In this post, we will review Ilya Somin’s intriguing essay “How political ignorance strengthens the case for libertarianism,” published in the new Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. (By the way, Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, has written an entire tome about political ignorance. See book below.) First off, Prof Somin begins with the problem of voter ignorance. It’s not that voters are stupid; rather, it’s an incentive problem. Since there is a tiny probability that one’s vote will be the decisive one, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time and effort acquiring relevant information and studying the issues. So, why do people vote at all? According to Somin, voting is more like pro sports: a chance to express support for one’s favorite political team! (On a personal note, having lived in Puerto Rico for many years, where island politics is the national pastime, we love this expressive explanation of voting.)
Next, Prof Somin identifies the problem of expert ignorance. As Somin correctly notes, we can’t rely on experts to “nudge” us in the right direction because people have radically diverse preferences about whatever problem or issue the experts are trying to fix. More fundamentally, as the “socialist calculation debate” of the mid-Twentieth century showed, expert knowledge is an oxymoron. (For what it’s worth, we’ve blogged about the socialist calculation debate before and have tried to apply the lessons of this great debate to the empirical economics movement of today.)
So, given how pervasive and deep the problem of ignorance is, what is to be done? Unfortunately, the rest of Somin’s essay is very weak here. Somin’s solution is to let people vote with their feet (or with their wallets) by choosing where to live and which products and services to buy: “It is easier to vote with your feet to a different city or State …, and easier still to vote in the private sector.” But in a world in which every major city has some form of occupational licensing, and in a world of giant Internet monopolies like Google and Facebook and boilerplate contracts, how much freedom do we really have to vote with our feet or wallets?