Wednesday, June 8, 2016

New edition of Democracy and Political Ignorance

A new edition of George Mason University Law Professor (and Volokh Conspiracy blogger) Ilya Somin's book Democracy and Political Ignorance is coming out. For anyone interested in the subjects brought up by recalls and direct democracy and electoral politics in general, Somin's work is a must read.

Recalls engender significant criticism from all vantage points, but frankly most of the criticism can be dismissed out of hand. Nearly every recall results in editorials, op-eds and complaints that "this fill-in-your-blank issue is not why we have a recall law, and this particular recall is an abuse of the process." As I've discussed many times, this statement is flat-out wrong. Recall laws can and are drafted to limit recalls to felonies or other misbehavior. Eight states have this type of recall -- which is confusingly called judicial recalls, but I prefer the term malfeasance standard or "for cause" recalls. Those states rarely have recalls. If the other states want that law, they can adopt it -- it's been around since at least 1912. They don't move because voters prefer having the option of a political recall -- where they can kick some one out for any reason whatsoever. So the law is the law and the recall works as designed.

But there's another underlying argument that you see in the criticism. Opposition to recalls are a case-by-case basis. Many people were in favor of recalling Governor Gray Davis (D) and opposed to recalling Governor Walker (R) and vice versa. This is the real basis for the complaints against recalls -- a "not against my team, but fine against your team" statement. Needless to say, this type of complaint is just hypocritical.

There are legitimate arguments against the recall. William Howard Taft's position was that the recall was the hair-trigger form of government and Alexander Hamilton didn't want Senators to be subject to the "capricious humors among the people." This point for the "trustee" model of government, that we want elected officials to make the big decisions rather than just represent our views, has it value, but it stops short of a more unpleasant and more truthful question. It does not forthrightly acknowledge the real question -- can the people be trusted to come to a better decision than a "trustee"?

If the mass of voters are able to have better answers than the single, arguably much more "worthy" trustee, than there should be no problem with a recall. What the argument against the recall is stating is that the mass of voters are more likely to come up with a worse answer. And why is that? This is where Somin's argument comes in. In stating that voters display shocking political ignorance. Somin provides a valid complaint against the recall and against other issues in democracy.

I'm not necessarily persuaded by Somin's argument (which I'm not dealing with here. His bigger point is empowering voters to "vote with their feet" and his work is more thoughtful than just this point. As I said, go read his post or the book for more details) . He definitely makes a strong case for political ignorance, but my experience reading about thousands of recalls suggests that politicians may have no better instinct or thought for good decision making than the mass of voters. But his argument is critical to understanding the recall and the overall trend to direct democracy and more powerful government.

Electoral structures as a whole have been moving rapidly to a more voter-directed government and away from the trustee model. This is true, whether it is from direct democracy itself (initiatives) or it is from politicians being vastly more aware of voter opinions on every single issue that crops up. In that sense, Somin's work is quite important in providing deep analysis of what the move to a more democratic system means.

It also is an example of what attracted many of us to blogs in the first place -- as a universe where you can see high-level analysis from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, a lot of that cross-pollination has withered over the years (blogging is a lot of work) and has been replaced by partisan rants, but it is still out there. I've studied the recall (non-professionally) for almost 20 years and the writings on political ignorance were the first time I saw someone truly take a detailed, evidence-based attack on the underlying arguments in favor of allowing recalls. My goal in studying recalls was not to get rich or famous (mission accomplished!) but to gain a better understanding of a weird, completely ignored corner of the political system, one that I think actually explains a lot about how politics operates in the real world. Only a small part of my writing is on the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of the recall, but the rest of my writing all grows out from it. The best political analysis should help me hone that understanding, and the exploration of political ignorance has done.  I probably would not have come across this if I didn't start a blog that seemed focused on First Amendment and other legal issues.

The Recall Elections Blog is obviously looking at the subject of political power from a very different point of view, but the issues he raises and discusses in numerous posts and articles on political ignorance must be seriously considered when looking at how to distribute and when to limit power.

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