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Why Concern About Political Ignorance isn't Paternalistic:

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.

tvk:
Ilya,

Not sure about your solution (since I think the general level of voter ignorance is probably efficient), but regardless, the main culprit is not a public good problem.

A public good problem would be that the benefit of a voter's great political knowledge is not fully captured by that voter. Whether it exists at all is something we can debate later.

The problem you identify, however, is that an individual voter's great political knowledge translates to almost no actual influence on the outcome. This is not the voter himself failing to capture the benefit of his vote--it is that there is (for all practical purposes) no benefit from that vote, for anybody. Thus, it is not a public goods problem as we generally understand it.
2.3.2008 2:19am
Ilya Somin:
The problem you identify, however, is that an individual voter's great political knowledge translates to almost no actual influence on the outcome. This is not the voter himself failing to capture the benefit of his vote--it is that there is (for all practical purposes) no benefit from that vote, for anybody. Thus, it is not a public goods problem as we generally understand it.

THere are lots of public goods problems where any given individual's contribution makes almost no difference. Consider the air pollution example. THere is virtually no benefit from 1 person cutting their production of pollution. But there is a large potential benefit if a large number do it. Ditto for political ignorance. One knowledgeable voter make virtually no difference. An entire electorate of them can make a huge difference.
2.3.2008 2:31am
donaldk2 (mail):
Casting a ballot can never be a purely rational act, and in fact cannot be considered in light of rationality. A vote is an action motivated only by the great AS IF - you vote as if it mattered.

If I am not mistaken, this is an example of the Categorical Imperative.

By similar token you vote AS IF you know why - individual ignorance transmuted into collective wisdom - one hopes.

I think that if it really mattered whom you elect, if it altered policy substantially, then God help the polity.
In my long life, I believe that only the 1940 Presidential was make or break - it decided the outcome of the war.
2.3.2008 3:03am
Mr. Liberal (mail):

"power over others."


Economic transactions also result in "power over others." For some strange reason, libertarians do not care.

The day that libertarians care about more than their monomaniacal anti-government obsession, is the day I have any sympathy whatsoever for their point of view.
2.3.2008 6:31am
tsotha:
I'll make myself unpopular here by supporting restrictions on voting rights. I don't think people who can't read (English) should be allowed to vote. More on point, people who don't have basic knowledge of the workings of government should not be allowed to vote. How can you make intelligent decisions about political offices if you don't know what the officer does?

I'd be much more enthusiastic about voting if my vote didn't get canceled out by someone who's picking the best looking candidate. Maybe that's part of the apathy.
2.3.2008 7:49am
OrinKerr:
Ilya,

Can you name a few examples of laws that are politically popular, but that are based, in your view, on ignorance?

Also, how is your theory impacted by the strong role of political parties on the political process? They tend to limit the choice set, and most voters seem to have a strong and relatively informed sense of which choice set they prefer even if they are uninformed on the details of the individual issues.
2.3.2008 7:53am
b.:

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.


In the same way, it isn't necessarily paternalistic to advocate the levying of federal, state, and local taxes to support welfare and the public good. Individual citizens and firms may posses greater a philanthropic vision than their wealth allows to act upon because they know that there is little to be gained from uncoordinated individual contributions to a myriad a projects for the public good. If I as an individual make such a contribution, the impact on the overall level of welfare and the public good will be utterly insignificant. So I have no incentive to take it into account in making my philanthropic decisions even if I care greatly about promoting welfare and the public good.

Ilya, you fail to explain why your argument, as set forth above and echoed in my own, is or should be normatively binding on those who don't--how shall we say?--give a rat's ass about air pollution, welfare, or the public good.

I am not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I presume nonetheless that your readers will need something more persuasive than argument by analogy to win them over to the ideas about paternalism.

As per the John Stuart Mill quote: even though suffrage is given to the individual in the public trust, is it not a violation of the public trust to attempt to deny a person or group(s) of persons that suffrage?
2.3.2008 8:42am
Bretzky (mail):
I disagree with Mill's characterization of the "franchise". Voting is both a right and a public trust. Voting is not exclusively the exercising of power over other people so long as those others have an equal ability to voice their opinions via the vote. It can only become a pure act of power if the voters decide to use the power of the government to steal from, or otherwise harm, others.

Of course, in Mill's time, I would guess that women did not have the franchise in Britain, which would make voting an act of power of men over women. In contemporary America, where everyone 18 years-old and over has the legal right to vote--minus certain circumstances, it is both a right and public trust, in equal amounts. While taxes and regulations of private activity in this country have gotten very onerous, I wouldn't characterize them as theft or harmful, yet.

Mr. Liberal:


Economic transactions also result in "power over others." For some strange reason, libertarians do not care.

I hate it when the owners of my local 7Eleven force me at gun-point to give them a dollar in exchange for the Sunday Washington Post. The jerks!!!
2.3.2008 8:54am
NatSecLawGuy:
tsotha,
I'll add to your pessimism by saying that a qualifier of "basic knowledge of the workings of government" just cancelled out a good half of the electorate that votes!! However, as to your first qualifier of "reading" ability I must dissent. Having worked with numerous disabled individuals over my life I can attest that often they are the more educated of the electorate. While not being able to read, they often take an avid interest in exploring the various positions and make a fairly reasoned decision when considering their needs.
In sum, personally, I'll take a reasoned conviction and passion over reading ability in a voter any day.
2.3.2008 8:57am
wm13:
My problem with Prof. Somin's analysis is that politically aware people, such as university professors, are much nuttier and more dangerous than the general population. If we are disenfranchising anyone, it should be the people who would shut down my freedom of speech and have me in a re-education camp, not the average tolerant, uninterested American.
2.3.2008 9:21am
govols:
While I find the particular ways in which political ignorance interesting, the point that democracy rests on soft foundations is as old as Plato.

My question: what is the next step? I don't read every post as carefully as I ought, but I don't remember ever seeing any solutions to the problems of political ignorance listed here. Do you have any in mind? Prof. Kerr's point on political parties is well put; as Prof. Schattschneider(I believe) once said, " the goal is not to make 200 million Americans into Socrates, but to create a government in which 200 million Americans can make effective choices). What do you think of this as an imperfect solution to political ignorance?

Other than that, the natural reaction seems to be Tsotha's: some people shouldn't vote. The problem with this can be found in Mill as well, who denied effective reason to children (OK), the insane (OK), and barbarians (oops). Being from academia, I don't exactly rush to embrace wm13's implicit criticism, but his point stands: whom do we trust to separate those who "should" vote" from those who shouldn't? Who will develop and apply these criteria? Who is too ignorant to part of politics?

I don't support equality because I sincerely believe that individuals have equal reasoning ability or moral virtue. I support it because there is no system of inequality that any of us could accept without killing each other. So again, while find the more rigorous explanation of how we are political ignorant interesting, I'm not sure what it accomplishes, other than simply adding to our understanding of human failures.
2.3.2008 10:31am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I would put more emphasis on the "power over others" point than on the "public goods" point. There are public goods all over the place, but I don't particularly care about them -- and I don't think there's a case for policy intervention -- unless the result violates rights. So the only reason I care about the "public goods" point, if at all, is because of the "power over others" point.
2.3.2008 10:44am
Tracy Johnson (www):
My wife and I were at the supermarket yesterday and noted how much fanfare was devoted to the Supebowl and promotional product. My wife is naturalized, she told me in other countries, as much fanfare is shown at a market prior to an election day, as much as we do before this game.
2.3.2008 10:47am
AnonLawStudent:
Govols,

In this country, the qualification was owning a certain value of land. Around the time of ratification, many states broke the requirement down even further: different minima for each house of the state legislature, with higher requirements for the upper house and those seeking to hold office. The broad intent was to ensure that only people sufficiently tied to the community could cast ballots. [It also had the collateral effect of limiting the vote to those who actually paid taxes.] As applied to this discussion, I would speculate that, to a point, some correlation exists between the wealth of an individual elector and the likelihood of his being an informed voter.
2.3.2008 11:32am
JDS:
Keep in mind the periodic (crackpot) suggestion that failure to vote be punished! (AARP has proposed it many times.).

It's one thing to defer to interested parties on voting (a rational choice), another altogether to force ill-informed people to vote.
2.3.2008 11:48am
NI:
I think it's time to acknowledge that not only is a significant part of the electorate ill informed, but a significant part of the electorate has no interest in becoming well informed and maybe egalitarianism hasn't worked out as well as hoped. What's to be done about it is a separate question -- maybe nothing -- but in point of fact this country is run by millions of ill informed people who cast ballots over candidates and issues over which they know little and care less.

I actually do have a suggestion which I'll toss out. How about we make Congressional service like jury duty -- you randomly get picked for it, you do it for two years or six years, and then you go home. We trust randomly selected jurors to decide who goes to prison for life and whether a company will pay out millions in fines and penalties; why not trust randomly selected legislators to write our laws in the first instance? Among the advantages:

1. The power of money and lobbyists would dry up overnight.

2. Since most of them wouldn't want to be there they would get the job done as quickly as possible and then go home.

3. Since they wouldn't have to spend any time campaigning for re-election and fund raising they could concentrate their energies on the people's business.

4. There's no way we would get a worse Congress than the ones we elect, and I'd bet we'd get a more honest one.

5. Our representatives might actually think about what's good for the country instead of what's good for their re-election.

Just a thought.
2.3.2008 12:00pm
yankev (mail):
Rather than giving people that which they want, why can't we just give them what they want?
2.3.2008 12:01pm
govols:
Anon,

I play devil's advocate with that very argument in my classes. It does make some sense, although students, understandably, hate it. Yet again, the devil's in the details--how much land? Beyond that, in many housing markets, renting your living space and investing the money in the market is the smarter play. Does renting (as I do) make me unqualified to vote? In urban areas with many sophisticated voters, I'm not sure this makes any sense.

I would be interested to see a test of land ownership and political knowledge. My guess is that today (perhaps unlike 1790?), the correlation would not be as strong as you think.
2.3.2008 12:50pm
Ken Arromdee:
I'll make myself unpopular here by supporting restrictions on voting rights. I don't think people who can't read (English) should be allowed to vote. More on point, people who don't have basic knowledge of the workings of government should not be allowed to vote. How can you make intelligent decisions about political offices if you don't know what the officer does?

The reason people don't like these is that they have been egregiously and within living memory abused in terrible ways.

There's also the point that voting isn't only about power over others. If the guy who can't speak English still has to pay taxes can still get put in jail for marching without a permit or for marrying someone of the wrong race, would still be arrested for smoking in a government-mandated no smoking area, etc., he damn well should be allowed to vote.
2.3.2008 1:02pm
NRWO:
Ilya’s premise that voters are politically ignorant seems naïve. Voters probably weigh the cost of acquiring political information against the probable benefit of acquiring such information. This calculus has implications for how much time voters spend collecting information about political candidates (say, for US House or Senate races):

1. Voters are *not* generally ignorant of candidates’ political affiliations (Democrat or Republican).
2. Political affiliation is an imperfect signal of political philosophy and voting tendencies.
3. Knowing about political philosophy (and voting tendencies) is sufficient to insure a “good enough” outcome from the voters’ perspective, given that obtaining additional information is costly and probably provides marginal benefit (to affect the outcome of a race).
2.3.2008 1:55pm
OrangeLettuce (mail):
Voting districts are gerrymandered. The system is rigged. Our "elected" aristocracy returns to life-time office in greater percentages than the Politburo used to. My senator has been a senator for 26 years, and will be one till he dies. My representative has been a representative for 30 years, and will be one till he dies.

What the f#@% do I care if voters are politically aware or not?
2.3.2008 1:55pm
NRWO:
I think Orin asks a good question, which is related to my post above:


Also, how is your theory impacted by the strong role of political parties [emphasis mine] on the political process? They tend to limit the choice set, and most voters seem to have a strong and relatively informed sense of which choice set they prefer even if they are uninformed on the details of the individual issues.
2.3.2008 2:03pm
juris_imprudent (mail):
Economic transactions also result in "power over others."

Apparently Mr. Liberal was forced, at gun point by a McDonalds employee, to order and consume a Big Mac.

To be fair, you'd have to hold a gun to my head to make me buy and eat one too.
2.3.2008 2:10pm
juris_imprudent (mail):
Ah, I see I should've read downthread before posting about Mr. Liberal - Bretzky beat me to it.

Ilya, I think the same dynamic informs Burke's contemplations on representative govt. Even if we were to assume rational self interest of those electing a representative, his 'duty' is broader than their mere self interest. This is arguably even more critical if were accept irrationality and/or ignorance of the electorate. Of course he still has to be able to persuade them to return him to office (which doesn't seem all that big a challenge for incumbents).
2.3.2008 2:16pm
NI:
NRWO, I think political parties are the worst of both worlds. Since the two major ones have a lock on getting elected they keep people with new ideas out. And, since there is no party discipline once elected, parties are meaningless after the new Congress has been seated.

I think political parties should either be abolished altogether, or we should have a parliamentary system where members are required to vote along party lines whether they want to or not. That way, if you're going to benefit from having a party machine get you elected in the first place, at least your party membership will mean something once you get to Washington.
2.3.2008 2:27pm
AnonLawStudent:
Govols,

IIR, it usually wasn't for property of a specific size; rather, it was property of a certain value. The "property" aspect promoted connection to the community; the "value" was the real measure of qualification, however. Some states tried to liberalize suffrage shortly after the Revolution, and the result was a disaster: issuance of unbacked paper notes, voiding of contracts, debtor relief acts, etc. that amounted to straight-forward wealth redistribution from creditors to small farmers.

As far as implementing an analogous requirement today, one could likewise do it on the basis of wealth. Alternatively (and far more acceptably, politically), some of the benefits would accrue simply via imposition of a flat income tax beginning at dollar one.
2.3.2008 2:47pm
Ilya Somin:
Can you name a few examples of laws that are politically popular, but that are based, in your view, on ignorance?

In can name more than a few. There are probably hundreds of examples. Here's a few common ones:

1. Pork barrel spending (occurs because in most cases the voters don't know about it).

2. Tariffs (based on ignorance of basic economics).

3. Minimum wage laws (ditto).

4. Economically motivated immigration restrictions (ditto).

5. Farm subsidies.

6. The current structure of Social Security (voters wrongly believe it to be an insurance program rather than a form of straight redistribution).
2.3.2008 2:53pm
Ilya Somin:
Also, how is your theory impacted by the strong role of political parties on the political process? They tend to limit the choice set, and most voters seem to have a strong and relatively informed sense of which choice set they prefer even if they are uninformed on the details of the individual issues.

I discuss the role of parties in several of my articles. See, e.g., this one. To briefly summarize my argument on why parties don't really offset ignorance:

1. Large percentages of voters don't know much about the parties.
2. The parties and their agendas are themselves structured by ignorance and seek to exploit it (we would probably have parties with different agendas if the electorate were much better informed.
3. Often, party is only a very crude and inaccurate shortcut for a politician's issue positions (consider the widespread perception that Bush favors free markets because he's a Republican).
2.3.2008 2:56pm
Ilya Somin:
My question: what is the next step?

Elsewhere, I have argued that the best remedy is to make fewer decisions through the political process (where voter ignorance is a serious problem) and more through the market and civil society (where there are stronger incentives to become well-informed).
2.3.2008 2:58pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya’s premise that voters are politically ignorant seems naïve. Voters probably weigh the cost of acquiring political information against the probable benefit of acquiring such information. This calculus has implications for how much time voters spend collecting information about political candidates

I completely agree. It's rational for the individual voter to be poorly informed. That's my point! The problem is that individually rational action leads to harmful collective outcomes when most of the electorate is in the same poorly informed boat.
2.3.2008 3:01pm
wm13:
But Professor Somin, most of your colleagues in academia support items 2, 3 and 6. (And if we count spending on higher education as pork, they support item 1.) Are you suggesting that the Mark Kleimans and Jack Balkins of the world are ignorant? Isn't it simply the case that they disagree with you?

I don't think we need social science theories here. Rather, we need some epistemological theory that explains why in certain areas (religion and politics come to mind), greater knowledge doesn't lead to better, or even different, opinions. (I hasten to add that I don't have such a theory.)
2.3.2008 3:02pm
Ilya Somin:
1. Voters are *not* generally ignorant of candidates’ political affiliations (Democrat or Republican).

That's true, but not as helpful as you think. Most voters are ignorant about the parties themselves and their policies.

2. Political affiliation is an imperfect signal of political philosophy and voting tendencies.

True, to some extent. But note that the parties agendas would likely be different if they faced a well-informed electorate instead of a largely ignorant one. Moreover, the signal is often HIGHLY imperfect.

3. Knowing about political philosophy (and voting tendencies) is sufficient to insure a “good enough” outcome from the voters’ perspective, given that obtaining additional information is costly and probably provides marginal benefit (to affect the outcome of a race).

Possibly true from the individual voter's perspective. But probably not true collectively. Moreover, knowing about political philosophy is only helpful if you understand the likely consequences of implementing that philosophy. Most citizens lack that kind of knowledge because they tend to be ignorant of the tradeoffs involved in public policy issues and of basic economics.
2.3.2008 3:05pm
Ilya Somin:
But Professor Somin, most of your colleagues in academia support items 2, 3 and 6. (And if we count spending on higher education as pork, they support item 1.) Are you suggesting that the Mark Kleimans and Jack Balkins of the world are ignorant? Isn't it simply the case that they disagree with you?

Academics are only a tiny proportion of the well-informed voters in the worldsay, the best-informed 5% of the population). Moreover, having greater knowledge of politics in general is not the same thing as being well-informed about the specific policy issues I listed.

I don't think we need social science theories here. Rather, we need some epistemological theory that explains why in certain areas (religion and politics come to mind), greater knowledge doesn't lead to better, or even different, opinions. (I hasten to add that I don't have such a theory.)

Actually, greater knowledge does lead to different opinions on many political issues. Scott Althaus's book Collective PReferences in Democratic Politics provides extensive evidence, as does Delli Carpini and Keeter's earlier What Americans Know About Politics.
2.3.2008 3:09pm
NRWO:
Ilya says:

3. Often, party is only a very crude and inaccurate shortcut for a politician's issue positions (consider the widespread perception that Bush favors free markets because he's a Republican).


I agree: Knowing a candidate’s party is an imperfect signal of political philosophy (and voting tendencies). But this knowledge is sufficient to insure a “good enough” outcome from the voters’ perspective, given that obtaining additional information is costly and probably provides marginal benefit (to affect political outcomes).

Re your parenthetical about Bush: The relevant question is not whether Bush favors free markets (because he’s a Republican). It is whether Bush was more market-oriented and economically conservative than his opponent (Kerry). There are no platonic ideals in politics.
2.3.2008 3:46pm
Brian K (mail):
1. Pork barrel spending (occurs because in most cases the voters don't know about it).
I disagree with this one in part. some pork probably exists because no one knows about it, but some pork exists because people do know about (e.g. the bridge to nowhere, funding conditional on abstinence only education, faith based initiatives, etc.). some congressmen even run, in part, on a platform that will bring home more pork than the other guy. it's entirely rational for voters to support local pork projects as it bring money and jobs into their local area at the expense of other people.

as for points 2, 3, 4:
those things may be good for economy has a whole, but they can be very bad for certain small segments of society (e.g. the guy making minimum wage, the industry protected by high tariffs). it makes sense for some people to rationally support these policies either due to the direct effects they have them or due to secondary effects that they like. for example, a common argument i hear concerning the US steel industry, is that it is worth protecting because doing otherwise would leave our country vulnerable in the case of war. i make no claim as the validity of this belief, but if you believe it, then it is rational to support some tariffs. the same can be said for food (#5).

It seems to me that you are just considering people who disagree with you to be "ignorant".
2.3.2008 4:02pm
OrinKerr:
Ilya,

I happen to agree with you on the role of markets, but I'm puzzled why someone who supports these policies is "ignorant." If I study something and decide I come out differently, am I ignorant, or simply in disagreement? (On the other hand, I think now I understand why you think judges should act in market-enhancing ways -- that's the non-ignorant view, I gather.)

As for the role of parties, I wonder if you think parties don't correct for the ignorance problem (if there such a thing) because of the way you conceive of ignorance. For example, imagine the Democratic party creates a platform, and that platform endorses farm subsidies. I gather you could say that the party's position is ignorant even if it were designed by a room full of Ph.D.s who happen to like farm subsidies. Or do I misunderstand you?
2.3.2008 4:21pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Many of the political questions we face today are really scientific or economic questions. Global warming, health care, etc. So, does it make sense to concentrate on political ignrance, while ignoring scientific and economic ignorance?

How is one to vote on an economic question using only political knowledge? What good does political knowledge do a voter when confronted with an economic decision?

Is Karl Rove politically informed? I'd say he was. How does that make him any better qualified to vote on a health care or global warming?
2.3.2008 4:28pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"1. Pork barrel spending (occurs because in most cases the voters don't know about it)."

The ones who benefit sure know about it. And that informs their decision to send the same guy back to Congress. Those voters are very well informed.

I once lived in a small rural communty where a much needed water system upgrade was going to cost each homeowner $12,000. When our congressman finished, it cost us $315 each. You think we didn't know that? Think we were uninformed? Think it didn't inform our decision to send him back to Washington?

Keep in mind there are lots of various forms of information; some important to one set of people, and some important to another. It often seems those who call political ignorance on others simply don't like the decision variables they use.
2.3.2008 4:38pm
sef (mail):
Ilya:

You really can't be this much of an elitist snob can you? You demean everyone -- and I mean everyone -- who disagrees with you by brushing them with the label they are ignorant. In the end your position seems to truly show a juvenile contempt of those who disagree with you.

Your points.

1. Pork barrel spending (occurs because in most cases the voters don't know about it).

Everyone in a political district knows about political pork barrel projects. Politicians brag about them. Indeed, this is the singularly lamest example of "people not knowing" you listed.
2. Tariffs (based on ignorance of basic economics).
Tariffs are based on people keeping their jobs. Anti-tariffs positions are about job creations. If I am self motivated and only care about myself &I work in a tariff protected industry I will benefit. If I care about job creation (or as we have seen more realistically, redistribution of wealth upward) I would be anti-tariff.

3. Minimum wage laws (ditto).
You really can't be this snobbish. Where one stands on this issue depends on where one falls on the economic ladder. Those who depend on hourly wages love minimum wage laws, as it tends to force hourly wages up.depends on where
4. Economically motivated immigration restrictions (ditto).
Ditto, it may well be in my self interest to support immigration restrictions if it will benefit me personally, such as low wage or low skill worker. Indeed, immigration tends to dilute the failure of low wage/low skill labor. It is a boon, however, to those further up the economic ladder.
5. Farm subsidies.
Merely economic self-interest
6. The current structure of Social Security (voters wrongly believe it to be an insurance program rather than a form of straight redistribution).
2.3.2008 5:39pm
Mr. Liberal:

Ah, I see I should've read downthread before posting about Mr. Liberal - Bretzky beat me to it.


Indeed, Bretzky came up with an unintelligent response first. You should read more carefully.
2.3.2008 6:16pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
sef writes about Ilya:

You demean everyone -- and I mean everyone -- who disagrees with you by brushing them with the label they are ignorant.
I agree that there is an enormous amount of political ignorance out there, as well as scientific ignorance, and economic ignorance. I often find myself explaining to people that I am skeptical of the anthropogenic global warming explanation because Mars has experience roughly a .5 degree C. warming since 1976. And then I have to explain to them that our atmosphere doesn't go that far. And these are college educated Democrats!

At the same time, I often find myself reading Prof. Somin's postings on this subject, and finding myself in agreement with sef--that Somin does not seem to recognize that many people disagree with radical libertarianism not because they are ignorant, but because they have different core values, or that their personal life experience suggests that libertarian ideas don't work very well.

Mr. Liberal writes:

Economic transactions also result in "power over others." For some strange reason, libertarians do not care.
This is not an accurate description of libertarian ideas.

1. Libertarians argue that economic transactions result in power over others only to the extent that you are engaged in a voluntary transaction and choose to participate. I think this is a simplistic explanation, but in my experience, the majority of people suffering from economic abuse in America could fix this problem by giving up their alcohol and drug addictions.

2. Libertarians believe that voluntary exchange benefits both parties. I don't find the evidence persuasive that is incorrect. After all, both parties were willing to make the exchange. If you don't like your job, you don't have to go to work. You do so because you prefer the paycheck you are offered over having more free time to spend doing what you feel like. The actual cost of living in America (once you get out of liberal controlled regions on the coasts) isn't very high.

3. Libertarians believe that much of the poverty in America is imposed by governmental regulation that discourages entrepreneurship. For example, taxicab regulation, and the licensing requirements that some states have for hairdressers! I think that they overstate this, but there is considerable truth that government plays some part in screwing over the poor, by redistributing wealth from working poor to the wealthy (after dropping a few trinkets to the non-working poor). This is why liberalism is largely a millionaire's ideology.
2.3.2008 6:22pm
tvk:
Ilya,

The problem you identify is a collective action problem, most closely resembling probably the "stag hunting" scenario in game theory. The analogy with driving SUV's, however, is flawed.

If I drive a SUV, I impose a cost on the environment. This cost has two aspects: (1) it is, by itself, fairly insignificant; and (2) of the fairly insignificant cost, an even smaller portion will be borne by me.

Of these two, it is the latter that is exclusively the problem in the environmental context, and it is the "externalities" problem which is the mirror opposite of a public goods problem. If everyone bears the entire environmental cost of driving a SUV--insignificant as it is (e.g. I plant trees that offset my carbon footprint)--then these cumulative benefits will entirely offset the cumulative costs. The small-individually-but-large-cumulatively aspect of it is not a problem.

By contrast, the situation in the voter context is exactly reversed. There is very little by way of an externality created by voter ignorance. Instead, each individual vote simply does not have any benefit at all. Here, the synergy or collective action problem is the main problem. But that is not a public goods problem.
2.3.2008 7:33pm
sef (mail):
clayton notes:
This is why liberalism is largely a millionaire's ideology.

Odd, I've always thought the same thing about libertarianism, that one either has to be a student, very young, a serious stoner, or financially secure, to buy in to libertarianism.
2.3.2008 8:20pm
Ilya Somin:
I happen to agree with you on the role of markets, but I'm puzzled why someone who supports these policies is "ignorant." If I study something and decide I come out differently, am I ignorant, or simply in disagreement?

If you study it and acquire adequate knowledge about it, the no. However, you asked me for examples of policies that would be different if the public had more knowledge. In my judgment, those I listed are examples because much of the public support for them is based on ignorance - either ignorance of what the government is doing (as in the case of pork barrel spending) or ignorance of basic economics.
2.3.2008 11:27pm
Ilya Somin:
imagine the Democratic party creates a platform, and that platform endorses farm subsidies. I gather you could say that the party's position is ignorant even if it were designed by a room full of Ph.D.s who happen to like farm subsidies. Or do I misunderstand you?

I think you misunderstand me. THe Democratic Party (and the Republicans) endorse farm subsidies largely because they are a good way to benefit powerful interest groups while not pissing off average voters (whose ignorance hides the true effects of the subsidies from them, and often their very existence). The key question is not who designed the policy , but rather what the policy would be like if the electorate were vastly better informed than it currently is.
2.3.2008 11:31pm
Ilya Somin:
1. Pork barrel spending (occurs because in most cases the voters don't know about it).


Everyone in a political district knows about political pork barrel projects. Politicians brag about them. Indeed, this is the singularly lamest example of "people not knowing" you listed.


The people who benefit from individual items of pork sometimes know about them. But they don't usually know about all the pork that benefits other narrow interest groups elsewhere. They also don't realize that the vast majority of all voters would be better off if all pork barrel projects were banned (including even the ones that they benefit from).

2. Tariffs (based on ignorance of basic economics).

Tariffs are based on people keeping their jobs. Anti-tariffs positions are about job creations. If I am self motivated and only care about myself &I work in a tariff protected industry I will benefit. If I care about job creation (or as we have seen more realistically, redistribution of wealth upward) I would be anti-tariff.


Several points. First, studies show that most voters dont' in fact vote in a narrowly self-interested way. Second, support for tariffs goes far beyond those who work in industries that benefit from protectionism. People who will lose their jobs but for tariffs may well support them for reasons unrelated to ignorance. Not so for the vast majority of the general public.

3. Minimum wage laws (ditto).

You really can't be this snobbish. Where one stands on this issue depends on where one falls on the economic ladder. Those who depend on hourly wages love minimum wage laws, as it tends to force hourly wages up.depends on where


Actually, the poor are the ones most hurt by minimum wages, as they stand to lose their jobs and pay higher prices as consumers. There is no evidence that minimum wages force up the wages of all those on hourly contracts (though they do force up the wages of some of those who compete with minimum wage workers).

4. Economically motivated immigration restrictions (ditto).

Ditto, it may well be in my self interest to support immigration restrictions if it will benefit me personally, such as low wage or low skill worker. Indeed, immigration tends to dilute the failure of low wage/low skill labor. It is a boon, however, to those further up the economic ladder.

As with several of the above policies, opposition to immigration goes far beyond those people who have a narrow self-interested stake in the issue. Moreover, immigration does in fact benefit many poor people by reducing prices they pay for basic goods and by providing complementary job opportunities in new enterprises established as a result of immigration.


5. Farm subsidies.

Merely economic self-interest

Sure, on the part of farmers. But it doesn't explain why the rest of the electorate also either supports the subsidies or doesn't act against them (because they don't know about their existence).
2.3.2008 11:37pm
OrinKerr:
Do voters not know about pork? Are there studies on that?
2.4.2008 12:20am
Seamus (mail):
If the guy who can't speak English still has to pay taxes can still get put in jail for marching without a permit or for marrying someone of the wrong race, would still be arrested for smoking in a government-mandated no smoking area, etc., he damn well should be allowed to vote.

That's an interesting point of view. I find that I spend more time in the District of Columbia (where I work) than in the Commonwealth of Virginia (where I live and vote)--and a lot more time if you count my waking hours. Since I can be arrested and thrown in jail by the D.C. cops for marching without a permit, smoking in a government-mandated no smoking area (which includes my office), or for carrying a gun to protect myself when I'm working late and have to walk a couple of blocks to find a carry-out shop that's open, shouldn't I be allowed to vote for those who make the laws that govern most of my life? Moreover, shouldn't I and my fellow commuters be eligible to sit on D.C. juries, since if I am arrested and come to trial, it strains credulity to argue that the average D.C. voter is representative of the "commuter community" that populates the downtown business district every working day.
2.4.2008 5:29pm