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Somin Election Day Op-Ed on Political Ignorance

Reducing the size and complexity of government is one way to address the issue of widespread political ignorance says Professor Ilya Somin in an Election Day op-ed carried by the Jurist. Somin points out that "even a citizen who cares a great deal about public policy has little incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice. Becoming a well-informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational. Unfortunately, the rational decisions of individuals create a dysfunctional collective outcome in which the majority of the electorate is dangerously ill-informed."

The Politics of Ignorance: Election Day Reflections, Jurist, by Ilya Somin.

Even if the majority of voters paid more attention to politics than they do, that still might not be enough to cope with the complexities of the modern state. The federal government alone spends over 20 percent of our national gross domestic product and adopts thousands of regulations that touch on almost every aspect of our lives. Even highly attentive voters are unlikely to be aware of more than a small fraction of this activity.

"Thus, many important aspects of government power are likely to escape public scrutiny, and thereby also escape public accountability and democratic control. To take just one notorious example, every year the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on counterproductive porkbarrel spending such as the notorious "bridge to nowhere." Yet pork projects persist because most voters are largely unaware of their existence, while the well-organized interest groups that benefit are not only aware, but prepared to punish politicians who refuse to satisfy their desires. If government had fewer functions, it might be easier for voters to keep track of them, and thereby combat interest group machinations. It would also be easier for voters to assess how well government is fulfilling its core functions, such as national defense.

"Obviously, political ignorance is far from the only problem that must be considered when we try to determine how large a role the state should play in our society. But it is essential to understand that decisions about the size of government involve not only policy questions about specific issues, but also the overall viability of democratic control of government. The government that governs least may well be the most democratic."

Read the op-ed