Friday, December 21, 2007
Ilya Somin of The Volokh Conspiracy considers the interesting question of how the ignorance of the electorate might affect poll results. Somin cites some pretty staggering data and has some interesting thoughts of his own on the subject, which he elaborates upon in an academic paper. The level of ignorance of the average voter, even setting aside public policy minutiae, is certainly appalling.
Arguing that judicial review reduces what he calls the "information burden" of voters, Somin cites a difficulty posed by the enormous size of today's welfare state:
Obviously, the problems caused by the combination of a large and complex government and severely limited public knowledge of and attention to its activities cannot be solved by judicial review, nor should the judiciary even attempt a comprehensive solution. However, judicial review can sometimes alleviate the problem by limiting the scope of government activity. For example, if judicial review blocks government from undertaking content-based restriction of speech or from intervening in the internal affairs of religious groups, this means that voters need not devote time and effort to learning about government activities in these areas and can focus their severely limited attention on other issues. At least at the margin, the information burden on voters has been reduced, and their ability to pay adequate attention to the remaining functions of government increased.Although I would not hold that a favorable court ruling is necessarily cause for ignoring the government activities in question, this is an interesting idea which is true in one respect, but false in another.
... To take an extreme case, the information burden on voters would be vastly reduced and their ability to control remaining functions of government would be vastly increased in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court were to adopt Richard Epstein's position that most post-New Deal economic legislation is unconstitutional.
It is true in the sense that if the state is going to attempt to run the economy (and be held accountable by the people), that the government (and hence the people) would have to be near-omniscient, because the government is attempting to do the economic planning of all individuals rather than allowing them to do so for themselves. Andrew Bernstein once quoted George Reisman on that score in The Capitalist Manifesto:
The overwhelming majority of people have not realized that all the thinking and planning about their economic activities that they perform in their capacity as individuals actually is economic planning. By the same token, the term "planning" has been reserved for the feeble efforts of a comparative handful of government officials, who, having prohibited the planning of everyone else, presume to substitute their knowledge and intelligence for the knowledge and intelligence of tens of millions, and to call that planning. (345) [bold added]In short, to the extent that the government runs the economy, the information required of voters to have it run the economy properly is so enormous as to make that impossible. That early American saying, "Mind your own business," is revealed to be quite wise.
And the problem lies not just in economic affairs. Consider the ongoing debate about the so-called Global War on Terror, which is a needlessly complicated amalgam of military action, foreign aid, and appeasement. Even the binary choice between John Kerry and George Bush was complicated by the fact that while one was pacifist by inclination (but would be under public pressure to do something militarily), the other claimed to be pro-war, but had adopted a policy quite different from that employed by the United States when it fought the Japanese theocracy in World War II.
In the delimited sense that when government takes on tasks it has no business being involved in, choosing between candidates becomes more complicated than it ought to be, Somin is correct. But past a certain point, the value of more information diminishes.
For example, consider one issue listed on the poll posted at Volokh Conspiracy: Education. The state should get itself out of the business of education, and yet there will be no serious proposal to do so in any election any time soon. The various candidates will most likely offer proposals that differ only in unimportant ways. One will do well simply to make sure there is nothing horrendous, like a mandate that Creationism be taught in the public schools, then data dump the remaining minutiae. At the end of the day, the chance of substantially improving freedom in the field of education in the next election is nil, and time spent studying up on, say how much Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama want to throw down the rathole of public education is wasted.
So I suspect that I disagree with Somin on one thing: Being a "well-informed" voter -- at least in terms of the concrete details of every position in every political debate -- is is not inherently a good thing. Knowing what the proper role of government is, and thereby knowing which public debates aren't a complete waste of time is infinitely better -- although at the current level of agreement on all sides that education must be publicly funded, knowing that it should not be will not help one achieve his ends by voting.
And with that last sentence we begin to get to the heart of the matter. Substantive debate does not happen only during elections if it happens during elections at all. If one wishes to achieve lasting, meaningful change in politics, he needs more than one vote cast between two unacceptable choices. He needs others to be predisposed to vote as he does -- enough others that politicians notice the demand for a pro-freedom position on any given issue. As a genuine appreciation of freedom requires one to understand the nature of individual rights as the freedom of all in a society to act in accordance with their own best judgement, this means that to start having elections that don't require near-omniscience to make almost meaningless choices, those who appreciate freedom must work towards a more rational culture.