In a recent post, co-blogger Orin Kerr asks two thoughtful questions about the arguments advanced in my new book Democracy and Political Ignorance: whether the existence of political parties reduces the dangers posed by ignorance, and whether my argument for smaller government is undermined if it turns out that the public prefers big government.
I. Political Parties.
This is one I address at some length in Chapter 4 of the book. Political parties can, to some extent, be a useful information shortcut for voters. If you know that Candidate X is a Democrat or a Republican, that gives you some sense of his or her policy positions even if you know nothing else about that individual. In that respect, party labels make life easier for relatively ignorant voters. However, this falls far short of overcoming the problem of political ignorance. To use that shortcut effectively, you actually need to know what policies the parties are supporting. Large percentages of the electorate often don’t know that. Moreover, they often fail to pick up on even major changes in party platforms and ideology. In addition, most of the time people do not favor particular policies for their own sake. They support them because they think they will achieve some desirable goal, such as increasing economic growth or protecting national security. Many of the most important issues in American politics are about disagreements over means to widely shared ends, not disputes over fundamental values.
Furthermore, in one important respect parties often exacerbate the dangers of political ignorance rather than alleviate them. When many voters have a sense of party identification, they tend to evaluate new information in a highly biased way that overvalues anything that makes their favorite party look good, and ignores or undervalues anything that makes it look bad. For example, when there is a Democrat in the White House, Republicans tend to overestimate the unemployement and inflation rates, while Democrats do the opposite. Party loyalists who act like “political fans” an example of the problem of rational irrationality. Swing voters don’t suffer from this kind of bias to anything like the same degree. But they are also the group most ignorant about politics, including the platforms and records of the parties.
II. What if the Public Prefers Big Government?
I certainly don’t deny that most of the public wants a substantially larger role for government than I do. On the other hand, polls do show that the majority of the public prefers it to be smaller than it is now. Much more importantly, increasing political knowledge also increases support for reducing the role of government in both the economic and social sphere (this result holds after controlling for relevant demographic variables, such as survey respondents’ race, gender, income level, partisan identification, and so on). This strongly suggests that public support for big government is at least in significant part a result of ignorance. People who know little about government and public policy intuitively assume that government can solve a wider range of problems than it can in reality (or, perhaps, that it could do so if only the right people were in power). Making government smaller would increase the likelihood that it would perform its remaining functions effectively, as monitoring would be easier. In addition, more issues would then be addressed by “voting with your feet,” a decision-making process that gives participants much better incentives to be well-informed than ballot box voting.
It is important to recognize that, at least in the United States, very few people support an expansive vision of government for its own sake. They usually do so because they believe government action is the best way to achieve various important goals, such as promoting economic growth, upholding important moral values, or helping the poor. But our judgment on these kinds of questions is obviously affected by the amount of knowledge we have, and by how well we process that information. Unfortunately, the structure of democratic politics gives voters strong incentives to both be ignorant and do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know.
This is not to say that a well-informed public would support exactly the same role for government as, say, I do. Far from it, most likely. Some political issues are sufficiently difficult that even well-informed and unbiased people would not reach a consensus on them (though they would likely reject a range of extremely dubious policies whose appeal relies primarily on ignorance). Others really do depend in large part on divergences in fundamental values, and not just knowledge of empirical facts of the kind I focus on in my book (abortion is a good example). Furthermore, I don’t doubt there are some people who really do value big government for its own sake. In some cases, as I discuss in Chapter 2 of the book, bad policy is the result of bad values rather than ignorance. For example, a racist electorate might potentially choose to oppress some minority group even if they were well-informed about the consequences. For that reason, among others, I would not advocate giving unconstrained scope to democratic government even in a society with an electorate vastly better informed than it is today. But the downside of democracy in that scenario would probably be much less than it is at present. If the electorate were well-informed, I would advocate fewer constraints on its power (e.g. – the appropriate role for judicial review would likely be smaller).
Widespread political ignorance is not the only problem that bedevils modern democracy, and it is not the only factor that should be considered in deciding the appropriate size and scope of government. But it is a very significant danger that provides a strong rationale for limiting and decentralizing government more than we would otherwise. My book does not provide anything like a complete answer to the age-old question of what kind of government we should have. But it does address the implications of one important piece of the puzzle that too often gets overlooked in debates over law and public policy.