The Volokh Conspiracy

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A Flawed Attack on "Libertarian Elitism" About Voter Ignorance

The authors raise some reasonable issues. But they misunderstand both the libertarians they critique and the problem of political ignorance itself.


When I first started writing about political ignorance in the late 1990s, many academics and political commentators were inclined to dismiss the problem. Even if voters knew little about government and public policy, it was often argued, they could still be relied upon to make good decisions through a combination of information shortcuts and "miracles of aggregation." Since the rise of Donald Trump and similar right-wing politicians in many European nations, such complacency has diminished. The same recent history has given new credence to libertarian critics, such as Bryan Caplan, Jason Brennan, and myself, who argue that voter ignorance is a fundamental structural flaw of democratic processes, one that can only be effectively ameliorated through various types of constraints on the power of democratic majorities.

In two recent articles—an academic paper in the American Political Science Review and a popular piece in Democracy, political scientists Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, and Melissa Schwartzberg (FMS) try to push back against those they label as the "new libertarian elitists" (primarily Brennan, Caplan, and—possibly—me). Unlike more traditional academic defenders of the wisdom of democratic decision-making, FMS properly recognize that voter ignorance is a serious problem and that—at least in many situations—it is not likely to be overcome through simple information shortcuts or "aggregation" mechanisms in which voters' errors conveniently offset each other. But they still attack what they call libertarian critics' "elitist" approach, and also argue that democratic decision-making can be reformed to greatly alleviate the challenges of ignorance.

Unfortunately, they misconceive key elements of the libertarians' position, and underestimate the scale of the problem of voter ignorance. Let's start with the charge of "elitism." Almost by definition, a true political elitist wants to concentrate power in the hands of a small group—the elite! This is pretty much the opposite of what Caplan and I propose. As we explain in our respective works on political ignorance, we advocate limiting the power of government such that more decisions can be made in the market and civil society. I also contend that some of the same benefits can be achieved by decentralizing many functions of government to the state and local level, thereby enabling people to make more decisions by "voting with their feet," rather than at the ballot box.

How does this address the problem of political ignorance? By changing incentives. The infinitesimal chance of any one vote making a difference in an election leads most voters to be both "rationally ignorant" about political issues, and severely biased in their assessment of the information they do learn. By contrast, when people vote with their feet, that's a decision that is highly likely to make a difference by actually determining what goods or services they get or (in the case of interjurisdictional foot voting) what government policies they get to live under. For this reason, foot voters are generally better-informed than ballot box voters and less biased in their evaluation of information.

Empowering ordinary people to "vote with their feet" is the very opposite of elitism. It actually reduces the power of political elites rather than increases it. In the status quo, where national governments exercise power over a vast range of activities, and the electorate is highly ignorant, political elites (such as politicians and bureaucrats) get to control many aspects of our lives with little or no supervision by ordinary people. The latter  are often either unaware of the existence of these policies or have little understanding of their effects.

Expanded foot voting can significantly reduce that power. In addition, foot voting can empower ordinary individual citizens to make decisions that actually have a decisive effect on their lives, while ballot-box voting—even in the best case scenario—only gives them a tiny chance (e.g.—about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential election) of affecting the outcome.

Caplan and I have proposed a variety of measures to expand foot-voting opportunities, such as ending exclusionary zoning and breaking down barriers to international migration. In addition to their other advantages, these reforms would also reduce the power of political elites over ordinary people, by enabling more of the latter to reject policies they oppose—including those enacted by elites.

Perhaps there is some elitism in the mere notion that political knowledge matters, and therefore people with greater knowledge can make better decisions than others. FMS take  Brennan and Caplan to task for believing that experts are likely to make better decisions on public policy than laypeople. But, if so, FMS are themselves guilty of the same sin, in so far as they recognize that knowledge matters and that some people may be more biased in their evaluation of political information than others.

FMS are right to emphasize that experts (and other relatively more informed people) suffer from biases of their own (I have made similar points myself). But they overlook the fact that Caplan (including in a study coauthored with me and others) has tried to correct for this by controlling for various sources of bias, such as ideology, partisanship, income, race, gender, and more. Even after such controls, there are still large gaps between experts' views on many issues, and those of the general public, which suggests that the superior knowledge of the former does matter. Similar results arise in many studies that compare more knowledgeable members of the general public with less-knowledgeable ones (while also controlling for likely sources of bias), such as the work of political scientist Scott Althaus.

In any event, Caplan and I do not claim that political power should be transferred to experts or even to some subset of more knowledgeable voters. Rather, we contend that the big difference in views between more and less knowledgeable people is one of several indicators that political ignorance is a serious problem, one that should be addressed not by giving more power to a small elite, but by limiting government power (and, in my case, also decentralizing it).

Jason Brennan is a more complicated case, as he advocates "epistocracy"—the idea that decision-making authority should be in the hands of the "knowers." But, as he explains in some detail in his book Against Democracy, and other works, that does not necessarily require giving power to a small elite. Rather, he proposes a variety of strategies for empowering more knowledgeable voters while still maintaining a large, diverse electorate.

I am very skeptical that these ideas can actually work. But they are not inherently elitist, unless you conclude that any knowledge or competence-based limitations on access to political power qualify as such. If so, you must also condemn the many competence-based restrictions on the franchise that already exist, such as the exclusion of children and many of the mentally ill, and the requirement that immigrants must pass a civics test that most native-born Americans would fail (at least if they had to take it without studying).

In fairness, FMS are not entirely clear on the issue of whether I come within the scope of their condemnation of "libertarian elitists" or not. In the APSR article, they seem to count me in the same category as Brennan and Caplan. In the Democracy piece, by contrast, they differentiate me from them, as "more willing than Brennan or Caplan to acknowledge limits to [his] claims and to entertain possible doubts." Either way, I think the key point is that advocating limitation and decentralization of government power as a response to the problem of political ignorance is not  elitist, but the very opposite. In addition, FMS fail to consider the reasons why Caplan and I conclude that foot voters and market participants are likely to make better-informed decisions than ballot box voters, and overlook most of the supporting evidence we cite.

Along with misunderstanding libertarian thinkers, FMS also understate the scope and severity of the problem of political ignorance itself. Decades of survey data show that most voters often don't know even such basic things as which party controls which house of Congress, which branches and levels of government are responsible for which policies, how the federal government spends its money, and much else. On top of that, they also routinely reward and punish incumbents for things they didn't cause (such as short terms economic trends, droughts, and even local sports team victories) while ignoring more subtle, long-term impacts of government policy. Voters also tend to be highly biased in seeking out and evaluating political information, often only using sources that align with their preexisting views (such as conservatives who only rely on Fox News, or liberals who watch MSNBC), and rejecting or downplaying information that contradicts them. Committed partisans are also prone to accepting delusions and conspiracy theories that fit their preexisting biases. The belief of many Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump is just one particularly egregious example of that tendency. Such widespread ignorance and bias are not limited to Trump supporters, or to any one side of the political spectrum. I cover all this in much greater detail in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, which is just one part of a vast literature documenting these phenomena, most of it by non-libertarian scholars.

The problem of ignorance is exacerbated by the enormous size and scope of modern government. In most developed advanced democracies, government spending consumes one third or more of GDP. In addition, the government extensively regulates almost every type of human activity. Effectively monitoring a government of this size and scope requires either extensive knowledge, truly amazing information shortcuts, or a combination of both.

Any solution to the problem of political ignorance must take account of both the vast depth of the ignorance itself and the enormous complexity of the government rationally ignorant voters are expected to monitor.

The evidence FMS cite falls well short of this challenge. They are right to point out that, in some situations, survey respondents in experimental settings are willing to adjust their views in the face of new evidence. That's good news! But, to significantly undermine the critiques offered by Brennan, Caplan, and others, it has to apply to a vast range of issues, and to deal with the reality that real-world voters rarely make much effort to seek out opposing views at all.

If you want to seriously address the problem of voter ignorance, while avoiding both "elitist" solutions (such as giving more power to experts) and imposing much tighter constraints on government, you have to find ways to increase voter competence across a vast range of issues. If such increases are impossible or unlikely to occur anytime soon, then elitist and libertarian solutions are likely to be your only realistic options. Expanding the domain of foot voting can transfer more decisions to a sphere where people have better incentives to be informed. Reducing the size and scope of government can help reduce the knowledge burden on voters. If the state had only a few relatively simple functions, a small amount of voter knowledge might be enough!

I don't completely rule out the possibility that we can achieve significant increases in voter knowledge, at least in some respects. While I think some combination of expanding foot voting and cutting back on government power is by far the most promising strategy for addressing the dangers of voter ignorance, I do not suggest it is the only thing that can be done or that it can fix the entire problem by itself. In my book and elsewhere, I have suggested (to little avail!) that the idea of simply paying voters to increase their knowledge levels deserves greater consideration. Perhaps others will have more success in developing this idea than I have. I also recognize—and have repeatedly stressed in various works—that the problem of political ignorance isn't the only factor that must be considered in assessing the appropriate size and scope of government, and in determining the relative value of foot voting and ballot box voting.

Neither FMS' articles nor this post are likely to resolve the longstanding debate over political ignorance. But the discussion will be better if participants take due account of the enormous scope of the problem, and properly distinguish between "elitist" proposed solutions and those that are not.