Democracy and Ignorance

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Man-yelling-1Citizens in the United States generally cannot explain the fundamental workings of the Constitution, and cannot explicate the American jurisprudential tradition regarding the freedom of expression. Few citizens can recite the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. Indeed, research routinely reveals stunningly high levels of ignorance regarding even the most basic facts about our government; citizens generally cannot distinguish the branches of government and cannot describe the division of power among them. Many of us would prove unable to pass the Civics Test required for naturalization. If there’s anything that one can know for sure about US citizens, it’s this: our political ignorance is nearly boundless.

We see an increase of concern about public ignorance around, and especially after, elections. From the losing party, the complaint is all too regularly that the voting populace was misled by a campaign, failed to appreciate an important fact, or was simply ignorant of what democracy is all about. Witness the Republican post-mortems this year in the United States in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Mark Steyn at National Review Online darkly intones, “If this is the way America wants to go off the cliff, so be it.” Robert Stacy-McCain at The American Spectator puts it in the clearest terms by declaring, “The cretins and dimwits have become an effective governing majority.”

Public ignorance is disconcerting. But it also poses a serious challenge to democracy. According to the most popular theories of democracy, the government’s legitimacy depends upon the freely given and informed consent of its people. So democracy requires there to be regular free elections; such episodes are supposed to reveal the Popular Will, which provides government with clear directives for the exercise of power, thereby ensuring political legitimacy.

But if ignorance is as extensive as the data suggest (and losing parties comlain), elections could not possibly serve the function of expressing informed consent. Lacking adequate knowledge of how government works, citizens are unable correctly to assign responsibility to particular office holders for public policies enacted in their name, and consequently are unable to provide the necessary directives. That is, under conditions of widespread citizen ignorance, elections do not express the Popular Will; rather, they simply place some in office and remove others, willy-nilly. Elections, then, are exceedingly costly public events that achieve nothing more than what could be accomplished by a coin-toss.

These considerations are often taken to expose the folly of any democratic theory that employs the concept of a Popular Will. Accordingly, there is a competing view of democracy that rejects the idea of such a Will. Expressivists reject the idea of a Popular Will, holding instead that elections simply express the approval or disapproval of officials. On this view, elections are merely contests for favor, but they’re nonetheless essential to democracy because they provide office holders with strong incentives towards non-tyranny. Officials must avoid wildly unpopular policies, lest they be fired come Election Day.

However, even expressivism founders in the face of widespread ignorance. If the citizenry is unable to assign credit and blame to the relevant office holders, elections cannot provide the incentives envisioned by the expressivist. Under widespread ignorance, the restrained officials are not any less likely to be blamed for bad policy as the unrestrained ones, so there’s no real reason to exercise restraint after all. In fact, given widespread ignorance, expressivism would counsel office holders to plunder and exploit as much as possible for as long as the opportunity persists. Expressivism, it seems, is no more able than the Popular Will theories to save democracy from the ignorance of its people.

Some say that the proper response is to regard democratic elections as merely symbolic social practices, things akin to singing the National Anthem at baseball games or watching fireworks on Independence Day. The point of the exercise has nothing to do with self-government; indeed democracy is not really about politics at all, but rather is a matter of national identity. These views maintain that politics lies in the constitutional constraints on power. They say that the task of politics is to strike a proper balance between personal liberty and the kind of social stability that can be secured only through political power. Public ignorance shows us that those elements of government that are subject to democratic control should be tightly constrained.

Call this kind of view minimalism. There may be reasons of other kinds for favoring minimalism, but as a response to public ignorance, it is hasty.

The public ignorance data are plagued by a lack of conceptual subtlety concerning the concept of ignorance. To be sure, to hold a false belief is to be ignorant. Ignorance, in one sense of the term, simply is a matter of believing what is false. Yet sometimes even an expert assessment of all of the best evidence concerning some question results in a false belief. In such cases, we call the belief false, yet will want to resist the thought that the believer is ignorant. For ignorance denotes epistemological culpability, and there is such a thing as faultless false-belief. Ignorance, then, is a double-barreled term: in one sense, it evaluates the belief; in another sense, it evaluates the believer.

Hence we can distinguish belief-ignorance from believer-ignorance. The former is present in every case where one believes what is false. The latter is present in every case where one’s belief does not bear the proper relation to one’s evidence and reasons. Accordingly, someone may be ­belief-ignorant even when she has met all of the most scrupulous standards of evidence, since there are cases in which all of the best evidence is misleading. And someone may be believer-ignorant despite having a true belief, since faulty reasoning and improper evaluation of the evidence can sometimes (accidentally) result in a true belief. Someone who is believer-ignorant is epistemically blameworthy even if she (luckily) has a true belief; someone who is belief-ignorant is epistemically blameless, even when she has a false belief, provided she has satisfied the appropriate epistemic standards for collecting and evaluating evidence. We might say, then, that the belief-ignorant person is incorrect, while the believer-ignorant person is incompetent.

This distinction is important for the question of what we should say about democracy given widespread public ignorance. The data reported at the beginning suggests widespread belief-ignorance among the public. Belief-ignorance is widespread and undeniable. But minimalism follows only if widespread belief-ignorance is taken to be indicative of widespread believer-ignorance. That is, one gets support for the minimalist conclusion only if one takes the data to show that the public is incompetent with regard to politics rather than merely largely mistaken. Yet the data show only that false belief is widespread, not that the public is generally incompetent with the evidence it has to go on. Whether we as a populace are believer-ignorant is yet an open question.

And this matter cannot be decided by opinion polls and questionnaires. Whether widespread belief-ignorance is indicative of widespread believer-ignorance can be decided only by a detailed examination of the social systems by which information and evidence are disseminated and the processes by which individuals access those systems. This inquiry must involve philosophers working on the theory of knowledge (also known as epistemologists) as well as political scientists and sociologists. Deeper collaboration among these fields is desperately needed before we can responsibly pronounce a view concerning the fate of democracy. In the meantime, note that minimalism is self-fulfilling: shrinking the reach of democratic control means neglecting even further the systems by which information is publicly disbursed. A populace with little access to the relevant kinds of data can be expected to exhibit incompetence in dealing with such data when it is available. In order to see whether minimalism is the proper view of democracy, we must proceed as if it’s false.