Book/Article Reviews

Ilya Somin: Democracy and Political Ignorance

Democracy is a political system that empowers the masses, but at the same time incentivizes them (regardless of whether they have selfish or altruistic preferences) to be ignorant and irrational about politics.

Ilya Somin has an excellent new book on the problem of political ignorance in democracy. His abstract:

One of the biggest problems with modern democracy is that most of the public is usually ignorant of politics and government. Often, many people understand that their votes are unlikely to change the outcome of an election and don’t see the point in learning much about politics. This may be rational, but it creates a nation of people with little political knowledge and little ability to objectively evaluate what they do know.

In Democracy and Political Ignorance, Ilya Somin mines the depths of ignorance in America and reveals the extent to which it is a major problem for democracy. Somin weighs various options for solving this problem, arguing that political ignorance is best mitigated and its effects lessened by decentralizing and limiting government. Somin provocatively argues that people make better decisions when they choose what to purchase in the market or which state or local government to live under, than when they vote at the ballot box, because they have stronger incentives to acquire relevant information and to use it wisely.

Somin considers a wide range of issues: Do voters use heuristics and shortcuts to make smart choices despite having low levels of information? Does the collective as a whole make smart choices even if most individual voters are badly informed? Does deliberation work? His answer to each of these questions: no.

Somin’s final recommendation, a recommendation I have argued for as well, is that the best response to political ignorance is to reduce the scope of democratic control. That’s not to say that we should replace democratic control with some other form of politics, but, rather, that we should take certain issues off the political agenda entirely.

Highly recommended. Buy it here.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Sean II

    Reducing the scope of democratic control is clearly preferable as a first choice.

    Interesting that the obvious second choice – penalizing the most ignorant voters by turning them into non-voters – is so abhorrent to all concerned.

    In America this is usually put down to the adverse racial impact such a policy would cause, but that fails to explain why poll qualifications aren’t used in other countries.

    • Jason Brennan

      Some crazy people do actually go so far as to advocate turning some voters into non-voters.

      • Sean II

        You better start using your middle initial, lest you be mistaken for that mad fool!

      • jdkolassa

        I have to admit, I shared that feeling some time ago, but I’m not sure it could ever work in practice. Better to just take things off the political table instead.

    • adrianratnapala

      Happily, Democracy is a bit of religion in the western world (in fact in Dennet’s “Breaking the Spell” he explicitly says that he considers it sacred and therefore partially protected from rational criticism.). Americans are better than anyone at bringing out this sacredness – with holy texts and all. So I doubt that racial impact really is what restrains y’all.

      Even if that were a restraining mechanism, it will work in other countries too since many other democracies have multiple races and other out-groups – and their votes will usually lean towards one major political coalition or another. So even if disenfranchisment were morally OK, it would have powerful enemies.

      To the (minimal) extent that Europe has gone post-democratic, it is done by the EU “reducing the scope of democratic control”.

      • Sean II

        Let me rephrase: in America, even if a poll qualification test cleared every other obstacle, it would eventually run afoul of race, just as every form of cognitive testing does.

        Now, let’s make a safe assumption that politically aware people are mostly aware of this fact. One consequence of that awareness is… such people would show little interest in helping the idea clear those lesser obstacles.

        Why bother defending a poll qualification against any objections, when you know it must eventually come face to face with a sacred and immovable one? Why even consider it?

      • Jameson Graber

        “Happily, Democracy is a bit of religion in the western world.”
        Truer words were never spoken. Is it even possible to form any sort of large nation state without a religious attachment to its form of government?

  • adrianratnapala

    The thesis of this book sounds like “Democracy has [some flaw] so we should insert [my preferred policy] in places where we hitherto had democratic decision making”. If small government were not my own preferred policy, I would be getting angry by now and I need to read the book before I can comment fairly on it.

    So let me comment on something slightly to the side. One style of anti-limited government argument goes “It is paternalistic, even authoritarian, to deny voter’s the right to legislate on [some domain]”. Consequential argument about how voters are not able to make accurate decisions in that domains are also tainted with the stink of paternalistic authoritarianism. Which is why I prefer the non-paternalistic, moralistic argument: “This issue weighs the right of people to do stuff against the right of other people to restrain them. In a free society it is up to the restrainers to prove their case.”

    • jdkolassa

      Yes. I find that consequentalist libertarianism is really better as a supplement to deontological libertarianism. One of the reasons Rand is popular is that she defended capitalism on *moral* grounds. Ultimately, there is a moral case to be made, and that will win people over.

      It needs to be framed as “The majority cannot vote to impose its will on the minority.” And then, to liberals, you say, “Not unless you think it would be okay for whites to press blacks back into slavery.” And then, to conservatives, you say, “Not unless you want to open the door for Sharia law to take over the land.”

      • reason60

        You don’t think a constitution helps with that?
        Having certain things decided by simple majorities, while others require a supermajority, and a broad based consensus?
        In theory of course, any one of the Bill of Rights could be swept away. But the hurdle to do it is for me satisfyingly difficult, or at least sufficient to be preferable to reducing citizen participation.

        • jdkolassa

          Really? You think it has enough of a hurdle?

          I dunno man, considering the Drug War, drones, NSA, Obamacare…

          • reason60

            Some of which I support, some I don’t.
            So the question I have is, who gets to make a decision on these matters, and how do we go about that?
            Because as I understand it, Ilya Somin is saying that maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

          • jdkolassa

            What Ilya is saying is that you shouldn’t be allowed to vote on people’s personal lives.

            Imagine if, before you could get married, the community had to get together and vote on whether to allow it or not. Or vote on what you would have to eat for dinner. Or what clothes you would wear. Etc.

            That is what he is saying, and it looks pretty damn obvious (“that we should take certain issues off the political agenda entirely.”)

            So “on these matters,” “who gets to make a decision” is the one who the matter concerns.


          • reason60

            Taking certain things off the political agenda is common sense.
            So commonsensical, in fact, it has already happened. I am wearing a fedora hat that some would consider a fashion felony, yet I am still at large.
            What prompted my comment was your sales pitch of above, where you painted a dire picture of majority rule.
            My comment is that for most people, majority rulewithin constitutional limits is perfectly agreeable. What would they have to gain by forsaking it?

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          Yes, well a constitution is nifty. It would be far more effective if the rulers actually paid any attention to it whatsoever.

  • reason60

    Or one could ask why Ilya SOmin’s criteria for voters somehow gets top billing.
    Why does “rationality” or his definition of it become important?
    We never really vote for policy- in a republic we have people do that for us.
    What we vote for is a character, a person, and decide if we trust them enough to be empowered. In this case it is more like hiring a person than picking a policy.
    Bias, intuition, emotional gut instinct are all perfectly valid methods of selecting a candidate.

    • adrianratnapala


      But the level of indirection you mention actually strenghens the argument for limited government, because now these charismatic leaders might in it for themselves. Thus we have even less reason to assume that any particular detail of legislation is really in the interest of the people.

    • Damien S.

      It’s even more like hiring a person whom you then can’t fire for the next 2-5 years (depending on country and office.) Imagine hiring a lawyer and then being stuck with them for the next four years even if they failed to show up to work. That’s representative democracy without recall elections for you.

  • Matthew DeCarlo

    Thanks for the recommendation. It would be useful to know how the content of this fits in with the larger pantheon of rational ignorance and public choice.

  • ThaomasH

    It is hard to argue that non-political decisions are better than political decisions about the very same decisions. The bar for thinking that the maximum size for a soda in NYC is better decided by the city council than by soda suppliers and demanders is pretty high.

    Very few issues fit that mold, however.

    There is no non-political way of deciding how progressive the tax system should be or even if taxes should be placed on income or property or consumption or wages or what. We cannot use the market to set the optimum level of taxes and subsidies on negative and positive externalities or (if we are going to assign property rights) whether it is better for consumers to bribe polluters not to pollute or polluters to bribe consumers to allow them to pollute, even if we believe that the same degree of pollution would result. There is no market way to decide how much and what size of National Security State (or Park service or NASA) to have.

    It is possible to argue over whether consumers would be better off arranging for the health and safety inspections of foods and drugs and elevators and restaurants than letting public bureaucracies do it. The former was tried before the latter and we know how that turned out but as society and technologies change, this kind of decision should be under constant review.

    • jdkolassa

      Big problem with your argument, there. Your entire premise rests on the idea that we can somehow find these answers through a scientific panel of researchers. Yet time and time again, it turns out you cannot, and that indeed the only way to discover what works is through the market.

      This has been the history of the past 200 years.


      “whether it is better for consumers to bribe polluters not to pollute or polluters to bribe consumers to allow them to pollute”

      Idiotic. I mean I really don’t see what on Earth this is supposed to mean. But in any case, consumers already prefer companies that don’t pollute, so the market is already punishing companies that pollute.

      “There is no market way to decide how much and what size of National Security State (or Park service or NASA)”

      I will give you the security state, but as for Park Service or NASA, we only have to look at how much people are investing into these services and trying to create industries out of them. And if they aren’t, then ask why: is it because there is already a government agency there crowding them out…or is it because no one values that?

      • Fallon

        Why do you make security some kind of good that does not need to be economized? Maybe you don’t want the scientific panel of researchers deciding other questions– so they can get right to the most important matter of security. To be sure, assigning security such special transcendent status has been the ideological leverage needed for the most egregious, parasitical and destructive acts– in just about all of history.

        • jdkolassa

          You can’t make a market out of rights, nor defense. There are massive public choice issues with having a national defense.

          Unless you want to really start putting your rights up for sale to the highest bidder…

          • Fallon

            I do not understand your answer. Marketizing security would involve the same giving and getting as in any other contract or exchange. And by far– the public choice problem points to the need for marketization. The incentive problems that come with special access to the tax and inflation spigot are glaringly obvious: the military industrial complex, e.g.

            Security is an immensely complex and changing need. Orient it away from the state as god perspective and bring it back down to the individual level. What kind of security benefits the individual? There are so many ingredients that go into the means, many of them ends in themselves. Nutrition, education, productions… Myriad choices about myriad things. The demand for security cannot really be separated out from the massive competition for scarce resources in general. The price system resolves much of this tension– and without inherent predation.

            “National” defense should not even be mentioned until about 10,000 words into any description of defense issues.

          • Fallon

            The first mentioning of “national” would be in considering how best a market community could defend against it– or better yet– stop it from emerging in the first place.

      • reason60

        Are you actually aruging that if no one has made an industry out of parks, then that proves that no one values them?

        • jdkolassa

          Why does anyone make an industry out of anything? Because someone values that product or service. If people aren’t making parks, there’s probably a good case to be made that people just don’t value parks and aren’t going to pay to use parks, so there’s no profit to be made there.

          Profit is merely a feedback mechanism to show you how well you’re fulfilling other people’s needs.

          • good_in_theory

            Another feedback mechanism for showing whether or not you are fulfilling people’s needs:


          • reason60

            Well, yes, being able to monetize something does show that people hold it in value- But is the the sole measure?
            One could argue that if a majority of voters approve the eminent domain taking of property for a park, or continual funing for it demonstrates they are willing to monetize their interest in it.
            But that seems a bit contrived a definition, I think.
            There are also things which societies hold as sacred- places, buildings, objects- which by their nature resist monetization.
            The fact that the Aborigines didn’t industrialize Ayres Rock meant they didn’t value it? Or Temple Mount isn’t valuable to the Jews, Muslims, and Christians?
            I would assert that it is legitimate for a society to declare that something is sacred and inviolable, even if it has never been monetized, even if it results in a less than efficient allocation of resources.

      • ThaomasH

        No, we are not seeing consumers removing the incentive of polluters to pollute; we have the EPA.  Now there was a time before we had an EPA and experience showed that consumers were not able to remove the incentive of polluters to pollute.  With CO2 emissions, we are running the market experiment; so far those harmed by CO2 emissions have not been able to use the tort system to encourage emitters to reduce their emissions  Ditto, NASA and National Parks.  I do not see how you can solve the free rider problem of NASA if it were funded with voluntary subscriptions and I have a had time seeing how anything like the National Parks could have been created as clubs of contributing park-goers.  Again, it just did not happen.

      • Frank

        Uh, what’s “the market”?

    • Fallon

      Taxes, subsidies, NASA, and the National Security State are anti-economic means to attaining ends. What is your rationale for forcing their chaos and destruction on the world? Besides, states are historically horrendous at guarding borders and persons– especially their own concerning the latter. But of course, state power is inherently based on predation. No cult of personality and useful idiot– like Neil DeGrasse Tyson– can cover this up.

      • ThaomasH

        And non-state power — today we call it “warlords” or “gangs” or “terrorists” is also based on predation.  Hobbs has the right diagnosis, just the wrong prescription.

        • Fallon

          I challenged your rationale– if you have any. The absence of monopoly government is a separate issue. Your confidence in state bureaucratic efficacy is similar to that of a WWI commander– and just as undeserved.

          • ThaomasH

            I do not hold that bureaucratic efficiency is very high, just that there are a lot of problems — CO2 emissions is for me the clearest current example — for which the is no market or market plus tort alternative.

          • Fallon

            I will agree that there is no such thing as a propertarian way to take care of all externalities. But this does not justify a state solution– when the state is: 1) the biggest polluter, e.g. the US Defense Department; 2) mired in corruption, e.g. the climate scientist email revelations and the EPA FOIA favoritism (and timesheet lying).

            Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

            Since you are not ready to understand basic economic theory– I will have to leave it at that. But these things seem pretty damning. market forms of property rights do at least form a possibility to work out most of externality issues. Granted, in the smidgeon that is left over– I would say that most are harmless intrusions– but a small portion may be the worst and most dangerous things imaginable to man. Like a one part in a trillion compound that damages genetic transference, etc.

            Just saying Carbon Dioxide– as if it is its own justification for state power– is one of the oldest tricks in the book. This climate thing is not remotely settled as a science. “Carbon Dioxide”. Why don’t you just hold up the Bible and threaten us all with eternal damnation if we don’t do x? You are on a medieval trajectory, albeit cloaked in scientific language. For what isn’t a threat that requires the state, by your reckoning?

          • Damien S.

            “climate scientist email revelations… climate thing is not remotely settled as a science”

            You are deeply deceived on both points. But I’m sure it’s very convenient for you to believe that carbon dioxide pollution isn’t causing dangerous levels of global warming. After all, what libertarian answer would you have if it is?

          • Fallon

            Even assuming that Al Gore is right on the science– the means chosen to fix the problem still needs to pass muster. The hyper-political centralized monopoly solution will lead to greater disaster; it already does in everything else.

          • Damien S.

            Right, just like Los Angeles air has never been more polluted? Oops, no, it’s actually cleaner than it has been for decades, thanks to the EPA and CA EPA. Likewise there’s no lead in gasoline anymore, because the hyper-political centralized monopoly banned it. And we’re not destroying the ozone layer anymore, thanks to many governments.

            Who cares about Al Gore? Pretty much all climate scientists think we’re increasingly fucked thanks to anthropogenic global warming.

          • ThaomasH

            “Since you are not ready to understand basic economic theory”

            Which part of basis economic theory have I shown myself not ready to understand?

          • Fallon

            I believe you make the claim that since some of the discoveries by NASA have led to profit in the private sector that it retro-justifies NASA’s existence. Many have indeed profited. But profit, socially considered, needs to be given realistic context–common language– the wider the better. There are few means available to man in this regard. One, completely indispensable, is the profit-loss sheet. It is derived through entrepreneurial calculation– using prices that can only come from voluntary exchange of property. There is no substitute.

            So, any claims of “profit” concerning NASA is utterly confused. When moneys were taxed and inflated to provide NASA– no exchange took place. Further, NASA bureaucrats do not have any means to cost account their own day to day existences. Is Admin X a proper use of resources? NASA does not know. The web of displacements of market emergence do not stop there– but you must admit that exchange is missing all over the place. And even when NASA buys materials from private producers- these prices and costs are distorted outcomes. How is it possible to have any realistic assessment of demands on scarce resources in NASA’s situation?

            Now, you may say that NASA is too important to worry about its cost– the serfs are too stupid to know what is good for them– but what would that make you? At any rate, technocratic means are not able to overcome economic reality. Technocracy should not be conflated with economics. What are the consequences of doing without economic rationality?

            Will you now rescind your “economic” defense of NASA?

          • ThaomasH

            Sorry, you have confused me with some other correspondent.  No problem.

          • Fallon

            Ah, it still applies to you for the most part– even if it is over anticipating. This comment is for Bryan C. on another thread. Okay, let me check the GPS…okay, located….

          • ThaomasH

            OK, if you insist on a polemic, in what why have I demonstrated that I am “not ready to … ” what ever?

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  • Damien S.

    “best response to political ignorance is to reduce the scope of democratic control.”

    Alternately we could expand, not the scope of control, but the amount of democracy. Making one choice out of a tiny number of options every few years wouldn’t be recognized by the Greeks as democracy. It’s more like elected oligarchy. And the anti-democratic nature of it all is almost fractal: filibusters and holds in the Senate, the inability of an ad hoc House majority to vote a bill through if the Speaker refuses to bring it to the floor.

    As an extreme alternative, imagine if Congress wrote laws as today, but instead of being signed by the President they had to pass a referendum, with referendums being held weekly. (Good democrats would go to the ballot booth the way good religious people go to church/synagogue/mosque.) Same “scope” of government, but voters would have far more incentive to pay attention since they would have far more ability to act on their opinion. You wouldn’t have to call your Representative and hope he listened, you could just vote.

  • JSMill

    I note that both you and Ilya Somin turn to discrimination examples to demonstrate the problem of political ignorance or irresponsible voting. This is part and parcel of the “bleeding libertarian” project. Would it not be more forthright to cite ignorance of “economic theory” as the fundamental peril?

    As I ponder my elementary and secondary school experience with bigoted bullies,
    I don’t remember any helpful market solutions. Unfortunately, the local authorities tolerated bullying behavior. Exit was difficult in a small town.

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