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Voter Ignorance and Political Reform

If you’re a voter in Los Angeles, you just may wind up with an unexpected windfall the next time you cast your ballot.  The Los Angeles Ethics Commission last week recommended that the City Council consider using cash prizes to encourage registered voters to actually vote. Commission President Nathan Hochman tossed out figures of $25,000 and $50,000, to be potentially awarded to one or more randomly chosen voters in each election. This is sure to find a place on the annual “The Government Is Spending My Money on What?” lists in the fiscal conservative world.

Of course not everyone is in favor of encouraging larger numbers of people to vote in the first place, prize or no prize. Last summer our friends at the Adam Smith Institute in London brought to our attention a poll by Ipsos-MORI on the startling degree to which much of the general public misunderstands important public policy topics. The poll finds that large chunks of the British public wildly overestimate the amount of taxpayer money spent on things like foreign aid and unemployment benefits while underestimating the amount spent on government pensions. Ipsos also found that perceptions of the rates of social indicators like teen pregnancy and violent crime are much higher than they actually are.

This tracks with similar recent polls that have been done in the U.S., where large percentages of both the general public and likely voters have shown a fundamental misunderstanding of both government spending and budget issues and of candidates for office and the electoral process. When asked who pays a larger percentage of their total income in federal taxes, for example, only 18 percent of voters correctly identified that the much-maligned top one-percent pays almost three times the effective tax rate of a middle-class household (29.4 percent vs. 11.5 percent).

These incorrect (but strongly held) impressions obviously create a problem in a democratic political system. Is it even possible for someone who thinks that the federal government spends more on foreign aid than it does on Medicare to make a smart decision about how to cast their vote?

The most frequent solution is more voter education – these days, usually online civics lessons for adults. This strategy has given us an array of well-funded websites; everything from Project Vote Smart and Rock the Vote to the Informed Voters Project and OntheIssues.org. While sites like these generally provide a lot of useful information, they’re only reaching the relatively small subset of voters who are eager enough to search out substantive information about politics in the first place.

Sam Bowman at Adam Smith, in his reaction to the Ipsos poll, suggests a different solution:

The answer may be to recognise these crippling limitations of democracy and, wherever possible, prefer decentralized market mechanisms. We cannot solve the problem of ignorant voters or dogmatic elites in democracy, but we can at least try to take as much power out of their hands as possible.

That phrasing is actually a bit harsher than necessary – preferring decentralized market solutions over political ones only takes out of our hands the power to exercise force over others, while actually increasing the power we have over our own lives. His counter-argument is compelling, however. Instead of expecting every voter in America to abandon their rational ignorance in favor of becoming a junior policy wonk, it seems a much smarter path to reform our institutions wherever possible so that the ignorance and dogmatism that will always be with us can do as little harm as possible.