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Somin on Democracy and Political Ignorance

By Christopher Schmidt

Today, Ilya Somin, a Professor of Law at George Mason, will be at Chicago-Kent to take part in a symposium on the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in the same-sex marriage cases. Professor Somin is a widely published scholar in the areas of property rights and constitutional law, a frequent commentator on current legal issues in various media outlets, and a regular contributor to the widely-read Volokh Conspiracy blog. Professor Somin is also the author of a brand new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2013).

Democracy and Political Ignorance is a fascinating and provocative work of scholarship. Somin takes as his starting point the fact that most Americans know remarkably little about current political issues or the most basic features of our political system. For anyone who has seen the polling data—or even just watched some political comedy shows—this is not a particularly surprising claim. Somin’s careful and extensive dissection of the phenomenon of popular political ignorance concludes, basically, that it’s worse than you probably think. The real value of the book, however, lies not in its documentation of the lack of political awareness among the American people but in Somin’s analysis of the root causes of political ignorance and his proposals for how constitutional design and policy can best respond to it.

Somin makes the perhaps counterintuitive but quite persuasive claim that being politically under-informed is actually a rational behavior. Political ignorance should not be understood simply as the product of laziness or apathy. Rather, it is a rational reaction to the demands of political life in a modern democracy. Since the likelihood of a single vote changing much of anything is so small, it makes sense that most people will not invest the time and effort to study candidates and policy disputes. Since ignorance is rational, direct efforts to remedy the problem—through educational outreach, for instance—are doomed to failure. Rather than somehow ridding the nation of the scourge of an under-informed populace, Somin urges us to consider if there are “better ways to live with widespread political ignorance.” “Instead of creating a vastly more knowledgeable electorate, we will—at least for a long time to come—have to make the best of the one we have.” This critically important point sets the stage for Somin’s constitutional design and policy prescriptions.

Since political ignorance is not simply a national character flaw to be remedied but a chronic element of modern democracy, Somin argues that the key concern should be how government can best do its job in a society characterized by widespread, persistent political ignorance. Here is where Somin’s argument for a limited, decentralized government comes in. His basic argument is that people express their political preferences not only through the ballot box, but also through the decisions they make about where to live and work. And unlike ballot box voting, “foot voting”—seeking out a different jurisdiction or a different employer—creates much stronger incentives for citizens to make well-informed decisions. Unlike a vote at the polls, a decision to move to another jurisdiction or to seek out a different job is directly and immediately consequential. In this situation, political knowledge has clear, personal benefits.

Somin concludes that the best form of government to minimize the costs of under-informed ballot box voting and to maximize the benefits of foot voting is a smaller government. A smaller federal government will allow more policy diversity on the state level, which creates more opportunities for effective foot voting. Less government regulation generally will allow for more diversity in economic markets and in civil society, which also creates more opportunities for effective foot voting. He argues that courts should play an important role in constraining and decentralizing governmental power. “The government that governs least is not always best in every way,” Somin concludes. “Yet it is the form of democracy least vulnerable to political ignorance.”

Democracy and Political Ignorance thus provides a well reasoned, carefully qualified case for smaller government. Somin evaluates counter-arguments—including, for example, whether foot voting is really an option for most people and the risks of race-to-the-bottom dynamics. He invites consideration of a variety of solutions, from the maximal (judicially enforced libertarianism) to the minimal (targeted decentralization and de-regulation). Somin’s preferences are clearly on the libertarian, decentralized side of the spectrum. Yet one need not subscribe to all—or indeed any—of his normative conclusions to appreciate his smart, thoughtful consideration of the issues.

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