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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14197/the-impossibility-of-an-informed-electorate/

The Impossibility of an Informed Electorate

October 11, 2010 by

The idea that democracy works better when informed people vote would seem to make sense. However, the case for informed voting breaks down when we consider the difficulties of being well-informed about political options. FULL ARTICLE by D.W. MacKenzie


Tony Oberdorfer October 11, 2010 at 9:18 am

Please correct the unfortunate typo in the second sentence.

ABR October 12, 2010 at 12:51 am

“…Stossel claims that uniformed people should not vote.” — Now if only all employess of the State were in uniform, then this idea would rock.

Jim October 11, 2010 at 9:24 am

The expectation of the voter – to become fully informed on each and every issue and policy presented by the government – broadens the decision to vote enormously. Good idea to vote on “Price.” Vote for the candidate who promises (and presents credible evidence) to produce the best value-driven government. To me that is the most Liberty for the least cost. Again it is the CANDIDATE – not full and complete understanding of each and every government policy/issue.

billwald October 11, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Free and ignorant. Wonderful, wonderful. Essay is a good argument for scrapping the Constitution and starting over with 50 sovereign nations under the Articles of Confederation.

J. Murray October 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

What do you mean by value-driven? Whose values exactly? Since value is a subjective concept that differs from person to person, a government is, by design, incapable of providing the best value simply because there will always be someone forced to contribute to pay for something he finds without value.

I’ve done accounting work for Navy ship repair. Do you know what their concept of value is? Here’s the budget Congress deigned to give us, now get as much done as you can with it. Don’t leave anything at the end of the year, it means a budget cut next year. Now, tell me, how many times in your life did you say to yourself, “I planned out $5,000 in expenses to repair my car this year and by golly, I’m going to spend every single cent of it even if it isn’t necessary.” That’s how the Navy acts, and they’ll spend large sacks full of money on things like polishing the prop on a ship in drydock so it will look pretty in pictures.

Further, what is value to you? Back to the automobile example, certain parts you’ll fix only when they fail, others get regular preventative maintenance, and you’ll make a judgement against the cost of the repair vs buying a new vehicle. The thresholds for each of these decisions is different from person to person. In the Navy world, the rule is don’t fix it until it breaks. Period. No replacement of broken equipment, repair only. Don’t do preventative maintenance, wait until it fails. Is this the best value? Who knows, I bet 20% of the population doesn’t even think we should have a Navy and the other 80% would argue all day about what’s a good value or not.

Electing a value driven government is an impossible task.

Thomas McGovern October 11, 2010 at 9:27 am

I hold liberty above utility. I don’t think that it’s necessary for voters to be informed in the way that Mr. MacKenzie suggests. Voters need to be informed regarding the principles of liberty. Once informed, a voter could support or reject legislation or laws based on their conformance with the principles of liberty.

fundamentalist October 11, 2010 at 9:32 am

I agree. Voters can make good decisions based on principles. They don’t have to conduct their own personal cost/benefit analysis of every piece of legislation. And they can trust experts who rely on the principles of private property and freedom.

HCS Knight October 11, 2010 at 10:01 am

Ironic response given your chosen screen name.

Of course those pesky Founding Father’s would have disagreed. Hence the during our founding the need to be an property owner to vote was a requirement. Their goal, rightly chosen, was to tie the right to vote to a vested economic interest in the political process and decisions.

Since the US has thrown freedom in the dustbin to opt for a neo-Socialism.

HCS Knight October 11, 2010 at 11:23 am

Since the US has thrown freedom in the dustbin to opt for a neo-Socialism…. the outcome is fairly clear. { sorry accidentally hit Submit before finishing}

fundamentalist October 11, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Don’t know what you mean.

Wildberry October 13, 2010 at 11:26 am


I always suspect the sincerity of a post that begins with a personal insult.

“Their goal, rightly chosen, was to tie the right to vote to a vested economic interest in the political process and decisions.”

I think this is right, although I’m not much of an expert in this area. But assuming you are correct, what does that have to do with Fundamentalis’s point? If our model is “representative”, how does that work where you can’t rely on anyone to represent your interests?

I agree stronly with his point, the further you get away from the first principles, the more difficult and complex it is to sort out. That is basically the concept of specialization and division of labor.

I gather you are not a neo-Socialist, so what are you proposing?

D.W. MacKenzie October 11, 2010 at 11:21 am

Well, if voters were “informed about the principles of liberty” the modern regulatory-welfare would not need regulation by voters because it would not exist. Catch 22…

Jim Stewart October 12, 2010 at 1:56 am

Surely the among most important information voters need is understanding of their rights as voters. These are essentially matters of fact, not opinion. If any such right is in dispute there are ways to resolve it.Yet who among us knows that their rights as voters include the right to vote against whatever we don’t want? More importantly why do we accept the implicit claim of governments conducting elections to deny that right?There is a legal term for what those conducting such elections have done since the re-introduction [less than 200 years ago] of secret ballots? It is “using ballots to defeat the franchise”. That term was used by a judge in 1920 in his reasons for voiding an election.A modern example of just such ballots used to defeat the franchise was the ballot recalling Governor Gray Davis and electing his successor. Uninformed Californian voters were told how to vote against the recall but if any expressed their intention to vote against any or all of the candidates to succeed him, their ballot papers were declared informal.Since 1920, I and others have taken such matters to courts and pleaded with news editors to report the simple facts that would get sufficiently “informed electorates” to end both governments fraudulent use of ballots and its evil the “lesser evil” propaganda that leads us to believe such evils are a result of lawful elections!

Since discovering these facts via the Internet I have stopped voting and refuse to pay fines when taken to courts for failing to vote.

Goddard Lewko October 11, 2010 at 9:39 am

Personally I don’t vote. I think it encourages them, to say nothing of the biases that are prevalent in most every form of voting ensuring that the only person who counts in the entire process is the winner.

Tom Rapheal October 11, 2010 at 11:36 am

That is the issue I think about, I hate not resisting and not voting, but isn’t voting some sort of tacit agreement to abide and agree with the outcome?

Wildberry October 13, 2010 at 11:29 am

What a cop out.

HCS Knight October 11, 2010 at 9:56 am

Though I agree that an “informed” electorate is desirable, I disagree the way in which you framed the matter; i.e. “the case for informed voting breaks down when we consider the difficulties of being well-informed about political options”. Furthermore I think you mis-represent Mr. Stossel.

It is not a matter of being well-informed about political options but rather being well informed about the political system’s design, principles, governing rules, etc. For example the electorate’s perspectives on liberty are 100% contrary to those of the Founding Fathers. In short it’s about our government ensuring, through the free government educational system, that the electorate is educated on what is a Constitutional Republic and what are the responsibilities, limitations, and departments of government – e.g. House and Senate {and all the main sub-committees which directly and significantly impact economics}. Yes there is some rudimentary education during high school years, but clearly it needs to be greatly strengthened – Lord knows there are plenty of B.S. elective classes that can be gotten rid of to make the time.

And Mr. McGovern’s point, is spot on regarding the principles that govern this country. However I would add that which is most tragically missing from today’s society, an understanding of the history and development of the intellectual thought that produced them; e.g. the Federalist Papers, the history of Western Ethical Philosophy – NOT political science but rather from the Greeks through to our Founding Fathers.

This last point, the history and development of western society’s intellectual development being taught is critical the electorate from the errors of the past.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” {George Santayana
Why this is applied generally to history and not to the development and education of a people on the matters that are most critical to its future says a lot about those who most greatly influence the education of the electorate.


Iain October 11, 2010 at 11:52 am

“However I would add that which is most tragically missing from today’s society, an understanding of the history and development of the intellectual thought that produced them; e.g. the Federalist Papers, the history of Western Ethical Philosophy – NOT political science but rather from the Greeks through to our Founding Fathers.”

I agree completely. I have not read it, but I’ve heard very good things about Alan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” which addresses this issue, at least in part. I’m not sure if Bloom is a libertarian or not though.

Russ the Apostate October 11, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Bloom was a social conservative, not a libertarian.

mushindo October 11, 2010 at 10:39 am

Frankly, the problem with voting lies in what government does with the mandate thus gained : It makes laws which treat people and groups of people differently (this is despite the lip service paid to the dictum ‘all shall be equal before the Law’). the examples are legion: debtors are held to different standards from creditors, employees and employers, men and women, pensioners and working people, buyers and sellers …..all have asymmetric roles and responsibilities and culpabilities mandated by legislation).

As Bastiat trenchantly observed, if the operation of the law was confined to its proper place: the protection of person and property with universally consistent standards of justice for any particular case), the franchise would be irrelevant and nobody would care.

It follows logically that the very importance of the franchise in the eyes of the electorate is directly proportional to the degree to which the law of justice is subverted by the law of legislation.

People only care about politics in so far as they believe that the people they vote for will enact laws that benefit them ( or those with whom they are sympathetic) at the expense of other people (particularly those with whom they feel no empathy) , and the concurrent belief that those they vote against would, if elected, enact laws that harm them or those with whom they feel empathy. So they vote in the hope that their elected incumbents will not do them down, and will do the other guy down instead. For some reason which is unclear to me, this is widely regarded as being a fair and just arrangement, but from where i am sitting, it seems to be the very foundation of social conflict.

It is to be regretted that a proper understanding of the nature of the power to enact and enforce laws, in conjunction with an understanding of human market interaction, together show that these beliefs cherished by voters are naieve at best: for the laws enacted by elected incumbents tend, on balance , and in the long term, to benefit bobody with the arguable exception of those who enacted them, and their benefit comes at the expense of a much larger total loss to the entire population.

One final point: Modern ‘democracies’ this last half-century seem to have arrogated to themselves the responsibility to decide on behalf of citizens what is good for them, and what levels of risk they may incur, and have therefore legislated away an ever-increasing raft of choices. ( Health and safety standards, traffic legislation, drug prohibition, …..the list goes on). This has given rise to the nanny-state, widely and loudly ridiculed in the particular, but quietly accepted as ‘benevolent’ in the general.

The supreme irony of course is that this trend is magnificently self-defeating: All legislation presuming to constrain the choices of people in order to protect them from harming themselves, must logically be predicated on the axiom that people are too stupid to make their own decisions. And if people are regarded as being too stupid to vote, the elected government making those laws has no legitimate mandate.

Gil October 11, 2010 at 8:45 pm

So what is the alternative? Hoppe bilieves Monarchy is better than Democracy because the Monarchs have a long term outlook and don’t have to pander to various interest groups and political correctness.

Tom October 11, 2010 at 10:47 am

Just make EVERYBODY pay taxes and then everybody will care how government manages OUR money and whether it wants to raise OUR taxes. Once people realize how government wastes tax dollars and creates endless bureaucracies, they will begin to care about the process and how it impacts their wallets. As long government policies only affect others, they won’t care about what government does.

So, the key to an “informed electorate” is to make government policies affect EVERYBODY – not just the “rich.” When it affects THEM, then they will get informed and care.

Don Duncan October 11, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Tom: When people realize that voting to get special treatment is a two edged sword (the exercise of brute force) and therefore immoral and impractical because it guarantees class warfare where the only winner is the gov elite, perhaps voting and gov will be abolished. As long as public (gov) schools exist indoctrination will replace education and thinking, making such realization rare. Policies do affect everybody negatively (even the elite in the long run). For example, the Fed controls the money and therefore the economy for the profit of a few which slowly destroys the engine of wealth. Eventually the elite will be the only ones with wealth but even they will be less well off in a world of chaos they created. Would you rather be a middle class person today or a king 500 years ago? Everybody is better off in a capitalist society.

Johnny Rebel October 11, 2010 at 10:47 am

When the Republic was formed, you had to be a contributor to society in order to vote. You had to own a business, be an employee, pass a basic knowledge test, and pay a poll tax. Without these, you have a democracy, which our forefathers loathed. If you contribute nothing, you do not deserve a vote just as if you are uninformed. If you want the right to vote, get informed.

Tom October 11, 2010 at 11:23 am

Excellent points.

Blecklin October 11, 2010 at 10:59 am

An informed & rational American voter would not vote at all. Two-Thirds of the electorate did not vote for President Obama, yet he rules us all; rarely is any elective office in the nation filled by actual majority-vote. Why then bother your life with such voting/democracy distractions.

Democracy might be a great idea if everybody was informed, attentive and of good character; monarchy & dictatorships would work great too… with flawless people leading and following. But the critical problem is human nature on both sides of this ‘Principal-Agent’ situation. Power corrupts. Government is the perfect opportunity & social mechanism for widespread corruption… just read the newspaper/net on any morning.
Harm possible by a single corrupt private individual pales to that which can be done by a Congressman, President, EPA bureaucrat, or King.

Framing & compacting the overall political principal-agent problem to merely an ‘informed-voter’ issue… automatically endorses but ignores the bulk of that primary problem. There are rational alternatives to the status quo.

Eric October 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I don’t think it matters if only 2/3rd of the population votes.

I think the 2/3rds is probably little different than taking a poll, and the larger the sample, the more accurate the result. One could argue that non-voters are not a random sample of all voters, but I’m not so sure. After all, the polls tend to predict the same results as these 2/3rds samples provide.

The article mentioned that the laws and policies are so complex that the average voter cannot ever understand enough to make a good decision. In many cases there is no good decision anyway, since even to define “good decision” is likely impossible. And then add on top of that the notion that we have to choose a representative who typically lies about his intentions, it’s a bit like trying to use a 500 mile long screwdriver to tighten a screw. It’s not only complex, but it’s extremely indirect.

The politician need not even be a compulsive liar; typically they don’t understand the issues either and have to obey their handlers. If they don’t they won’t get elected. This Darwinian political selection process ultimately sees that politicians will always do what their masters request.

Hence; of what use is it to vote for a politician. Ron Paul is the lone exception I can think of. Being only 1 vote in the house is pretty much useless; this is why they only got really serious about Ron when he tried to be president.

On the other hand, there are ballet propositions. I normally don’t vote, but I’m teetering on whether to vote on CA prop 19 (legalize pot in CA.) I support any end of prohibition, but I’m not sure my one vote is worth the effort. It will likely get lost in the noise, as did my vote for Ron Paul – I couldn’t even find out where they counted it. But at least the proposition is a lot less indirect and so perhaps is worth the 45 cents to send in the ballot.

John B October 11, 2010 at 1:24 pm

People vote for people whose thinking they hope most accords with their own. A conservative will hope that a conservative will handle things in a manner more to their thinking. Likewise a collectivist.
But the whole process mostly seems to be at best a waste of time and at worst a system of maintaining a system that takes most of your wealth in order to make sure those that take it (the political class?) have inordinate wealth and power.
Spending one’s own money is, indeed, the most straightforward means of preference expression.
The best things the politicians can do now is to scrap vast swathes of government and rules and regulations.
As to people being informed and only the informed voting?
In that case, very simply, MSM rules. As indeed it does.
One only has to fool enough of the people enough of the time.

Juraj October 11, 2010 at 2:01 pm

…Stossel claims that uniformed people should not vote

Was this meant to be “uninformed” ?

Gil October 11, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Indeed. If it is argued that virtually no voter can be really informed because there’s too much information required to become informed then this would mean Democracy is invalid and if there is to be an operating government it should be either a Monarhy or an Oligarchy.

Russ the Apostate October 11, 2010 at 11:29 pm

I never thought that the whole point of democracy is that the common man is so wise, or that democracy is such a great method for coming to decisions. Obviously, they’re not, and it isn’t. The point of democracy is to give the majority of the people enough control over the government that the government doesn’t get completely out of touch, to the point where the majority start rioting, etc. It’s a reality check on the government, nothing more.

The fact that we have a representative democracy, rather than a pure one, is due to recognition (among some people, anyway) that you’re right; the common person cannot become an expert on the issues. All that the common man can do is figure out a politician’s basic principles (libertarian, socialist, militarist, etc.) and vote accordingly, hoping that the politician was not distorting his true beliefs too badly.

ABR October 12, 2010 at 1:01 am

A politician cannot be an expert on all the issues, either. How many read Obama’s medical insurance bill? None? The old Athenian system pretty much compelled a citizen to get involved. The representational system encourages Joe Public not to get involved. Let the experts handle everything.

Russ the Apostate October 12, 2010 at 8:03 am

Gee, I think you’re contradicting yourself. If a professional politician cannot possibly read the laws he’s expected to vote on as well as be well-informed on the subject matter of said laws, then how can a common citizen? After all, the politician gets paid to do this. The citizen has to do it in his spare time. I think of the representational system as a sort of division of labor or specialization.

BTW, the Athenian system was not a system involving universal male suffrage. And even then, it was too unwieldy to work for anything other than small city-state, and even then failed under the threat of a bunch of semi-barbaric Macedonians.

ABR October 12, 2010 at 11:11 am

“If a professional politician cannot possibly read the laws he’s expected to vote on as well as be well-informed on the subject matter of said laws, then how can a common citizen?” — The ‘common’ citizen — or as you correctly note, the uncommon citizen — would not be writing bills a thousand pages long.

James J. Korman October 11, 2010 at 3:17 pm

At the founding of the Republic, only those that owned property could vote.

Nicholas Gray October 11, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Wasn’t this to ensure that slaves couldn’t vote? How far back to the ‘good old days’ do you want to go?

Gil October 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm

I doubt it as most free people wouldn’t have had the right to vote.

Russ the Apostate October 11, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Nicholas Gray wrote:
“Wasn’t this to ensure that slaves couldn’t vote?”

No. Even white men who did not own property did not have the legal right to vote until the “Age of Jackson”, when “universal white male suffrage” (an oxymoron, I know) became the rule. Slaves couldn’t vote for the same reason that a plowhorse couldn’t. They were considered chattel property.

Nicholas Gray October 12, 2010 at 12:58 am

One of my points was simply to point out the historolatry that sometimes goes with any quote from The Founding Fathers. the U.S Constitution was written by men, not demigods.
And both Democracy and Monarchy can work well together- in their place. As a minarchist, I think that any landowner should be an absolute owner over that land. Public lands should be owned and run by local democracies- run by voluntary citizens who either give money, or take turns in militia to earn the right to vote.

Jack Roberts October 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm

With the sophisticated level of propaganda and the relentless nature of the conditioning the last thing we want is for the public to get informed. Who knows how bad of a situation they would vote in if they actually listened to the political propaganda, instead of being focused on American x and factor idol reality show non sense.

ChristopherTK October 11, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Good thing most don’t. But then again we still have too many willing and able to participate that are easily motivated to action without carefully examining the consequences.

Take a look at comments made by I1m89 @ http://www.librarygrape.com/2010/10/guess-whos-voting.html

The exchange shows how quickly many voters are willing to pull the trigger without looking at who is on the other side of the barrel.

Lee October 11, 2010 at 10:10 pm

All this talk of “informed voters” makes me think of an “informed” cow being pushed through the slaughter house. “Informed” as you might be no matter whom you vote for the government will take 50%+ of your income, nearly all of your freedom, and very possibly cause the death of your children in idiotic foreign wars. Informed voter?_I think it’s an oxymoron.

Vedpushpa October 11, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Yes – ‘Democracy is most efficacious [effective] when the voters are ‘informed’…
All professionals should make it their ‘professional duty’ to bring about a sense of political accountability – both the citizen and the administrative . Presently all that is there towards this only an ‘introduction to the existence of state Constitution and the government institutional structure.

The major misleading factor is the statement that ‘The President’ is ‘The First citizen and his spouse ‘The First Lady’… It should read ‘You – the honest citizen is the First citizen’… No need to bring in ladies and lords !!

And all voting on government issues — everywhere should be asked for in the name of ‘common sense’…. and not on God or Conscience … the latter are virtually ‘individual specific’….

social anthropologist
Bangalore India

james keefer October 12, 2010 at 1:58 am

The reason all should vote is that all must live under the resulting regime. They would have no one to blame other than themselves. The less benighted among us must help take up the slack by wooing the other voters to our side with education.

David Henderson October 12, 2010 at 2:15 am

Uniformed voters have been denied their rights to vote due to mishandling of absentee ballots.

Their votes should be tallied and ignored just like everyone else’s.

Inquisitor October 12, 2010 at 7:51 am

This argument is one of the few good ones one can draw from Bryan Caplan, actually. Even if he was not mentioned, his book on the topic is good. Hoppe also makes similar points against democracy in his excellent DTGTF.

ASH October 12, 2010 at 10:33 am

I vote mostly as an act of self defense. Ususally I am really voting against someone. My husband once said he wished there was a for or against choice for each candidate. An against vote would negate one for vote. I can’t imagine what the result would be but it would be interesting. Maybe if nobody netted any votes the position could be eliminated.

ABR October 12, 2010 at 11:14 am

I like the negative vote idea, especially if unlimited. If the sum total of all the candidates were negative, perhaps that would be a sign to dissolve the State.

shadeclan October 12, 2010 at 11:57 am

Even if you vote for someone who publicly agrees with you on all issues, how do you know that person will carry out the “solutions” once he/she is in office? Problems with our voting system begin not with the issues – politicians will promise anything to anyone to get elected – but with knowing the character of the candidate. It is physically impossible for one person to get to know, on any real level of intimacy, 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000 other people, nor can that number of people come to know any one individual. “People are Ignorant” is truly a praxeological axiom. Anarchistic arguments aside for a moment, our system of selecting leaders fails because only those people charismatic enough and devious enough can get elected. People like Ron Paul are only a happy anomaly in a system otherwise set up for self-corruption.

Robert October 12, 2010 at 1:03 pm

“[Only] people who are informed about politics should vote”. – A concept that seems to be the solution to the general quality problem causing major governing troubles. But unfortunately, democracy doesn’t work that way and it’s very common – most of all in European conutries – to vote for people who we like because of emotional impulses. Rational thinking plays a secondary role.

Robert Slate March 24, 2011 at 4:10 pm

I have a suggestion on how to turn uninformed voters into informed voters:

1. At the time a sample ballot is sent to a registered voter, email the voter a short test (like a driver’s license test) which the voter must pass in order to be eligible to vote. If the voter does not have a computer, he/she would have to request a paper test by mail to complete and return before being qualified to vote.

2. On the test would be simple questions, like who is the VP and how many senators in the Senate. If the voter failed this simple test he/she would have to attend a voter training class (like traffic school) for an all day session on U.S. government, current issues facing the nation, etc. This class could be on computer or in person like traffic school is.

It’s ridiculous for the United States to boast about our “freedom” and then have citizens who are uninformed or don’t vote. To insure that citizens vote, issue a report (like a 1099 IRS report of interest and dividends), and give a $100 credit on income tax for voters who vote.

Conica September 27, 2011 at 12:30 am

I couldnt think you are more right

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