The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


How political ignorance strengthens the case for libertarianism


My chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism explains how widespread political ignorance strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing government power. The perils of voter ignorance are exacerbated by the knowledge limitations of political elites, and vice versa.

I. The Problem of Political Ignorance.

Decades of survey data shows that the public is often ignorant even of very basic facts about government and public policy, such as which officials are responsible for which issues, or which party is in control of which branch of government. Just before the 2014 congressional election, for example, polls showed that only 38 percent of Americans knew which party controlled the Senate before the election, and the same number knew which one controlled the House of Representatives. Such ignorance is not confined to the United States. It is also common in other democracies.

Widespread voter ignorance is not primarily the result of stupidity, lack of education, or lack of information. If it were, political knowledge levels should have increased substantially over the last few decades, as IQ scores, education levels, and the ready availability of information all went up. In reality, most political ignorance is probably the result of rational behavior by individual citizens. It makes little sense to spend a lot of time studying political issues when the chance that your vote will make a difference is infinitesimally small.

In addition to having little incentive to acquire political information in the first place, most voters also have little or no motivation to evaluate what they do learn in an unbiased way. Careful evaluation of evidence takes time and cognitive effort, and most of us have little reason do it when it comes to sifting political information.

Ironically, studies show that effective evaluation of political information may be particularly challenging for the minority of voters who have a genuine interest in it, and therefore learn far more than most of their fellow citizens. Most such people acquire their relatively extensive knowledge for reasons other than making better choices at the ballot box. After all, being a good voter is a very weak incentive, easily swamped by stronger motives, such as the joy of cheering on your favorite political "team."

Just as sports fans enjoy learning about their favorite teams and cheering them on against the opposition irrespective of whether they can influence the outcome of games, so "political fans" enjoy learning about their preferred ideologies, candidates, and parties regardless of whether they can influence electoral results. Unfortunately, people who acquire political information for the purpose of enhancing their fan experience often process new data in a highly biased away, overvaluing any evidence that supports their preexisting views and undervaluing or ignoring anything that cuts the other way.

II. Why Not Just Leave it to the Experts?

Some supporters of a strong activist state recognize that voter ignorance is a serious problem, and argue that more power should be concentrated in the hands of expert government planners and bureaucrats, who should be at least partly isolated from political pressure. But even the most expert officials have serious knowledge problems of their own. While they are rarely ignorant of basic information of the sort that often eludes voters, they generally lack the kind of knowledge needed to determine whether various regulatory tradeoffs are actually worth their cost or not.

While experts often have an extensive understanding of the scientific and technical aspects of the issues they regulate, they often cannot assess the costs and benefits that individuals derive from various activities, especially in the many situations where preferences are diverse. For example, an expert on public health probably has extensive information on the health risks created by drinking or smoking. But he or she cannot readily determine how much a particular individual enjoys these activities, and whether the costs for her outweigh the benefits. Thus, the decision to keep smoking might well be rational, despite the health risks, if the individual who makes it enjoys smoking greatly, is highly risk-acceptant, or both.

The problem facing expert bureaucrats is closely related to issues first canvassed in the "socialist calculation debate" of the 1930s and 1940s. Early socialists were confident that expert government planners could make good resource allocation decisions. But critics led by economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises pointed out that socialist planners had no means of assessing resource tradeoffs in the absence of market prices. A market price for, say, a ton of iron, summarizes the demand for that item from a variety of competing uses, as well as the willingness of producers to supply it. By contrast, in the absence of such prices, a socialist planner could not determine how much iron should be produced, or what it should be used for.

The socialist calculation debate may seem outdated in a world where full-blown socialism no longer commands significant support in affluent democratic societies. But although few today favor central planning of the entire economy, many people across the political spectrum favor government control of large parts of the economy and society.

When it comes to health care, education, and other major parts of the economy largely controlled by the state, today's liberal democratic planners face many of the same knowledge problems as do their socialist counterparts. Government expenditures on health care and education in the United States, for example, are larger than the total GDPs of many nations. And the health care and education sectors are both extraordinary complex, necessitating many difficult resource tradeoffs.

Voter ignorance and elite ignorance are serious problems in their own right. But their simultaneous presence makes both dangers even more severe than they would be in isolation. Ignorant voters incentivize politicians and bureaucrats to pursue flawed policies, and even to be relatively ignorant themselves. One reason why Congress tends to be filled with politicians who know far more about electioneering than policy is that voters lack the knowledge to effectively screen candidates for policymaking skills. Donald Trump is a particularly notorious example of a political leader entrusted with vast power despite his own profound ignorance. But he differs from more conventional office-holders more in degree than in kind.

Meanwhile, political elites often have opportunities to exacerbate and exploit voter ignorance. Here too, Trump has merely taken to an extreme tactics routinely used by more conventional politicians, including his predecessor in the White House.

Information problems do not doom every form of government action. Some political issues are so clear and obvious that even very ignorant and biased voters can assess them effectively. It is likely no accident that modern democracies have almost completely avoided mass famines on their territory, even though famines (including ones deliberately engineered by the government) are common in authoritarian regimes. The existence of such a large-scale tragedy will be evident even to otherwise inattentive voters, and they will severely punish incumbents for it at the polls. But famines and similar situations are the exception rather than the rule. Most political decisions are far more complicated and feature far less obvious tradeoffs.

III. The Foot Voting Alternative.

The vicious circle of mutually reinforcing voter ignorance and elite ignorance is difficult to overcome. But its harmful effects can be partly alleviated by limiting and decentralizing the power of government, thereby enabling people to make more of their decisions by voting with their feet, and fewer by traditional ballot box voting.

People can vote with their feet in multiple ways. The most obvious is by choosing which of several jurisdictions to live under in a federal system, thereby selecting the public policies they prefer. But we can also vote with our feet in the private sector, by choosing what products to consume in the market, or what groups to associate with in civil society.

Foot voters face information problems just like ballot box voters do. But they usually handle them better. Most people probably devote greater time and effort to seeking out information when they choose which car or television set to buy, than when they decide who to vote for in even the most important election. The reason is simple: the decision you make about the car or TV set is likely to make an actual difference to the outcome, whereas the chance that a ballot box voting decision will ever do so is infinitesimally small. Both historical and experimental evidence suggest that foot voters both acquire more information than ballot box voters and evaluate it in a less biased way.

Just as foot voting can help diminish the harm caused by voter ignorance, it can also alleviate the dangers of planner ignorance. Unlike government planners, foot voters can take advantage of market prices to make decisions, thereby availing themselves of the information about resource trade-offs contained in them. In addition, they, unlike the planners, have what Hayek called "local knowledge" of their own preferences. Thus, they are in a better position to judge whether, for example, a particular risk is worth taking, given those preferences.

The more government power is limited and decentralized, the more issues can be decided by foot voting rather than at the ballot box. It is easier to vote with your feet for a different city or state than to leave the country entirely, and easier still to foot vote in the private sector.

The dangers of voter ignorance and planner ignorance are far from the only considerations that must be weighed in determining the appropriate size and scope of government. They do not, by themselves, provide a comprehensive justification for libertarianism. But they do greatly strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government power— thus moving in the direction that libertarians advocate. In addition to its many other virtues, liberty helps us make smarter decisions.