Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Empowering the ignorant

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." -- Winston Churchill

Let us imagine a small community which is run largely on libertarian principles. The government concerns itself only with protecting individual rights and tackling "tragedy of the commons" type issues such as fishing rights in the local public lake, use of public airwaves, building some infrastructure such as the sidewalks and roads through town, and funding a fire department. For the most part inhabitants of the community are allowed to conduct themselves as they please, provided their actions do not infringe on the rights of their fellow citizens.

With a government limited in scope, taxes are relatively low and workers are able to keep the great majority of what they earn to spend as they see fit. In addition, because of government's minimal role in society, elections are regarded by the citizens as more of a passing interest than a momentous event due to their limited consequence.

Now let us imagine that a group of left-wing intellectuals moves to the community and succeeds in persuading the citizenry of the virtues of an expanded public sector, central planning and collective action. With a greater government role, they argue, the plight of the poor can be alleviated, the population can be made better educated and healthier, and a more just society created. The scope of government is drastically expanded and soon elected officials become tasked with making decisions such as what curriculum the local schools will teach, which substances people are allowed to ingest in their bodies, who they can marry, what wages employers must pay their employees and the allocation of health care resources.

One immediate result of this development is that elections take on a far greater significance, as the outcome has a much more dramatic impact on the citizens' lives than previously. Neighbors become pitted against neighbors as groups compete to harness the increased power of government for their own ends. The divisions within society are almost endless: creationists vs. evolutionists, business owners vs. workers, sick vs. healthy, moralizers vs. libertines, etc. This is perhaps obvious and a topic on which I have written about before.

What may be less apparent is another deleterious consequence. Not only are neighbors and fellow citizens placed in an adversarial position, but each also becomes more reliant on the other's knowledge and intelligence to effectively evaluate the government's actions. When the scope of government is limited, so too is the number of topics on which a voter must retain knowledge in order to make an informed choice. As government expands, the array of issues facing the voter similarly increases.

In a government as vast as the present one we find in the U.S., for example, a voter must have at least rudimentary knowledge of Social Security, the global defense posture, health care policy, high-speed rail, and energy policy, among others, simply to properly evaluate candidates for elected office. Suffice to say, for the great majority of voters such knowledge likely does not exist. This is entirely rational. After all, what is the point in devoting significant time and energy to studying these issues when the likelihood of a voter deciding the outcome of an election is essentially zero?

This, in my opinion, explains the existence of so many "single issue voters" who cast their ballot based on the candidate's stance on one particular issue near and dear to the voter's heart. Others vote on a reflexively partisan basis or as an expression of cultural identity. I suspect the number of voters who carefully study the issues, examine the different candidates, and then vote accordingly is quite small.

While this may warrant a shrug from some, I am a firm believer that an informed, educated and vigilant citizenry is essential to a well-functioning democracy. The more government expands, the more difficult it becomes for the people to hold to account the elected officials who ostensibly act as their public servants. Rather, such officials and the government can largely do as they please, pausing only to dispense the occasional bread and circuses (or pork barrel project) to keep the people distracted. For those who are skeptical, witness re-election rates in the House of Representatives which haven't dipped below 85 percent since 1964 (although gerrymandering and campaign finance legislation which hinders incumbents also play significant roles).

As I said earlier this week, I remain optimistic in light of some the opinion polls and recent election results. We should also remain mindful, however, that the more government expands, the more difficult it becomes for citizens to keep it on a tight leash. I am a firm believer that government is necessary, and democracy is the best form of government. But we should also harbor no illusions as to its limitations.

Related: For more in a similar vein, read Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter.

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