. How can this be the case? One explanation is that individually ignorant voters are small pieces of a large system that divides intellectual labor through discussions among elites, opinion leaders, and ordinary citizens. This system may entitle voters to trust in the opinions of others, sparing them the need to be well informed.
LOOKING BUT NOT SEEING: THE (IR)RELEVANCE OF INCENTIVES TO POLITICAL IGNORANCE
ABSTRACT: Ilya Somin's Democracy and Political Ignorance represents a missed opportunity to fully examine the implications of public ignorance in modern democracies. Somin persuasively argues that existing levels of public ignorance undermine the main normative accounts of democratic legitimacy, and he demonstrates that neither cognitive shortcuts nor heuristics can provide a quick fix for democracy. However, Somin seeks to find a simple explanation for public ignorance in the conscious, rational choices of voters. He thus commits to the position that voters choose to be ignorant and irrational—and the simplistic implication that given the right incentives they would choose otherwise. This position is empirically problematic, methodologically flawed, and theoretically redundant. On the more plausible view that ignorance is the inadvertent result of social complexity, it is clear that simply focusing on incentives tells us little about what voters would or would not know under different institutional circumstances.
RATIONAL CHOICE AND POLITICAL IRRATIONALITY IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
ABSTRACT: Ilya Somin's Democracy and Political Ignorance uses a by-now familiar rational-choice lens with which to explain and analyze Americans' wide- spread political ignorance. Unlike some scholars who tout rational choice on purely predictive or heuristic grounds, Somin claims that it also offers a more accurate description of reality, in this case better explaining the findings of empirical public-opinion research. In this essay, I compare Somin's central concept of rational ignorance and the related concept of "rational irrationality" with the earlier explanatory approach taken by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his classic study, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. While Schumpeter developed his description of the mass democratic citizenry over 70 years ago—prior to any of the significant empirical studies of American public opinion—its broad approach remains at least as persuasive as Somin's.
DEMOCRACY DESPITE IGNORANCE: QUESTIONING THE RATIONALIST VENERATION OF KNOWLEDGE
Simon T. Kaye
ABSTRACT: Ilya Somin, like several other political epistemologists, effectively exposes the extent of public ignorance and the ways in which such ignorance may damage democratic outcomes. This underpins his case for a more streamlined state, leaving more to individual "foot voting"—where citizens are better incentivized to choose knowledgeably and rationally. One cannot dispute the fact of deep public ignorance. However, one can question the widespread assumption that ignorance is necessarily ethically significant, always productive of undesirable outcomes, or otherwise implicitly dangerous for democracy. The sheer lack of individual efficacy in mass democracies not only incentivizes ignorance, but also creates conditions wherein such ignorance is individually harmless and unlikely in the aggregate to greatly con- tribute to one or another outcome. Beyond this, there may be no way to attain meaningful knowledge in the areas where democratic decision making is most fraught. Indeed, ignorance may at times lead to better outcomes than would knowledge. The seemingly unassailable status of democracy itself, and the valuable institutional stability that this status ensures, seem to be founded upon a bedrock of public ignorance as to the real nature of democracy.
ABSTRACT: In Democracy and Political Ignorance, Ilya Somin argues that the supposed informational advantages of "foot voting"—exercising exit options and making market-based choices—over voting at the ballot box tell in favor of decentralizing and limiting government. But the evidence Somin offers for the superiority of "foot voting," based on an analysis of the politics of the Jim Crow-era South, is unpersuasive and internally inconsistent. Second, even if Somin is correct that foot voters have greater incentives to acquire information than ballot-box voters do, this would not in itself be a good reason to favor foot voting. For Somin shows little interest in considering why we might value democratic decision making. Thus, Somin's argument is unlikely to persuade anyone not already committed to the superiority of market-based solutions to social and political problems.
DOES RATIONAL IGNORANCE IMPLY SMALLER GOVERNMENT, OR SMARTER DEMOCRATIC INNOVATION?
ABSTRACT: Ilya Somin argues that in light of the public's rational political ignorance we should make government smaller. But his account of the phenomenon of rational ignorance does not justify his policy prescription of smaller government; on the contrary, it implies that we should revamp the current framework of democratic institutions. This is because, since Somin fails to set out a principled basis on which to value democracy even in the face of rational ignorance, he cannot explain why we should want any democratic government, however small it may be. If rational ignorance is as grave a challenge to democracy as he takes it to be, it would seem to demand either radical institutional innovation or, alternatively, an abandonment of certain democratic principles. By not explaining why we should value citizens' involvement in politics at all, and why we might therefore draw different policy conclusions than he does himself, Somin's book ultimately fails to do full justice to the important questions that it raises.
POLITICAL KNOWLEDGE AND RIGHT-SIZING GOVERNMENT
ABSTRACT: Ilya Somin's Democracy and Political Ignorance proposes an original, epistemic argument for decentralizing and downsizing democratic government. Somin's argument does not produce a plausible real-world program for government reform, nor does he exhaust the universe of what voting is for, or possible democratic solutions to the epistemic problem of rational ignorance and cognitive limitation. But his proposal is of considerable interest as an advance in political theory. The historical example of the classical Greek world of decentralized authority and small city-states suggests that democracy does benefit, in epistemic ways, from decentralization, reduced scale, and simplification of procedural rules. The tradeoff is, however, increased responsibility on the part of individual citizens to undertake civic services of various kinds.
THAT SAME OLD SONG: SOMIN ON POLITICAL IGNORANCE
Benjamin I. Page
ABSTRACT: Ilya Somin's Democracy and Political Ignorance suffers from the fallacy of composition: It uses individual-level evidence about political behavior to draw inferences about the preferences and actions of the public as a whole. But collective public opinion is more stable, consistent, coherent, and responsive to the best available information, and more reflective of citizens' underlying values and interests, than are the opinions of most individual citizens. Because Somin tends to blame the general public for deficiencies in our political processes, he neglects the distorting roles of such elite-level factors as lies and misleading rhetoric from public officials, collusion between the major parties, and money run amok in our elections. Instead, he seeks solutions in such counterproductive measures as restricting the franchise, delegating decisions to unelected "experts," and decentralizing and downsizing government.
REPLY TO THE SYMPOSIUM
ABSTRACT: The participants in this symposium raise many insightful criticisms and reservations about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter. But none substantially undermine its main thesis: that rational political ignorance and rational irrationality are major problems for democracy that are best addressed by limiting and decentralizing government power. Part I of this reply addresses criticisms of my analysis of the problem of political ignorance and its causes. Part II assesses challenges to my proposed solution.