“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.”
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