Somin’s article is one of a number of recent critiques of the plausibility of deliberative democracy. (1) The core argument in Illya Somin’s ‘Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance’ is that the existence of widespread political ignorance and irrationality undercuts the possibility of robust deliberative democracy. (2) The greater participation and deliberation required by deliberative democracy expects too much of citizens in terms of knowledge and rationality in light of the size and complexity of government. Somin addresses what was previously a gap in the literature by focusing in on the consequences that the pre-existing arguments of ‘rational political ignorance’ (3) and ‘rational irrationality’ (4) have on deliberative democracy undertaken by ‘ordinary’ citizens. (5) This is significant as deliberative democracy is both: the darling of the present discourse; (6) and an approach that does well to (7) instantiate ‘rule by the people’. This review will focus on Somin’s treatment of:: Rational Political Ignorance; and Rational Irrationality. (8)
Although a contested concept (9) with a ‘bewildering variety of theoretical starting points’, (10) Somin begins by giving a brief summation of what he takes to be the key tenants of deliberative democracy. According to Somin, Deliberative democracy ‘insist[s] that voters must actively discuss policy issues, and do so in an intellectually rigorous and morally legitimate way’. (11) This requires some sort of ‘public reason’ involving: impartiality, ‘reciprocity, publicity and accountability’. (12) This requires the discourse to at least be rational and informed. (13) This entails both empirical knowledge and moral and philosophical understanding to properly understand what is and is not a good argument. It is these two requirements, which are broadly consistent with the ‘core’ of the theory, (14) that Somin challenges as being out of reach.
Having established the standard to be met for citizens to engage in deliberative democracy, Somin then challenges its attainability by invoking ‘rational ignorance’. In the political context, it is the contention that constituents lack the proper incentive to educate themselves to such a degree that they have the sufficient knowledge to engage in fruitful public dialogue. (15) Somin notes that this ignorance is both persistent and pervasive, and is ‘not limited to information about specific policies’. (16) This ignorance is rational because the size and complexity of government make the incentive of accumulating knowledge for the sake of being a better voter so ‘vanishingly small’. (17) This disincentive is exacerbated by how little one’s vote contributes to the overall result of elections.
Somin addresses two potential counterarguments to his contention: that a deliberative democracy would foster public spirited behaviour; (18) and that information shortcuts could overcome ignorance. (19) Somin essentially contends that those with an altruistic bent are more inclined to spend their time on projects that will be more fruitful than gathering political information. In doing so, Somin implies it is not the system that is at fault but the way we economise our time. (20) This is consistent with Somin’s unarticulated model of rationality based on the rational-choice school of economics. (21) Although consistent, Somin’s ideological bias seems to overstate the problem of political ignorance by failing to meet deliberatist’s on their own terms. By not taking seriously the potential for the formative process of deliberation to change its participants, (22) Somin’s argument will not persuade those who do not share his ideological presuppositions.
Moreover, since Somin’s publication, there has been further literature on deliberative systems that use the ‘collective intelligence’ (23) of ordinary citizens but employ an epistemic division of labour (24) to combat the amount of knowledge participants need to be conversant with. (25) Essentially, if the collective knowledge of the electorate can be harnessed, the ignorance problem can be overcome. Somin maintains, however, that this ultimately fails due to problems ‘deeply rooted in the basic structure of the modern democratic state’. (26) Evidence is amassed to demonstrate that there presently exists a problem with ‘correlated error’ and that collective knowledge is not being utilised. (27) The problem with Somin’s rebuttal is that the evidence he relies upon to show that collective wisdom fails does not take into account scenarios where collective knowledge synthesised through a deliberative process. (28) Somin’s ignorance argument indeed highlights the futility of our current system and the demand it places on individuals, (29) but it fails to close the door on models that embrace radically different institutional design. (30)
Rational irrationality is an idea that Somin borrows from Bryan Caplan (31) and applies to deliberative democracy. Rational irrationality contends that citizens ‘have little reason to rationally evaluate the information they do possess’ and ‘tend to evaluate new political information in a highly biased fashion, overvaluing evidence that confirms their pre-existing views and underestimating or ignoring the importance of facts that cut the other way’. (32) Somin contends that the evidence suggests that people can seldom escape their predisposed biases and are therefore not fit for deliberation. (33) Moreover, people do not reason objectively and have little incentive to because of the strain it causes them. (34) Furthermore, ‘forcing voters to spend more time discussing political issues… might lead them to engage in more irrational “reasoning” than they would otherwise.’ (35) Indeed, there is considerable support in the literature for questioning the capabilities of ordinary citizens. (36)
It is evident from the related literature that ability for people to deliberate in an open-minded way is a contentious topic with numerous studies pointing in different directions. (37) Nevertheless, Somin seems to oversimplify the matter. It appears that people are able to be open-minded and that they do not ‘invariably resist information inconsistent with their current beliefs’ for the sake of convenience. (38) Rather, the problem is arguably with the quality of the information available (39) and whether citizens have the capacities to adjudicate this information effectively. (40) Because people do not overwhelmingly just seek to confirm their biases, it is reasonable to contend that a better education (41) could be a remedy to the apparent irrationality with which people approach new information. (42) This view, contrary to Somin’s, views the ‘capacity to adjudicate’ as something that can be learned. Despite Somin’s framing, it can be surmised that the partisan inclinations of the electorate and the inability to consistently assess new information in an unbiased and open-minded way appear to be genuine roadblocks to deliberative democracy. But again, a failing with Somin’s argument is the failure to convincingly demonstrate that these failings are innate rather than just a symptom of the current institutional design. This is particularly pertinent in light of the research being conducted in and around deliberative polling. (43) Contrary to what Somin claims, there is research which suggests that there is increased engagement when individuals perceive that their contributions actually count for something and that there is ‘no pattern of polarization’ among participants in deliberative polls. (44) This is perhaps indicative of what would happen is sufficient time and resources were made available through appropriate institutional design. (45)
Somin’s critique then is that: the size and complexity of government eschews one’s incentives to meaningfully engage in democracy; and that ordinary people are inherently incapable of escaping their own biases and engage in deliberation. This piece has suggested that the potency of both rational ignorance and rational irrationality could be diminished by embracing an institutional design which addresses both of these factors. Without endorsing any particular design, a notable alternative in the literature is John Burnheim’s ‘Demarchy’. (46) Burnheim’s Demarchy involves replacing esoteric governments and bureaucracies with networks of groups of citizens that are randomly selected. Random selection is made from those whom volunteer to be in that particular board. Each board is given a narrow area or function to oversee. The advantages of a system such as this include that: it reduces the size and complexity matters a citizen is required to engage and be conversant with whilst allowing them to choose an area of interest to be involved in; and it is arguably less polarising than electoral politics and as a result more likely to bring out deliberative tendencies. Even so, due to the risks and uncertainty associated with any such change, the tenability of any proposed alternative to the status quo must inevitably be judged on how ‘scalable, gradual, adaptable, and reversible’ the changes would be. (47) This presents a serious hurdle for anyone wanting to propose a realistic alternative institutional design. Nonetheless, Demarchy is merely noted here as an example of what different institutional design may look like. It is beyond the scope of this piece to address the overall veracity and tenability of any particular alternative institutional design. (48)
In summation, Somin’s article is significant as it presents two related arguments that challenge the standards imposed by deliberative democracy. Although Somin overstates his case it can be drawn from his contentions that if a deliberative democracy were to remedy political ignorance and systematic biases, it would need to adopt a radically different institutional design than our present political system. Notwithstanding these problems, Somin’s critique does draw out a number of apparent shortcomings and or limitations of our current political system.
By Paul Neville
Bachelor of Laws, Honours
Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Philosophy and Political Science
1 See for example: Paul Gunn, Democratic Deliberation in the Modern World (London: Routledge:,2013).
2 Illya Somin, “Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 22:2-3 (2010): 259; Deliberative democracy is considered to be the approach that now ‘dominates the theory’: Selen A Ercan and John S Dryzek, “The Reach of Deliberative Democracy,” Policy Studies 36 (2015): 241.
3 Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Chicago: Harper & Row, 1957); Richard Posner, Law,
Pragmatism and Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
4 Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Bryan Caplan, “Rational Ignorance Versus Rational Irrationality,” Kyklos 54 (2001).
5 Somin, “Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance,” 254.
6 Stephen Elstub, “A Double-edged Sword: The Increasing Diversity of Deliberative Democracy,” Contemporary Politics 12 (2006): 301.
7 This is obviously contentious in some circles.
8 Although important to Somin’s article, it is beyond the scope of this piece to explore Somin’s substantive views and comments on: information shortcuts; structured deliberation; education; and the ‘localist’ approach.
9 Ercan and Dryzek, “The Reach of Deliberative Democracy,” 241.
10 John Parkinson, “Legitimacy Problems in Deliberative Democracy,” Political Studies 51 (2003): 180.
11 Somin, “Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance,” 255.
12 Somin cites numerous authors including: Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996), 57-8.
13 Somin, “Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance,” 256.
14 Ercan and Dryzek, “The Reach of Deliberative Democracy,” 241.
15 Somin, “Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance,” 259.
16 Ibid., 258.
17 The recognition of size and complexity as an issue is not new.
18 Ibid., 260.
19 Information shortcuts will not be considered in this review.
20 Somin seems to view this as being innate and not open to change.
21 See for example: Caplan, “Rational Ignorance Versus Rational Irrationality”.
22 See for example: Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, Deliberation Day (London, Yale University Press, 2004), 8;
Robert B Talisse, “Does Public Ignorance Defeat Deliberative Democracy?,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and
Society 16 (2004): 459.
23 Helene Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 189.
24 Jonathan Kuyper, “Democratic Deliberation in the Modern World: The Systematic Turn,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 27 (2015): 55.
25 Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many.
26 Illya Somin, “Why Political Ignorance Undermines the Wisdom of the Many,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 26:1-2 (2013): 154.
27 Ibid., 155-8.
28 Helene Landemore, “Yes, We Can (Make it up on Volume): Answers to Critics,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 26:1-2 (2014): 207.
29 Ibid., 208.
30 It is the author’s view that a more radical institutional design is indeed needed to overcome this problem.
31 Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.
32 Somin, “Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance,” 254; see also: Caplan, above n 4.
33 Ibid., 264.
34 Ibid., 266.
35 Ibid., 265.
36 Charles Taber and Milton Lodge, “Motivated Scepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science 50 (2006); Arie Kruglanski and Lauren Boyatzi, “The Psychology of Closed and Open Mindedness, Rationality, and Democracy,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 24:2 (2012): 229.
37 See for example: Arie W Kruglanski & Lauren M Boyatzi, “The Psychology of Closed and Open Mindedness, Rationality, and Democracy”; Russell Muirhead, “Can Deliberative Democracy be Partisan?,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 22:2-3 (2010).
38 Kruglanski & Boyatzi, “The Psychology of Closed and Open Mindedness, Rationality, and Democracy,” 224.
39 Ibid., 228-9.
40 Although the possibility of objective information is an interesting question, it is not one that Somin tackles in any detail. See for example: Ibid., 229.
41 Somin disagrees with this point. An appropriate education system would need to include a radical reworking of the education system to one that better integrates philosophical and critical reasoning skills as part of the solution.
42 Somin believes that education is not the answer and mounts numerous challenges to this rebuttal. Unfortunately exploring this particular point is beyond the scope of this review; Somin, “Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance,” 266-8.
43 See for more information: James Fishkin, “Why Deliberative Polling? Reply to Gleason,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 23:3 (2012): 393. Deliberative Polling is essentially takes ‘a scientific microcosm, as good a random sample as can be recruited, to discuss issues in small groups with balanced briefing materials and trained moderators who direct questions to competing experts. … The materials and the moderators encourage balanced discussion. The plenary sessions with the experts are balanced so that the participants get competing points of view on the questions that they pose’ at 395.
44 Ibid., 399.
45 Muirhead, “Can Deliberative Democracy be Partisan?,” 138.
46 John Burnheim, Is Democracy Possible? The Alternative to Electoral Politics (London: Polity Press, 1985)
47 Michael A Neblo, “Deliberation’s Legitimation Crisis: Reply to Gleason,” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 23:3 (2012): 407.
48 There are prima facie a number of very significant problems with Burnheim’s Demarchy which are beyond the scope of this piece to be addressed.