A Flawed Attack on “Libertarian Elitism” About Voter Ignorance
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
Article from Reason.com