Some VC commenters and other critics suggest that my concern about political ignorance is a form of paternalism. After all, shouldn't the voters have the right to decide for themselves how much information they need? If they vote on the basis of ignorance, what right have others to complain? And what reason is there to reorganize political institutions so as to reduce the impact of political ignorance? After all, isn't it just a matter of individuals exercising their right to choose?
I think John Stuart Mill gave the best answer to this argument in Chapter 10 of his classic work Considerations on Representative Government:
The spirit of vote by ballot- the interpretation likely to be put on it in the mind of an elector- is that the suffrage is given to him for himself; for his particular use and benefit, and not as a trust for the public. . . This false and pernicious impression may well be made on the generality, since it has been made on most of those who of late years have been conspicuous advocates of the ballot....
Mr. [John] Bright [a prominent 19th century British Liberal political leader] and his school of democrats think themselves greatly concerned in maintaining that the franchise is what they term a right, not a trust. Now this one idea, taking root in the general mind, does a moral mischief outweighing all the good that the ballot could do, at the highest possible estimate of it. In whatever way we define or understand the idea of a right, no person can have a right (except in the purely legal sense) to power over others: every such power, which he is allowed to possess, is morally, in the fullest force of the term, a trust. But the exercise of any political function, either as an elector or as a representative, is power over others.
Mill was a staunch opponent of paternalism; after all, he was also the author of On Liberty. But he was nonetheless extremely concerned about the potential harm caused by widespread political ignorance in a democracy. He recognized that voting is not just an individual right, but the exercise of "power over others." Government officials elected by the ignorant and acting on their policy preferences rule over all of us, not just the ignorant voters themselves. Elsewhere in Considerations, Mill argued that the impact of political ignorance should be offset by giving extra votes to the most highly educated portions of the population. We can disagree with his proposed solution to the problem of ignorance. But it's much harder to dispute his characterization of the problem itself.
There is also a second reason why it is not paternalistic to worry about political ignorance and advocate measures to reduce its impact. Widespread ignorance about politics is the result of a collective action problem. An individual voter has little incentive to learn about politics because there is only an infinitesmal chance that his well-informed vote will actually affect electoral outcomes. Political ignorance is therefore perfectly rational individual behavior, but leads to dangerous collective outcomes. It is a classic example of a public goods problem. Economists have long recognized that outside intervention may be needed to provide public goods. Such intervention is not necessarily paternalistic because it may actually be giving the people that which they want but lack the incentive to produce for themselves through uncoordinated individual action. In the same way, it isn't necessarily paternalistic to advocate the restriction of air pollution. Individual citizens and firms may produce more air pollution than any of them actually want because they know that there is little to be gained from uncoordinated individual restraint. If I as an individual avoid driving a gas-guzzling car, the impact on the overall level of air pollution will be utterly insignificant. So I have no incentive to take it into account in making my driving decisions even if I care greatly about reducing air pollution. Widespread public ignorance is, similarly, a type of pollution that infects the political system rather than our physical environment. Unfortunately, it's much harder to prevent.
Related Posts (on one page):
- Voting for All the Wrong Reasons - Why We often Choose Candidates Based on Issues they Have No Control Over:
- The Paranoid Style of Political Ignorance:
- One Last Political Ignorance Post (For Now):
- Academics' Political Views and the Impact of Political Ignorance:
- Why Concern About Political Ignorance isn't Paternalistic:
- Political Ignorance and Belief in Conspiracy Theory: