The Superiority of Democracy Over Dictatorship is No Reason to Ignore the Problem of Political Ignorance

In this recent American Scene post, Pascal-Emanuel Gobry argues that I and other libertarians who focus on the problem of voter ignorance as a major flaw of modern democracy are wrong to do so, because democracy is still superior to other forms of government:

Libertarians who live in America look around them and see cops shooting unarmed pedestrians, people getting arrested for growing pot or selling (delicious) raw milk, taxes and government spending and debt going ever higher. In short, disaster. And all of these things are bad and it is very good that we have libertarians railing against them.

But where it leads them astray is that they are often taken to make the following sorta-syllogism: “America has terrible policies. Most of the people around me are either for them or just not up in arms about them as I am. The combination of most people being dumb and democracy produces terrible policies….”

The only problem with that is that if you take a little bit of a broader perspective (both geographically and historically) you realize that democracies are actually really awesome and that they kick the sh** out of all other forms of government. I mean, it’s not even close! On every front: protecting civil liberties, developing markets, etc.

Almost all the countries that have the best policies are democracies. It’s really quite lopsided.

This would be a powerful critique of libertarianism if libertarians were using the problem of political ignorance to argue for the replacement of democracy by dictatorship (the prevalent form of government in most of the nondemocratic nations in the world). But, in reality we are advocating for a combination of democracy with greater decentralization and much tighter limits on government power. Even if present-day democracy is superior to dictatorship, democracy with greater decentralization and tighter limits on government power could be superior to either. In 1750, a defender of monarchy could have echoed Gobry and pointed out that “[a]lmost all the countries that have the best policies are monarchies.” Monarchy was “kicking the sh**” out of all other then-extant forms of government, such as oligarchy, tribal government, and theocracy. But that in no way proved that critics of monarchy were wrong to seek tighter limits on the power of kings.

Far from ignoring the “broader prospective,” in my book on political ignorance, I emphasize some knowledge-related reasons why democracy tends to be better than dictatorship. The most important is that some disasters created by political incumbents are so large and obvious that even ignorant voters can recognize them and punish incumbents at the polls. That is a key reason why democracies rarely if ever allow the development of mass famines in their territory, while dictators often do so. Unfortunately, most public policy issues are more opaque than this and require greater knowledge for voters to assess properly. That does not prevent democracy from being better than dictatorship. But judging it solely by that metric is setting far too low a bar. It is somewhat like concluding that a heartless misanthrope is a paragon of virtue because he’s vastly better than a serial killer.

Gobry also argues that if libertarians condemn voter ignorance, they must reject the market as well:

Libertarians who bash democracy are really sawing off the branch that they’re sitting on because to criticize democracy for those reasons is really to undermine markets. The idea that voters have to be experts to make good choices is like the idea that consumers have to be experts to make good buying decisions. Consumers are stupid, but markets nonetheless work for a bunch of complicated reasons, but at bottom because markets are a decentralized trial-and-error process and that in a highly complex world decentralized trial-and-error produces more robust outcomes.

This misses the key point of the libertarian critique of voter ignorance. The problem is not that voters “have to be experts,” but that they often lack even very basic knowledge of the issues and candidates they are voting on. They also do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know. Moreover, they have little incentive to improve their performance or to learn from past mistakes, because a voter who increases his knowledge or learns to use it more wisely has only an infinitesmal chance of influencing electoral outcomes. That is a key reason why voters often cling to gross errors for years and decades on end, despite the accumulation of contrary evidence. Gobry cites “legalized trade” and “gay marriage” as triumphs of democracy. But public opinion remains highly protectionist despite centuries of evidence of the superiority of free trade endorsed by economists across the political spectrum. And it took decades for majority opinion to recognize what should have been the fairly obvious point that gays and lesbians pose no threat to heterosexuals, and there was no good reason to persecute them. In each of these cases, people with higher levels of political knowledge on average figured out the truth a lot earlier than the median voter. Ignorance, not just bad “values,” was a major cause of the problem.

Consumers are far from perfectly informed or perfectly objective in their evaluation of information. But, in general, they do a much better job than voters do. The average person puts a lot more time and effort into learning and objectively evaluating information when he or she buys a car or a TV, then when they decide who to support for president or governor. There is a big difference between the way we approach “foot voting” decisions where there is a real payoff to seeking out the truth, and ballot box decisions where the likely payoff is infinitesmally small.

UPDATE: Gobry’s misunderstanding of key elements of the libertarian case against political ignorance may stem in part from his conflation of ignorance and stupidity. If the major problem with voters was stupidity (defined as inadequate intelligence), we might indeed expect them to be equally ineffective in their role as consumers. But in reality, political ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. The problem is not that voters or consumers are stupid (although some are), but that even smart people have little incentive to acquire and objectively evaluate political knowledge.

UPDATE #2: In the previous update, I accidentally linked to the wrong URL on the distinction between political ignorance and stupidity. The problem has now been fixed. Here is the correct link.