By John David Dyche
Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, is really smart. His new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, is about other people who are not. At least when it comes to political knowledge.
Somin is an immigrant from the Soviet Union. He believes that democracy is superior to other forms of government. But the historic problem of extensive political ignorance poses a danger to American democracy.
The evidence is overwhelming that "the problem of political ignorance is a very serious one." Somin cites tons of data to support his conclusion that the "sheer depth of most individual voters' ignorance may be shocking to readers not familiar with the research."
In the historic congressional elections of 2010, for example, two-thirds of voters "were unaware that the economy had grown during the previous year." Only a third of voters realized "that the TARP bailout bill was enacted under Bush rather than Obama."
American political ignorance extends not just to specific policy issues, but to "the basic structure of government and how it operates." Somin cites a 2006 Zogby poll result that only 42 percent of Americans could even name the three branches of the federal government.
He also notes a 2002 Columbia University study indicating that over a third of Americans thought Karl Marx's dictum "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was in the Constitution. Another third admitted that they did not know!
Such staggering political ignorance undermines the democratic theories upon which our government is based. However, Somin explains why political ignorance may be rational behavior for most citizens since there is such a small chance that their individual votes will affect the outcome of elections.
There are several so-called "information shortcuts," like political parties, that can help even ignorant voters make better choices. Somin says these shortcuts are insufficient and sometimes do more harm than good.
He examines efforts to mitigate the effects of political ignorance, such as restrictions on the voting franchise and the Constitution's anti-democratic provisions, as well as efforts to increase political knowledge. His conclusion is that "the very political ignorance and irrationality that necessitates" consideration of such proposals "is a key obstacle to their enactment in a form likely to work."
Since "there is unlikely to be a quick or easy solution" to the problem, according to Somin, what is to be done? He thinks the problem "may be more effectively addressed not by increasing knowledge but by trying to reduce the impact of ignorance."
Somin therefore supports "limiting and decentralizing government power in ways that enable citizens to ‘vote with their feet' as well as at the ballot box." He believes that leaving more matters to the private sector and letting a diverse federal system flourish would mitigate the impact of political ignorance.
This rigorously researched and closely argued book makes a compelling case that "the government that governs least" is "the form of democracy least vulnerable to political ignorance." Somin disavows "absolute libertarianism,' and recognizes that, "some market failures are even worse than the political failures that ignorance helps facilitate."
But he convincingly concludes that, "Democratic control of government works better when there is less government to control." The U. S. should return to its constitutional roots that left "more decisions under the control of the market, civil society, and decentralized political institutions in which citizens can ‘vote with their feet'" by freely moving in or out.
Unfortunately, the American electorate may be too politically ignorant to understand that, much less do it. Yet there are some hopeful signs.
Somin opens his book with words of James Madison. "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy." Looking at today's political scene, who can dispute that the prologue is over.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.