Democracy Despite Ignorance: Questioning the Veneration of Knowledge in Politics

CRITICAL REVIEW (2015). ADVANCED ONLINE PUBLICATION. DOI: 10.1080/08913811.2015.1111681

Abstract: Ilya Somin, like several other political epistemologists, effectively exposes the extent of public ignorance and the ways in which such ignorance may damage democratic outcomes. This underpins his case for a more streamlined state, leaving more to individual “foot voting”—where citizens are better incentivized to choose knowledgeably and rationally. One cannot dispute the fact of deep public ignorance. However, one can question the widespread assumption that ignorance is necessarily ethically significant, always productive of undesirable outcomes, or otherwise implicitly dangerous for democracy. The sheer lack of individual efficacy in mass democracies not only incentivizes ignorance, but also creates conditions wherein such ignorance is individually harmless and unlikely in the aggregate to greatly contribute to one or another outcome. Beyond this, there may be no way to attain meaningful knowledge in the areas where democratic decision making is most fraught. Indeed, ignorance may at times lead to better outcomes than would knowledge. The seemingly unassailable status of democracy itself, and the valuable institutional stability that this status ensures, seem to be founded upon a bedrock of public ignorance as to the real nature of democracy.