The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Widespread voter ignorance is a dangerous problem that we need to take more seriously. One of the causes of the problem is the immense size, scope, and complexity of modern government. Modern states handle so many issues that it is impossible for even relatively well-informed voters to understand than a small fraction of them and hold political leaders accountable for their performance on such a wide range of issues. Because the chance of any one vote making a difference is so low, most voters quite rationally devote very little time and effort to learning about public policy, which makes it even less likely that they will understand what the government is doing.
One possible solution to the problem is "values only voting," advocated by political philosopher Thomas Christiano, among others. In a recent blog post, Georgetown Professor Jason Brennan (himself a leading expert on public ignorance) summarizes and critiques the idea:
Christiano believes the typical citizen is competent to deliberate about and choose the appropriate aims of government. However, for citizens to know the best means for achieving those aims, they would have to become experts in sociology, economics, and political science. They are not competent to make such determinations. Christiano's proposed solution is to create a division of political labor: "…citizens are charged with the task of defining the aims the society is to pursue while legislators are charged with the tasks of implementing and devising the means to those aims through the making of legislation.,,," Christiano's proposal is have democracies choose government's goals, but allow technocratic bureaucracies under the control of somewhat technocratic legislatures choose the means….
As an analogy, consider the relationship of a yacht owner to the yacht's captain. The owner tells the captain where the go, but the captain does the actually sailing. While the captain knows how to steer the boat and the owner does not, the owner is in charge. The owner can fire the captain, and captain thus serves the owner.
If voters need only choose the values they want achieved and then leave the details to the technocrats and politicians, that greatly reduces the knowledge level a competent voter would need to have. But, at the same time, the voters—like the yacht owner—would still get to make the most important decisions.
I. Can Voters Really Focus on Values Only?
Unfortunately, as Brennan explains this theory has several serious flaws. Among other things, it is likely to be difficult or impossible to set up the system in such a way that voters can effectively monitor the technocrats and politicians who are supposed to implement the electorate's values, while simultaneously preventing them from having any meaningful say in implementation decisions. This is a circle that is going to be very difficult to square. If Politician A and Technocrat B are only paying lip service to the voters' goals, while actually pursuing their own objectives, it is hard to see how the voters can discipline them without limiting their choice of methods substantially. And once voters are able to reward and punish officials for the means they choose, the problem of public ignorance is back in full force. The more complex and extensive the functions assigned to government, the harder it will be for voters to monitor its performance while somehow abjuring consideration of means.
Secondly, means and ends in government are often closely entangled. Many issues—health care, environmental policy, welfare policy, education, and others—involve complicated combinations of facts and values. It isn't easy to see how the two can be disaggregated. Here too, the the size and complexity of government makes things more difficult. Among other things, the policy choices at stake involve tradeoffs between many different aims—such as those between increasing economic growth and raising environmental standards, for example.
The above points also apply to oft-made claims that voters can use "values" as an effective information shortcut, even if the system does not formally separate value decisions from implementation decisions. Instead of comparing opposing policy platforms, the voters can just support whichever party or candidate seems to care more about their values, and leave the details of policy to the experts. The fly in the ointment here is that many of the issues at stake in most elections involve competing views about how we can best achieve widely shared values. Both Democrats and Republicans claim that they will grow the economy, create better opportunities for the poor and middle class, improve the quality of health care, protect us against terrorism, and so on. On these and many other issues, the big question facing the electorate is whether the parties' policies are likely to actually achieve these goals, and at what cost. Evaluating that requires factual knowledge, not just values.
A few controversial political issues, most notably abortion, may primarily come down to differences over ultimate values. But many others involve disagreements over facts and policies.
II. Can Voters' Value Judgments be Trusted?
Finally, if voters do a poor job of evaluating means, it is not clear that they are likely to do a much better job of evaluating ends. For the same entirely understandable reasons that few voters spend much time thinking about how public policy works, most also do little or no rigorous thinking about values. For example, how many people think seriously about the relative merits of utilitarian consequentialism as opposed to rights-based theories of morality? For most people, ultimate values are almost like religion: they accept those prevalent in their family or community without giving the matter much systematic thought—in part because there is little incentive to do so.
In my view, the values of the average voter in most Western democracies are not so bad. If the voters had a better understanding of how to achieve them, the quality of public policy would be vastly better. But many political theorists would argue otherwise. If you're a hard-core utilitarian like Peter Singer, a Rawlsian egalitarian, or a Catholic natural law theorist, your view of the average American voter's values is likely to be far more negative than mine. And even I think much of the electorate has significant moral blind spots, such as the assumption that it is morally permissible to make immigration policy with little or no consideration of the rights of potential immigrants themselves.
Some reject criticism of the voters' values by arguing that we can't really know which values are best. Who can say what's right? We have no reason to believe that one person's values are any better than another's. So why not let each citizen's preferences weigh equally, as "one person, one vote" democracy is supposed to do? This sort of relativist argument can be broadened into a critique of concern about voter ignorance generally. Who's to say what kind of knowledge matters and what kind doesn't?
The problem with this kind of argument is that its attempt to rescue democracy from its critics ultimately destroys any basis for preferring democracy in the first place. If we have no idea which values are best, how can we know that the values promoted by democracy are any better than those advanced by dictatorships or oligarchies? The true moral relativist has no reason to believe that the governments of the US or Canada are preferable to those of North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Who's to say that our values are any better than those of Kim Jong Un's regime or those of ISIS?
The "one person, one vote" principle underlying democracy is not a morally neutral standpoint. It is based on certain assumptions about who should be allowed to participate in government and why—assumptions that can lead to multiple different interpretations of the idea.
If we think we know enough about values to conclude that democracy is superior to to dictatorship, then we should also be able to use the same principles to evaluate how good the voters' values are, and whether it might be desirable to limit their power over at least some issues. You can't logically be a moral absolutist about the comparison between democracy and dictatorship, and a relativist about competing values within a democracy. If, for example, Western democracies are superior to North Korea because they provide greater freedom and happiness to their people, then those same values can be used to evaluate the performance of both voters and other participants within the democratic political process.
Ultimately, there are good reasons to question voters' judgments about both factual issues and values. That doesn't mean we should do away with democracy entirely. Dictatorship is likely to be much worse on both fronts. But it does indicate we should be open to proposals for restructuring democracy to reduce the harm caused by public ignorance. In some cases, that may mean making fewer decisions at the ballot box, and more in other settings where people have better incentives to become informed.