Don’t Know What You’re up to

Thoughts on Ilya Somin’s take on the consequences of political ignorance for judicial review

I have recently finished reading Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (2nd ed). Although I was familiar with the gist of Prof. Somin’s argument from his numerous blog posts on the subject of political ignorance as well talks, such as this one, one of which I had the good fortune of attending at NYU, I found it a rewarding read. Even if you know where the argument is going, it is still well worth your while. That said, since prof. Somin has so frequently summarized his case himself, there is no need for me to do so here. Rather, I will volunteer some observations on an issue which he addresses in the book, but not, for the most part, in his blog posts: the impact of his findings on political ignorance on the issue of judicial review of legislation.

In a nutshell, prof. Somin’s general argument is that, as extensive survey evidence shows, most people are profoundly ignorant about both the organization and the activities of government. They are also unaware of crucial facts relevant to assessing these activities. Meanwhile, most of those who are not as ignorant as the rest are still incapable of correctly assessing the government’s performance because they are “fans” who are more interested in the success of their political “team” than in the search for truth. The reason this problem persists is that the costs of acquiring information and processing it in good faith are too high  compared to the benefits one might get from doing so, given that it does not matter whether one’s vote is well-informed or not: it still counts for virtually nothing. In a word, ignorance is rational. By contrast, people are remarkably able and willing to acquire information when they are considering a decision that would assuredly have an impact on them, such as where to live or what to buy. The most effective solution to the misgovernment caused by the pervasive and persistent ignorance of voters is, therefore, to devolve decision-making powers from large, centralized governments to more local ones among which people are more easily able to choose by “voting with their feet” and from all governments to the market.

This argument, which, to be clear, I find very compelling (though I should perhaps note that ― like prof. Somin, I take it ― I would support the prescriptions of smaller and more decentralized government even quite apart from the existence of political ignorance) has a couple of important consequences for debates about judicial review of legislation. For one thing, it strengthens the case for judicial review.  Enforcing limits on the power of government, as judicial review does, and perhaps especially enforcing limits set up by federal constitutions, insofar as they circumscribe the powers of centralized governments, helps preserve foot-voting and market-choice opportunities. It can also help limit the number of issues to which the government attends and thus the amount of information that voters need to acquire and process in order to keep tabs on it. For another, persistent and pervasive political ignorance undermines the case against judicial review. This case rests on the courts’ lack of democratic legitimacy vis-à-vis the legislatures whose work they check. But if voters are largely ignorant about what it is that the legislatures are up to anyway ― and prof. Somin observers that “[f]or most legislation, the vast majority of voters will not have heard of its existence, much less have an informed opinion on its merits” (184) ― then legislation’s claim to democratic legitimacy is weak if not non-existent, except in unusual circumstances.

This too is largely compelling. Even the Waldronian argument about the legitimacy of legislatures arising out of the (roughly) equal say that elections (if run fairly) give to voters in public affairs loses much of its bite if we think, as prof. Somin shows we ought to, that the voters largely do not know enough to choose their representatives reasonably well. The equality argument remains, of course, but it is a hollow one. Still, I think that prof. Somin’s arguments raise a number of questions that his book does not answer ― which is not to say that they are unanswerable.

One such question is what can be done to ensure that judicial review actually works to counteract, rather than worsen, the problem of political ignorance. Judicial review can, after all, serve to expand rather than limit the powers that the government is called upon to exercise, or to obscure the exercise of existing powers instead of making it more transparent. It will do so if courts are merrily enforcing “social and economic rights”, requiring governments to create or expand social programmes instead of leaving issues to be dealt with in the markets. It will also do so if courts blur the lines between federal and state or provincial authority, making it more difficult for citizens to know what government is responsible for what law or social programme, or give private unaccountable actors, such as civil servants’ unions, power to influence public affairs.

The Supreme Court of Canada has already done some of these things, and its parasiti ― who are, in reality, just one species of the rent-seeking genus that afflicts all specialized expert agencies, as prof. Somin notes in his discussion of delegation of power to experts ― are urging it do more. Should these suggestions be taken up, the problems of ignorance resulting from the vast scope of and difficulty of monitoring government will likely become that much worse. (This does not conclusively prove, of course, that none of these things ought to be done; perhaps there are reasons why increased ignorance is a price worth paying. The point is simply that the ignorance-related costs must be taken into account.) The answer, presumably, is some combination of “write a constitutional text that does not lend itself to ignorance-promoting interpretations” and “appoint judges who will not engage in such interpretations when not required to do so by the text”, but I wonder whether prof. Somin might suggest something more specific.

More specific solutions would be particularly important because relying on judicial appointments is really not much of a solution at all. Prof. Somin notes, elsewhere in the book, that the American public pays little attention to presidents’ performance in choosing judges, even though this is one area where (unlike in many others, such as economic policy, on which presidents are often judged) a president wields decisive influence. The problem is, if anything, much worse in Canada. Appointments to the Supreme Court attract attention only insofar as they conform to or depart from conventions about representation, whether established (i.e. regional/provincial representation) or emerging (demographic representation) and expectations about bilingualism. Other judicial appointments pass entirely unnoticed. The voters are not going to put any sort of pressure on Canadian governments to appoint judges who could enforce constitutional limits on the power of government, or otherwise contribute to counteracting the ill effects of political ignorance.

This makes me wonder whether much of anything can be done about this problem. Prof. Somin addresses some of the proposals that have been made to increase the voters’ levels of political knowledge generally, and concludes that none are likely to succeed to any substantial degree. He does not, however, consider the feasability of improving voter knowledge about specific issues, rather than as a general matter. Can something be done to make the electorate more aware of the importance of the judiciary and of the elected officials’ role in shaping it? The Federalist Society might have been somewhat successful at this in the United States, though I am not sure if even its determined efforts over the last several decades have changed popular opinion, as opposed to that of a certain section of relatively well-informed (and intensely partisan!) elites.

Last but not least, as prof. Somin also notes in his discussion of experts, ignorance is not only a problem for hoi polloi. “Expert regulators face serious knowledge problems themselves”, (215) he points out. Prof. Somin has in mind the experts’ lack of knowledge of people’s preferences and local circumstances, but another type of knowledge problem from which many experts, and perhaps especially the courts, suffer is the narrow scope of their expertise. Judges are (one hopes) experts in legal analysis, but they are as ignorant as the next person when it comes to all manner of facts and scientific theories that are relevant to policy-making ― including that which occurs in the course of policy-making. When adjudicating a trade union’s claim that its alleged right to extract above-market wages for its members is an instance of the freedom of association, it would help judges to have a basic understanding of labour economics. But they do not. When adjudicating claims about the police’s power of search incident to arrest, it might help judges not to think that crime rates are going up when they are in fact going to do. But they do. In many ways, judges are every bit as ignorant as the rest of us. So are lawyers, who thus cannot enlighten the judges before whom they litigate. Here again, I wonder if prof. Somin has any suggestions about relieving ignorance.

Prof. Somin’s discussion of expert decision-makers concludes that, while delegating decision-making powers to them may help counter some of the effects of the voters’ ignorance, it is no panacea. Although this discussion only mentions courts in passing, the conclusion, I am afraid, is applicable to them. Prof. Somin has put his finger on a very significant problem and it might be, if anything, even more intractable than his (already rather gloomy) account suggests. Still, if we are to do anything about, we must start by understanding what the problem is, and for helping us do so, we owe prof. Somin greatly.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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