A Cheap, Inoffensive Way to Make Democracy Work Better
By Bryan Caplan
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
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.