Opinion-haver Claire Lehmann calls me out for calling low-information voters low-information:
A pernicious term used for those who voted for Trump and Brexit is the “low information voter”. Most likely uneducated, the low information voter doesn’t know much about “the issues”. He votes according to his gut feeling. He sabotages delicate democratic systems with the blunt exercise of his democratic rights.
It’s hard to see what the problem is. It’s just science. We have 65 years of data showing that most voters know almost nothing about politics. A few know quite a bit. Many know less than nothing.
Lehmann has some good worries about high-information voters:
Depending on how you spin it, however, low information people might also be less prone to rationalization and high information people might be more vulnerable to ad hoc hypothesizing. Being high in intelligence or a need for cognition does not automatically indicate that one is high in rationality. Nor does it tell us much about a person’s practical wisdom.
But this isn’t a critique of Ilya Somin or me. For all I know, she learned these points by reading our books. After all, in Against Democracy, I argued high-information citizens are mostly hooligans, (My guess is that Lehmann is a hooligan–she has high information, but she straw mans the people she argues against.)
Does she have an actual criticism? Here’s the most telling bit:
In Brennan’s epistocratic paradise, a twenty-three year old who has recently graduated with a degree in political science and who has passed a civics exam would be more entitled to vote than the Army veteran returning from service in Afghanistan. People with PhDs who call themselves “social scientists” and who use taxpayer funds to write papers on pilates being the embodiment of whiteness and the importance of understanding icebergs from a feminist perspective would have more authority to vote than the common taxpayers who pay their wage.
I think this illustrates what gets Lehmann’s goat. Perhaps Lehmann views the right to vote as a kind of honorific. And she’s right that it is. In most modern societies, people use the right to vote as a kind of public affirmation of who matters and who doesn’t. We load suffrage with all sorts of expressive value. Getting the right to vote is like getting a gold star and a pat on the back. Being denied suffrage is like getting a big fat middle finger in your face. That’s why it seems so sinister to say that an ignorant army vet shouldn’t get the right to vote even though he served in Afghanistan.
But–as I argue in Against Democracy and elsewhere–the reason the rest of you people load up the right to vote with all this symbolic majesty is that you are, to a significant extent, vicious and morally defective. See chapter 5. No mention from Lehmann of my argument there. My guess is she knows her audience won’t know better.
Let’s be clear: Part of my mission is to downgrade the status we attach to politics. I argue for elitism about politics in the same way I argue for elitism about plumbing. The average person knows jack shit about plumbing, but that doesn’t make him an inferior person. Still, the average person’s opinions on plumbing aren’t worth much more than the stuff we flush down the pipes. Same goes for the average person’s opinions on trade policy, immigration policy, and so on. To have a reasonable point of view requires knowledge of particular relevant facts (let alone social scientific knowledge), but we have 65 years of data showing most people lack awareness or are uninformed about even the most basic relevant facts. “It hurts my feelings when you say that!” Sorry, precious, but I ain’t your mommy.
Now perhaps an army vet coming back from Afghanistan is a hero. Let’s suppose he is. His experiences in Afghanistan no doubt taught him many things, but it’s not like they magically imbue him with an understanding of comparative advantage or allow him to estimate the deadweight loss of immigration restrictions. I’ve been in a lot of fistfights (I think I have a 21-1 record, thank you), if not gunfights, and done a lot of camping. I don’t recall learning a single thing from those activities that would help me vote better. Some soldiers serve our country–and, I’d add, so do nurses, motorcycle mechanics, teachers, coffee makers, daycare workers, and hot wings restauranteurs--but we should honor them for the service they did, not pretend they do us a service by voting out of ignorance or misinformation.
Lehmann spends a lot of time complaining about crackpot academic work. So do I! But that’s irrelevant to my thesis, since it’s not like I argued that only and all academics should be allowed to vote. Here’s a tip for Lehmann: When you argue against a person, argue against what they think. But, again, she probably knows better, but knows her readers won’t know better.
On Lehmann’s behalf, I admit there is something indeed mean about saying low-information voters are low-information. As Ruth Sample says, there’s no polite way to say that. But sometimes you have to say impolite things. Here’s a relevant passage from a draft of chapter 5:
To illustrate: my surgeon brother-in-law David correctly believes that he has superior medical judgment to most people. It is not morally wrong for him to have this belief. But that does not mean he should walk around Target, telling everyone meets that he has better medical judgment than they do. This would express arrogance or contempt.
However, there are times when something important is at stake. In such cases, it can become permissible or even mandatory that one publicly judge and express who is superior to others along some dimension. Indeed, democrats seem to agree—most seem to think that when we’re voting for elected officials, we’re supposed to look for the better candidates, those better fit to lead.
For instance, if someone starts choking in front of David during his Target shopping trip, he should not be modest. Someone’s life is at stake. He should declare that he is a doctor—thus expressing that he has superior medical judgment to others and should be charged with helping the choking customer.
Suppose bystander Bob, who has no medical training, says, “Hey, Doctor David, I want to help the choking person too! It’s disrespectful of you to insist you help him. You and I are equals. We should flip a coin to determine who will help. Otherwise you’re hurting my feelings.” In this scenario, Bob acts badly. David should take charge, and Bob should get over himself. Even if Bob sincerely believed he and David are equals, Bob is negligent in holding this belief, and shouldn’t act upon it.
It can be immoral or disrespectful under some conditions to express the view that some have better judgment than others, but in other conditions, it can be permissible or even mandatory. Let us apply this to a political example. Suppose an evil demon said, “I will cast a spell condemning all of you to lower quality government—and thus more unjust wars, bad economic policies that harm the poor, more bigotry, and more poverty and suffering—unless you do a moderately decent job identifying which citizens tend to have better political judgment from others.” In this case, under the demon’s threat, we would have good reason to try to distinguish the more from the less competent. If people feel insulted, it is just too bad, and they need to grow up. The point of distinguishing the more from the less competent is not to insult the incompetent, but to save us from the bad government the evil demon will inflict upon us.
Yet this is more or less the situation epistocrats claim we are in, except that in the real world, the evil demon is democracy.