*Critical Review* symposium on Ilya Somin on democratic ignorance

You’ll find it here, ungated.  Ilya’s book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, argues we pay a heavy price for democratic ignorance.  In this symposium, a variety of academics dissent from his argument.  Thomas Christiano’s piece for instance is entitled “Voter Ignorance is Not Necessarily a Problem,” here is one bit:

The second [premise of Somin] is that voter ignorance betokens bad public policy. But there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. How can this be the case? One explanation is that individually ignorant voters are small pieces of a large system that divides intellectual labor through discussions among elites, opinion leaders, and ordinary citizens. This system may entitle voters to trust in the opinions of others, sparing them the need to be well informed.

Here is Benjamin Page:

Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance suffers from the fallacy of composition: It uses individual-level evidence about political behavior to draw inferences about the preferences and actions of the public as a whole. But collective public opinion is more stable, consistent, coherent, and responsive to the best available information, and more reflective of citizens’ underlying values and interests, than are the opinions of most individual citizens.

Let’s ask them again later today!

Here is Ilya’s response to his critics.


It would be nice if we had learned from the past, but optimistically people will learn from the present - if they are worried about the impact of certain candidates on policy, it would be helpful to consider whether _any_ officeholder should have access to many of the levers of power.

I think it is more a case that if you have convinced yourself that democracy is tyranny, you lose your ability to choose in any meaningful way. It's all tyranny so burn it down, elect the short-fingered vulgarian.

Many have put the #OregonStandoff out of mind, but I think it's actually very much a part of the zeitgeist. We have great swaths of Americans (and voters!) who reject democratic outcomes and consider government itself invalid. What is "over-reach" in modern parlance? Anything government does that I personally disagree with, never mind that it was what you all wanted.

Are you pro-majoritarian or anti-majoritarian? Difficult to tell.

Six months ago I would have said that Congress was broken, but I meant it in the sense that Congressmen should do their jobs. I would not have dreamed that we'd go beyond "gridlock is good" to "burn it down."

Gridlock is the only time government does its job, which is making difficult choices and exercising some semblance of fiscal responsibility on behalf of taxpayers. Witness the (politically unpopular) tax hikes and spending cuts in 2013, and its predecessors: Reagan/O'Neil and Clinton/Gingrich.

If that's broken, I like broken.

Last year I would have been confident that most Americans were beyond such nonsense. No matter where you are on the political spectrum you should be able to name a few things the government has done and done well: Beat Tojo. Land on the Moon. Fight AIDS.

Oh, and the trip to the Grand Canyon was nice too.

And last year I would have been confident that most Americans would have accepted some trade-offs in that. Sure they got things they wanted, and other people got things they wanted, in a grand bargain of collective self-determination.

Am I wrong? Have things gotten so bad that Brian Donohue represents America?

AIDS was an exaggerated crisis that was and still is generally limited to homosexuals and drug users. We spend multitudes more on AIDS research per patient than any other disease.

Of course I don't represent America. How often do you hear people even mention the $19 trillion debt or $450 billion deficit? These are colossal failings of government, but nobody cares.

Am I talking about Trump the fascist, or Hillary the crook, or demon immigrants, or outrageous inequality, or ANY of the tropes that pass for political discourse in 21st century America, like the rabid commentariat here and elsewhere is fixated on.

No. Fiscal responsibility has no place in our discourse today. Yet I persist.

Beyond what nonsense? That a massive 'nudge' by all levels of government created the situation that led to the 2008 financial crisis? The GSE's were 40% of the mortgage market and were as bankrupt as Lehman.

That Detroit is a figment of our imagination? That Ferguson revealed a vile system of funding where people were penalized for existing, targeting the most vulnerable members of society?

Oh, that the 20 trillion or so federal debt is only affordable because of negative interest rates?

What you are saying is that we should give the Catholic Church enormous respect and power because they built wonderful cathedrals.

I honestly think you should get out a little more.

This kind of fails basic citizenship. In various forms my question and your answers go like this:

Q: Is democracy good?

A: No, here is a policy I don't like.

A bad wind blowing in America.

Oh Gawd, anon, don't presume to lecture me on basic citizenship.

I get up and go to work every day. I support myself and my family. I'm active in my community. I'm law abiding.

And I write these big checks to the government every year- my part (ok, more than my part, but I get progressive taxation) of the $6.2 trillion Leviathan sucks up every year (although the spend half a billion more than that.)

It makes me sad to see how great quantities of money are absorbed and squandered by the government. I'd like to fix it, but I got my day job, so I leave it to the people we elect, and they don't give a shit. Staggeringly irresponsible. They refuse to make the tough choices they are elected to make.

Nowhere in there am I taking over a government building or burning anything down. I'm registering my disapproval, which you take as a failure of basic citizenship. Go pound salt.

Brian, I really don't think you "like broken" and then complain "they don’t give a shit." One thing really does lead to the other.

No. you fail at reading comprehension. What years of schooling could not accomplish, I can scarcely hope to remedy quickly.

Let me leave you with the words of another guy who fails the test of citizenship according to your criteria, the founder f the Democratic party, Thomas Jefferson:

"The multiplication of public offices, increase of expense beyond income, growth and entailment of a public debt, are indications soliciting the employment of the pruning knife."

He wrote this in 1821. I reckon he's doing about 300 RPM in his grave right now.

That Ferguson revealed a vile system of funding where people were penalized for existing, targeting the most vulnerable members of society?

You've been drinking the Holder-Tabarrok Kool-Aid. The main beltway in St. Louis, I-270, runs through only about a dozen of the more than 90 municipalities in greater St. Louis, but among them is Ferguson and the neighboring town of Florissant. Hence, the municipal courts process a great many traffick tickets.


Democracy is not good on a scale of 300 million people. That's why we had a Republic. Unfortunately we're devolving.

I seriously believe that 8 years of dedicated gridlock, as a conservative policy, in response to Obama's election DID get us to Trump.

It's like "let's try gridlock, OK that didn't work, burn it down!"

Perhaps it is wrong to blame a booster for gridlock for that, but maybe it's not.

Democracy only works when the majority agrees with me.

Also, anybody who disagrees with me is ignorant.

Let me hook you up.


Are you disagreeing with me? Ignoramus. I'm off to my symposium.

The problem is people voting for deceitful, incompetent candidates who wield far too much control over their lives.

"Wondering who can possibly watch the 2016 presidential clown show, and think, 'Yes, I want the political process to control ever larger parts of my life!'" Radley Balko

A culture/economy/markets/nation composed of 320,000,000 people is far too complicated and entails far too many variables to be controlled by any one person or group of philosopher kings.

Let's have a critical review of central banker/central planner/unlimited government missteps.

The link to Ilya's response is actually a second link to Page.


I thought this was the only substantive objection offered by Benjamin Page: Somin's focus on levels instead of biases leads him to flirt with such possible “solutions” as restricting the franchise even further than is the current dismal practice (181); delegating policy-making authority to unelected “experts” (especially through counter-majoritarian judicial review, ch. 6); and—Somin's favorite—decentralizing and downsizing government (199). The latter move would tend to thwart the provision of public goods, reduce policy visibility (hence reducing democratic control), and exacerbate class biases in the political process. Somin's enthusiasm for “foot voting” (ch. 5) in a decentralized system downplays the problem that the affluent are more mobile, and that resulting class-based segregation—together with a race to the bottom—is likely to prevent any effective redistributive policies from being enacted.

To what "dismal" restrictions on the franchise is he referring? Am I crazy, or his he? "Reducing policy visibility" is about is empty a phrase as I can imagine. And it's funny that he worries about "delegating policy-making authority to experts" when just a few paragraphs earlier he says " as Bob Shapiro and I pointed out in The Rational Public... processes that produce a tendency for individuals with very limited information to be more nearly correct than not: processes involving expertise, cue giving, political talk, and public debate, amounting to “collective deliberation.” Notice the quotes around collective deliberation. It seems to me he's fine with tricking low-information voters into accepting the opinions of experts as their own, but not with letting those same experts simply dictate policies to those same members of the public. Wouldn't the latter be a lot more honest?

Also, if experts are already sock-puppeting low information voters, then to me he's already more or less conceded Somin's point.

To what “dismal” restrictions on the franchise is he referring?

The ones which prevent aliens and felons from voting, no doubt, or require you fill out a form at the post office 'ere you land on the electoral roll.

Strangely, some of Trump's strongest critics also seem the least concerned about Big Government and the Imperial Presidency. One can be horrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency or one can support a broad scope of Government powers, but one can't do both.

Since about 2000 we have been told by the evolving right that Ronald Reagan was a RINO and his policies were Big Government and are now considered Overreach.

We can't oppose Trump because Reagan was a RINO?

Since about 2000 we have been told by the evolving right

You haven't been told that, but if it pleases you to imagine you have....

To name just one Litmus test, Reagan backed assault weapons bans. Today that will get you 3%ers ready to ride and absolutely will not get you on a Presidential ticket.

I think they can do both. I agree it is like that Libertarian poster of the protesters getting clubbed by the police - those that want more government meet more government. People who think the Constitution is a quaint old fashioned document that should be read according to the whims of current political fashion may be appalled by what they have done. Or not.

But if you believe that not a sparrow's feather should fall without a Federal regulatory agency being involved, then who gets elected becomes ever more important. The more power the Feds have, the more important it is for One of Us to be elected. When Jefferson was standing it didn't make much of a difference which Virginian gentleman got elected - their policies would hardly interfere with anyone's life. But when nothing can be done without Federal approval, when even the local water supply is deemed a Federal obligation, then it matters.

The point is that it is totally unrealistic to expect that one's preferred candidate wins in every election. Democrats and Republicans have each won 5 of the last 10 presidential elections. Control of Congress has switched hands many times in recent years. There is a roughly 25% probability that Trump will become the next President according to electionbettingodds.com. One might dispute the precise percentage, but the probability is not zero. One way of interpreting that probability is that, if political conditions were to remain fairly stable over the next 100 years, then we can expect to have a President similar to Donald Trump for 25 of those years. Wanting to vest a lot of power in the Office of the Presidency is equivalent to wanting to vest a lot of power in the hands of Donald Trump.

That is not a logical interpretation of Trump's presidential odds.

A 25% probability that Trump will be president right now is far different from a 25% probability of a Trump-like candidate in any given election, because it ignores the probability of reaching this point. Trump's rise so far has been highly improbable. A candidate similar to him has never had this level of success. A few months ago the betting odds of his reaching the presidency were 5-6%, and even that was after he caught fire in an unusual manner.

I tend to agree that most supporters of a powerful presidency are inconsistent. They only want it for their side and will not be pleased if the other side wields it (kind of like the famously shifting NY Times editorial position on the filibuster). Nevertheless, horror at Trump doesn't prove the inconsistency because an off-the-wall candidate like him becoming president would be an exceedingly rare occurrence.

One can do both.

While there's certainly widespread political ignorance, it can't be a problem unless Somin can prove that when people become more knowledgeable they change positions, otherwise the issue is meaningless. Once the politically ignorant become more knowledgeable they may simply use their understanding of the facts to reinforce a set of political beliefs determined by values, culture or any other non-knowledge determinate factor. This is consistent with my own observations (not significant evidence, I know) that greater knowledge simply causes uninformed Democrats to become more informed Democrats and uninformed Republicans to become more informed Republicans.

Somin cites evidence that more informed voters hold different positions than less informed voters.

If the stance turns on a normative question, that they're better or worse 'informed' is of little account.

Somin also cites evidence that there are groups of informed voters and uninformed voters within all mainstream political ideologies. That more informed voters tend to be more X (where X is either libertarian, conservative, or progressive) than less informed voters, doesn't imply that non-X voters become X voters the more informed they become. Informed voters may have a greater tendency to vote X for reasons entirely unrelated to levels of political knowledge.

Check out a California ballot sometimes. The last one I saw had 98 local issues, propositions and candidates. We have exactly one choice for federal office, our representative. We did not even bother running against the affirmative actipn Senator, Feintsein..

Limit the franchise to circulate petitions and witness signatures to those eligible to vote on the proposition in question. Ban commercial signature gathering and allow opposing attorneys to put the circulators on the stand and under oath and ask them if they got paid for circulating and ask them if they're drawing a salary from a non-profit with an interest in the proposition in question. That'll cut down on the number of propositions you face. You see one or two a year in New York.

Is voter ignorance a good thing or a bad thing for democracy? It depends on who wins the election, for neither side acknowledges that voter ignorance would cause its side to win. The splintering of the Republican Party proves the point, as a majority or near majority of Republican voters support the nationalistic and authoritarian Trump while simultaneously opposing tax cuts titled in favor of the wealthy, the wealthy elites who buy elections, and the neocon interventionist foreign policy that define actual Republican policies. Are Republican voters ignorant of the policies or just plain ignorant? My concern is that the right-wing populists will combine with left-wing populists and elect Trump, not because the two camps agree on the same policies but because they are either ignorant of the policies or just plain ignorant. In other words, ignorance is a problem for America only if ignorant voters on the left combine join with ignorant voters on the right and elect a demagogue. It can happen here.

Did you see this? Leftists who support Trump because they can't even:


Breakdown of democracy again, in a stranger form.

The history of the twentieth century is that smart people who like to think of themselves as informed are much more dangerous that stupid people. The way to good government is to give stupid people the vote and keep the number of smart people in power to a minimum. After all, the smart people gave us the Nazis and the Communists. The Communists were so well informed by their theoretical book learning that actual reality never got a look in. Agriculture was destroyed and millions starved because they could not accept the evidence of their own eyes. Das Kapital said it would be different!

In fact the most dangerous group on the planet are probably school teachers.

The Soviets went from a peasantry to nuclear world power in the space of how many decades?

I think the costs were too high (and i emphasize that), but for the fact of early (abandoned) failures in agricultural collectivization, I do not think it is the correct analysis to say that they failed. Stalin was precisely willing to exact the costs that he did, for precisely the sights he had in mind, sights which were broadly achieved - he was able to repel the Nazis and become one of two world powers, the second greatest military power the world had seen to date (and until the 1980s, it wasn't even clear that they may not have been number one).

Also, Das Kapital bears no relation to Leninism.

The Soviets went from a peasantry to nuclear world power in the space of how many decades? -

China built a nuclear bomb in 1964. They still had a per capita product about 2% that of the United States.

Amusing the quantum of people who fancy there was no industrial or commercial development in Russia prior to 1917.

The case is only slightly overstated. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's the right way to do things. But the contrary side of the argument is routinely overstated to the extreme - it was altogether fitting (although morally repugnant) with the norms of the Czarist era that lives were dispensable, and this tradition was continued under Stalin in pursuit of his objectives, which he broadly achieved.

Nathan W March 1, 2016 at 12:37 pm

The Soviets went from a peasantry to nuclear world power in the space of how many decades?

And Mussolini made the trains run on time. So what? You are using Chernobyl as justification for the mass murder of more people than World War Two?

I think the costs were too high (and i emphasize that),

Yeah. And some of your best friends etc etc

but for the fact of early (abandoned) failures in agricultural collectivization, I do not think it is the correct analysis to say that they failed.

Abandoned? Tell me when did they abandon collective farming? They abandoned murdering Kulaks because there were no more successful farmers left. Define failure. Khrushchev was not willing to starve Soviet peasants in order to fund heavy industry - with some 1.5 million dying in 1947 alone. So he started importing food from the West. Even though simply expanding the private plots farmers got from 4% to 8% would have fed the whole country. How is that not a failure?

Stalin was precisely willing to exact the costs that he did, for precisely the sights he had in mind, sights which were broadly achieved – he was able to repel the Nazis and become one of two world powers, the second greatest military power the world had seen to date (and until the 1980s, it wasn’t even clear that they may not have been number one).

Russia had been a Great Power for centuries. Exactly how did Stalin add or subtract from that? He did not intend to repel the Nazis. He seems to have intended to stab them in the back and "liberate" all of Europe while they were fighting the French. Certainly if it wasn't for Stalin's immoral partitioning of Poland the Nazis could never have invaded the USSR. No common border.

Also, Das Kapital bears no relation to Leninism.

So now you understand Marxism better than the world's Marxists? Interesting.

Which part about the "withering away of the state" (Marxism) bears relation to a highly technocratic elite pulling all the strings (Leninism)?

If the popular will is dumb and fickle it doesn't clearly follow that the government should be smaller. Another possibility is that we should make government less democratic.

As far as the appellate judiciary is concerned (and the law professoriate), elected bodies are the student council. The lawyers are the school administration.

Being informed as a citizen is important for reasons that have nothing to do with voting. Limiting the discussion to voting is silly. Of course a single vote almost never matters in deciding an election. So what?

Informed citizens impact public opinion and public opinion can be incredibly influential in all manner of ways, both within government and without.

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