Do ignorant voters matter?

Over at Club Troppo, Ken Parish is lamenting the risks caused by voter ignorance. In his 2007 book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan was even more pessimistic. According to Caplan, somewhat informed voters could be even worse than ignorant voters, because they indulge their wrong theories about the world – that tariffs create jobs, for example – and encourage politicians to implement bad policies.

That many, indeed most, voters have a poor grasp of politics and policy is an impossible-to-dispute proposition in political science. As Ken’s post indicates, the debate surrounds how much this matters, and he reports some of the research suggesting that voters use ‘heuristics’, information short-cuts, to arrive at conclusions that tend to be correct despite being based on minimal information.

I tend towards the more-optimistic democratic end of this debate, provided we start with a realistic idea of what kinds of questions voters can sensibly answer, and design institutions that limit voters’ capacity to provide policy answers to questions they don’t know enough to answer.
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