The Pox on Both Your Houses of Congress

Congress is dysfunctional because a significant fraction of Congressmen lack the requisite education, training, judgment and-or intelligence to acquit themselves of the task of modern governance. Their inadequacies are attributable to an electorate that lacks the wherewithal to choose good representatives. Ultimately, the fault lies not in our reps, but in our voters.

Taking the time to learn about current events; forming cogent, coherent opinions on disparate subjects; and, finally, evaluating candidates for office in light of that information – according to their positions, their acumen, their character, and other factors – is extremely time-consuming. Given the miniscule consequence of a single vote, one’s time is more profitably spent advancing one’s own private affairs. An individual vote, well or poorly cast, has so vanishingly tiny an effect, that it is quite rational to not be troubled over it – to leave educated voting to those with the time and inclination.

The good news is that this is not a problem for democracy. An enormous proportion of the electorate can rationally choose to remain ignorant to the issues, free riding on other citizens’ educated decisions at the ballot box, and better candidates should nonetheless prevail. That’s because, all things being equal, ignorant voters cancel each other out by casting votes randomly for one candidate or another – their votes split nearly equally. And thus a very tiny fraction of educated voters, whose voting is not random, should tip the balance in favor of the better candidate. Indeed we’re fortunate that democracy can function in environments with exceptionally low signal-to-noise ratios: even if just 1% of all voters are informed, elections should still produce good results.

But the wheels come off the bus if ignorant voters are biased. If they, as a group, err in a particular direction, their errors will not cancel out – and the number of educated voters required to tip the balance in favor of better candidates increases dramatically. With 99% of all voters ignorant and splitting 50-50, a 1% informed minority is mathematically sufficient to choose superior candidates. However if ignorant voters are ever so slightly biased, such that their votes dont randomly split 50-50, but shake out at 51-49, e.g., the proportion of informed voters required to obtain the desired result triples from 1% to 3%. And as you ratchet up bias and ignorance by tiny degrees, the proportion of informed voters required for a healthy democracy escalates dramatically – bias can readily become insurmountable, and elections will be determined not by the knowledge and insight of the few, but by the direction of the bias of the many.

And that is the nature of the pox on both houses of congress. Its name, of course, is conservatism. A decades-long bombardment via nauseatingly familiar outlets has rendered many electoral districts across a vast swatch of country so thoroughly biased, that the knowledge of the few can longer be heard above the biased din of the ignorant – and those districts are sending increasingly poor representatives to Washington. It is no coincidence that this phenomenon is concentrated in the US south, which for two centuries has lagged behind the north in development, education, and most other socio-economic measures. Likewise it’s no coincidence that liberalism, education, wealth and better Congressional representation occur together on the coasts and across much of the midwest.

American democracy, by the most rudimentary observation, still functions well enough on the national scale. Since 1992, liberal Democrats have received the most votes in every presidential election except 2004 – when an incumbent Republican narrowly won while the US was fighting two wars. But on the district level, gerrymandering now guarantees a voice to the biased ignorant. The US Congress, by any measure, is more dysfunctional today than it’s been in 150 years. The cure will only come when the thrall of conservatism holding not quite half the country is broken.



These themes are thoroughly explored in “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies” by Bryan Caplan – a maddening but worthwhile read. 










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