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FOOT VOTING, POLITICAL IGNORANCE, AND CONSTITUTIONAL DESIGN

  • Ilya Somin (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

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.

Abstract

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.

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Scott Althaus , Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge , “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming)

Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro , The Rational Public (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)

John Aldrich , Why Parties? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Robert Higgs , Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy 1865–1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977)

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Guido Pincione and Fernando Tesón , Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation: A Theory of Discourse Failure (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 228–47

Bruno Frey , Happiness: A Revolution in Economics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 189–97

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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