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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).
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): 1287–1371; Somin, “Knowledge about Ignorance: New Directions in the Study of Political Information,” Critical Review 18 (2006): 255–78; and Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 525 (2004). 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), 178–92. 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). 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.
4 Tiebout Charles, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,” Journal of Political Economy 64 (1956): 516–24.
5 See, e.g., Pateman Carole, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); and Barber Benjamin, Strong Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
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); Althaus Scott, Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Somin Ilya, “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal,” Critical Review 12 (1998): 413–58.
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); 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): 25–42; 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).
9 See, e.g., Blais André et al. , “The Calculus of Voting: An Empirical Test,” European Journal of Political Research 37 (2000): 181–201, which calculates very low probabilities of decisiveness in Canadian provincial elections, despite their relatively small populations.
10 Olson Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).
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); and Udehn Lars, The Limits of Public Choice (London: Routledge, 1996).
12 Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 73–75; Edlin Aaron, Gelman Andrew, and Kaplan Noah, “Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote to Improve the Well-Being of Others,” Rationality and Society 19 (2007): 293–314.
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): 246–78; and Moe Terry M., The Organization of Interests (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 81–82.
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); and Somin Ilya, “Voter Knowledge and Constitutional Change: Assessing the New Deal Experience,” William and Mary Law Review 45 (2003): 595–674.
16 Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss,” 6.
17 Delli Carpini and Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics.
18 See Converse Philip, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. Apter David (New York: Free Press, 1964); Neumann Russell W., The Paradox of Mass Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); and RePass David, “Searching for Voters along the Liberal-Conservative Continuum: The Infrequent Ideologue and the Missing Middle,” The Forum 6 (2008): 1–49.
19 Delli Carpini and Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics; Smith, The Unchanging American Voter; Bennett Stephen E., “Trends in Americans' Political Information, 1967–87,” American Politics Quarterly 17 (1989): 422–35; Althaus, Collective Preferences.
20 Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss”; Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty”; Althaus, Collective Preferences; Luskin Robert, “Measuring Political Sophistication,” American Journal of Political Science 31 (1987): 856–99.
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): 2098–2109; Taber Charles S. and Lodge Milton, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming); and Glaeser Edward and Sunstein Cass R., “Extremism and Social Learning,” Journal of Legal Analysis 1 (2009): 1–62.
27 Taber and Lodge, “Motivated Skepticism.”
28 Caplan Bryan, “Rational Irrationality,” Kylos 54 (2001): 5; see also Caplan Bryan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).
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), 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=1084585.
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); Popkin Samuel, The Reasoning Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Wittman Donald, The Myth of Democratic Failure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Lupia Arthur and McCubbins Matthew, The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Fiorina Morris, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981); and Page Benjamin I. and Shapiro Robert Y., The Rational Public (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
33 Aldrich John, Why Parties? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
34 Schumpeter Joseph A., Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1950); Fiorina, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections.
35 See Somin, “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal”; Somin, “Resolving the Democratic Dilemma?” Yale Journal on Regulation 16 (1999): 401–16; Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss”; Somin, “Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty”; Somin, “Richard Posner's Democratic Pragmatism,” Critical Review 16 (2004): 1–22; and Somin, “Knowledge about Ignorance.”
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); Galston William A., “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education,” Annual Review of Political Science 4 (2001): 217–34.
38 Hamermesh Daniel, “Changing Looks and Changing ‘Discrimination’: The Beauty of Economists,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 11712 (2005).
39 Tetlock Philip E., Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
40 Ibid., chaps. 3–5.
41 Somin, “When Ignorance Isn't Bliss,” 12–13.
43 Rubin Edward and Feeley Malcolm, “Federalism: Some Notes on a National Neurosis,” UCLA Law Review (1994): 936–42.
44 See, e.g., ibid., 936–51; and Feeley Malcolm and Rubin Edward, Federalism: Political Identity and Tragic Compromise (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).
45 Dye Thomas, American Federalism: Competition among Governments (New York: John Wiley, 1990), 1–33; Somin Ilya, “Closing the Pandora's Box of Federalism: The Case for Judicial Restriction of Federal Subsidies to State Governments,” Georgetown Law Journal 90 (2002): 468–71; Weingast Barry, “The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market-Preserving Federalism and Economic Development,” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 11 (1995): 1–31.
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); Mendelberg Tali, The Race Card (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); 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). 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).
49 See, e.g., Ens Adolf, Subjects or Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870–1925 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1994); and Nolt Steven, A History of the Amish, rev. ed. (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2004).
50 Center Pew Research, Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where's Home? (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2008), 8, 13.
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); Henri Florette, Black Migration: Movement North 1900–1920 (New York: Doubleday, 1975); Johnson Daniel M. and Campbell Rex R., Black Migration in America: A Social Demographic History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981); and Bernstein David E., “The Law and Economics of Post–Civil War Restrictions on Interstate Migration by African-Americans,” Texas Law Review 76 (1998): 782–85.
53 Johnson and Campbell, Black Migration in America, 74–75.
54 Ibid., 77.
55 Ibid., 114–23.
56 Ibid., 60–61; Cohen, At Freedom's Edge; Higgs Robert, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy 1865–1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
57 Fishback Price V., “Can Competition among Employers Reduce Governmental Discrimination? Coal Companies and Segregated Schools in West Virginia in the Early 1900s,” Journal of Law and Economics 32 (1989): 324–41; Cohen, At Freedom's Edge; Higgs, Competition and Coercion.
58 U.S. Census Bureau 2000, Tables 3 and 11a.
59 Anderson James D., The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
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), 702 (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), 164.
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).
74 Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 57–58; Johnson and Campbell, Black Migration in America, 84–85.
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): 61–75.
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.
79 U.S. Census Bureau 2000, Tables 7a and 11a.
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); 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).
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.
85 Bartley Numan V., The New South, 1945–1980 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), 245–60.
86 See discussion in Section III above.
87 For the classic analysis, see Key V. O., Southern Politics in State and Nation (New York: Knopf, 1949), chaps. 24–31; see also Black Earl and Black Merle, Politics and Society in the South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 75–77.
88 Nelson Robert, Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2005), xiii.
90 See generally, Glasze Georg, Webster Chris, and Frantz Klaus, eds., Private Cities: Global and Local Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2006).
91 For a related argument suggesting that private planned communities might improve the quality of decision-making and deliberation relative to government bodies, see Pincione Guido and Tesón Fernando, Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation: A Theory of Discourse Failure (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 228–47; see also Vanberg and Buchanan, “Constitutional Choice, Rational Ignorance, and the Limits of Reason,” 186–90, which argues that individuals might make better-informed choices between alternative constitutional arrangements in the market than through voting.
92 Somin, “Closing the Pandora's Box of Federalism.”
93 See the discussion of this issue in Section III above.
94 See Frey Bruno, “A Utopia? Government without Territorial Monopoly,” Independent Review 6 (2001): 99–112; Frey Bruno, Happiness: A Revolution in Economics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 189–97; and Frey Bruno S. and Eichenberger Reiner, The New Democratic Federalism for Europe: Functional, Overlapping, and Competing Jurisdictions (London: Edward Elgar, 2004).
95 See O'Hara Erin and Ribstein Larry, The Law Market (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
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), 215–311; Choper Jesse H., Judicial Review and the National Political Process (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Choper Jesse H., “The Scope of National Power vis-à-vis the States: The Dispensability of Judicial Review,” Yale Law Journal 86 (1977): 1552–84; 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): 543–64.
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): 89–130.
98 See ibid.; and Weingast, “The Economic Role of Political Institutions.” See also Buchanan James and Brennan Geoffrey, The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 214–15.
99 See Weingast Barry, “Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: Implications for Decentralized Democratic Governance and Economic Development,” draft paper (2007), 13–16, 42–43.
100 See ibid.; and Somin, “Closing the Pandora's Box of Federalism.”
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.”
103 Ibid.; Somin, “Closing the Pandora's Box of Federalism.”
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), 121–45.
105 Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights.
106 Somin Ilya, “Tiebout Goes Global: International Migration as a Tool for Voting with Your Feet,” Missouri Law Review 73 (2008): 1247–64.
107 These two limitations of foot voting are effectively discussed in Epstein Richard A., “Exit Rights under Federalism,” Law and Contemporary Problems 55 (1992): 147–65. Telecommunication is one example of a network industry.
108 For a recent survey of the literature on the various considerations involved, see Ribstein Larry and Kobayashi Bruce, “The Economics of Federalism,” in The Economics of Federalism, ed. Ribstein Larry and Kobayashi Bruce (New York: Edward Elgar, 2007).
For helpful suggestions and comments, I would like to thank Bryan Caplan, Bruce Kobayashi, Donald Wittman, and participants in conference panels sponsored by the University of California at Santa Cruz, the IVR international conference on law and philosophy, the Liberty Fund, and the Korea Institutional Economics Association. I would also like to thank Susan Courtwright-Rodriguez and Kari DiPalma for valuable research assistance.
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