Bryan Caplan’s Voter Achievement Test

Widespread political ignorance has persisted despite major increases in education and IQ, and in the availability of information through the media. But economist Bryan Caplan – a leading academic expert on political knowledge suggests a possible solution – the Voter Achievement Test:

After years of reflecting on voter cognition,… I’ve come up with a remedy that seems both practical and palatable. At risk of being pragmatic and constructive:

1. Get rid of traditional civics and government education; the data show it’s waste of money.

2. Create an annual Voter Achievement Test with questions about politics, economics, and policy.

3. Each year, any citizen who wants to take the test can do so at testing centers around the country for free.

4. Participants receive cash rewards based on their score. E.g.: $1000 for 90%+, $500 for 80-89%, $100 for 70-79%, $0 for less.

The Voter Achievement Test doesn’t just give citizens a clear incentive to actually master the material by whatever means they find effective – elective classes, free reading, Internet, discussion, etc. It also gives them a clear incentive to maintain their mastery of the material, because they can retake the test for cash prizes every single year.

I actually discussed the idea of paying voters to learn political information in Chapter 7 of Democracy and Political Ignorance. But I don’t develop it in as much detail as Caplan. His plan has some virtues beyond the ones he mentions.

First, unlike with the literacy tests of old, it doesn’t actually deprive anyone of the vote. No one is even required to take the test, much less forfeit the franchise if they don’t do so. Second, liberal egalitarians should like the fact that this plan would probably increase knowledge among the poor more than the affluent. The prospect of winning $500 or $1000 would be a more significant enticement to the former than the latter. Thus, Bryan’s plan could help close the large political knowledge gap between high and low-income voters.

As Bryan recognizes, the major objection to his idea is the likelihood of partisan bias. Incumbent office-holders will do all they can to bias the test in favor of their party’s positions. I think Bryan dismisses this danger too easily by noting that traditional civics education is often biased as well. There is plenty of political bias in traditional public education. But precisely because under Bryan’s people would have much stronger incentives to actually learn and remember the information in question, the impact of the bias will be enormously magnified. This danger is the reason why I stopped short of actually endorsing the idea of paying voters to learn political information in my book.

Obviously, the plan would also face significant political obstacles. Many people would probably oppose it simply because it seems strange and radical. In addition, increases in political knowledge do tend to change voters’ views on many political issues. Politicians and interest groups who would lose popular support as a result would have strong incentives to oppose the plan. Obviously, some groups could expect to gain, and that would give them reasons to support the idea.

Despite these and other potential problems, the plan is still worthy of serious consideration. It’s possible that some institutional arrangement could be found that reduces the risk of bias, and the political opposition might perhaps be overcome over time.