Bryan Caplan  

A Cheap, Inoffensive Way to Make Democracy Work Better

What I've Been Writing Lately... Hummel on Fed's Lack of Contro...
Experts agree: The typical voter knows next to nothing about politics, economics, or policy.  In a democracy, this has major negative externalities.  Existing civics education is supposed to deal with these externalities, but it's been an abject failure: Students learn little, and quickly forget what they know.

What is to be done?  Ilya Somin's new Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter takes this literature to new heights of excellence.  Unfortunately, his solution is highly unlikely to be adopted.  The size-of-government issue is too partisan.  After years of reflecting on voter cognition, though, I've come up with a remedy that seems both practical and palatable.  At risk of being pragmatic and constructive:

1. Get rid of traditional civics and government education; the data show it's waste of money.

2. Create an annual Voter Achievement Test with questions about politics, economics, and policy.

3. Each year, any citizen who wants to take the test can do so at testing centers around the country for free.

4. Participants receive cash rewards based on their score.  E.g.: $1000 for 90%+, $500 for 80-89%, $100 for 70-79%, $0 for less.

The Voter Achievement Test doesn't just give citizens a clear incentive to actually master the material by whatever means they find effective - elective classes, free reading, Internet, discussion, etc.  It also gives them a clear incentive to maintain their mastery of the material, because they can retake the test for cash prizes every single year.

The most common objection is that the test would be politically biased.  But as a standardized national test, all eyes would be on it; any alleged bias would attract massive attention.  And of course existing civics education is heavily biased already, so it's hard to see how the test could be worse.

Why not?

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Andrew writes:

How would this pass a disparate impact challenge?

Quinn writes:

Would have to run the projected costs against current civic education costs. Though even ignoring that I can see the calls of discrimination in regard to minorities, immigrants, etc.

Ben writes:

A couple thoughts:

  • The failure of civics education and potential success/failure of a Voter Achievement Test are largely independent. As an initial proposal, simply implementing a Voter Achievement Test, presumably at a small scale, rather than coupling it with defunding of civics education, is probably more likely to gain traction, and could be used to test the Test's effectiveness.
  • The Test would likely have a highly regressive impact, which you'd presumably want to offset.
  • I wonder whether there are ways to better target the marginal voter. There's not much utility in paying people who would have scored highly on the test regardless, and it costs time to administer and take. Maybe the cash payouts are smaller if you have more formal education?
  • Would it make sense to conduct the test at voting locations, in separate rooms? Presumably that's the time when you'd most want to ensure that people are informed.
Jason writes:

Wealthier people are likely to be better educated and are thus more likely to reap the benefits of this proposal. Therefore one of the first objections which I think opponents would raise is that the proposal's benefits are primarily received by those who don't need material assistance.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Why should the Voter Achievement Test be a one-size-fits-all national quiz? Why not have each state or locality design and administer their own test (with standardization of results for prize purposes)? (I'm not being particularly serious--it's more of a rhetorical question to think through the issues)

Interesting, Bryan. My question would be why give people a cash award when they pass the test? Why not make the cash award contingent on those people going to the polls and voting (figuring out some way for them to collect proof that they voted that they can redeem for the award)?

That is, if the point of something like this is to get more knowledged citizens voting - which I assume it is - it seems like making the award contingent on voting would be better.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

#1 is an unnecessary drag on #s 2 - 4.

Finch writes:

Yeah, we should totally take civics education money and give it to rich white people. That's a great idea. It will get lots of traction.

NZ writes:

A projection of how things would go down:

The test is implemented.

Blacks and Hispanics do miserably on it. Prevailing wisdom quickly becomes that the test is culturally biased in favor of whites and Asians.

Millions of dollars are spent redesigning the test so that it emphasizes "black" and "immigration" questions.

Blacks and Hispanics do even worse on the test than before.

Shocking results show that Asian immigrants know their U.S. civics better than anybody, even highly educated whites who are already very engaged in civics.

Investigations show that cheating and gaming of the test are rampant in the Asian community.

Millions of dollars are spent redesigning the test so that it is harder to game.

Results are negligible.

At the next election, Americans vote to ban the test and replace it with a weighted electoral system where you get one extra vote for meeting each of the following conditions: 1) being nonwhite; 2) being homosexual; 3) being an illegal immigrant; 4) having children out of wedlock; and 5) being morbidly obese--for a total possible 6 votes (if, say, you're a 400 lb. nonwhite gay illegal immigrant single mother). If you're a white male, you only get 3/5ths of a vote.

Kinanik writes:

I'm confused about why people think this would be regressive. As a fixed payment, it is a much bigger deal to those with lower income than to those with high income. The fact that rich people are better educated in civics than poor people is not a law of nature, but a result of a system that makes political education a consumption good.

People oppose lump-sum taxes because they are essentially regressive; a $1000 tax affects the poor more than the rich. Why doesn't the logic apply in reverse?

Lee writes:

Why stop at civics? What if all school was run on cash prizes for grades, and kids could choose to pay teachers or buy books or whatever they need?

ColoComment writes:

It would never work.

Never mind disparate impact, implementing the test itself would never get past Holder's DOJ, 'cuz you'd have to show ID to take the test (if you were going to award a cash reward it needs to go to the actual test-taker, yes? So you need to know who he is, yes?)

DOJ would argue that the ID requirement unfairly excluded minorities who invariably find it difficult to obtain ID, and oh by the way, they'd find it impossible to get themselves to a test site, as well. Double whammy, there. :-)

John Strong writes:

Not only is it a good idea, we ought to take the same approach with *all* publicly financed education. Quit paying teachers to teach; pay students to learn. It would transform the entire culture.

soucreamus writes:

Since small government is a goal, why should the government run this? Are there any rich good government types out there who could fund this? What about having it be a lottery where each correct answer gives you 10 chances to win?

Musca writes:

Wouldn't this encounter significant opposition from both current officeholders and rent-seekers alike? An informed electorate is a demagogue's worst nightmare. Seeing this run by governments is unlikely.

Implementing this through a private charity, though, perhaps even targeted to populations mentioned in the other comments, could be done quickly and cheaply.

Aidan writes:

In addition to wealthier people being better educated, they also likely have more time and ability to follow current events. This would just be a weird upward redistribution of money that would probably do extremely little, if not nothing, to improve civic awareness.

jsalvatier writes:

Several years ago, I wrote up an essay about a more complicated form of this proposal based on reading your book. The idea was to weight people's votes based on how they did on this test, as well as pay them for performance. Professional Voters in essence.

Your proposal seems more likely to be implemented, but have a smaller impact.

MingoV writes:

Why the indirect incentives? We should have poll tests. Potential voters must pass a general test of politics, civics, and economics. Voters who pass that test would then be tested on the elections and propositions on their ballots. Voters could cast ballots only for the elections in which they know about the candidates and their positions and only for propositions that they understand.

This would be a big improvement over open election republicanism, but it still would take generations to scale back our gargantuan nanny state government.

Handle writes:

Could we get candidates to take the test and report their scores?

RickC writes:

As to #1. Do they even teach civics anymore? I seriously don't know. Can someone enlighten me?

If they do still teach it in most schools it is an abysmal failure.

The InterCollegiate Studies Institute gave civics exams to a range of Americans in 2006, 2007 and 2008 IIRC. This included adults, high schoolers, college freshmen and outgoing college graduates. In answer to Handle they did give them to willing political candidates. Here are some of the results with the website included at the bottom:

"Each year, approximately 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 schools nationwide were given a 60-question, multiple-choice exam on basic knowledge of America’s heritage. Both years, the students failed. The average freshman scored 51.7% the first year and 51.4% the next. The average senior scored 53.2%, then 54.2%."

"Seventy-one percent of Americans fail the test, with an overall average score of 49%."

"Only 24% of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States."

"Only 54% can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system, in which all Americans participate."

"Officeholders typically have less civic knowledge than the general public. On average, they score 44%, five percentage points lower than non-officeholders."

"Thirty percent of elected officials do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence."

You can take the test yourself if you visit the website. You will be startled at how easy it is.

Curt writes:

Only an academic would suggest a test as an answer to a market problem.

Idiotic idea. Right up there with humors.

john hare writes:

Why would it be a negative to display the ignorance of those that are ignorant in this important field? If someone with the ability to learn and apply has been denied medical training through circumstances or bias, I still don't believe letting them operate on me makes it fair.

If I am shown to be ignorant or uninformed in a way that I can comprehend, at least I know I have a problem that needs attention. And if I fail to address my own ignorance, why should I have a say in the issues that affect you?

Mark Brophy writes:

The annual budget meetings in New England tackle the same problem without cash payments. Some larger towns require budget meeting electors to run in an election. Others require a meeting member to collect 25 signatures.

Brian writes:

"Experts agree: The typical voter knows next to nothing about politics, economics, or policy. In a democracy, this has major negative externalities."

Interesting. So let me get this straight. Most of the wage premium for education, according to Caplan, is due to signaling, which means that formal knowledge (the kind one gets in school) has no measureable impact on how productive people are or how effectively they do their jobs.

However, at the same time, Caplan believes that lack of formal knowledge of economics, civics, and policy really matters in the quality of voting, such that it represents a major negative externality.

Talk about cognitive dissonance.

JohnC writes:

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Guillermo Jimenez writes:

Brian is right, the idea is based on self-contradictory theoretical foundations.

Moreover, confirmation bias suggests that increased education only strengthens bias.

Moreover, we do not vote on issues but on candidates, who do not have to take civics tests.

Voter ignorance would only prove a negative externality if voters voted on issues, or if they chose candidates on issues-based, rather than ideological, criteria, which they don't.

NZ is right, the test would obviously correlate with IQ, so segments of the population would perform poorly, and that would smell bad; which is why it is funny that anyone would propose this idea, since it obviously will never pass.

Our government is already open to legal bribery, so major corporate and elite interests, presumably well-informed interests, can already buy the representation they need. If we are under-performing it is not the fault of the ignorant underclasses, but because managing a complex society with conflicting interests is hard even for the well-educated elite.

Why do smart people propose such stupid ideas as this one? Perhaps in part because they are blinded by self-serving bias. They imagine living in Lake Wobegon, where all the children majored in economics at Harvard, M.I.T. or Stanford, like they did. The dumb people who majored in history at SUNY or Cal State remember a little thing called the French Revolution.

Jon writes:

I think the problem for Bryan is not unlike the problem that existed in Chile when Chicago trained economists descended and preached the glories of free markets and unregulated capitalism. The people just didn't think it would be so great, and just didn't buy it. The "experts" did though. They couldn't get the public to go along, and this was proved when the socialist, Allende, was elected.

In Chile they finally ended democracy, as of course Bryan wants to do here, but with more brutal means then he here suggests. A coup, Allende dead, torture chambers for union leaders and leftists, concentration camps. Milton Friedman's boys were installed. They took a 3.8% unemployment rate and cranked it up to about 25%. Ending all kinds of public assistance and price controls the rich did fine. The children of the poor were passing out in class for lack of nourishment. Finally the free market utopia collapsed in ruins and required state bail out. Again, as in the US, the rich emerged just fine. The poor were a shambles.

The "experts", that is elitists that tend to have similar interests to other non-working wealthy types (stockholders) for some reason preferred policies that served the interests of the rich man. They told the poor that it was also good for them, like trickle down economics. The poor just didn't buy it. I think there's something about being on the receiving end of this "tough love" called free market discipline that has a way of focusing the mind to actually accurately recognize cause and effect.

Kind of like IMF recommendations in Europe. Austerity. Well, the people didn't think it was a great idea, but the "experts" did. Now with the economies of Europe a shambles the IMF says "whoops, surprise, the experts were wrong again, maybe austerity wasn't such a good idea." Too late for the millions of people now suffering.

Bryan wants everyone to accept that he knows what's best for us, even though we don't buy it. Nor should we after we consider the spectacular failure the economics profession demonstrated in 2008. As Paul Krugman astutely observed, the last 30 years of macroeconomics has been useless at best, positively harmful at worst. Today he's talking about trying to change our opinions with the carrot. Be thankful you don't live in Latin America or Haiti, or other places where the free market experiment has been tried, also applied to a resistant population. For them it was the stick instead. If you disagreed you didn't just miss out on some cash. You might just have your head handed to you. If you live you get to watch your country go down the tubes as the "Washington Consensus" policies preferred by the experts are applied.

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