Professor Ilya Somin recently joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of our Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.
He answered your questions about Game of Thrones, voter ignorance, and the prospects for bipartisan reforms in the direction of liberty.
Fans of Learn Liberty will recognize Professor Somin as the star of our popular video, I Can’t Breathe: How to Reduce Police Brutality, and as a contributor to our blog, where he has written about the politics of sci-fi and fantasy series such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones.
Who do you think will win the game of thrones?
The safest bet is that it will be either Daenerys or Jon or some combination thereof. However, George R.R. Martin might try to upset our expectations. He might even give us an ending where there is no Iron Throne anymore. Westeros might no longer be united and/or might no longer be a monarchy.
I really like your work on political ignorance. It really explains a lot IMHO – most voters are pretty stupid! I’ve seen you talk about voter education and stuff like that to combat the problem. But wouldn’t it be more direct just to allow only people with certain basic knowledge to vote? Or maybe let everyone vote but count more the votes of people who can pass some basic knowledge test? If the problem is an ignorant electorate, we should just make sure that the truly ignorant people shouldn’t be able to control the outcome!
These are reasonable approaches, advocated by political theorist Jason Brennan, among others. But they face serious obstacles. In particular, I don’t think we can trust the government to identify who is knowledgeable in an unbiased way. I discuss this further in my review of Brennan’s book.
In regards to political ignorance and its impact on democracy: it seems people are very emotionally engaged in the current politics, on both sides. Do you think we have a reached a new low with political ignorance through the last year with the interest only being party deep or do you believe people are starting to become better informed and pay closer attention over the past year? How would you sum up political ignorance today?
I would say it’s about the same as it has been for a long time. However, growing partisan polarization makes people’s bias in analyzing information even greater than previously. In addition, the growing complexity of government makes the same level of knowledge less adequate than it would be in the past. I discuss the partisan bias problem in more detail here.
I summarize the complexity problem here. And in my book linked in the intro.
It seems to me that information is more accessible than ever, but most people access it either through biased sources or through filters that cater to their existing biases, especially where social media is involved. Does this phenomenon need to be treated separately from ignorance resulting from low access to information?
The two are indeed separate, but also interconnected. The same poor incentives that lead most voters to acquire very little political information, also lead them to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do learn. I discuss this in a bit more detail here (and in my book linked above).
Do you have any concrete ideas for how the education system could correct the pervasive ignorance (/lack of critical thinking) that you discuss?
Sadly, I am not optimistic that it can be done through education. Or, rather, there is much that can be done, but I am skeptical that the political system can be made to do it. I summarize the reasons for my skepticism here.
You have written that the average voter brings to the table an anti-market bias (believing in a finite pie and zero-sum transactions) and a xenophobic bias, among others.
How do you identify that these positions are “biased” compared to some presumably “correct” unbiased point? That is, how do you decide which position is correct and which positions reflect political ignorance? Lastly, can political candidates ever hope to overcome these biases in today’s society, or is it a losing battle barring a future, more educated, electorate?
There are several ways of identifying bias. One is comparing public knowledge to the views of experts, controlling for ideology and other factors (as Bryan Caplan does in his work). Another is comparing views of better-informed voters (those who know more about objective facts about politics) with those of less-informed ones, again comparing for other factors such as partisanship, race, income, and so on. The two biases you mention show up by both methods. That does not by itself tell you which position is right. Ignorance can, in theory, lead you to adopt MORE correct positions, rather than less correct ones (I discuss a few such cases in my book). But it does show which direction ignorance biases people towards.
How does the application of these methods relate to preference for or distrust of markets, in particular?
Voters with higher knowledge levels tend to support more market-based economic policies than those with lower knowledge. Similarly, economists support freer markets than laypeople. In both cases, this is after controlling for partisanship, income, race, sex, and a variety of other potentially confounding variables.
Do those correlations hold if you control for household income? I’m curious to see, because what end of the market you might experience would probably have an impact on support, and knowledge levels might very likely correlate positively with household income. Is there a way to figure out from that data what impact knowledge by itself would have on support?
They do indeed control for household income. There is no perfect way to isolate the effect of knowledge. But scholars try to do this by seeing the impact of greater knowledge (as measured by various scales) while controlling for other variables, such as income, race, gender, partisanship, and so on.
“Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding on what to have for dinner.”
A common, trite aphorism I see bandied about by libertarians and economic conservatives frequently here on Reddit. As simple a reduction of the libertarian worldview toward government it is, I think it’s still reveals a few things about the mindset of many libertarians: 1) a deep distrust, not only of government, but of democracy itself, 2) a recognition that it’s unlikely the majority will prosper under right-libertarian economic policies, and 3) a recognition of the potential deep unpopularity among the public of the effects of libertarian economics.
How does your vision of democratic libertarianism square with that common philosophy?
I actually don’t think the problem with democracy is that voters are selfish. Most actually are not. I think the problem is that most are ignorant and biased. That is (mostly) rational behavior, but it’s a menace nonetheless. But those who do see voters as selfish don’t necessarily have to assume that they estimate what policies are in their self-interest correctly. Many popular policies are harmful to the majority of the population, and many unpopular ones are potentially beneficial. You don’t even need to be a libertarian to believe that! Most conservatives and liberals also have a list of popular policies they think are terrible, and unpopular ones they think are beneficial.
What types of issues do you see as “bipartisan” winners? There are plenty of controversial issues, but issues like limiting civil asset forfeiture seem to have traction on both sides of the aisle. Where can other meaningful progress be made on issues that aren’t hot button topics?
Asset forfeiture is a good example. Another might be zoning reform, which increasingly has support among both right and left-wing experts.
How can we make open immigration policy a conservative position again? Should we focus on moral argument (in which Jeb! arguably failed) or show its pragmatic upsides?
I don’t know what is the best short-term political strategy here. I suspect we need to focus on both moral and “pragmatic” issues. When it comes to intellectual debate, I think the best approach is usually to try to take the other sides’ objections seriously and address them. I tried to do that with some common conservative worries about immigration here.
As a recent graduate hoping to go to law school, how do I learn about legal issues accurately and efficiently?
For example, how can I come to an informed opinion of how the Masterpiece Bakery case should be decided?
There is a vast amount of good information on legal issues available online, often for free. For the cakeshop case, I would check out the SCOTUS blog website, which has a good symposium giving different views on the case.