The Volokh Conspiracy

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

Political Ignorance

The "Good Government Trilemma": Why We Can't Have Democracy, Accountability, and Big Government all at Once

Canadian legal scholar Leonid Sirota outlines some reasons why.



Most people in modern democratic societies want a government that is simultaneously democratic, accountable, and large (in the sense that it carries out a wide range of functions). In an insightful recent blog post on "The Good Government Trilemma," Canadian legal scholar Leonid Sirota explains why we probably can't have all of these things at once. At most, we can only hope to get two out of three:

What is the respective role of democratic and other means of holding a government to account in a well-ordered polity? In one way or another, this question is the subject of live―and lively―debates in many (perhaps all?) democratic societies….

At the risk of generalizing, my impression is that these debates tend to present themselves as clashes between the values of, for lack of better terms, democratic government and accountable government. One side thinks that the important thing is that elected officials get to run the show as they think best, subject to eventually being booted out by the voters. The other thinks that what matters is that the government be kept in check and made to answer for its actions on an ongoing basis, through some mix of elections, judicial supervision, and other accountability mechanisms, either internal to the government (such as ombudsmen and auditors) or external (NGOs and media)….

However, I think that the debate framed in this way is incomplete. It ignores a third factor that needs to be taken into account: the size of the government in question….

I would suggest that the apparent need to trade off between democracy and accountability is in fact only special case of what I will, again for lack of a better term, call the good governance trilemma. Of democracy, accountability, and big government, you can have two ― if you do things well; many polities won't get two, or indeed even one ― but you cannot have all three. It is possible to satisfy the trilemma by choosing fractions ― a dose of democracy, a measure of accountability, a government not quite as big as one might dream of ― but the total cannot go above two, and it will certainly never go anywhere near three. You can't have it all.

How does the trilemma work? Let's start, as most people do, with big government a given. A government so big it takes scores of ― or, in the UK's case, close to a hundred ― ministers of various sorts (or, in the US, agency heads) to run itself, to say nothing of the tens or hundreds of thousands of civil servants. This, of course, is ….  our present reality. A citizen who wanted to keep track of what the government is getting up to at a rate of, say, half an hour per minister per week would have a full-time job on his or her hands. And for at least some departments…., half an hour per week hardly seems like it would be anywhere near enough to know what's going on. Never mind ordinary citizens: even members of Parliament would struggle mightily to keep the tabs on the administration by virtue of its sheer size….

Realistically, voters are in no position to keep such a government accountable…. This is why taking big government as a given, as most people today do, leaves you with a necessary trade-off between democracy and accountability. If such a government it is going to be accountable for more than an infinitesimal fraction of its innumerable decisions and actions, it will have to be made accountable to, or at least through, non-democratic or indeed counter-majoritarian institutions….. Alternatively, a big government can be made answerable to voters alone, with no judicial and other interference. But then it would be foolish to expect it to answer for even fairly major screw-ups, let alone the small-scale indignities a large administration visits on those subject to it every day…. not because it's necessarily evil or even especially incompetent, let alone corrupt; but because it is run by fallible human beings….

If, however, one were willing to sacrifice government size, one could at least hope for a government held accountable primarily through electoral means. For one thing, as the government does less, there is simply less for courts and other non-democratic accountability mechanisms to sink their teeth into…. But, less cynically, if government only does a few things, it is easier for citizens to keep track of those few things, and the odds of their using their vote to reward things done well and punish things done badly improve….

Of course, I don't expect many people to share my interest in radically smaller government. Fair enough. But I think that it would be good if they recognized the reality of the trilemma I've outlined in this post. Its cause ― the difficulty for voters and even their representatives to keep track of a large administration ― should not be a matter of partisan controversy. It's a reality that needs to be acknowledged and responded to, whatever values will inform each person's response.

I largely agree with Sirota's position here, including his view that "radically smaller government" is probably the right approach (though, like him, I acknowledge that most people will resist that conclusion). I would add that the obstacles to democratic accountability created by large and complex government are exacerbated by the "rational ignorance" of voters.

Because there is so little chance that any one vote will make a difference to electoral outcomes, there is also little incentive for individual voters to spend more than minimal time and effort seeking out information about government and public policy. Thus, most are often ignorant even of very basic information, such as the names of the three branches of government, much less more complicated facts about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of specific policies.  The interaction between rational ignorance and large, complicated government predictably creates a political system where voters' ability to assess government performance is highly questionable, at best. I go into this in much greater detail in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter.

Furthermore, voters also have strong incentives to do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do learn, because many act as biased "political fans" rather than truth seekers. This problem is especially acute during periods of severe partisan polarization, like the present era in American politics.

Some scholars argue we need not worry too much about public ignorance and bias, because voters can use "information shortcuts" to offset the effects of ignorance—small bits of information that substitute for larger bodies of knowledge. Alternatively, even if individual voters are ignorant and make poor decisions, the electorate as a whole still does well because individual errors offset each other, leading to a "miracle of aggregation."

I criticize shortcut theories, miracle-of-aggregation arguments, and other similar ideas in great detail in my book on political ignorance, and other writings. Here, I will merely note that many—particularly on the left—who express great confidence in the ability of democratic government to handle a wide range of complex tasks well, are also deeply concerned about the exploitation of public ignorance and bias by Donald Trump and other right-wing populist leaders.

They are, in my view, right to worry about Trump and his ilk. But if shortcuts and miracles of aggregation are all that they are cracked up to be, Trump and the others should never have gotten as far as they did. And if much of the electorate nonetheless falls for Trump's relatively crude lies and distortions, it seems unlikely they can effectively use shortcuts or other tools to assess more complex tradeoffs and policy issues.

Trump is far from the only politician who effectively exploits public ignorance and bias. So too do more conventional political leaders, including as Barack Obama with his deception about how, under Obamacare, "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it."  If most voters don't even understand the basics of how Obamacare works, it's unlikely they can do a good job of evaluating it. The same goes for many other government programs. Trump is just a particularly egregious example of a much broader problem.

As Sirota recognizes, the reality of tradeoffs between democracy, accountability, and size of government doesn't by itself tell us what the role of government in society should be. More generally, there is a range of different potential responses to the problem of political ignorance, which is at the root of the trilemma he outlines. I cover a number of possible approaches in my forthcoming article on this very topic.

If we can radically increase voter knowledge, while simultaneously curbing "political fan" tendencies, then the trilemma might be greatly mitigated. But, for reasons outlined in my book, I highly doubt either is likely to be achieved anytime soon, if ever.  Even if you are more optimistic than me on this score, it's hard to deny that the problem is a difficult challenge. Unless and until we do create a vastly more competent electorate, we should at least recognize that there are genuine tradeoffs here. As Sirota reminds us, we "can't have it all."