Stop telling people they need to vote. Tell them they need to cast informed votes.

Feb 11 JDN 2458161

I just spent last week’s post imploring you to defend the norms of democracy. This week, I want to talk about a norm of democracy that I actually think needs an adjustment.

Right now, there is a very strong norm that simply says: VOTE.

“It is our civic duty to vote.” “You are unpatriotic if you don’t vote.” “Voting is a moral obligation.” Etc.

The goal here is laudable: We want people to express the altruistic motivation that will drive them to escape the so-called Downs Paradox and actually go vote to make democracy work.

But the norm is missing something quite important. It’s not actually such a great thing if everyone just goes out and votes, because most people are seriously, disturbingly uninformed about politics.

The norm shouldn’t be that you must vote. The norm should be that you must cast an informed vote.

Best if you vote informed, but if you won’t get informed, then better if you don’t vote at all. Adding random noise or bias toward physical attractiveness and height does not improve electoral outcomes.

How uninformed are voters?

Most voters don’t understand even basic facts about the federal budget, like the fact that Medicare and Social Security spending are more than defense spending, or the fact that federal aid and earmarks are tiny portions of the budget. A couple years ago I had to debunk a meme that was claiming that we spend a vastly larger portion of the budget on defense than we actually do.

It gets worse: Only a quarter of Americans can even name all three branches of government. Almost half couldn’t identify the Bill of Rights. We literally required them to learn this in high school. By law they were supposed to know this.

But of course I’m not one of the ignorant ones, right? In a classic case of Dunning-Kruger Effect, nobody ever thinks they are. When asked to predict if they would pass the civics exam required to obtain citizenship, 89% of voters surveyed predicted they would. When they took it, only 17% actually passed it. (For the record, I took it and got a perfect score. You can try it yourself here.)

More informed voters already tend to be more politically engaged. But they are almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, which means (especially with the way the Electoral College works) that elections are primarily determined by low-information voters. Low-information voters were decisive for Trump in a way that is unprecedented for as far back as we have data on voter knowledge (which, sadly, is not all that far back).

To be fair, more information is no panacea; humans are very good at rationalizing beliefs that they hold for tribal reasons. People who follow political news heavily typically have more distorted views on some political issues, because they only hear one side and they think they know but they don’t. To truly be more informed voters we must seek out information from reliable, nonpartisan sources, and listen to a variety of sources with differing views. Get your ideas about climate change from NPR or the IPCC, not from Huffington Post—and certainly not from Fox News. But still, maybe it’s worth reading National Review or Reason on occasion. Even when they are usually wrong, it is good for you to expose yourself to views from the other side—because sometimes they can be right. (Reason recently published an excellent article on the huge waste of government funds on building stadiums, for example, and National Review made some really good points against the New Mexico proposal to mandate college applications for high school graduates.)

And of course even those of us who are well-informed obviously have lots of other things we don’t know. Given my expertise in economics and my level of political engagement, I probably know more about politics than 99% of American voters; but I still can’t name more than a handful of members of Congress or really any state legislators aside from the ones who ran for my own district. I can’t even off the top of my head recall who heads the Orange County Water District, even though they literally decide whether I get to drink and take a shower. I’m not asking voters to know everything there is to know about politics, as no human being could possibly do such a thing. I’m merely asking that they know enough basic information to make an informed decision about who to vote for.

Moreover, I think this is a unique time in history where changing this norm has really become viable. We are living in a golden age of information access—almost literally anything you could care to know about politics, you could find in a few minutes of Google searching. I didn’t know who ran my water district, but I looked it up, and I do now: apparently Stephen R. Sheldon. I can’t name that many members of Congress, but I don’t vote for that many members of Congress, and I do carefully research each candidate running in my district when it comes time to vote. (In the next California state legislature election, Mimi Walters has got to go—she has consistently failed to stand against Trump, choosing her party over her constituency.)

This means that if you are uninformed about politics and yet still vote, you chose to do that. You aren’t living in a world where it’s extremely expensive or time-consuming to learn about politics. It is spectacularly easy to learn about politics if you actually want to; if you didn’t learn, it was because you chose not to learn. And if even this tiny cost is too much for you, then how about this? If you don’t have time to get informed, you don’t have time to vote.

Voting electronically would also help with this. People could, in the privacy of their own homes, look up information on candidates while their ballots are right there in front of them. While mail-in voter fraud actually does exist (unlike in-person voter fraud, which basically doesn’t), there are safeguards already in widespread use in Internet-based commerce that we could institute on electronic voting to provide sufficient protection. Basically, all we need to do is public-key signing: issue every voter a private key to sign their votes, which are then decrypted at the county office using a database of public keys. If public keys were stolen, that could compromise secret-ballot anonymity, but it would not allow anyone to actually change votes. Voters could come in person to collect their private keys when they register to vote, at their convenience weeks or months before the election. Of course, we’d have to make it user-friendly enough that people who aren’t very good with computers would understand the system. We could always leave open the option of in-person voting for anyone who prefers that.

Of course, establishing this norm would most likely reduce voter turnout, even if it did successfully increase voter knowledge. But we don’t actually need everyone to vote. We need everyone’s interests accurately represented. If you aren’t willing to get informed, then casting your vote isn’t representing your interests anyway, so why bother?

What are we celebrating today?

JDN 2457208 EDT 13:35 (July 4, 2015)

As all my American readers will know (and unsurprisingly 79% of my reader trackbacks come from the United States), today is Independence Day. I’m curious how my British readers feel about this day (and the United Kingdom is my second-largest source of reader trackbacks); we are in a sense celebrating the fact that we’re no longer ruled by you.

Every nation has some notion of patriotism; in the simplest sense we could say that patriotism is simply nationalism, yet another reflection of our innate tribal nature. As Obama said when asked about American exceptionalism, the British also believe in British exceptionalism. If that is all we are dealing with, then there is no particular reason to celebrate; Saudi Arabia or China could celebrate just as well (and very likely does). Independence Day then becomes something parochial, something that is at best a reflection of local community and culture, and at worst a reaffirmation of nationalistic divisiveness.

But in fact I think we are celebrating something more than that. The United States of America is not just any country. It is not just a richer Brazil or a more militaristic United Kingdom. There really is something exceptional about the United States, and it really did begin on July 4, 1776.

In fact we should probably celebrate June 21, 1789 and December 15, 1791, the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights respectively. But neither of these would have been possible without that Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. (In fact, even that date isn’t as clear-cut as commonly imagined.)

What makes the United States unique?

From the dawn of civilization around 5000 BC up to the mid-18th century AD, there were basically two ways to found a nation. The most common was to grow the nation organically, formulate an ethnic identity over untold generations and then make up an appealing backstory later. The second way, and not entirely mutually exclusive, was for a particular leader, usually a psychopathic king, to gather a superior army, conquer territory, and annex the people there, making them part of his nation whether they wanted it or not. Variations on these two themes were what happened in Rome, in Greece, in India, in China; they were done by the Sumerians, by the Egyptians, by the Aztecs, by the Maya. All the ancient civilizations have founding myths that are distorted so far from the real history that the real history has become basically unknowable. All the more recent powers were formed by warlords and usually ruled with iron fists.

The United States of America started with a war, make no mistake; and George Washington really was more a charismatic warlord than he ever was a competent statesman. But Washington was not a psychopath, and refused to rule with an iron fist. Instead he was instrumental in establishing a fundamentally new approach to the building of nations.
This is literally what happened—myths have grown around it, but it itself documented history. Washington and his compatriots gathered a group of some of the most intelligent and wise individuals they could find, sat them down in a room, and tasked them with answering the basic question: “What is the best possible country?” They argued and debated, considering absolutely the most cutting-edge economics (The Wealth of Nations was released in 1776) and political philosophy (Thomas Paine’s Common Sense also came out in 1776). And then, when they had reached some kind of consensus on what the best sort of country would be—they created that country. They were conscious of building a new tradition, of being the founders of the first nation built as part of the Enlightenment. Previously nations were built from immemorial tradition or the whims of warlords—the United States of America was the first nation in the world that was built on principle.

It would not be the last; in fact, with a terrible interlude that we call Napoleon, France would soon become the second nation of the Enlightenment. A slower process of reform would eventually bring the United Kingdom itself to a similar state (though the UK is still a monarchy and has no formal constitution, only an ever-growing mountain of common law). As the centuries passed and the United States became more and more powerful, its system of government attained global influence, with now almost every nation in the world nominally a “democracy” and about half actually recognizable as such. We now see it as unexceptional to have a democratically-elected government bound by a constitution, and even think of the United States as a relatively poor example compared to, say, Sweden or Norway (because #Scandinaviaisbetter), and this assessment is not entirely wrong; but it’s important to keep in mind that this was not always the case, and on July 4, 1776 the Founding Fathers truly were building something fundamentally new.

Of course, the Founding Fathers were not the demigods they are often imagined to be; Washington himself was a slaveholder, and not just any slaveholder, but in fact almost a billionaire in today’s terms—the wealthiest man in America by far and actually a rival to the King of England. Thomas Jefferson somehow managed to read Thomas Paine and write “all men are created equal” without thinking that this obligated him to release his own slaves. Benjamin Franklin was a misogynist and womanizer. James Madison’s concept of formalizing armed rebellion bordered on insanity (and ultimately resulted in our worst amendment, the Second). The system that they built disenfranchised women, enshrined the slavery of Black people into law, and consisted of dozens of awkward compromises (like the Senate) that would prove disastrous in the future. The Founding Fathers were human beings with human flaws and human hypocrisy, and they did many things wrong.

But they also did one thing very, very right: They created a new model for how nations should be built. In a very real sense they redefined what it means to be a nation. That is what we celebrate on Independence Day.