The Impossibility of an Informed Electorate
by D.W. MacKenzie on October 11, 2010
Ordinarily I agree with John Stossel. Stossel does what many would have thought impossible: he uses economic reasoning to defend individual liberty and free markets on national media outlets. In a 2008 article Stossel claims that uniformed people should not vote. Stossel illustrates this idea by questioning audience members at a Rock the Vote concert. Many of the attendees of these events could not recognize pictures of the vice president or the Speaker of the House, and did not even know how many senators there are in the US Senate. Stossel suggests that people who lack such basic information have a duty not to vote. Conversely, people who are informed about politics should vote.
There is a veneer of plausibility to Stossel's argument. The idea that democracy works better when informed people vote would seem to make sense. However, the case for informed voting breaks down when we consider the difficulties of being well-informed about political options. In economic terms, voters need to evaluate alternatives for public policies and programs.
Strictly speaking, a rational voter must first estimate the overall effects of altering or abolishing specific public policies and programs. For each federal program or policy there are a range of reforms that might improve its functioning. A fully informed and rational voter would ascertain the best options for governmental reform. It is, however, very difficult to ascertain the effects of reforming even one policy or program. Changing one program or policy typically produces unintended consequences. Given the complexity of the United States — and the world for that matter — a significant change in public policy will cause a series of reactions from the people who feel the effects of these changes. No one person can predict these unintended consequences.
Another complication arises when you consider the sheer number of federal policies and programs that currently exist. The US government has dozens of agencies that implement thousands of policies. No one person can understand all of these programs and policies. The federal government is complex beyond anyone's comprehension. Of course, people who don't recognize the vice president do not understand what they would be voting for or against this November.
But how could even the most highly informed voters navigate the options that face modern voters?