This Thursday, I will be giving a talk on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter at the University of Dayton. The event is sponsored by the Dayton Econonomics Department, and will run from 1:30 until about 2:45, and will be held in Miriam 121. [...]
Next week, I will be giving four talks about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter
in the United Kingdom. Here is the list:
November 25, 7-8:30 PM: Oxford Hayek Society, Oxford University, Christ Church College, Lecture Room TBC, Oxford (more details and RSVP link here).
November 26, 6:30 PM-8 PM: Institute of Economic Affairs/Adam Smith Institute, Adam Smith Institute, 23 Great Smith Street, London SW1 (more details and RSVP here).
November 27, 4-5:30 PM: University of Winchester Law Department, The Stripe, King Alfred Campus, Sparkford Rd., Winchester Hampshire SO22 4NR (details and RSVP information here).
November 28, 4:30-6 PM: King’s College, London, Virginia Woolf Building VWB 6.32 (this event is primarily for King’s College faculty and students). [...]
Next Friday, November 15, from 11 to 12 AM, I will be signing copies of my recently published books Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter and A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case, at the Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention, in the main promenade of the hotel hosting the event. Both books will be available for sale at a discounted price.
A Conspiracy Against Obamacare is coauthored with five of my VC co-bloggers (Jonathan Adler, Randy Barnett, David Bernstein, Orin Kerr, and David Kopel), and some of them are likely to be around as well. If you are going to be at the convention and are interested in getting your book signed, or just want to come by to talk about the books, I hope you will drop by. [...]
For readers who may be interested, the video of my recent Cato Institute Book Forum on my recently published Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. is linked below.
The event includes commentary by George Washington University political scientist John Sides (coauthor of an important new book on the 2012 presidential election), and was moderated by Cato’s John Samples. Note also several appearances by Willow the golden retriever in my power point presentation.
Bruce Ramsey of the Liberty website isn’t happy with either participant in my recent debate with Jeffrey Friedman over the the rationality of political ignorance at Cato Unbound. He claims that we misrepresent each other’s positions, and that in any case the question we are debating doesn’t matter much.
Here is his critique of my argument:
For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error…” “Inadvertent” is a loaded term. It implies a voter who is trying reasonably hard but just messing up, again and again. That’s not really Friedman’s position.
If voter ignorance were “inadvertent,” Somin writes,“We could probably [reduce it] simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information.”
Actually, the kind of political information Somin would want voters to have is complicated and detailed, whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple: Quit smoking. Use a condom. The comparison is not apt.
Even if “inadvertent” is a loaded term, I was not the one who first used it to describe Friedman’s position. He did so himself in a series of articles going back several years (I cited some of them in my book on political ignorance). In the Cato Unbound debate, he later repudiated it in favor of “radical ignorance” (a term borrowed from Austrian economics). Regardless, throughout the debate and in his earlier work, Friedman has consistently argued that voters are ignorant because they believe they already know enough [...]
The Cato Unbound symposium on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter is wrapping up up today. I am grateful to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, and Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics for their thoughtful critiques of the book, and to Jason Kuznicki of Cato Unbound for his excellent work organizing and hosting this event. Here is a link to my final post in the exchange, which summarizes the discussion as a whole, and responds to final posts by Jeffrey Friedman and Sean Trende. [...]
Next week, I will be giving two talks on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.
The first will be at Duke Law School, Rm. 3037, on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 12:15-1:30 (with commentary by Duke Professor Jonathan Anomaly).
The second is a book forum at the Cato Institute, on Wednesday, Nov. 6, noon to about 1:30 (with commentary by George Washington University political scientist John Sides, and John Samples of the Cato Institute). Discounted copies of the book will be available for purchase at this event, for those who might be interested. Online registration is available here. [...]
If you write about democratic theory, as I do, you will periodically get complaints that it is inaccurate to refer to the United States as a “democracy” because it is actually a “republic.” For example, several Facebook commenters and others have suggested that I should have titled my book Democracy and Political Ignorance (which focuses primarily on political ignorance in the United States) “The Republic and Political Ignorance” or something to that effect.
In the 18th century, “democracy” and “republic” were relatively distinct terms, with the former referring mainly to what we would today call “direct democracy,” of the sort practiced by the ancient Athenians. But today, the word “democracy” is routinely used to describe any government where all or most political leaders are chosen by popular election. Moreover, governments are regularly described as “democratic” even if they have a variety of constraints on the powers of elected officials, such as federalism, separation of powers, judicial review, and so on. By this definition, the United States surely qualifies as a democracy, even if it can also be called a “republic.” The two terms have become largely interchangeable, with the exception of the fact that a democracy that has a figurehead constitutional monarch as head of state will usually not be called a republic.
This is not a recent innovation. The terms were often used interchangeably, including in reference to the United States, by the mid-19th century. For example, Abraham Lincoln described the United States as “a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people” in this 1861 message to Congress.
People who insist on a sharp distinction between “republic” and “democracy” may simply dislike modern usage and prefer a return to that of two hundred years ago. But if so, they should not claim [...]
At Cato Unbound, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, and I have continued our debate over the impact of political ignorance. Sean contends that it is a less serious problem than I sugggest in my book and my lead essay at Cato Unbound. Here are Sean’s latest post on the issue, and my rejoinder.
One point from the exchange worth mentioning is that, although I believe that there is a good deal of evidence indicating that political ignorance has caused great harm at various points in American history, scholars have only begun to systematically study its effects on past policy decisions. The well-known cases that we already know about (e.g. – the impact of ignorance in promoting racist and homophobic policies) could well turn out to be just the tip of a much larger iceberg. At the very least, there is room for a lot more research on the subject by historians, political scientists, legal scholars, and others. [...]
Sullivan’s most recent post actually outlines many areas of agreement between us. He now recognizes that foot voting can in fact benefit the poor, and that the US should strive to promote interjurisdictional mobility and foot voting opportunities. He also correctly points out that foot voting is sometimes inhibited by local land use regulations, which artificially increase the cost of housing, thereby making it difficult or impossible for the poor or the lower middle class to move to the area. I have criticized such regulations myself. But it’s also important to recognize that, even if such laws continue to exist in many jurisdictions, the poor and lower middle class can still engage in effective foot voting so long as there are many others that don’t have them.
In discussing the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north in the early 20th century (which I noted as an important historical example of successful foot voting by the poor), Sullivan points out that it was in large part driven by job opportunities. This is certainly true. But job opportunities were better for blacks in the north than the south in large part because the former had different and better government policies – including far less in the way of policies designed to segregate and otherwise oppress blacks. Black migrants of the era also cited Jim Crow as an independent reason for the leaving the South, even aside from its effect on job opportunities. I discuss these issues at greater length in this article and in Chapter 5 of my book. Sullivan similarly claims that the Great Migration was prompted by the availability [...]
In a recent post, co-blogger David Bernstein asks whether political ignorance (voters’ lack of knowledge) matters, or only political irrationality (voters’ biased evaluation of the information they do know). David suggests that ignorance might not matter much if ignorant voters, like many consumers, make good use of information shortcuts, such as relying on the judgment of those more knowledgeable than themselves.
The question of whether ignorance matters independently of irrationality is one that I have long debated with Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. I respond to Caplan in greater detail in my own book on political ignorance (pp. 71-73). The short answer is that both matter because, even if voters are doing a good job of analyzing the information they have, it’s easy to make mistakes that could be avoided with greater knowledge. This is particularly true when voters lack very basic information about what is going on in politics, such as being ignorant of the very existence of major polices, or failing to understand which issues political leaders can affect and which ones they can’t. Such basic errors are extremely common.
Moreover, as I discuss in greater detail in my book, ignorance of basics makes it difficult to find effective information shortcuts, including finding reliable “super-consumers” of political information of the kind that David discusses in his post. Voters seeking to defer to the judgment of such “opinion leaders” (as they are known in the political science literature) should find ones who have a good understanding of policy and a strong track record of predicting its effects correctly. In reality, however, the most popular opinion leaders tend to be people like Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart, who are notable primarily for entertainment value and eloquence rather than accuracy. Some of this [...]
At Cato Unbound, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman and I are continuing to debate whether widespread political ignorance is primarily the result of rational behavior (my view) or mostly inadvertent (his view). Friedman argues that most voters simply don’t realize that there is lots of political information out there that might help them make better decisions at the ballot box. In my view (outlined in greater detail in my book), this theory cannot account for the depth and persistence of political ignorance even about many very basic facts. Here are Jeff’s most recent reply to me, and my most recent rejoinder.
To some extent, this debate may be of only academic interest. Whether political ignorance is rational, inadvertent, or some combination of the two, it is still a serious problem. But, for reasons I explained in my initial response to Jeff, the two explanations have different implications for efforts to remedy the problem:
Widespread political ignorance is a menace regardless of whether it is rational or inadvertent. But the difference between the two explanations for it matters. Inadvertent ignorance is a much easier problem to address than rational ignorance.
We could probably make a major dent in the former simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information. It could also lead them to be more objective in evaluating that information.
With rational ignorance and rational irrationality, by contrast, such simple solutions are far less likely to work.
For those who may be interested, I am doing three talks about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter next week that are open to the public:
October 29, 1-2:15 PM, Yale Law School, Rm. 128: Yale Law School Federalist Society (with commentary by Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken).
October 30, Noon-1:30, UCLA Law School, Rm. 1447: UCLA Law School Federalist Society (with commentary by UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman)
October 31, 12:30-1:30: Pepperdine Law School, Appellate Courtroom, Pepperdine Federalist Society (with faculty commentator TBA). [...]
At the America Magazine website, Robert David Sullivan responds to my book and Cato Unbound essay arguing that foot voting leads to better-informed decisions than ballot box voting by claiming that foot voting is only likely to benefit the wealthy:
I haven’t seen the book, but Somin’s essay reads like a whispered call for solidarity among highly educated (which usually means high-income) Americans. The message is: Why let those people make demands on government when they don’t even know what government does? Shifting power to smaller and smaller political jurisdictions also has implications for the well-being of Americans who don’t live in affluent communities. Look at public schools, which in most states are largely funded at the local level. Our public education system allows for “voting with your feet,” if you’re financially able, by moving to a county or town with high property values. But in this case, “decentralization” is a legitimate-sounding way of banishing from your mind poorer neighborhoods just a few miles away.
In reality, as I discuss at length in the book and elsewhere (e.g. here and here), foot voting historically has benefited the poor as much or more than the affluent. This is true for several reasons: the poor usually have more to gain from moving to jurisdictions with better job opportunities and policies (in part because they are so much worse off to begin with), and they are less likely to own immobile assets such as land that are difficult or impossible to take with you. Dramatic examples of effective foot voting by the relatively poor include the movement of millions of poor African-Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the twentieth century, and the movement of poor and lower middle class people to Texas and various southern and [...]
Cato Unbound has now posted my response to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman’s insightful criticism of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.
Here is an excerpt:
In his critique of my book, Jeffrey Friedman continues his longstanding efforts to show that most political ignorance is inadvertent rather than rational. In his view, voters are ignorant because they believe our society “is a mighty simple place” and “think they have information adequate to [the] task.” They simply don’t realize there is lots of other information out there that could help them make better decisions.
Friedman is a top-notch political theorist who has made valuable contributions to the literature on political knowledge… But on this point, I think he is barking up the wrong tree… Moreover, the mistake is of more than theoretical importance. Inadvertent ignorance has very different implications for political theory than rational ignorance….
Inadvertent error might explain why voters ignore highly abstruse (though potentially relevant) bodies of knowledge. But it cannot account for widespread ignorance of very basic facts about politics and public policy. For example…., two-thirds of the public in 2010 did not know that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year, even though most said that the economy was the single most important issue in the election. Similarly, most had little if any understanding of the Obama health care plan, another major issue. If you think the economy or the president’s health care plan is the biggest issue on the public agenda, it isn’t rocket science to figure out that these basic facts are highly relevant. Yet the majority of the public is often ignorant of such basics….
The inadvertence theory also cannot explain why political knowledge levels have remained largely stagnant for decades, despite massive increases in