Are we smart enough for democracy?

A big government comprising numerous programs whose workings and structure are obscure to most people has indeed made citizen ignorance a problem. In his detailed analysis of polls taken during the 2012 presidential election, political philosopher Ilya Somin writes in his book Democracy and Political Ignorance, “Voters are ignorant not just about specific policy issues but about the structure of government and how it operates,” as well as “such basic aspects of the U.S. political system as who has the power to declare war, the respective functions of the three branches of government, and who controls monetary policy.”

Though many critics from both political parties complain about this ignorance among the citizenry, solutions generally involve wholesale, and unlikely, transformations of social institutions, like reforming school curricula or correcting the ideological biases of the media.

As Somin points out, however, the modern problem of citizen ignorance is in fact an argument for a much more important reform––a return to the limited central government enshrined in the Constitution. State governments should be the highest level of governmental policy except for those responsibilities Constitutionally entrusted to the federal government, such as foreign policy, securing the national borders, and overseeing interstate commerce. On all else, the principle of subsidiarity should apply––decision-making should devolve to the lowest practical level, as close as possible to those who will be affected by it. The closer to the daily lives and specific social and economic conditions of the voters, the more likely they are to have the knowledge necessary for political deliberation and choice. In this way the cultural, economic, and regional diversity of the country will be respected. And it will be much easier for citizens to acquire the information necessary for deliberating and deciding on issues that impact their lives.