Optimal Voter Idiocy

We can speculate with abandon and impunity about what an ideal polity might look like, but regardless of how such a thing exists for you in your mind, it is safe to say that it does not and cannot exist in real life.* If you accept that, the premise that whatever polity we find ourselves a part of is inherently flawed (and I do not think it is asking too much to accept it), then it is not unreasonable, or at least it is mildly entertaining, to consider which sorts of flaws are optimal. In a democratic system (like the United States, the protestations in Metelkova of a burnt-out Slovene radical that America is governed by a totalitarian system notwithstanding), a critical locus of flaws and imperfections is the makeup of the polity itself – the voters. Many of us don’t vote, vote irrationally, or vote under the auspices of a bounded rationality whose contours are shaped by shocking informational lapses. Some of us are just dumb.

So to narrow things down a bit, if you take the presence of shitty electorates as a given, is there a specific configuration or a certain type of shittiness which may be preferable to others? A plausible(?) way to think about this might be that the total amount of idiocy contained within the electorate of a democratic polity might change over time (e.g. if more voters become better educated then presumably voter idiocy decreases), but that regardless of the accumulation or reduction of idiocy, it is almost certain to be unevenly distributed. Thus the important questions surround the nature of that distribution – what is the optimal relative dispersal of voter idiocy? Would we be better off if everyone were more or less equally deluded about politics, but in disparate ways? Or would we be better served by a voting population in which a few people are extremely well-informed while the vast majority is not?

Presented with an electorate that generates imperfect preferences (a charitable way of describing the incoherency that governs what American voters say they want), politicians will respond with imperfect political platforms, riddled with similar logical inconsistencies and a similar absence of internal consistency. One might argue, then, that voters who are too well-informed will withhold their votes in recognition of the fact that most of what politicians propose is somewhere between aggressively quixotic (no, you cannot pay for x amazing program just by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse) and deeply contradictory.** Over time, as the best-informed voters withdraw from the political process, you wind up with the most craven politicians pandering to the dumbest voters, and producing terrible policies as a result. If this were indeed the case, then it could be highly problematic to have an electorate with an extremely unequal distribution of political informed-ness, because the drop-off in quality after the “best” voters drop out would be all the more prodigious. You might instead prefer that voter idiocy be fairly evenly distributed, so that even if the best-informed voters withdraw, those who remain do not represent a significant fall in voter quality.

Of course, this is all highly speculative and probably more than a little ridiculous, and anyway it turns out that it does not seem to map terribly well to reality. One obvious check on this phenomenon reaching a problematic critical mass is that if policy outcomes get bad enough, voters will have strong incentives to vote for the least-worst candidate. Furthermore, politicians will be attuned to the creation of an untapped constituency of voters who would support rationally constructed platforms and start building accordingly. More concretely, here is a Pew study from 2006 which finds that Americans who only vote intermittently are “… less engaged in politics. They are more likely to be bored with the political process and admit they often do not know enough about candidates to cast ballots.” It seems the theory above, in which political knowledge leads to an abandonment of the electoral process, is false. As you might expect, the people most likely the vote are the people most likely to know something about politics. So why do we keep getting such idiotic political platforms? It must be that, as an electorate, we’re just not that smart

*I suppose for the Panglossians among us this is not strictly true. Also, I say “with impunity” but one wonders – if this speculation were to include full-throated endorsements of the Islamic State as a model mode of political organization then…
**This is the charitable way to describe what I do. I pay close attention to American politics, and all I get out of it is the knowledge that I don’t want to vote for any of the available candidates