Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 November 2010
The strengths and weaknesses of federalism have been debated for centuries. But one major possible advantage of building decentralization and limited government into a constitution has been largely ignored in the debate so far: its potential for reducing the costs of widespread political ignorance. The argument of this paper is simple, but has potentially important implications: Constitutional federalism enables citizens to “vote with their feet,” and foot voters have much stronger incentives to make well-informed decisions than more conventional ballot box voters. The informational advantage of foot voting over ballot box voting suggests that decentralized federalism can increase citizen welfare and democratic accountability relative to policymaking in a centralized unitary state.
Ballot box voters have strong incentives to be “rationally ignorant” about the candidates and policies they vote on because the chance that any one vote will have a decisive impact on an electoral outcome is vanishingly small. For the same reason, they also have little or no incentive to make good use of the information they do possess. By contrast, “foot voters” choosing a jurisdiction in which to reside have much stronger incentives to acquire information and use it rationally; the decisions they make are individually decisive.
1 For a survey of the relevant history, see Gordon, Scott, Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.
2 I have myself briefly discussed these advantages in several prior publications. See, e.g., Somin, Ilya, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty: A New Perspective on the ‘Central Obsession’ of Constitutional Theory,” Iowa Law Review 87 (2004): 1287–1371Google Scholar; Somin, , “Knowledge about Ignorance: New Directions in the Study of Political Information,” Critical Review 18 (2006): 255–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Somin, , “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 525 (2004)Google Scholar. However, the present essay is a much more extensive analysis. Viktor Vanberg and James Buchanan have analyzed the significance of rational political ignorance for the constitution-making process. See Vanberg, Viktor and Buchanan, James, “Constitutional Choice, Rational Ignorance, and the Limits of Reason,” in Vanberg, , Rules and Choice in Economics (New York: Routledge, 1994), 178–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar. But this work only briefly mentions possible implications for federalism in constitutional design (ibid., 188–89).
3 The terms “foot voting” and “ballot box voting” used in this essay are similar to Albert Hirschman's well-known distinction between “exit” and “voice.” See Hirschman, , Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970)Google Scholar. However, Hirschman's concept of exit includes exit mechanisms other than foot voting (such as choosing to buy one firm's products rather than another's). He defines exit as any means by which people stop buying a firm's products or “leave [an] organization” in response to poor performance (ibid., 4). Similarly, his concept of “voice” includes methods of influencing an organization from within other than voting. Thus, I use “foot voting” and “ballot box voting” instead of “exit” and “voice” in order to make it clear that this essay has a narrower focus than Hirschman's classic work.
6 See, e.g., Delli Carpini, Michael X. and Keeter, Scott, What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Althaus, Scott, Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Somin, Ilya, “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal,” Critical Review 12 (1998): 413–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
7 The data is extensive. See, e.g., Bishop, George W., The Illusion of Public Opinion: Fact and Artifact in Public Opinion Polls (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004)Google Scholar; Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty”; Althaus, Collective Preferences; and Delli Carpini and Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics, for recent summaries of the evidence.
8 For the latter figure, see Riker, William H. and Ordeshook, Peter, “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting,” American Political Science Review 62 (1968): 25–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for the former, see Andrew Gelman et al., “What Is the Probability That Your Vote Will Make a Difference?” Economic Inquiry (forthcoming), available at http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/research/published/probdecisive2.pdf. Gelman et al. estimate that the chance of decisiveness in the 2008 presidential election varied from 1 in 10 million in a few small states, to 1 in 100 million in large states such as California (ibid., 9–10).
10 Olson, Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965)Google Scholar.
11 There is a large literature attacking rational choice theory on the ground that it fails to explain the prevalence of voting. See, e.g., Green, Donald and Shapiro, Ian, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; and Udehn, Lars, The Limits of Public Choice (London: Routledge, 1996)Google Scholar.
13 See Somin, “Knowledge about Ignorance,” 258–60.
14 See ibid., 259–61. For other efforts to reconcile rational choice theory and the “paradox of voting,” see, e.g., Aldrich, John H., “Rational Choice and Turnout,” American Journal of Political Science 37 (1993): 246–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Moe, Terry M., The Organization of Interests (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 81–82Google Scholar.
15 See Delli Carpini and Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics; Smith, Eric R.A.N., The Unchanging American Voter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989)Google Scholar; and Somin, Ilya, “Voter Knowledge and Constitutional Change: Assessing the New Deal Experience,” William and Mary Law Review 45 (2003): 595–674Google Scholar.
16 Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss,” 6.
17 Delli Carpini and Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics.
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21 Somin, “Knowledge about Ignorance.”
22 This section recapitulates and slightly extends arguments I first presented in Somin, “Knowledge about Ignorance.”
23 Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty.”
25 Somin, “Knowledge about Ignorance.”
26 See, e.g., Lord, Charles, Ross, Lee, and Lepper, Mark R., “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098–2109CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Taber, Charles S. and Lodge, Milton, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming)Google Scholar; and Glaeser, Edward and Sunstein, Cass R., “Extremism and Social Learning,” Journal of Legal Analysis 1 (2009): 1–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
27 Taber and Lodge, “Motivated Skepticism.”
29 Taber and Lodge, “Motivated Skepticism”; Converse, Philip, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. Apter, David (New York: Free Press, 1964)Google Scholar, produced similar findings many years ago.
30 See Sunstein, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian, “Conspiracy Theories,” Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-03 (2008), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1084585Google Scholar.
31 This section is an adapted and condensed version of my more detailed analysis of this issue in Somin, “Knowledge about Ignorance.”
32 There is a vast literature on this subject. For notable defenses of various shortcuts, see, e.g., Converse, Philip, “Popular Representation and the Distribution of Information,” in Information and Democratic Processes, ed. Ferejohn, John and Kuklinski, James (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Popkin, Samuel, The Reasoning Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Wittman, Donald, The Myth of Democratic Failure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Lupia, Arthur and McCubbins, Matthew, The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Fiorina, Morris, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981)Google Scholar; and Page, Benjamin I. and Shapiro, Robert Y., The Rational Public (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
34 Schumpeter, Joseph A., Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1950)Google Scholar; Fiorina, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections.
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36 Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss”; Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty.”
37 Popkin, Samuel and Dimock, Michael, “Political Knowledge and Citizen Competence,” in Citizen Competence and Democratic Institutions, ed. Elkin, Stephen and Soltan, Karol (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Galston, William A., “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education,” Annual Review of Political Science 4 (2001): 217–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
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39 Tetlock, Philip E., Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.
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46 Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty.”
47 There is a large literature on this subject. See, e.g., Jacobs, Lawrence R. and Shapiro, Robert, Politicians Don't Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Mendelberg, Tali, The Race Card (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Somin, “Voter Knowledge and Constitutional Change,” 652–54.
48 For a good discussion of the federalism issues raised by the Mormons' establishment of a new state in Utah, see Gordon, Sarah Barringer, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)Google Scholar. For a recent account of the Pilgrims' decision to leave Europe and found a new society in Massachusetts, see Philbrick, Nathan, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (New York: Viking, 2006)Google Scholar.
50 Center, Pew Research, Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where's Home? (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2008), 8, 13Google Scholar.
51 Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty,” 1351.
52 See Cohen, William, At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861–1915 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Henri, Florette, Black Migration: Movement North 1900–1920 (New York: Doubleday, 1975)Google Scholar; Johnson, Daniel M. and Campbell, Rex R., Black Migration in America: A Social Demographic History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981)Google Scholar; and Bernstein, David E., “The Law and Economics of Post–Civil War Restrictions on Interstate Migration by African-Americans,” Texas Law Review 76 (1998): 782–85Google Scholar.
53 Johnson and Campbell, Black Migration in America, 74–75.
60 Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 59–60.
61 Johnson and Campbell, Black Migration in America, 83.
62 Some shortcut advocates argue that rationally ignorant voters can rely on cues from “opinion leaders” more knowledgeable than themselves. I have criticized this theory in Somin, “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal,” and Somin, “Resolving the Democratic Dilemma.”
63 Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 63–64.
64 For a detailed account of these “emigrant agents” and their role in providing information to southern blacks, see Bernstein, “The Law and Economics of Post–Civil War Restrictions on Interstate Migration by African-Americans,” 782–83, 792–802. See also Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 60–62; Cohen, At Freedom's Edge, 119–27, 259–57.
65 Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 62–63.
66 Ibid.; Bernstein, “The Law and Economics of Post–Civil War Restrictions on Interstate Migration by African-Americans.”
67 Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 57–60; Johnson and Campbell, Black Migration in America, 84–85.
68 Douglass, Frederick, Selected Speeches and Writings (1886), ed. Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 702Google Scholar (emphasis in the original).
69 Quoted in Klarman, Michael J., From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 164Google Scholar.
70 Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 168–73.
71 See, e.g., Dye, American Federalism; Weingast, “The Economic Role of Political Institutions.”
72 Bernstein, “The Law and Economics of Post–Civil War Restrictions on Interstate Migration by African-Americans,” 784. See also Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 75–76, 170–71; and Higgs, Competition and Coercion, 29–32, 59, 119–20, 152–53.
73 Pfeifer, Michael J., Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874–1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004)Google Scholar.
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75 Fishback, “Can Competition among Employers Reduce Governmental Discrimination?” For a general discussion of the ability of migration to reduce discrimination in education, see Margo, Robert A., “Segregated Schools and the Mobility Hypothesis: A Model of Local Government Discrimination,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 106 (1991): 61–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
76 Douglass, Selected Speeches and Writings, 702.
77 It should be noted, however, that its failure to do so was partly attributable to southern state governments' partially successful efforts to reduce black mobility. See Cohen, At Freedom's Edge, 201–72; Bernstein, “The Law and Economics of Post–Civil War Restrictions on Interstate Migration by African-Americans,” 810–27.
78 See the discussion of retrospective voting in Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss,” and Somin, “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal,” 427–29.
80 Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty,” 1327; Delli Carpini and Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters, 144–45.
81 Gunning, Sandra, Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890–1912 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Pfeifer, Rough Justice.
82 Pfeifer, Rough Justice.
83 For a discussion of one of the best-known efforts to disprove this rationale for lynching, see Schechter, Patricia, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)Google Scholar.
84 We have no survey data documenting the precise number of southern white voters who accepted the rape myth. However, contemporary observers believed that it was widely accepted, and politicians routinely exploited it in their campaigns, and as a justification for lynching. See generally Pfeifer, Rough Justice.
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86 See discussion in Section III above.
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92 Somin, “Closing the Pandora's Box of Federalism.”
93 See the discussion of this issue in Section III above.
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95 See O'Hara, Erin and Ribstein, Larry, The Law Market (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)Google Scholar.
96 For well-known arguments that the political safeguards of federalism make judicial intervention unnecessary in the United States, see Kramer, Larry D., “Putting the Politics Back into the Political Safeguards of Federalism,” Columbia Law Review 100 (2000), 215–311CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Choper, Jesse H., Judicial Review and the National Political Process (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)Google Scholar; Choper, Jesse H., “The Scope of National Power vis-à-vis the States: The Dispensability of Judicial Review,” Yale Law Journal 86 (1977): 1552–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Wechsler, Herbert J., “The Political Safeguards of Federalism: The Role of the States in the Composition and Selection of the Federal Government,” Columbia Law Review 54 (1954): 543–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
97 These points are elaborated in greater detail in McGinnis, John and Somin, Ilya, “Federalism vs. States' Rights: A Defense of Judicial Review in a Federal System,” Northwestern University Law Review 99 (2004): 89–130Google Scholar.
99 See Weingast, Barry, “Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: Implications for Decentralized Democratic Governance and Economic Development,” draft paper (2007), 13–16, 42–43Google Scholar.
101 As I noted above, 70 percent of Americans were unaware of the creation of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, the largest new government program in forty years.
102 For a particularly influential argument for competitive federalism, see Weingast, “The Economic Role of Political Institutions.”
104 For a recent restatement of that view, see Laycock, Douglas, “Protecting Liberty in a Federal System: The U.S. Experience,” in Patterns of Regionalism and Federalism: Lessons for the UK, ed. Fedtke, Jörg and Markesinis, B. S. (London: Hart, 2006), 121–45Google Scholar.
105 Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights.
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