Somin Publishes Lead Essay in Cato Unbound Debate

Professor Ilya Somin is the author of the lead essay in an online debate appearing in Cato Unbound on the topic, "Is Smaller Government Smarter Government?" Response essayists are Heather Gerken, Jeffrey Friedman, and Sean Trende.

In his arguments, Somin relies on content derived from his most recent book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, discussing matters such as the extent and relative rationality of political ignorance, the "rational irrationality" of political fans, the difficulty of increasing political knowledge through education, the shortcomings of information shortcuts, and foot voting versus ballot box voting, using these issues to present a case for limiting and decentralizing government.

"Political ignorance is far from the only factor that must be considered in deciding the appropriate size, scope, and centralization of government," Somin concludes. "For example, some large-scale issues, such as global warming, are simply too big to be effectively addressed by lower-level governments or private organizations. Democracy and Political Ignorance is not a complete theory of the proper role of government in society. But it does suggest that the problem of political ignorance should lead us to limit and decentralize government more than we would otherwise." 

Democracy and Political IgnoranceCato Unbound, October 11, 2013. By Ilya Somin.

"Some people react to data like the above by thinking that the voters must be stupid. But political ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people. If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example).2 For most of us, it is rational to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other activities that are more interesting or more likely to be useful. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair puts it, '[t]he single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most  of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh…. before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.'3 Most people don’t precisely calculate the odds that their vote will make a difference. But they probably have an intuitive sense that the chances are very small, and act accordingly."