The Volokh Conspiracy

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Can We Help Save Democracy by Requiring Voters to Pass a Test of Political Knowledge?

Economist Dambisa Moyo is right to worry about the dangers of political ignorance. But her proposed solution for the problem falls short.


In her new book, Edge of Chaos and in a recent op ed in the Guardian, prominent economist and political commentator Dambisa Moyo proposes a solution for the problem of political ignorance, which bedevils democracies around the world. She hopes it can help "save" democracy:

The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum have together tested the limits of people's faith in democracy….

Elsewhere too the weaknesses of liberal democracies are becoming increasingly apparent: from falling voter participation rates and the unhealthy power of those funding political parties to the decline of political freedoms. This questioning of democracy is polarising politics and taking debate beyond healthy bounds. Efforts to delegitimise the electoral results are based on the premise that politicians lied and misled, leaving voters to choose on the basis of poor information or wrong information….

Ultimately, the ideal democracy is one in which as many citizens as possible vote, and the voters are armed with the most objective information….

In many democracies, including the US and UK, migrants are required to pass government-sanctioned civic tests in order to gain citizenship. So, in this vein, why not give all voters a test of their knowledge? This would ensure minimum standards that should lead to higher-quality decision-making by the electorate. The message this would send is that voting is not just a right, but one that has to be earned. Such testing would not only lead to a better-informed electorate, but also to voters who are more actively engaged.

Of course, such a system would be truly democratic only if everybody had a fair chance of casting their vote. It is vital that those with fewer life opportunities have their say, and we cannot have a system that is skewed against the worst educated, which would leave poorer people even more marginalised and unrepresented than they already are. To that end, the knowledge needed should be part of the core curriculum, with young people tested in their final year of secondary education. Governments could also organise tests for those over school age.

Moyo is absolutely right to worry about the dangers of political ignorance, which is a serious problem in democracies around the world, including both the US and the UK. She is also right to suggest that voter ignorance played a key role in both Brexit and Trump's victory in the 2016 election. It is good that she has joined the growing list of thinkers who are starting to take the problem of political ignorance seriously. Unfortunately, her proposed solution is not as compelling as her statement of the problem.

The idea of a test of voter knowledge is not a new one. Economist Bryan Caplan, a leading expert on political knowledge, proposed a "Voter Achievement Test" back in 2013 (though he would not deny the franchise to those who scored poorly, but instead reward those who score well with monetary prizes). Libertarian-leaning columnist David Harsanyi advocated a voter test in 2016. In his much-discussed book Against Democracy, Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan proposes a system of "epistocracy," which might, among other things, restrict the franchise to those who have adequate knowledge. I myself analyzed similary ideas in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance.

I am not opposed to voter knowledge tests on principle. Indeed, the case for excluding incompetent voters builds on our current practice of excluding children, people with severe mental illnesses, and (as Moyo notes) immigrants who cannot pass a test of civic knowledge that many native-born Americans and Britons would fail. All of these groups are barred from voting in large part because we think they lack the knowledge and reasoning skills to make good decisions at the ballot box.

But Moyo and other advocates of voter testing underestimate potential pitfalls. As I explained in my critiques of Brennan, Caplan, and Harsanyi, and in Chapter 7 of my book, the biggest problem is that we cannot trust the government to come up with an objective, politically neutral test. The more likely scenario is that the party in power would try to skew the test to favor its supporters and weed out opponents. Even if we could somehow avoid racial or ethnic bias (which is by no means guaranteed), it is difficult to forestall partisan favoritism.

Can we trust Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress to come up with an unbiased test? I am sure he would welcome the opportunity to purge the voter rolls of "low-energy losers" who believe the claims of the "fake news" media. By the same token, many Democrats might be happy weed out "deplorable" right-wing voters, if given the chance to control the content of the test. Would Moyo's readers at the Guardian trust the Conservative government of Theresa May? Would Conservatives have any reason to trust Jeremy Corbyn and the Labor Party to design the test, if the latter came to power?

The idea of voter testing should not be dismissed out of hand. I believe it deserves further consideration—particularly the Bryan Caplan variant, under which it would function only as a positive incentive for increasing knowledge rather than a tool for limiting the franchise. But advocates must address the problem of bias much more effectively than they have so far.

Moyo also suggests using public education to increase political knowledge, so that everyone would have a better chance to pass the test. The idea of using public education to increase voter competence has venerable roots in the liberal political tradition. Thomas Jefferson was among its early advocates. Unfortunately, it is much harder to do than it may seem. I summarized the challenge here (and more fully in my book):

Unfortunately, political knowledge levels have increased very little over the last fifty to sixty years, even as educational attainment (and spending on public schools) have risen enormously….

Perhaps the problem is that the schools are teaching the wrong things. A better curriculum might ensure that high school students don't graduate without learning basic political and historical knowledge, as many currently do. The difficulty here is that governments have very little incentive to ensure that public schools really do adopt curricula that increase knowledge. If the voters effectively monitored education policy and rewarded elected officials for using public schools to increase political knowledge, things might be different. But if the voters were that knowledgeable, we probably wouldn't have a problem of political ignorance to begin with.

Moreover, political leaders and influential interest groups often use public education to indoctrinate students in their own preferred ideology rather than increase knowledge. In both Europe (where it was established in large part to inculcate nationalism) and the United States (where a major objective was indoctrinating Catholic immigrants in true "American" values, including Protestant morality), indoctrination was one of the major motives for the establishment of public education in the first place. As John Stuart Mill feared, public education is often used to indoctrinate students in whatever ideology "pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation."

Even if education policy and voter competence tests were more effective at increasing political knowledge than I am inclined to believe, It would still be extremely difficult to increase voters' understanding to the point where they could be well-informed about more than a small fraction of the many issues controlled by the modern state. In both the US and most European nations, government spending accounts for 35% or more of GDP, and the state also regulates nearly every type of human activity. If, like Moyo, we want a political system "in which as many citizens as possible vote, and the voters are armed with the most objective information" about the issues at stake in elections, we need to have a government that deals with fewer issues. The problem of political ignorance does not, by itself, justify across-the-board libertarianism. But it does suggest we should have a government substantially smaller and less complicated than what we have now.