Get out and vote…it’s your civic duty!
That’s the sentiment many hear this time of year — but Prof. Jason Brennan of Georgetown University told an audience at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) just the opposite last Thursday.
At a lecture sponsored by the Arkansas Center for Research In Economics, Brennan said the problem isn’t that voters are dumb, but that “the incentives built into democracy” encourage people to vote for politicians and policies about which many voters know little. For example, if you invest in the stock market blindly, there’s a high probability you’ll lose money — and then you’ll either learn something about financial markets, or you’ll stop investing. In contrast, if you vote with little knowledge of the topics at hand, you most likely aren’t going to suffer any consequences for your actions.
Brennan said on the knowledge of the average voter:
The average voter doesn’t know very much. The typical voter doesn’t know very much. The voter right in the middle of the [knowledge] distribution doesn’t know very much but variance is high. What are some of the things they don’t know? What they don’t know could fill a library. If you ask them about the Constitution, they don’t know about the Constitution. If you ask them what are two rights protected by the First Amendment…they don’t know. If you ask them about who is your Congressperson, they don’t know it. They don’t know what political party has been controlling Congress.
Ben Franklin wept.
Brennan hastened to add that the people attending his lecture last week were all more knowledgeable than the average voter. Presumably, this was done to avoid any feelings being hurt in the room.
If most voters are terrible, how does one become a good voter?
If you actually want to be a better voter, what would it take to do that? One thing you can do is stop reading stuff that agrees with you. So, if you’re a Democrat, don’t just read the New York Times op-eds and Paul Krugman or something. Read the Wall Street Journal op-eds. Read smart things from other people that disagree with you. Read their stuff. Also, you don’t have to consume that much news. Most news is noise. Most of things that happen from day to day is of no lasting value and it can also misinform you. The news will focus on certain stories and this will trick you into thinking these things are very common. A few years ago Americans believed there was an epidemic of kidnapping. In fact, in that year there were fewer kidnappings than in 25 years and the trend had been going down. The reason people believed there were more kidnappings was because the media realized that people would watch when they talked about a kidnapping. So, if you want to be a good voter, study the social sciences and learn some basic sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science.
I’d also add to that list of subject the archives of The Arkansas Project.
Unsurprisingly (given his comments), Brennan is the author of a book entitled “Against Democracy,” which I haven’t read yet. I assume it’s about the shortcomings of democracy.
While I found my two hours back in the ivory tower last week instructive, I think I’ll still head to the polls later in the week and give this democracy thing one last shot.