Competence in the Literature
I’ll start with a quick and selective account of how some other theorists, especially political scientists, have approached the question of competence. The debate is a bit hampered by the fact that there is little agreed-upon terminology, and competence overlaps with a number of other phenomena, such as (political) knowledge, (political) information, (political) sophistication, and education. (Some attempts at conceptual ground-clearing are here and here.)
Still, a few general lines can be discerned. We can start from Jason Brennan’s four conditions for voter competence:
- Voters should act on widely available, good information […].
- They should avoid mass superstition and systematic error.
- They should evaluate information in a moderately rational, unbiased way […].
- Voters should be aware of their limits, and thus always look for more and better information on any high-stakes decision. (165)
These are pretty generic demands. They are also relatively minimal—they look like necessary, but certainly not like sufficient conditions for competence.
To be fair to Brennan, he isn’t interested in developing a full account of competence; it might well be that he would wish to add further conditions if he turned to that task. Relatively undemanding accounts of competence, however, are a recurring feature in empirical research on voter competence.
The majority of research essentially administers a civics test on voters. These studies focus on voters’ ability to name and identify political candidates, or their ability to explain basic political concepts or features of the political system, or name other facts about politics. What these studies generally find are troubling levels of ignorance amongst the electorate.
But would passing a basic civics test be sufficient for political competence? Would knowing that Russia isn’t part of Nato be enough to be competent in foreign policy? (A representative item Americans had huge trouble with even during the cold war.) Would the ability to name the three branches of government be sufficient to allow you to judge different proposals for economic policy?—I take these to be rhetorical questions. Passing a civics test seems a prerequisite for political competence, but certainly not sufficient for it.
(As a sidenote, certain questions asked in these studies also don’t seem necessary for competence. The ability to name the Supreme Court’s chief justice, for example, doesn’t seem necessary to have a working understanding of the legal system.)
A second general line of inquiry follows influential research by Philip Converse. These studies focus on the degree to which voters are “ideological”—e.g., whether they know, and can explain, the difference between “liberal” and “conservative” views. Other authors phrase the question more widely, about whether voters have “principled” views on policy, beyond the ability to understand particular isms (e.g., Paul Goren). Related research looks into whether voters have stable preferences in politics—stable both across time, and stable on how certain questions are framed to them.
Again, many voters fare badly on all these dimensions. They find it difficult to distinguish liberal from conservative candidates, and often show little consistency in their beliefs—e.g., they favour small government, but then robustly demand government intervention for a series of practical issues.
But even if we accept that voters can often achieve ideological consistency (like Goren, more optimistically, claims) that hardly seems sufficient for competence. Ordering your beliefs in a coherent system is not undemanding; but you can have coherent beliefs while not being competent in the relevant area at all.
(At least when it comes to ideology, it’s also not clear why having one is necessary for competence. You needn’t identify or understand the liberalism—conservatism difference to adequately understand political problems. Indeed, an overlooked result of Converse’s research is that ideology often poses an obstacle to individuals’ ability to competently process information.)
A third line of research focusses on whether voters can reliably identify the political candidate which best aligns with their own political preferences. When Richard Lau and David Redlawsk ask, for example, whether people “vote correctly”, their question is limited in this way. A liberal voter, for example, is competent if they can identify that the Democratic party better represents their views than the Republican party. Lau and Redlawsk are optimistic that people vote “correctly” in this sense—though a surprising number of people still don’t—even if they lack political knowledge.
Again, this seems a prerequisite for competence, but hardly sufficient. If you’re shopping in a supermarket, then at a minimum you should be able to identify which items match the contents on your shopping list. But that’s just one part of a larger task. Your shopping list, for one, might itself be drawn up very incompetently—or put otherwise, voters’ preferences themselves might be badly informed.
I also have a suspicion that Lau and Redlawsk, like some other social scientists, identify competence with mere reliability. By “reliability” I mean a voter’s disposition to make the “correct” choice, relative to some standard of correctness. Reliability, however, strikes me as neither necessary nor sufficient for competence. We might have unlucky competents—experts whose predictions are regularly thwarted by unlucky and unexpected turn of events. And we might have lucky know-nothings—people who just happen to guess right for a series of votes. For example, you can be an incompetent driver while never causing an accident.
Competence must be more than reliability. It is a kind of skill that allows you to knowingly and intentionally get things right. You must know, in some sense, what you’re doing and why. Competence, for example, can normally be taught and conveyed to other people, while mere reliability cannot. I’m not sure yet how to put these points better. But it strikes me that from observing that people made some choices correctly (even repeatedly) we cannot infer that they made those choices competently.
This is far from an exhaustive survey, but it should be clear that political scientists generally focus on accounts of political competence that are comparatively undemanding. There are reasons for this focus, of course, such as the demands of measurability. We’ve also seen that many voters already fail these minimally demanding tests, so research in this area is challenging enough. But I think we can leave these restrictions behind and ask: what would a full account of political competence look like?