Friday, October 04, 2013

Why Political Ignorance Matters

Ilya Somin

The first big question I ask in Democracy and Political Ignorance is why we should care about political ignorance in the first place. Political knowledge may not have much inherent value. But even if we don't value it  for its own sake, it matters a great deal for instrumental reasons.

I. Why Voter Ignorance Can be Dangerous

Some legal and political theorists argue that voters are entitled to make decisions at the ballot box on the basis of whatever criteria they want. As Robert Bork put it,“[i]n wide areas of life majorities are entitled to rule, if they wish, simply because they are majorities.” If voters make their decisions on the basis of ignorance, maybe that is their right, just as we are entitled to make many other decisions in ignorance, if we want to. For example, people ignorant about nutrition can choose an unhealthy diet.

 John Stuart Mill effectively refuted this kind of argument in his classic 1861 book Considerations on Representative Government. As he pointed out, voting is not a purely personal decision.  It is the exercise of "power over others." The people the electorate chooses will rule over all of society, not just those who voted for them. When exercising power over other people, we have a duty to make decisions in at least a reasonably informed way.  

Ultimately, political ignorance matters because public opinion has a major impact on the policies adopted by democratic government. If that opinion is influenced by ignorance, voters will often support bad policies, and be unable to hold political leaders accountable for their performance. It's hard to judge whether incumbents are doing a good job if you don't know much of what the government is doing or cannot understand its effects. Even if we believe that voters have no responsibility to the rest of society and are entitled to vote purely based on narrow self-interest, ignorance can still be a problem. Ignorance might lead such voters to support one set of policies in the expectation that it will benefit them, only to find that they actually cause them great harm.

In addition,  most normative theories of democratic participation implicitly assume some degree of knowledge on the part of voters. This is clearly true of  theories that demand a great deal of voters, such as deliberative democracy. But, as I explain in Chapter 2 of the book,  it is also true even of theories that at first glance seem to require little of the electorate.
II. Factual Ignorance, Moral Ignorance, and Potentially Beneficial Ignorance

In my book, I focus mostly on public ignorance about factual matters, such as the policies adopted by government, the likely effects of those policies, the structure of the political system (e.g. - which officials are responsible for which issues),  and the differences between opposing candidates and parties. I recognize that factual knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge relevant to political decision-making. Ideally, we want voters to have good moral knowledge too.

If voters have bad moral values, factual knowledge might actually be harmful. For example, if the majority of the electorate has racist values and prioritizes the goal of inflicting harm on some despised racial minority, a high level of factual knowledge might just enable them to support policies that oppress that minority even more severely than would be the case if the voters were ignorant. I consider this and several other examples of potentially beneficial ignorance in Chapter 2.

In most cases, however, political ignorance is likely to cause more harm than good. Many of the most important issues in American politics turn not on disputes over fundamental values, but on disagreement over how best to achieve widely shared goals such as prosperity, security against external attack, reducing violent crime, and environmental protection. On these kinds of  issues - which are the majority of voters' top priorities in most elections, according  to survey data - factual knowledge is crucial.

Even some issues that at first glance seem to be primarily about values actually have an important factual dimension. For example, some racists and anti-Semites may hate African-Americans or Jews just because they are "different." But many do so because they believe (incorrectly) that these groups are harming or threatening to harm whites or gentiles.  As I discuss in the book, historically many white American racists believed that African-Americans must be segregated and denied equal rights, because otherwise whites would suffer a variety of harms, including even widespread rape of white women by black males. Such fears were largely based on ignorance or irrationality. The Nazis and other German anti-Semites believed that the Jews must be suppressed because they were plundering the Germany economy and otherwise harming "Aryan" gentiles. In reality, German Jews had far less influence than anti-Semites believed, and their impact on the nation's economy was overwhelmingly positive. Much of what looks to us like bad values is at least in part the product of ignorance. Not all racism and anti-Semitism is the result of ignorance. But a great deal is. The same is true of a number of other common forms of prejudice, such as homophobia, which I also briefly cover in the book.

The kind of ignorance I focus on is far from the only factor that causes dysfunctional policies in a democracy. But it's important enough to merit greater consideration than it now gets in most debates over law and public policy.


As has been pointed out at VC many times, Prof. Somin's argument proves too much while ignoring important features of life.

If voters are ignorant, consumers are much more so. By his logic, markets can't work.

Nor can his pet idea of "foot voting", by which he means voters moving from one state to another. Voters are rationally ignorant of their own local conditions; they know even less of the conditions in other localities.

It's very true that modern society offers so many choices that it's nearly impossible to make "informed choices" in the sense of fully understanding the merits. What consumers do in response, and what voters do as well, is adopt shortcuts. Mostly these involve trusting a particular source: a family member, a friend, sometimes a government agency.

The modern conservative project, and Prof. Somin's project specifically, involves undermining trust. Specifically, it involves undermining trust in government (but in society too -- it's very individualist). This means, at the limit, that people will become unable to trust the food they eat or the water they drink.

The net result is not a better society, but a much worse one. It ignores one of Adam Smith's more important insights, namely the division of labor -- if you can't trust someone else, you can't afford to let them do it.

Libertopia doesn't exist and never has existed, because it's inherently dysfunctional.

I concur with Mark and find the ignorance criticized ironic.

Sooner or later Professor Somin will opine that voters' doubts about free markers confirm their ignorance. We must surrender policy to neoclassical economists.

Hey, I think the importance of an educated populace is important, but how can you make a policy of educating people without going down the road of the prominent political influence teaching beliefs that benefit them rather than the whole system?

The modern conservative project, and Prof. Somin's project specifically, involves undermining trust. Specifically, it involves undermining trust in government

Actually, that's about the weakest critique of Prof. Somin's argument imaginable.

I don't think we are ever really supposed to "trust" the government. Trusting the government gets you the Iraq War, and the NSA, and the Tuskegee syphillis experiment. At the local level, it gets you the Rodney King beating and sodomizing criminal suspects with toilet plungers. I don't think "trusting" the government actually underlies liberal social welfare policies.

Rather, the issue is that in many cases, government is the lesser of evils. It's not that we love taxation, or interfering with people's business dealings, or micromanaging certain parts of the economy. We do it because the alternatives are worse.

I don't think Prof. Somin makes a good case against big government for that reason. But we should always approach government policies with our eyes open. The law of unintended consequences is real. So is Lord Acton's dictum about power. (A related notion to what Lord Acton said is that power also attracts bad people. One of the reasons a lot of local policing is so brutal is simply because of the some of the SORTS of people who are attracted to police work.)

Somin is right, and you are wrong, that every time we hand over an ounce of power to these people we need to be skeptical, distrusting, and carefully watching them. Trusting the government is the road to tyranny. We should grant them power reluctantly, as the lesser of evils, and watch them like hawks.

It's a matter of degree, in my view. Yes, we need to be watchful over government. But there's an point at which skepticism of government (or anything, for that matter) becomes unhealthy. Prof. Somin is far past that point.

Then, too, there's always the issue of whether skepticism on a certain point is justified. I certainly can be (police shootings being a good example). But the libertarian project is much broader than that. It denies that government can do much of anything. That creates mistrust even in those areas where mistrust isn't justified.

Somin is right, and you are wrong, that every time we hand over an ounce of power to these people we need to be skeptical, distrusting, and carefully watching them.

Not seeing where Mark Field said that we should not be wary about the government. Family members rarely have complete trust in each other. So, as he says, it's a matter of degree.

There has to be some level of trust though. For example, I don't think the library is going to give out my personal information to direct mail providers generally speaking.

Some people, with some cause, don't trust at all. This is problematic. For instance, if someone rapes a family member, and you cannot go to the local police station (given the stance on rape in some countries, there would be a reason not to) because you cannot trust them at all, it's a serious problem.

Also, at some point "every ounce" is silly though again literally it is true. How do we "like a hawk" watch a local library clerk ("these people" ... sounds like something I wipe off my shoe) exactly? There is just so much we can do here.

How much time are we going to spend on every little thing? "Every ounce" after all.

The problem of political ignorance is exacerbated by enormous size and scope of modern government. In the United States, government spending accounts for close to 40% of GDP, according OECD estimates. And that does not include numerous other government policies that function through regulation of the private sector. Almost every aspect of our lives is regulated by government, at least to some degree. Even if voters followed political issues more closely than they do, and were more rational in their evaluation of political information, they still could not effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the activities of the modern state.

Conversely, if we return government to core functions and ensure those functions are public and transparent, then the average apolitical voter can far more easily keep track of their government and cast a modestly intelligent vote.

Thank goodness that private power and private surveillance cannot exist by virtue of free choice in the market. Even in a case of de facto monopoly the imagined market entrant is sufficient to discipline the solitary enterprise at hand. Wow!

My question is: does Mr. Somin deal with the work of Samuel Popkin who, in works like The Reasoning Voter, contend that voters use, and campaigns tap into, heuristic devices which largely overcome the problems of voter ignorance of certain factual knowledge such that voters more rarely than is thought vote against their interests due to political ignorance.

"Looking inside" over at Amazon, a search for "Samuel Popkin" takes me to endnotes regarding that matter, so it looks that at least in some fashion, he addressed the matter.

Subtitle suggestion (variation on Matthew 5:5):

"Blessed are the Ignorant; for they shall inherit the Earth - and Libertarians will take it away from them for they know better."


"It's an Ilya wind that blows no good."

Mark, Joe, what's needed is a basis for deciding how much to trust. My own rough rule is to stop trusting the moment I'm asked for trust. People who should be trusted don't generally demand that you trust them.


"People who should be trusted don't generally demand that you trust them."

Is a variation on:

"To be perfectly honest with you, ...."

But what about "In God we trust"?

All others pay cash, that's what about it.

This comment has been removed by the author.

The government doesn't "demand" trust. Trust is something that cannot be forced. People do "ask" for trust, including friends and family. Some in fact sort of expect it, since w/o it a relationship is pretty unpleasant.

Mark and I to recall only are saying that some degree of trust is necessary for any government or other arraignment of any scope to be useful. The alternative is if a family member is attacked, you cannot have some minimum amount of trust in the police.

Some belief that they are "reliable, good, honest, effective." This has to be earned, but, e.g., I 'trust' when I mail something it will be delivered, and do so from it happening over and over and over again.

No you do not trust "the government", you engage with others in debates about the positions elected government should take.

The absurdity of this argument is the focus of individual freedom. Democracy is an ideology; no one should be "free" to sit on his ass and ignore the responsibilities of citizenship. I won't even talk to anyone who can't discuss the history of US foreign policy. The history of US constitutional law should be taught from 3rd grade. Somin's a Russian; what do Russians know about democracy? A Russian with an idea is like a man laid out under a rock.
Democracy requires an indoctrination in a virtue ethic. Without that it fails.

Don't worry Brett I'm not calling for you to be thrown into a reeducation camp; idiots like you should just be allowed to wither away. Children should be taught that greed is boring. Indifference is the best response to idiots. You'll never be rich enough to have any part of your income taxed at 100%.


just to finish this:
Trust AND adversarialism.
The job of the press is to dig; lawyers are advocates for their clients, whoever they are. Congressmen should have a healthy contempt for anyone who wants to be president. Divided government requires that not everyone be so narcissistic as to want to sit in the chair. There are fights in Scandinavia now over plans for schools for "gifted" children. It's the new American way. F-it. Has no one noticed that individualists are all alike?

The Russian and the rock...
The source is 18th? century and Russian.

I still don't buy that I'm supposed to trust the government at all. Why? Why shouldn't I instead assume that government is going to have a lot of power and is going to do all sorts of bad things, and therefore only give the government power in those situations where it will do more good than harm?

I think Mark's fear is that if we don't trust the government, some hypothetical libertarian argument might succeed and we end up with a minimal state. I don't see that happening.

On the other hand, we have plenty of evidence of all the bad stuff that happens when we do trust the government.

The libertarians are right that we should basically hate the government. The problem is it is still the only tool we have. But I'm never trusting it, not for one second, and I think that the libertarians are doing society a big favor by sowing distrust in it.

"The government doesn't "demand" trust."

Really? Seems to me that's the heart of the way the NSA thing is shaping up: "Trust us, we're not doing anything wrong, and, NO, we're not going to let you know what we're doing!"

Voters are only rationally ignorant because it takes too long to inform yourself. There is no reason for the amount of pain and suffering necessary to become informed. It's actually more expensive and time consuming to limit their information access than to try to be open and share information as a matter of course.

The fact that many governments adopt more expensive methods of information sharing and attempt to limit information sharing when possible even in violation of the law seems to be good evidence that there is a rational reason to distrust them.

Before anyone asks, yes, I'm doing something about it.

Dilan you still speak as if the government is the master not the servant. You begin with the language of passivity. LIke people with "Question Authority" emblazoned on their chests, so full of pride. I want to yell I AM authority! Why aren't you?

"The citizens must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be farmers, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties."

To hell with Aristotle, just make the effort. Political ignorance matters, but libertarians don't like public education.
"I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

But I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible."

"I think Mark's fear is that if we don't trust the government, some hypothetical libertarian argument might succeed and we end up with a minimal state. I don't see that happening."

No, I don't fear that. I fear tyranny. As many have pointed out, the quickest route to tyranny is anarchy. Governments will govern, either through trust or through force.

It's perfectly ok to distrust government when that's deserved. What's not ok is what Prof. Somin wants us to do, namely to believe that government is *always* wrong, always to be distrusted. That simply breaks down the social capital necessary for government to function. Government is not antithetical to liberty, it's essential for it, even if that must be balanced.

Prof. Somin is trying to destroy that balance. His project doesn't lead to libertopia, it leads to force becoming front and center rather than held in deep reserve.

"It's perfectly ok to distrust government when that's deserved."
I must be the only reader of this blog with personal connection to people who were or are part of the government. And yet I know that democracy is the most litigious form of government there is.
It's the institutionalization of politics as public sport. The only trust demanded is a trust that the opposition value democracy as much as you, which is to say, assume nothing.. And your opponents would agree. The sincerity here is deadly if only because its antipolitical.

MF: "If voters are ignorant, consumers are much more so."

Doesn't follow.

Ignorant voters go to the polls, perform their depredations, and then merrily go on their ignorant way, seldom ever learning how their carelessness has cost them or their society.

There's no immediate personal feedback, and thus no learning taking place.

Ignorant consumers buy things like Hostess Ho-Ho's once, gain perfect factual knowledge about what they've just tasted, and never need do that again.

Training takes place with each decision made, because there is personal feedback.

Query: Might Ilya's tome be an attempt at a sophisticated updated version of "Atlas Shrugged" without the latter's libertine aspects?

"Political ignorance matters, but libertarians don't like public education."

You write that as though it were a contradiction, rather than a corollary. Libertarians don't like public education BECAUSE political ignorance matters, and public education promotes political ignorance. Not openly or honestly, but by delivering a 'Schoolhouse Rock' airbrushed understanding of how government functions.

I did not come out of the public schools knowing about the "enrolled bill" doctrine and it's abuses. I didn't come out knowing that "Allinfavorsayayeallopposedsaynaytheayeshaveit" is one word, spoken without time for anyone to say "aye" or "nay". I did not come out of the public schools knowing about business conducted via "voice votes" without any quorum. I didn't know that members of Congress become wealthy through insider trading and relatives getting no-work jobs with regulated firms.

I came out thinking I knew how the government functioned, but almost everything I 'knew' was, in some important respect, wrong. And that was no accident.

Here's Brett's anarcho-libertarian conspiracy theory:

"I came out thinking I knew how the government functioned, but almost everything I 'knew' was, in some important respect, wrong. And that was no accident."

When did Brett see the light? If he did, it has blinded him from reality.

None of my teachers and certainly not my parents, ever served the state. By your logic every defense attorney would me working secretly for the prosecution.

But as I said before I wasn't raised to respect authority. I was raised to understand and face responsibility. Your schoolhouse rock education as you call it, is part of the problem. Education for peasants not for citizens

I suspect that Prof. Somin would agree with bobby's point, but it's wrong. Voters have interests just as much as consumers do, and they learn about the decisions they make. Just for example, over the last 50 years voters learned that Republicans were anxious to become the party of the South, while Democrats rejected that. As a result, the parties switched sides from their long-standing roles.

The truth is, people value political issues much more than they value Ho-Hos. Abortion, gun rights, the invasion of Iraq; these are all much more important to most voters than whether they buy Ho-Hos or Twinkies.

Libertarians can't have it both ways. Either consumers are ignorant or they are not. It's more accurate to say that consumers, whether of politics or of Twinkies, are informed about the things they care most about.

As for responsibility, in my experience citizens take democracy pretty seriously. I see that with juries all the time. They want to do the right thing. Voters too. That's why so many of them show such determination by acts such as standing in line for 10 hours while Republicans try to block them from voting.

"Libertarians can't have it both ways. Either consumers are ignorant or they are not."

The argument is that consumers are ignorant where their individual decisions are only tenuously connected to outcomes, and not ignorant where their individual decisions matter. A rational citizen does more research in picking a phone than all their political choices, because they GET the phone they pick, while their vote only has a tiny, imperceptible influence on who they get governed by.

Aside from the fact that your argument is completely inconsistent with the GOP line on voter fraud, voters believe their choices *matter*. Politics generates far more emotional intensity than consumer decisions: slavery, abortion, segregation, gun rights, tax policy. Nobody gets that passionate about Twinkies.

If voters took their jobs as seriously as jury members we'd all be better off. But juries have direct authority and individual voters see their choices diluted by a factor of millions. The problem is one of expanding that intimate concern outward. That's not a function of voting per se but of engagement. And the focus here is on the engagemt of a few on the presumed mediocrity of the majority. Technocrats measure averages and such skill become a function of a kind of perverse idealism: the true genius and hero is the master of the banality of others. Libertarians and reactionaries in their different ways assume everyone else is as vile as they are and preach against even the possibility of something better. But as someone said above anarchy without limits leads to despotism. Somin imagines Siberia without Moscow, the Wild West (north) without the East. But Rulers rise. The only defense against the rule of the few is not the specious dictatorship of the many but a people educated and on guard. Somin is an idiot convinced that he is not. Russian life is as full of them as Russian fiction

"Obama has repeatedly vowed not to negotiate on whether the country is able to keep paying its bills. Boehner's speakership is at risk if he defies conservatives and allows the borrowing limit to be raised cleanly. The deadline is Oct. 17 and Boehner said the U.S. is currently on a path to default."

Contra Sandy Levinson's absurd fixations, you can't isolate causes. Boehner is following the logic of short-term self-interest, against the interests of the republic. The tea party are 20% of the population, so yes, I'll blame the Constitution. But Boehner's acts represent the opposite of political virtue, and yet no one shames him for that. You can't lay the blame on one piece of paper

I'll blame the culture that gave us Somin, the fascists Posner and Vermeule, John Yoo, that gave us Levinson and his need to see failures only in abstract and structural terms as opposed to both structures and specific acts. In the end no one is responsible for anything.

Interesting decision in Israel. Israel has a right to exist, but there's no such thing as an "Israeli"
"Supreme Court rejects citizens' request to change ethnicity from 'Jewish' to 'Israeli'
Court rules against change in identity card registration, citing that there is no proof of the existence of a uniquely 'Israeli' people."

There's no such thing as an 'American; there are only blacks and whites. Israel was founded on Jim Crow.
The stupidity of the human race never fails to amaze me. Rationalists rationalize. Words on paper become graven images. Irony not lost on a Jew.

No, I don't fear that. I fear tyranny. As many have pointed out, the quickest route to tyranny is anarchy. Governments will govern, either through trust or through force.

That's sloppy reasoning, though. Distrusting the government doesn't lead to anarchy in 99.9 percent of cases. Rather, it leads to better government.

Meanwhile, trusting the government has repeately led to tyranny.

It's perfectly ok to distrust government when that's deserved. What's not ok is what Prof. Somin wants us to do, namely to believe that government is *always* wrong, always to be distrusted.

Always wrong? No. Always to be distrusted? Yes. I said the reasons upthread. Do you think Lord Acton was wrong? Do you think that distrusting the Los Angeles Police Department is wrong? How about distrusting the National Security Agency? How about distrusting Dick Cheney?

The point is that Professor Somin is right that government is evil. Where he's wrong is that it often is a necessary evil. But necessary evils are still evil.

That simply breaks down the social capital necessary for government to function.

You say things without evidence. Where's there an example of distrusting the government breaking down social capital that was strongly in place beforehand?

I think this sort of thing is a cover. You don't like people criticizing the government because you like government. Which is fine. But then you make up a theory where people who criticize the government are undermining society. This is, by the way, the same mistake that everyone who ever tried to suppress anti-government free speech makes (and I am not saying you want to bring back seditious libel laws-- I am only saying that time has proven the people who think this way to be full of it).

Prof. Somin is trying to destroy that balance.

There is no balance. On the one side is power and guns. On the other side is libertarian academics. One side is really dangerous and can ruin people's lives. The fact that you don't know which side that is does not speak well for your argumentation here.

Dilan, the insight that anarchy leads to tyranny is a very old one. It dates back to Aristotle, at least. He came to that conclusion from a great many examples among the Greek city states. The secession of the South in the Civil War is also a good example: 70 years of demonizing the federal government paid off.

Yes, I think Lord Acton was wrong. Wrong, at least, to make his claim so categorically. The CDC is not evil and it's not corrupt. Neither is NASA. They aren't perfect, but there's no reason to believe they're deliberately trying to screw people over, either.

I'll let Hamilton have the final word here, just to tie this back to my basic point (Federalist 1):

"An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people ... will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants."

It's a balance; always has been. Prof. Somin goes so far in one direction that he'd destroy the balance.

Ignorance IS affecting the economy every bit as much as it affects politics. Uninformed investors drove the 90's stock bubble. Low information borrowers drove (in part) the 2008 financial crisis.

Perhaps workrage can inform us as to who and what led to that ignorance? Did the uninformed investors and low information borrowers do it on their own or were they led by "free market" interests taking advantage of decreased regulation, profiting therefrom?

I should add, Dilan, that I know from your comments here and at VC that freedom is genuine commitment on your part. It's not in the case of Prof. Somin (or in the case of most libertarians). For 50 years they've been the loyal allies of the neo-Confederate Right. The object of the neo-Confederates is now what it always has been, namely destroying the federal government. And the main reason why they want to do this is to oppress people of color.

Prof. Somin, aside from being the ally of these lovely folks, contributes to their goals by (a) undermining the idea of democracy, which serves as an important check on the power you fear; and (b) inventing plausible, though false, reasons to attribute the flaws exclusively to the Federal government.

Shag, bankers and regulators were more responsible for the bubbles than anyone else. Look back a the "experts" in the 90's. And read Dean Baker on the real estate bubble. The evidence was there for years, but he and others were ignored.

Mark Field,
Acton backed the Confederacy.

"There is no balance. On the one side is power and guns. On the other side is libertarian academics."

That's the oddest thing I've read all week, and I've been following Salafists on twitter.

Good point about Acton. I'd forgotten that. Thanks.

I also know from Dilan's comments that he supports a left leaning policy on various matters that requires governmental institutions that we can "trust" in some degree in the fashion Mark Field writes.

Distrusting them for every scrap of power and discretion is not the mentality that comes to mind, e.g., for some single payer system that ultimately is public in various respects.

I also don't know, to allude to his profession, how clients manage here -- they need to trust to some degree lawyers, since they simply cannot expect to know everything they are doing, even if they actually understood the intricaies of the legal practice going on.

Consider, therefore the public defender. How can a person in prison somewhere not have to in some fashion trust the person? Is this wrong?

MF's Hamilton quote is telling -- the level of "zeal" on the other side here seems ultimately unrealistic. That, to be honest, is a leading thing that turns me off -- I thought we were supposed to be the "reality based community."

Mark, anarchy can lead to all sorts of bad things. However, distrusting the government isn't what leads to anarchy. If anything, distrusting the government keeps society stable.

You are making absolutely wild leaps from libertarians who rightly have skepticism of the government to a complete breakdown of society. That has NEVER happened. Not in Aristotle's time. Not now.

Indeed, if it actually could happen, we seriously shouldn't have a First Amendment. Our entire Constitutional system is premised on the idea that it doesn't work that way.

As for NASA and the Centers for Disease Control, sure I distrust them. Ever read how the Challenger and Columbia accidents happened? Sure sounds to me like a lot of governmental misfeasance caused by insufficient oversight. And while the CDC hasn't specifically been implicated in wrongdoing, its predecessors engaged in all sorts of unethical experimentation on humans.

As for Ilya's political project, sure, it isn't mine. But it IS my political project to try and stop every police beating I can, every unnecessary war I can, every wiretap of an innocent citizen I can. And trusting the government makes it harder for me to do it.

As I said, government is a necessary evil. You keep it on as short a leash as possible. You make sure its workers can't get drunk on their power. You try like mad to keep the power-hungry from taking jobs in it. That attitude is crucial for a just society. You want real totalitarianism? Trust the powerful.

Perhaps a reality show based on Ilya's tome could be created along the theme of "Do You Trust Your Wife?" substituting Government for Wife. Each week there would be two contestants, one who trusts and the other who distrusts. Events during a typical day for each would be checked for determining whether, e.g., the trust contestant was spot on or misplaced with his/her trust, and vice versa for the distrust contestant. At the end of the typical day the results would be evaluated by an expert panel consisting of a libertarian, a non-libertarian and a libertine, to determine whether trust or distrust better reflected reality.

Now whom can we suggest for the first two contestants?

As for prizes for each episode, the winner would get a fully funded week in Libertopia, and the runner up two (2) such weeks in Libertopia. The prizes for series winners/losers remain to be worked out, but perhaps should include a signed copy of "Atlas Shrugged."

For theme music, a commission would issue for developing:

"An Ilya Wind Blows Bad or Good?"

I think, Dilan, that you and I are using different definitions of the word "trust". I trust people even when they aren't perfect. As long as they're sincerely trying, and they don't have an established track record of sheer incompetence, I trust them. Your NASA example, therefore, isn't a reason for me to distrust them.

Also, the fact that I trust someone does not mean I never supervise them. I may supervise more lightly than you would, but we'd both do it.

That's categorically different than Prof. Somin, whose project is not to supervise more, it's to shut the whole thing down.

Mark, what you are missing is that it is the very act of giving someone power that makes them untrustworthy. Acton was right, and as I said, he didn't go far enough, because positions of power self-select for people with power trips (which any poor black living in an urban area and dealing with a terroristic police force can tell you).

I am using the word "distrust" to describe what Ilya is talking about-- that we should assume that because power causes people to do bad things, expansions of governmental power require that we be very skeptical and keep the people whom we give this enormous power on a short leash.

I think that's right. You think that leads to anarchy and the destruction of order. As I said, for someone who worships the evil slaveholders who wrote our Constitution, you certainly don't seem to have much respect for the theories behind the First Amendment, because it is premised precisely on the idea that the sort of criticism of the government Ilya engages in, at the very least, cannot seriously harm us.

Where Ilya actually goes wrong is that he doesn't apply the same analysis to the private sector. Giving people in the private sector too much power leads to the same sorts of problems as giving the government too much power.

But libertarians who say "don't trust the government, don't think the government is on your side, and don't have respect for the government or the sorts of people who are attracted to work in it" are a lot more right than ostensible liberals who say "the government is here to help you and is generally benevolent". The latter attitude is much more likely to lead to any sort of tyranny than the former.

That's so wildly at variance with anything I've written that I don't see any basis for responding.

This is what you wrote:

the insight that anarchy leads to tyranny is a very old one. It dates back to Aristotle, at least. He came to that conclusion from a great many examples among the Greek city states. The secession of the South in the Civil War is also a good example: 70 years of demonizing the federal government paid off.

In other words, you think that demonizing the federal government leads to civil war.

I'm saying that demonizing the federal government is proper and justified because power corrupts and because bad people tend to be attracted to positions of power.

And that there's no proof that demonizing the federal government ever leads to civil war. (And that at any rate, the theory of our First Amendment is that it doesn't.)

You haven't really answered either of my argument. You've gone off on what the overrated racist framers said, and you have said that government is not inherently untrustworthy because it does some good things, which is neither here nor there.

What I'm waiting for is some sort of proof that by demonizing the federal government, Ilya is actually going to bring about the tyranny that you claim is going to happen. I've seen none.

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Prof. Somin has the same 1A right that the slaveholders had to take their side.

And I have a 1A right to point out what he's doing.

You certainly have a First Amendment right to criticize Ilya. But your theory-- that criticizing the government leads to tyranny-- is laughably wrong and inconsistent with the theory of our Constitution.

And, I should note that there's a great irony in you attacking Ilya for defending slaveholders, when you are always quoting the slaveholding founding fathers in these threads.

Putting aside the fact that you've mis-stated my "theory", I think your position has reached the point of self-contradiction here.

If I were to apply literally your animus regarding slaveholders, I couldn't quote John Marshall or Thomas Jefferson even if I did so to bolster an anti-slavery point. I couldn't quote Federalist 10 to contradict Prof. Somin's Calhounite decentralization theories, because Madison later became a slaveowner (he wasn't in 1787-8).

But it's ok to quote Lord Acton, who never owned slaves, despite the fact that he supported the Confederacy which implemented Calhoun's theories and existed for the sole purpose of slavery.

As a purely factual matter, I rarely quote Founders who owned slaves, and when I do it's almost always to make a point that would be inconsistent with any pro-slavery interpretation of the Constitution.

Also, the 1A was adopted by slaveholders just as much as the Constitution was, and its primary defenders up to 1800 were the slaveholders Madison (he owned them by then) and Jefferson.

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