Monday, November 01, 2010

The impossibility of an informed electorate

This was article published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. As tomorrow is election day, I thought it timely:

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?

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Tim Higgins said...


I cannot agree with MacKenzie's arguments. It seems that he is blaming life's complexities for the lack of basic understanding in politics. If not that, then it must be access to the information. With the plethora of cable news channels and access the web, I don't believe that argument holds water.

While political thought is certainly complex, that does not forgive a citizenry who seems to know all of the intimate details of the contestants on "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars" from seeking the same knowledge about candidates and issues.

Besides, I saw the Stossel piece as well and came away agreeing with his premise. If someone 'chooses' not to be informed on what they are voting for, should we really encourage them to vote? Do we really want this uninformed citizen exercising their franchise? (note I did not say allow, only want)

Fortunately or unfortunately for all of us, few voters will undoubtedly participate in the process, educated or not. Recent history tell us that somewhere between 20% at worst and 35% at best of registered voters will exercise this right, and 'winners' of the election will have received a mandate from between 12% and 20% of them.

Richard said...

Maggie, I totally agree with what you've posted, BUT . . . Please have someone PROOF READ these posting! As a retired member of the US Military, I've found one sentence VERY DISTURBING; "In a 2008 article Stossel claims that uniformed people should not vote." I HOPE this is supposed to read "uninformed" rather than "uniformed", but some may not catch that!

Maggie Thurber said...

Richard - as that was a quote, I didn't change the typos...

but great catch!

P.R.E.Z. said...

Well sheesh. I disagree with this on all kinds of levels, the primary one being that we focus primarily on the economic impact of the effect of a governmental program. There are other factors involved, a primary one being whether it's Constitutional for the government to even institute the program to begin with, let alone the moral ramifications behind implementing it.

There really is a simple solution but no one really has to courage to start slashing all the unconstitutional governmental entities at the knees. People are more concerned with image and power and how it will directly affect them. The age of narcissism is alive and thriving.

I agree with Stossel to the degree that people who are irresponsible in their handling of the privilege of voting shouldn't vote. It's similar to driving a car. If you're reckless or have some kind of major impairment (i.e. uninformed and don't want to take the time out to be), then you should abdicate yourself from the voting process. That would be the noble thing to do. But we don't live in an era of promoting that kind of character, therefore, we get what we have.

Maggie Thurber said...

nicely said, P.R.E.Z.

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