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.

For example, I think the various polls on which issues voters think most important, or which areas the government should be ‘doing something about,’ are sensible kinds of questions to ask voters. You don’t need to know anything about macroeconomics to understand that inflation and unemployment are problems. You don’t need to know anything about teaching methods or school funding policies to know that illiteracy and innumeracy are signs of system failure. You don’t need to know anything about health policy to realise that long delays before being admitted to hospital or poor treatment suggest that the policy, whatever it is, isn’t working.

My reading of the Australian polling on these issues is that the answers to these questions broadly track reality. When unemployment rates go down, so does the proportion of people thinking it is an important issue, and vice-versa. In the early 1990s recession, Newspoll found that 85% of people thought that unemployment was an important issue. In more recent times, it has been around 50% of people who think that. Interest rates had declined as an issue, but we can be confident that it will now track upwards. And on the polls that ask which party is best to handle various issues, even within the general theory of issue ownership (one of the heuristics Ken was talking about) we see ratings responding to real-world changes.

Even on issues which lack easy, single-indicator measures of outcomes, such as health and education, we see broadly sensible patterns of opinion. I’ve argued in the past that in periods of prosperity voters tend to demand better health and education, as you would expect when people want to consume more of everything. My friend Shaun Wilson, who also works in this field, has argued that there are also signs in the polls that some people react positively when governments increase spending on social services.

The problems arise when voters are encouraged to choose the means as well as the ends. On the means, let the experts fight it out and the politicians choose. The politicians will be judged on how successful they are in achieving the ends, something voters can do a reasonably good job in deciding.

The best example of this process at work is economic policy since the early 1980s. For every major reform on which we have polling, what took place was unpopular – people did not want tariff reduction, did not want IR reform, did not want privatisation. Yet these were aimed at solving the economic problems that voters clearly did want fixed. Despite the unpopularity of these policies, at the federal level we have seen significant political stability, with two long-term governments that were in favour of the reforms, despite popular opposition to them. Governments were rewarded for the ends, not the means.

Australian democracy has a reasonable record in getting around the problems of voter ignorance. We don’t have citizen-initiated referenda, which let mistaken views trump governments responsible for getting the right package. We have party discipline, which lets voters hold parties to account for their failures (and reward them for their successes).

And where things fail, it is as much elite failure as misjudgments by voters. In the last NSW state election, the voters knew that the wretched Iemma government should be tossed out, but plausibly enough did not believe the opposition was yet fit to govern. And while I think markets should replace central bureaucracies where possible, this is a debate that is still controversial among experts, so voters cannot be blamed for not arriving at the ‘correct’ answer, from my perspective.

As with many discussions of this topic, and like Ken, I will conclude with the famous Churchill quote:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

23 thoughts on “Do ignorant voters matter?

  1. “inflation and unemployment are problems”. I doubt the average person could tell you why inflation is bad (and why for that matter a 2-3% target band is used). I imagine some people might argue that higher levels of inflation in the US are arguably good, as it might help burn off a few trillion dollars of the money they have borrowed from overseas (probably very good for Australia if we didn’t get inflation here, as it would burn off all those US dollar loans).

    “illiteracy and innumeracy are signs of system failure”. Do you mean in the country with the 5th highest literacy scores on the PISA (2nd highest English speaking country), and higher than average numeracy on the TIMMS?

    ” health.. long delays”. Australia’s health system is excellent compared to most countries. At the good end of the distribution, life expectancies seem more determined by preventative measures (basically, having a good diet) than slight differences in available non-preventative medicine.

    Given these observations, it seems to me that people are completely susceptible to disinformation and governments are only too willing to offer it. I would suspect that this is true of many ministers too, as most seem to know approximately zero about their portfolios. Apart from historical reasons, I don’t know why people put with up with this. Why not find ministers that actually know what they are talking about? At least that way it would be possible to hold them more accountable for disinformation.


  2. ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’
    Churchill certainly said words to this effect, but I believe he was quoting someone else. Many years ago I read something that suggested it was Disraeli who first said it, but I can’t find any evidance to back this up.
    In the spirt of your question in the previous post about the reference to conservatives disliking women’s shoes, can anyone out there tell me if Churchill’s famous quote about democracy was his or was he quoting someone else. If he was, who ws it?


  3. Conrad raises a good point: Too often we whinge and complain about things because we consider them not to be good enough, but a quick glance around the world at comparable countries shows that we’re not doing too badly at all.

    As for quotes, the Churchill one is one of my favourites. On topic, Einstein apparently said “the difference between ignorance and genius is that genius has limits”


  4. Conrad – The average person thinks inflation is bad because they feel things are costing them too much; they don’t need to understand the broader issues (though I agree with you that 2-3% has acquired a rather mysterious status). Some of them have spotted the connection with interest rates too.

    On education, you have fallen for OECDitis – that simply because other countries are worse we are ok. Your complaints about the quality of uni students are closer to the mark in my view, and they are the top 30% or so of school leavers.

    On health, I am more sympathetic to the view that overall the system performs reasonably well, and that perceptions are heavily coloured by the admission to hospital issues. But these are still real problems.


  5. I think the OECD figures are not too bad (of course the ordering is always suspect due to the large numbers of confounding variables) — what they show is that things like literacy and mathematics are hard to teach and hard to learn, for every country — hence complaining that is hard is simply stating what is well known amongst anyone that happens to try and teach these things. Australia has historically done a reasonable job of this — and still does (although I’ll bet we’ll see big declines over the coming decade) — but most people don’t realize that. The problem is people expect better performance than the past (presumably because the world is more complex and most new jobs require high levels of these skills), our competitor countries are also the countries which do the best and there are a much greater number of students completing high school (hence more dull students — thus a comparison between now and 20 years ago is biased). Even areas where there is an obvious and basically indesputable decline in the last decade (mathematics), the decline has been worldwide (excluding East Asian countries), for reasons which I’m not at all clear about (I don’t think anyone is). My guess is that once women entered all areas of the workforce, it took lots of really smart good teachers out of the system (not surprisingly for a job many consider crappy and poorly paid), but this can be compensated for by extremely enthusiastic parents (most parents in East Asia it appears).
    As for the quality of uni students — the obvious problem is that we have too many of them (i.e., let too many idiots in — 40% of students is evidentally far too high) and use a “consumer” model where the only consumers are students (versus employers). Both of these lead to lowest common denominator teaching, and nothing is done to help those with poor abilities (they become the level you teach at in Australia, which drags everything down). However, that can’t be the only only problem as it is also a worldwide phenomena (there are a few exceptions), but I imagine it would be precursor to fixing other things.


  6. In hindsight the 1974 federal election would be the lead candidate for a wrongly-called election by the ‘masses’. Personally I think the 1991 NSW state election (hung Parliament, with Greiner holding on) and the 1999 Victorian election resulted in lower-quality governments than an alternative outcome could have provided, and the 1993 federal election perhaps prematurely ended radical economic reform, but the ‘masses’ probably would not agree. Of course in every case there are unknowable counter-factuals, but the small number of examples suggests that given the limited choices voters have they generally choose the best, or at least an easily defensible, option.


  7. Andrew
    Being a longtime political junkie and occasionally involved in campaigns I suggest that, putting the ideologues aside, the driving force in voting behaviour is perceived self-interest.
    I emphasise “perceived” as self-interest is not always rationally judged cf Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas”. How do voters reaching that particular perception? I tend to believe that Popkin’s ‘low information rationality’ theory gets close to what I’ve experienced around campaigns. A highly informed voter (or even staffer) is a rarity but not a necèssity – at least in the case of the former- to ‘get it right’ ie make a rational judgment.
    Gut feelings, heuristics combined with compulsory voting has served our democracy well. Not perfect but …
    In terms of Federal elections I agree that 1974 would be an example of failure – though the background was a little more complex eg double dissolution etc
    The 1993 election is more problematic – but in hindsight and notwithstanding true believers it became a self-indulgent Keating show.
    The 2004 election could also fall into this problematic category – but who anticipated control of the Senate! Those dam counterfactuals!!
    Anyway, whatever it is a fertile area for discussion.


  8. Even the most intelligent, rational and well informed voters face impossible choices – two bundles of policies, each a mix of good, bad and indifferent along with imponderables like the upper house situation and changes made after the election. Hence the need to limit the scope of government action to the minimum. People have some hope of making rational decisions in their own immediate interests, don’t load us with the task of running the country as well!


  9. I agree that the imperfections of democracy are a reason to seek to limit the scope of government (though there are arguably better reasons). But it’s not clear to me how governments promising to “do less” are ever supposed to get elected in the first place. Is there any historical example of a democratic nation succesfully sticking to a long term policy of reducing its level of government spending?


  10. I doubt it. People typically demand stuff on the assumption that other people will help to pay for it (like a cut price lunch for them). People need to know that if they want more of something, like health and education (typically) they could have more by paying for it themselves if (a) taxes are reduced and/or (b) they spend less on somehing else, like smokes, drinks and a cheaper car. But then you encounter the mystique of the public dollar, as thought a dollar that passes through the hands of the government is santified, unlike a dollar that a person pays out directly from their own pocket.


  11. Hilarious, Andrew – every “wrong” decision in your book just happened to be a Labour victory!

    I was there in the 1974 election, and there’s no way it was a “wrong” decision. The opposition was clearly incompetent (more so at that stage than the government – Billy Snedden PM was a sobering thought) and, worse, extremely obstructive; they’d killed more bills in the Senate than had been killed by all other Oppositions since Federation. The electorate rightly thought it important to punish that obstruction (the ALP’s slogan for the election was “Give Gough a Fair Go)”, though unfortunately the punishment didn’t work anyway and Gough’s government went on to lose the plot completely under the strain of bad economic times.

    Do you really believe the Howard government deserved re-election in 1998 after its disastrous first term? You were there, of course – you must know how many awful mistakes they made, and the number of truly incompetent ministers Howard was lumbered with. A Beazley government would have been a competent, if unexciting, one.


  12. DD – As my blog title notes, I am a classical liberal – so I want governments that lean in that direction. I did note that the masses may not agree. I would say that the more striking thing about my analysis is that despite being a Liberal Party member I accept that most Liberal defeats were, on balance, and with the caveat of unknown counter-factuals, the correct outcome.

    While Billy Snedden was unimpressive, Whitlam’s second term was so bad (partly due to the Coalition, of course) that this is the strongest case I can think of for a wrong election result from the perspective of the voters themselves.

    The Coalition’s first term 1996-98 was mediocre, but not remotely like 1974-75 or a disaster. Beazley is unlikely to have been terrible, but that is not the test for a wrong election call from the perspective of the masses: for that, what happened after the election has to be significantly worse than its likely alternative. The fact that the Coalition won twice more before being defeated counts very heavily against that conclusion.

    Except from my political perspective, the 1999 Kennett defeat was not an incorrect call – the Bracks government was conservative and boring by comparison with Kennett, but there were no major policy failures that could have been avoided if Kennett won in 1999. More a case of lost opportunities, in my view.


  13. Andrew, I find myself disagreeing with very little of what you write, so I guess I must be something of a classical liberal myself – but I find myself leaning far more towards Labor than Liberal (I did vote Liberal in the last Victorian state election, seeing as Baillieu seems decent, and my local candidate was far better than the alternative).
    I’ve never seen any real reason to believe that Liberals were better at economical liberalisation than the ALP, and they most certainly haven’t been supporters of social/personal liberalisation.


  14. I agree with DD about the ’74 election – the conservatives simply hadn’t allowed Labor to govern. Of course I’m too lazy to check, but I imagine a lot of the (now widely accepted as) ‘progressive’ reforms, Gough made, like Medibank, were put through after that double dissolution election, so the aftermath wasn’t all bad for the ‘masses’. That’s how we got universal health care.

    Andrew, you wote this:
    “Despite the unpopularity of these policies, at the federal level we have seen significant political stability, with two long-term governments that were in favour of the reforms, despite popular opposition to them. Governments were rewarded for the ends, not the means”

    and then this

    “And where things fail, it is as much elite failure as misjudgments by voters. In the last NSW state election, the voters knew that the wretched Iemma government should be tossed out, but plausibly enough did not believe the opposition was yet fit to govern. ”

    So the ‘reforming’ governments could have been re-elected not as a reward, but just because the alternative was worse.


  15. NPOV – I agree, from a classical liberal perspective there is no compelling reason to support Liberal over Labor based on their governing records, though the Liberals’ underlying ideology is I think a bit closer to it than Labor’s. But if you want to be involved in party politics you have to choose one or the other, and the Liberals were the right choice when I made it, ie the late 1970s, after the Whitlam years. If negative reasons are relevant, I am a lot more anti-leftist than anti-conservative.


  16. Strange – I’m quite comfortably “leftist” for the most part. And yes, you can be leftist and (reasonably) economically liberal at the same time.


  17. NPOV – Since the 1980s, there have been pro-market social democrats, though they tend to remain suspicious of markets in education, health and labour.


  18. Well I’m certainly suspicious of markets in health *insurance*, but there’s plenty of evidence from around the world that markets in education and labour can work well. Sweden has both a voucher system for education and is relatively free of government market regulation (it relies on voluntary collective bargaining mostly, AIUI).


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