Quotes and thoughts: Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance (Ilya Somin)

Very interesting two papers by Somin! I will definitely check out his other stuff when i have time. I just took the time off reading papers before i start reading book #2 on patents (Against Intellectual Monopoly).

Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance


ABSTRACT: Advocates of ‘‘deliberative democracy’’ want citizens to actively

participate in serious dialogue over political issues, not merely go to the polls every

few years. Unfortunately, these ideals don’t take into account widespread political

ignorance and irrationality. Most voters neither attain the level of knowledge

needed to make deliberative democracy work, nor do they rationally evaluate the

political information they do possess. The vast size and complexity of modern

government make it unlikely that most citizens can ever reach the levels of

knowledge and rationality required by deliberative democracy, even if they were

better informed than they are at present.


How very depressing in relation to liquid democracy/feedback!

Deliberative democracy is one of the most influential ideas in modern

political thought. Advocates want citizens to actively participate in the

democratic process by seriously deliberating over important issues, not

merely voting for or against candidates put forward by political parties.

They hope that voters will not only develop a solid factual understanding

of political issues, but will also debate the moral principles at stake in a

rational and sophisticated fashion. Deliberative democrats expect more of

voters than merely acting to ‘‘throw the bums out’’ if things seem to be

going badly.


These high aspirations are admirable and appealing. Unfortunately,

they run afoul of the reality of widespread voter ignorance and

irrationality. Moreover, even if voters were significantly better informed

and more rational than most are today, the vast size and complexity of

modern government would prevent them from acquiring enough

knowledge and sophistication to deliberate over more than a small

fraction of the full range of issues currently decided by government. Such

difficulties become even more acute in light of the fact that many

deliberative democrats want the political process to control even more of

society than is already the case. Previous scholarship has only tentatively

considered the implications of widespread voter ignorance and irration-

ality for deliberative democracy.1

This article is intended to close the gap

in the literature more fully. My analysis focuses on theories of

deliberative democracy that require deliberation by ordinary citizens. I

do not consider the distinct question of deliberation by legislators or

expert administrators.

Parts IV#VI consider three proposals to increase political knowledge

that have been advanced by deliberative democrats. These include using

education to raise the level of political knowledge, increasing knowledge

by having voters engage in structured deliberation, and transferring

authority to lower levels of government where individual voters might

have stronger incentives to acquire information. Finally, I will briefly

suggest that deliberative ideals might be more effectively advanced by

limiting the role of government in society.


Deliberative democracy is a normative ideal, not an attempt to explain

present-day reality. However, an attractive normative ideal must be

feasible. The problem of political ignorance casts serious doubt on the

feasibility of deliberative democracy. Moreover, some proposals put

forward by deliberative democrats, if implemented, may well cause more

harm than good.


The second proposal was my idea as well. It better work, otherwise liquid feedback might be very bad indeed.

Decades of public opinion research show that most voters are very far

from meeting the knowledge prerequisites of deliberative democracy. To

Somin • Political Ignorance & Deliberative Democracy 257the contrary, they are often ignorant even of very basic political information.


In 2009, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats put

forward ambitious plans to restructure the U.S. health-care system and

impose a ‘‘cap and trade’’ system to restrict carbon emissions and combat

global warming. Both plans were widely discussed in the media and

elsewhere. Yet a September 2009 survey found that only 37 percent of

Americans claimed to ‘‘understand’’ the health care plan, a figure that

likely overestimates the true level of understanding.7 A May 2009 poll

showed that only 24 percent of Americans realized that the important

‘‘cap and trade’’ proposal recently passed by the House of Representa-

tives as an effort to combat global warming addressed ‘‘environmental

issues.’’ Some 46 percent believed that it was either a ‘‘health-care

reform’’ or a ‘‘regulatory reform for Wall Street.’’8

Until the Obama health-care reform passed in March 2010, the largest

new federal domestic program enacted in the previous 40 years had been

the Bush Administration’s prescription-drug entitlement, enacted in

2003. Yet a December 2003 poll showed that almost 70 percent of

Americans did not even know that Congress had passed the law (Somin

2004c, 5#6).


Public ignorance is not limited to information about specific policies.

It also extends to knowledge of political parties, ideologies, and the basic

structure and institutions of government (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996;

Somin 1998 and 2004c). For example, a majority of voters are ignorant

of such fundamentals of the U.S. political system as who has the power

to declare war, the respective functions of the three branches of

government, and who controls monetary policy (Delli Carpini and

Keeter 1996, 70#71). A 2006 Zogby poll found that only 42 percent of

Americans could even name the three branches of the federal

government (Somin 2010, ch. 2). Another 2006 survey revealed that

only 28 percent could name two or more of the five rights guaranteed by

the First Amendment to the Constitution (ibid.). A 2002 Columbia

University study found that 35 percent believed that Karl Marx’s dictum

‘‘From each according to his ability to each according to his need’’ is

enshrined the Constitution; 34 percent said they did not know if it was,

and only 31 percent correctly answered that it was not (Dorf 2002).

Similarly, years of survey data show that most of the public has little

understanding of the basic differences between liberalism and con-

servatism (RePass 2008; Somin 2010, ch. 2). They are often also

confused about the differences between the policy positions of the two

major parties (e.g., Somin 2004a).


Widespread political ignorance has persisted over time, despite

massive increases in education and the availability of information through

new technologies such as the internet.9 It seems unlikely to diminish

substantially in the foreseeable future.


Holy shit. Wud be very interesting to see cross-national data on some of these things. One cud use something like the separation of power as a question. Even tho the countries differ in how they do that, most of them do it in some way, and it is thus possible to ask and see whether people know how their country does it.

There is nothing inherently objectionable about people who acquire

political information for reasons other than becoming a better voter. It is

perfectly understandable if people wish to follow politics for any number

of reasons. Problems arise, however, when these motives conflict with

the goal of rational evaluation of information for the purpose of making

informed political decisions. To take one such case, people who acquire

information for the purpose of cheering on their political ‘‘team’’ or

confirming their existing views are likely to overvalue information that

confirms those views and undervalue or ignore anything that cuts against

them. Extensive evidence suggests that this is in fact the way most

committed partisans evaluate political information.14 Experiments show

that political partisans not only reject new information casting doubt on

their beliefs, but sometimes actually respond by believing in them even

more fervently (Bullock 2006; Nyhan and Reifler 2009). Thus, a recent

study found that conservatives presented with evidence showing that

U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were

actually strengthened in their pre-existing view thatWMDs were present

(Nyhan and Reifler 2009, 11#15). Similarly, liberals confronted with

evidence that 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had

incorrectly claimed that the Bush Administration had ‘‘banned’’ stem-

cell research persisted in their pre-existing view that the charge was

accurate (ibid., 23#24). Similarly, most people discuss political issues only

with those who agree with them (Mutz 2006, 29#41). This tendency is

most pronounced among ‘‘those most knowledgeable about and

interested in politics’’ (ibid., 37), which implies that those who seek

out political knowledge the most are not motivated primarily by truth-

seeking. If they were, it would make sense to sample a wide variety of

sources, possibly placing particular emphasis on those with viewpoints

opposed to one’s own. The latter are more likely to expose the truth-

seeker to facts and analysis that he has not already considered. As John

Stuart Mill ([1869] 1975, 35#51) famously emphasized in On Liberty, we

are more likely to discover the truth if we consider opposing viewpoints,

not merely those that we already agree with.


Wow. Good thing im primarily a filosofer with truth as the goal, and not party politics. Impartial truth-seekers are perhaps the best politicians then? If so, then thats sad since they are the ones least likely to become politicians in todays system.

In addition to processing information in ways that provide internal

psychological gratification, people also often try to express opinions that

conform to social expectations and seek to avoid negative reactions from

other members of the community (Kuran 1995; Sunstein 2003). For

example, people in a socially conservative community may hesitate to

express approval of gay marriage for fear of alienating antigay friends,

family members, and neighbors. Those in politically liberal settings such

as university campuses often hesitate to criticize liberal policies such as

affirmative action (Kuran 1995, 310#25). Even in a relatively tolerant

liberal democratic society, dissenters often hesitate to openly endorse

unpopular views; they instead find it easier to pretend to agree with the

majority. Such ‘‘preference falsification’’16 can easily lead people to reject

powerful arguments against socially approved positions, or even to

refrain from voicing them in the first place.


Preference falsification can infect many kinds of political processes.

But it is an especially serious danger in a deliberative democracy, where

citizens have to engage in open dialogue on political issues and therefore

take positions (or refrain from doing so) in a setting where other

members of the community can observe them. Under ‘‘aggregative’’

democracy, by contrast, voters usually make decisions and access

information in more private settings and therefore may face less pressure

to conform.


To combat this problem, liquid feedback systems shud have anonymization in various ways. Perhaps by allowing users to go under many different names, but only allow them to vote once.



Is it possible not to love this guy? :D


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