Sunday, October 13, 2013

Calling People "Low Information Voters" Doesn't Validate Decentralization or Privatization

In a recent article in Forbes, Ilya Somin bangs one of his favorite drums, that of the "low information voter". Somin complains that many voters don't understand the background to the government shutdown, or how much government spending goes to Medicare, Social Security and foreign aid, then lectures, "This kind of basic knowledge may not be all voters need to know to form intelligent opinions. But it’s hard to do so without it." He complains further that even informed voters can misunderstand the evidence, and that people with conflicting political beliefs can interpret the same evidence as being consistent with their own beliefs. Somin, in essence, blames this all on laziness:
It is easy to blame ignorance on stupidity or on the media. But basic information about most political issues is readily available in the media and online. It isn’t hard to find out what Obamacare insurance exchanges are. The problem is that most people don’t take the time and effort to do so. That is not because they are stupid, but because there is so little incentive to acquire political information.
I'll take issue with both of Somin's assertions. First, there is a concerted effort by parts of the media, the so-called news entertainment industry, to mislead its audiences into believing utter nonsense. If you're marginally informed about the issues, you can't turn on Fox News or drive time talk radio without figuring that out. Whether or not people should trust that type of news source isn't really the point, as many people do trust those sources and end up being misinformed and distracted from the actual issues.

Further, the mainstream media has an unfortunate tendency to turn every policy debate into a horse race, taking the proverbial "view from nowhere" while airing guests and interviews that they know to be objectively false or misleading. It seems that people like the argument more than they like to be educated, and that conflicts and contests generate more readers and viewers than a dispassionate explanation of the facts and how one side of the issue has a weaker case or is just plain wrong. A case in point would be "death panels", an outright lie about the PPACA (Obamacare) that was concocted, refined and perpetuated by the right-wing media. The mainstream media could have snuffed out that absurdity at the outset, but instead treated it as if it was a valid claim and let partisans lie on the air about the meaning and effect of perfectly reasonable provisions of the PPACA. Even though those provisions were dropped as a result, to the detriment of elderly patients, many people remain convinced that the PPACA creates "death panels". The fault for that lies almost entirely with the media. Another example would John Boehner's statements, including his widely distributed editorial, about the government shut-down. If you believe what he says you'll be less informed than when you began trying to follow the issue - but the media is not going to help you understand that, because they want Boehner to submit editorials or make appearances on their shows.

More than that, though, why does Somin believe people should have to dig for information in order to be informed, when they are reading the newspaper (or virtual equivalent) or watching the news and are being assured by the talking heads that they're getting enough information to be informed? Not everybody has the luxury to be a law professor, with many hours in an office to explore areas of esoteric interest, read the Internet, and discuss the issues of the day with informed colleagues. Most people work jobs that do not afford them similar luxuries, and it's perfectly reasonable for them to believe that the time they spend catching up with the news before heading to work, in the car, or after putting the kids to bed is sufficient to keep them informed. It's not what Somin deems being "rationally ignorant", with people knowing that they are informed but choosing to spend time on other things. It's a matter of there being only so many hours in the day, and the fact that the less you know the less aware you are of how much you need to learn.

Let's recall also that the concept of democracy does not anticipate that every voter will be informed on every issue, or even most issues. The Founding Fathers includes a number of checks on popular democracy out of concern that the masses might make bad choices - hence the non-elected Senate and the Electoral College. Inherent in the popular vote is the notion of the wisdom of the crowd - the idea that the larger body of voters will collectively exercise a level of insight and wisdom that significantly exceeds that of the typical individual voter. That's not an excuse for failing to try to better educate the pubic about the issues of the day, but if you accept that concept it's much less worrisome that people wish that spending for foreign aid were only 1% of government spending... it's actual level... instead of 10% or more.

From that rather dubious perch, Somin launches himeslf into a non sequitur:
The problem of ignorance is exacerbated by the enormous size and scope of government. Government spending accounts for well over one third of GDP, and government also regulates nearly every aspects of life. Even if voters devoted far more time to following political issues, they would still be ignorant about most government policies.... But we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government. When people “vote with their feet” in the private sector or in choosing what state or local government they want to live in, they have much better incentives to acquire information and use it rationally than when they vote at the ballot box.
That argument strikes me as utter nonsense. The federal government gets an incredible amount of media attention. The more local government becomes, the less media attention it typically receives. In many communities there's no meaningful media coverage of local government. While there have been corruption scandals at the federal level, in recent decades they have typically involved a small number of individuals with little impact on the overall functioning of government. The problem of corruption can be significantly more pronounced at the state level, as evidenced by Illinois, and can be appalling at the local level, as evidenced by Kwame Kilpatrick's Detroit. It is absurd to pretend that it is easier for voters to stay informed in relation to matters handled by a panoply of state and local governments, than it is to stay informed in relation to the actions of the federal government. Were that not true, one would reasonably expect that corruption and misconduct would improve at the local level, not significantly worsen.

Also, it's a rather arrogant conceit to suggest that if people don't like where they live, it's simple for them to sell their homes, uproot their families, get new jobs, and relocate to a community more to their liking. While there is no question but that when things get really bad a growing percentage of people will "vote with their feet", the significant number of people who stay behind reflect the reality that for most people it's not simple or easy, and for many it's an unaffordable luxury. More than that, there's more involved in choosing where you live than whether or not you like the state or local government, and moving to a different location that has a government more aligned with your beliefs may mean sacrificing social, employment and cultural opportunities that are important to your quality of life, as well as giving up easy access to top hospitals or similar local amenities.
Most of us spend far more time and effort acquiring information when we choose what car or TV to buy, than when we choose the president of the United States. The person deciding which car to buy knows that their decision is likely to make a real difference to the outcome. The same goes for a person deciding where to live in a federal system.
Perhaps he's speaking for himself, but I disagree with Somin's initial assertion. Most people give considerable thought to the president, and whether or not they will vote for or against an incumbent president. One might argue that much of that thought is partisan, and thus "doesn't really count", but that would sidestep Somin's claim - which is tantamount to arguing that people start thinking about their next car or television the moment they bring a new one home. I think people who vote hope that their vote makes a difference. A real difference in the outcome? Very few people who move to a new community do so with Somin's unrealistic notion that they will somehow influence local government simply by leaving one community or by joining another - I don't believe that I've ever met such a person. Moving to a different community based upon an assumption that it will be materially better than the place you live because of your perception of the political ideology of the local government seems like a fool's errand.

Somin presents no evidence, nor really any argument, that localized government would be cheaper, better, more transparent, less corrupt, more efficient... that it would provide any actual benefit to the public. He does not address the complexity of the modern nation state, nor the fact that some of the things of which he complains (e.g., ignorance of spending levels for foreign aid, Social Security and Medicare) are going to remain at the national level. He may have a pipe dream where programs like Social Security and Medicare become state-run programs, but the added complexity of such an approach should be obvious, as should be the impairment of people's ability to "vote with their feet" when they have to worry about how benefits are coordinated between states. But if you leave the big ticket items at the national level - military spending, Social Security and Medicare, along with matters that the federal government alone can reasonably address, such as managing foreign relations, regulating interstate commerce, providing the FDA, FTC, SEC, EPA, FEMA, USCIS, ICE, USPTO and the like, Somin's approach isn't actually going to simplify choices for voters at the federal level. It will instead add to the complexity of their other votes while doing next to nothing to simplify the federal government.

From there, Somin doubles down on his non seqiturs:
By reducing the size of government, we can enable more choices to be made in the private sector, where people have better incentives to become informed.
It seems that Somin imagines a future involving a lot more than localization of government, with government either outsourcing various tasks to the private sector or people being left without government support in certain areas of their lives and having to turn instead to private sector solutions. Somin is employed by a major university, and likely chooses his health insurance from a number of heavily subsidized plans offered by his employer - something akin to a health insurance exchange under the PPACA, but with his receiving a large subsidy for which he would be ineligible under that law. It's unlikely that Somin has ever tried to purchase health insurance on the individual market, let alone insure his family in that manner. It is unlikely that he has dealt with insurance companies' arbitrary denial of coverage, or trying to get individual coverage with a pre-existing medical condition. If he had, he wouldn't adhere to the fantasy that "more choices" result in a better informed consumer and even if all he cares about are incentives he would be aware of how difficult it is to actually compare individual health plans - even those offered by a single insurance company.

Were Somin to research the issue he would learn that having too many options can be paralyzing - people get confused, don't know how to draw meaningful distinctions, and may end up making their choices based upon arbitrarily selected, sometimes incorrect, information and assumptions. Somin may fret for hours or days about what TV to buy or what car to purchase, but at the end of the day his life will be little affected by whether he chooses a Camry or an Accord, a Vizio or a Samsung. If Somin believes his own conceit that voters are too lazy to educate themselves, his is a recipe for making that situation worse.

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