Democracy and Political Ignorance by Ilya Somin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In many ways, this is a frightening book. Somin goes into careful detail on the arguments and evidence for widespread and persistent political ignorance. Then he discusses the harm such ignorance has on policy and good governance. And then he shows that most solutions are likely to fail to significantly reduce the problem. Some of the solutions discussed wouldn’t likely work even if they were feasible or likely to be implemented. Many of the other solutions—including Somin’s own suggestion: limiting the scope and power of government—suffer from the paradox that to implement them means first overcoming the problem of political ignorance.
Thought there is some technical detail; Somin has an exceptionally clear style. He’s careful and thorough in his research, and makes great effort to be balanced and intellectually honest.
The case Somin makes for limiting the scope (what government can do) and power (decentralizing power) of government is persuasive – though I am predisposed towards his conclusions to start with. Nevertheless, Somin’s discussion of the contrasting efficacy between ballot voting and voting with one’s feet does a lot to make a relatively ideologically neutral argument for limiting the power and scope of government.
There is one persistent sticking point for me. So the long-standing evidence shows that most voters lack political knowledge. This is explained by the theory of rational ignorance: where since (1) gaining more political knowledge takes resources (time, effort) and (2) any individual vote has almost no chance of having an impact (no payoff), it is rational to remain ignorant: there is no payoff for the resources invested. A potential problem here is that one thing that voters are ignorant of is (2). Most voters think their vote matters and has an important impact (and this why they vote). So it seems that by their own standards, they should be investing the resources to gain more political knowledge. But they don’t. This makes it seem that their ignorance is not, by their own lights, rational. Maybe the literature on rational ignorance has an answer to this, but the ones I’ve come across don’t seem to explain it to my satisfaction. Somin’s response seems to be that this falls into a sort of sweet spot: voters overestimate their impact (so they go to vote) but not enough to give them an incentive to get more political knowledge. This may be the case, but I still don’t find it satisfying. It might explain the paradox of voting, but I’m not sure it explains the apparent irrationality of thinking your vote has an impact while remaining ignorant.
This is an important book that any one interested in social knowledge, political philosophy, or political science ought to read.
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