Ilya Somin kind of blew my mind with this piece at Cato’s website, and it briefly shook my belief in a strong central government. Briefly! Ever so briefly.
What I think Somin gets right is the diagnosis of a particular problem: voters’ abysmal political ignorance. No matter how much smarter we as a society might get, no matter how much more information is instantly available to us, we are still grotesquely stupid when it comes to government and politics, with no signs of improvement.
Somin refers to this as a “rational ignorance,” because there’s no way a sane person with other things on his or her mind like careers and families and pets and hobbies and whatnot could ever fully grok what the hell is going on.
So Somin posits that what would induce more rational engagement would be “foot voting” as opposed to “ballot voting,” or making one’s positions clear and affecting change by relocating to places where policies are more favorable, just as one patronizes businesses one gets better service or products from. Of course that sounds nutzo, until you see where he’s going: you can foot-vote if the jurisdiction is small enough that leaving it is not the end of the world. In other words, more decentralization and more hyper-localization of government.
The key difference between foot voting and ballot box voting is that foot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. Unlike political fans, foot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get.
“Political fans” are people like me, who love politics as a sport or drama, and follow the characters, but don’t necessarily know everything about policy (even though we one think we do).
The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is usually much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government, and much easier to do it against a state than against the federal government. . . .
Reducing the size of government could also alleviate the problem of ignorance by making it easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor its activities. A smaller, less complicated government is easier to keep track of.
Somin dismisses it as a solution, but this gets at the very beauty, and absolute necessity, of representation. Rather than needing to understand all policy minutiae, which I never could anyway, I get to choose someone to represent me and my interests. To do so, I can use things like party affiliation, history in office (if there is one), and statements of principles, as well as things like evaluations of character and integrity, to guide my choice. They are, as Somin points out, shortcuts, but they will do. They will have to!
And this applies to the micro as well as the macro level. Of course I can’t be expected to know all the ins and outs of the behemoth federal government and all its tentacles and tributaries of tentacles. So of course I need to choose someone to represent me. But nor can I seriously be expected to grasp all the workings of my municipality or congressional district. Budgets, education, public works, city management and countless other aspects of local government make it equally as daunting as the federal. (Perhaps it is not literally as complex, but if I could stand next to a moon and then next to a planet, they’d both seem impossibly big and have roughly the same effect on my sense of awe.)
I work a full time job and I have two small children. My job is intellectually rigorous, and demands an awful lot of processing power throughout the day. Even if all government were decentralized to some radically tiny, libertarian-pleasing level, it’d still be too much for me to fully grasp.
And that’s why we have a shorthand, known as representatives. We just have to do our best in choosing them, and hope we don’t pick a bunch of assholes, as we so often (usually?) do. Instead of slicing up the government and polity into bite size pieces, which won’t help anyway, and only lead to general provincialization and the dilution of federal rights, let’s try to get better at picking our stand-ins. Fewer assholes. As a “political fan,” I can make that effort, at least.