Ethics Quote of the Month: Illya Somin

“Democracy is supposed to be rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But in order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge. If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance. Unfortunately, public knowledge about politics is disturbingly low. In addition, the public also often does a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. This state of affairs has persisted despite rising education levels, increased availability of information thanks to modern technology, and even rising IQ scores. It is mostly the result of rational behavior, not stupidity. Such widespread and persistent political ignorance and irrationality strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing the power of government.”

Illya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law, from his paper and 2013 book of the same name, “Democracy and Political Ignorance.”

Those were the days...

Those were the days…

Somin, who writes frequently on the mostly libertarian law wonk blog The Volokh conspiracy, is a political scientist, but big government progressives should restrain themselves from dismissing his statement (and my endorsement of it) as right wing or partisan rhetoric. Facts and logic should not be partisan or ideological, and it seem inarguable to me that Somin’s statement is correct, and that certain ethical truths follow. If one is going to dispute his conclusion, one must be able to fairly contest the assertions leading up to it. Let’s examine them in that light:

  • “Democracy is supposed to be rule of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Yes, we can agree on that, can’t we?
  • “But in order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge.” True… at least this was the conviction of Madison, Adam Smith and virtually all of the political philosophers who championed democratic government. I have never heard it seriously questioned.
  • “If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance.” One cannot confidently, responsibly or effectively critique decisions which one does not understand, right? 
  • “Unfortunately, public knowledge about politics is disturbingly low.” That is an understatement. 
  • “In addition, the public also often does a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know.” I don’t see how anyone can seriously object to this conclusion.
  • “This state of affairs has persisted despite rising education levels, increased availability of information thanks to modern technology, and even rising IQ scores.”  Well, I’ll argue that “rising educational levels is an illusion, that more information also means more effort is required to cull through all the lies and junk, and that IQ scores aren’t necessarily indicative of the kind of intelligent one needs to engage in government, but sure, this is true enough. It’s not central to the conclusion anyway.
  • “It is mostly the result of rational behavior, not stupidity.” This statement, more than the rest, might sustain a debate. I think stupidity plays a large part in it, as close to half the public is below average intelligence, and average is nothing to take bows about.

With all that as a precedent and undeniable, how can Somin’s conclusion—“Such widespread and persistent political ignorance and irrationality strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing the power of government”—be denied, regardless of ideological preferences, on an ethical basis? If you have limited time to give to a business, which is more responsible— running a small shop, or a multi-national corporation? Is limited knowledge, diligence and experience more responsible to apply to a simpler, more basic problem, or a huge, infinitely complex one? Since mutual trust is essential to a democracy, in which case is trust rational: when the comprehension, knowledge and attention of a manager is appropriate to the scale of the enterprise he or she is applying it to, or when those assets are  inadequate for a much larger, more ambitious, much more daunting challenge?

The smaller a government is–a town, as oppose to a city, for example—the more directly the citizens can be involved and be able to keep pace with developments. The bigger a national government is, the more prone it is to tip toward single leader domination. This is why politicians like large government (whatever they may say about it) …there are more jobs and more power, less oversight and accountability.

I am not  philosophically opposed to competent, efficient, honest, responsive big government that doesn’t strangle individual rights and initiative, any more than I am opposed to perpetual motion, instant riches for all, guaranteed justice, immortality, eternal youth and infallibility. But none of these can work either, and I consider the advocates for any of them who keep insisting that they are achievable as either con artists, liars or fools.

Illya Somin’s quote explains why I am probably right in the case of a bigger and bigger U.S. government. As for the rest, I’m sure you can figure it out yourself.

__________________________

Pointer: Volokh Conspiracy

Facts: Cato

 

 

22 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Month: Illya Somin

  1. The argument for decentralization is further strengthened when you look at certain areas of personal belief…

    So what if the Rep from BFE Arkansas thinks homosexuality is a sin? They have no power to influence your life.

    So what if the Senator from California thinks all guns should be confiscated? She has no authority to do so.

    Who cares if some the Rep from Los Santos CA thinks the world is exactly 157 years old, created by Kifflom, and that they are descended from Kraff, the famous Emperor of the 4th Paradigm? They can’t actually do anything that will have any real impact on your life.

    Only when you give Government so much power over your life do you have to start to worry about this.

    • AblativeMeatshield: that’s an excellent way of framing the decentralization argument. It SHOULD be persuasive to a big-government liberal type but… I doubt they’d entertain the idea until a Republican is in the White House.

      Also, someone’s been playing GTV V.

    • This is similar to the rational behavior argument. The amount of influence an individual voter can have on nationally set policy is miniscule and the amount of effort needed to be knowledgeable about complicated legislation (the ACA , does anyone know everything that i in it?) is far from miniscule.

  2. Why do you have to post great Federalist topics at odd hours? Got done about 3 hours ago sending Sarge983 an email very closely related to this topic in regards to a rise in serious secessionist movements and why they seem to grow very much in modern days.

    What I consider to be an insane cultural phenomenon to nationalize EVERY political issue as well as make political issues which have no business being political can only serve to perpetuate resentment. The Founders understood this when their Federalist framework placed most political power in the hands of the separate (decentralized) States and relegated to the national government powers related to self defense and regulation of interstate commerce.

    This nationalize EVERY political issue and politicize non political issues trend has also contributed greatly to the extreme polarization of the political parties.

    • You are underestimating some people’s desire to control others. “I can’t believe they spank their son, we need to put a stop to barbaric behavior like that”, “we need a meat-free cafeteria because we can’t be vegetarians if we can see other people eating meat”, and “it looks terrible that everyone has a different type of garbage can, we need to get the city to issue garbage cans so they all look alike” are trivial examples of this impulse in people. This impulse leads to the demand for centralized government and centralized authority. I think the essence of this is boiled down to its raw form in many homeowner’s associations.

      We need to be able to let other people be different and do things that we feel are mistakes. I have found that most people have forgotten this simple rule to getting along with others. I got in the middle of a dispute between two groups of faculty members once. One group didn’t want to let another group start a new program. This group came to me demanding to know why I didn’t stand against the program because it didn’t seem to make sense. I said “I don’t think it looks like a good idea, but they do and it is their field. I have to be able to trust that they know what they are doing in their field. I also have to trust that if they are wrong, they will work to correct their mistake”. It is hard to have that trust in others, but without it, we end up in a micromanaging dictatorship in fact (if not in theory).

      On the IQ thing, I don’t know what kind of studies they are doing that show that IQ is going up (I see that they say they have some, but I can’t imagine what they are doing). Every standardized exam I have ever seen shows the opposite effect. There is no motivating factor as effective as showing my students a standardized test from 10 years ago. It sends them into a studying frenzy because of its difficulty. They have had to change the very way the ACT is scored because of the decline in ability.

      • You are underestimating some people’s desire to control others. “I can’t believe they spank their son, we need to put a stop to barbaric behavior like that”, “we need a meat-free cafeteria because we can’t be vegetarians if we can see other people eating meat”, and “it looks terrible that everyone has a different type of garbage can, we need to get the city to issue garbage cans so they all look alike” are trivial examples of this impulse in people. This impulse leads to the demand for centralized government and centralized authority. I think the essence of this is boiled down to its raw form in many homeowner’s associations.

        C.S. Lewis said it best – “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

  3. Out of Balance.
    9/11/2001 may go down as the single worst event ever to occur in our history, with respect to personal and economic freedom. And not just because more Americans were killed that day than any other besides Antietam.

    The overwhelmingly fear it created in most Americans allowed the Federal Government to invade our privacy, and with our tacit approval.

    The Federal Government doubled in size under GW Bush and I’m sure it has increased under B. Obama.
    The Federal debt has run amuck under GW Bush and has increased even more under B. Obama.

    So what we have today is the Federal Government having unfettered access to our privacy, and complete impact on our wealth (i.e. If Federal borrowing rates increase, the cost of the Government debt will overwhelm every other expense).

    It doesn’t matter if you are Republican or a Democrat, they all share the same philosophy, and control over us.

  4. But it is also a fact that most people pay even LESS attention to local and state politics (and the voting turnouts are dismal), so why does this support more power to the states and less to the federal government? I’d also argue that with the demise of good journalism, that it would be virtually impossible for the issues to be covered sufficiently. Many local papers are going out of business or have reduced staff to the point where they are spitting out verbatim AP news reports or leader statements as fact without investigation or analysis. This would also make the risk for corruption greater — think DC local government and PG county government as easy examples.

    • But it is also a fact that most people pay even LESS attention to local and state politics (and the voting turnouts are dismal), so why does this support more power to the states and less to the federal government?

      Because regardless of how much attention is paid, New York still knows best what is good for New York, Illinois what is good for Illinois, Texas what is good for Texas, and so on.

      It is the very height of arrogance to believe that you know best what is good for a collection of people a thousand miles away.

      And while local reporting may be dying, it is still possible to get word of what happened two towns over, far more-so than what was said and done in D.C.

      • I’ve lived in 4 different States and everyone I met (regardless of political affiliation) self-identified as Americans – not as a state citizen. We haven’t seen such a resurgence of pundits screaming about States’ rights since 1859. In any event your small town hypothetical fails. Every single local election demonstrates that most people don’t give a damn. This is a fact and is seriously not debatable. So if we shrink the federal government, you’ll have to hope that people educate themselves about the issues (because newspapers are dead) AND that people actually show up at election time, otherwise you’ll have government by the few.

        • Then you will be quite happy to live under laws that regulate your life that were written by Texans.

          The fact remains that people in New York have no idea about the lives and needs of people in Texas, and ideas on how to make New Hampshire better might be ruinous to Florida.

          Your argument is that we should do away with state governments, because it should all be run from D.C.

          This is counter to the very concept of how this country was intended to be run – the federal government was never intended to be so involved in the lives of the people.

          I understand that you are of the opinion that Government is the solution to all of our ills, but since the federal government has never taken a problem and actually improved it in any significant way runs counter to that belief.

          • If you actually READ my posts I’m not arguing anything of the sort. I’m simply pointing out that people don’t give a damn about local and state politics. This is a fact — and libertarians and tea partiers don’t like to talk about it because it is a big fly in the ointment. So, unless that changes, we should have serious reservations about dramatically enhancing state power. As for what people want — I suspect most people want secure jobs, good schools, decent cost of living, affordable health care, and low taxes. That doesn’t change regardless of your state of residency, it’s just that we all have different ideas (and some are more informed than others) as to how we get there. I am not a huge supporter of big government, I am a supporter of smart government. Under our current system, where money rules and the electorate is dumb, there is no good way to get there — so I don’t pretend to wax eloquent claiming that I have the solution.

            As an aside though, thanks for the polite discourse.

            • I would ask this: if smart big government has been proved impossible…and I think an objective and fair observer would have to concede that it has been—then is it responsible to base one’s political views on a system that isn’t going to exist? If I thought there was anything approaching a realistic chance that a large government could be efficient, honest, responsive, self-less and effective, I’d support all sorts of government programs and the taxes to pay for them. I wish I could fly by flapping my arms, too, but it’s irresponsible for me to wait until ten minutes before an appointment cross-town to try to transport myself that way….

              • Funny — I did not (and have never) argued for smart BIG government — I definitely think our federal government could and should be smaller – and definitely smarter. I do think, however, that certain programs should be centralized at the federal level. Frankly, none of us have ever seen a smart centralized government, but that is not the fault of the idea, it is the fault of how Congress operates (regardless of your politics).

          • Ablative, get real if Beth were content to have Texas laws foisted upon the entire nation she would have to then deal with a balanced and responsible budget, massive job growth, relatively low taxes and greater personal and economic liberty.

            Don’t demand that of her.

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