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”.