I’ve enjoyed Ilya’s posts on his new book, which I look forward to reading, and I hoped he wouldn’t mind two questions about his argument. My first question is about political parties, and my second question is how he deals with majority preference for bigger government.
1) My first question considers whether political parties overcome the significance of political ignorance. As Ilya points out, a lot of people are ignorant about how the government works. But in a two party system, it’s not clear that this knowledge is necessary or even particularly useful. For any particular voter, much of the decision about which candidate to vote for boils down to which party to vote for. Each party has a set of views that the party and its candidates tend to coalesce around, and voters can vote for the candidate of the party that shares his or her values. For example, in the area of economics and regulation, there are two broad perspectives. Some people think that markets usually work pretty well, or at least better than regulation; other people think that regulation usually works pretty well, or at least better than markets. For a voter who cares about economics and regulation, a preference on the markets vs regulation question will often direct that voter to a party that will help further that preference. So my first question for Ilya is whether the existence of political parties (which I think we can take as fixed for purposes of the argument) changes the extent to which political ignorance matters.
2) My second question is what to do if people decide that they really like big government. In Ilya’s argument, voters decide who to vote for by monitoring the government to see if they approve of its impact. He argues that government should be smaller because that allows people to monitor what government does more effectively: Smaller government means a government with fewer programs and therefore government that is more easily studied and analyzed by voters. My question is, how does this work if the size of government is the very thing the people are voting on? If the people are voting on whether the government should be bigger or smaller, it would be counterintuitive to say that they should answer that by making government smaller in order to be better at evaluating whether they want the government to be bigger or smaller. If people like bigger government, telling them that they should adopt smaller government to be better at monitoring government is akin to telling them to do what they don’t want to do in order to be better at figuring out what they want. The difficulty is that some people may want bigger government. If that’s what they want, I’m not sure how arguments about political ignorance will persuade them to change their minds. Granted, perhaps people may think they want bigger government but they’re wrong. That is, perhaps they would like smaller government if they tried it. I assume both Ilya and I agree with that, as it’s natural to assume that people would like policies we favor. (Indeed, we favor policies because we think they would work and therefore people would like them.) But that’s argument for democratic experimentation, it seems, not an argument about political ignorance.