DOES THE REVOLUTION BEGIN HERE?
HOW THE INTERNET MAY (OR MAY NOT) CHANGE POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
2.2 Putting 'information' in a 'rational' perspective
Information is vital to democracy because, ideally, it is what
voters use to decide for whom to vote.
Almost 45 years ago, in his seminal work An Economic Theory of
Democracy, Anthony Downs (1957) remarried politics and economics
in seeking to discover what political decision-making is like when
uncertainty exists and information in obtainable only at a cost.
Towards this goal, Downs analyzed the economics of becoming informed,
that is, the rational utilization of scarce resources to obtain
data for decision-making.1
Downs eschewed previous economic models based on
perfect information (available to all in unlimited amounts at zero
cost) instead proposing a model more firmly situated in reality:
... in the real world, regardless of how many data
are available, the amount a rational decision-maker can employ
for any one decision is strictly limited because (1) the human
mind, even when abetted by calculating machines, can encompass
only a limited amount of information at once, and (2) assimilating
and evaluating data take some time, which is especially scarce
in decision-making because of the pressure of events.2
Downs proposed that voters create a comprehensive
system of acquiring information based on selection principles in
accord with their own preferences. These selection principles are
comprehensive enough to enable individual choice and decision-making.3
The information-seeker invests resources in procuring data only
until the rate of return from seeking and processing information
equals its cost. At that point, assuming decreasing returns or increasing
costs or both, the voter has enough information and makes a decision.
The size of the overall investment in obtaining political information
is determined by three factors:
(1) the value to the individual of making a correct
(2) the relevance of the information to the decision at hand; and,
(3) the cost of data.4
Decision-making is a process which consumes time
and other scarce resources; hence economy must be practiced in
determining how many resources shall be employed in it. This fact
forces decision-makers to select only part of the total available
information for use in making choices. 5
In an uncertain world, Downs argued, there is great
pressure on the rational voter to minimize the quantity of scarce
resources he or she uses to obtain political information.6
In fact, for many citizens, acquisition of most political data is
irrational, even during election campaigns.7
In general, it is irrational to be politically well
informed because the low returns from data simply do not justify
their cost in time and other scarce resources. Therefore many
voters do not bother to discover their true views before voting,
and most citizens are not well enough informed to influence directly
the formulation of those policies that affect them.8
With stunning prescience, Downs' theory has perhaps
never rung more true than in the information overload of the 21st
century. In the words of noted London School of Economics professor
of government Patrick Dunleavy (1991), Downs' "An Economic
Theory of Democracy is explicitly about an information-rich world
where assembling, screening and evaluating the mass of data transmitted
is a costly undertaking."9
Information is a valuable commodity within a public
choice model of political decision-making. Simply, public choice
is defined as the economic study of non-market decision making,
or simply the application of economics to political science. The
basic behavioral postulate of public choice, consistent with liberal
economics, is that people are rational, egoistic, individuals who
seek to maximize their preferences or utility. From this perspective,
public choice is situated within the stream of philosophy extending
from Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza, and within the political
science of James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville.10
The most obvious, and perhaps important, manifestation
of non-market decision-making in a liberal democratic system is
'Democracy' may be best understood through its Greek
roots: demos, meaning the 'citizen body' and cracy, meaning 'the
rule of.' In a liberal democracy, citizens rule at one remove from
executive decision-making. Citizens exercise their sovereignty in
electing representatives.11 According to Schumpeter's
"democratic method," representative democracy is "the
institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in
which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive
struggle for the people's vote."12 The result of
this competition transfers public decision authority from individual
constituency voters to elected representatives (Members of Parliament
in the Canadian context). In this delegation the Member of Parliament,
as both representative and legislator, is granted the formal right
to decide in the public interest with legitimate public authority.
Further, according to Sartori, in a liberal democracy
voters must have an expectation of alternation in elected public
office holders and agreed upon rules for open competition in acquiring
the right to decide.13 This competition is managed through
an electoral system, which is essentially a set of unchanged election
rules under which one or more successive elections are conducted
in a given democracy.
In the democratic process, delegated decision-making
authority is held publicly accountable in the first degree within
rational codes based on the rule and spirit of law and partisan
debate. Ultimate recall power rests in the potential of collective
acts of electoral retribution, that is electoral defeat and loss
Interest groups constitute some of the largest,
longest-lasting and most active forms of political participation
in liberal democracies. Interest groups are characterized by four
(1) Interest groups associate various types of actors,
including individuals, firms and other organizations and mobilize
them to undertake some form of collective action;
(2) voluntary membership;
(3) dependence on member involvement to actively support group activities;
(4) a narrow focus of concerns, mobilized around single issues or
restricted areas of social life and public policy.15
The interests and beliefs that lead people to form
or join organizations to lobby politicians for symbolic or material
concessions cannot easily be classified. There is an immense variety
of interest groups, and few if any significant social interests
remain chronically unorganized.16
Throughout much of public choice literature, information
is presented in highly simplified fashion. Generally speaking, it
has largely been assumed that the more information an individual
has, the closer she may be to making subjective estimations of four
key variables associated with belonging to a group. These variables
are (1) the collective benefits generated by group activity; (2)
the probability of individual membership decisions influencing group
effectiveness; (3) the costs of membership in the group; and, (4)
the level of selective incentives.17 However, according
The notion that in such situations all information
helps people to appreciate the 'actual' level of such critical
choice variables as benefits, costs and probabilities is simply
a vain effort to disguise the extreme difficulty in practice of
determining these objective levels.18
In addition to Dunleavy's concern regarding information
overload, Eichenberger and Serna (1996) argue the traditional view
of information, that it improves individual knowledge and decreases
estimation (voting) errors, applies only to what they characterize
as clean information. Dirty information, on the other hand, enlarges
individuals' estimation errors. While individual errors are unsystematic
and randomly distributed, they do have systematic effects at the
In contrast to traditional economics of information,
Eichenberger and Serna's approach delegitimizes any assumption of
an unequivocal relationship between the amount of information available
and the quality of an individual's decisions.
Of course, an inflow of information (e.g. through
political propaganda) increases the amount of information available.
However, it is costly for individuals to assess the new information's
quality. Dirty information, which is irrelevant or even wrong,
increases information costs by diluting the relevant information.
The more dirty information is available, the higher the cost to
isolate clean information and the larger are the individual estimation
In summary, political information is all information
that is relevant to an individual voter's decision, not only as
to candidate choice (or whether to vote at all), but also in joining
groups. A voter's decision represents her decision to participate
in a larger group, such as a special interest group, a political
party or a voter movement.
The news media (as will be discussed in the next
section) have historically played a critical role in providing voters
with information needed to make decisions, because they offer an
economical labour-saving means of becoming informed on key issues.
The quality and credibility of sources of voter information, and
the relative costs associated with accessing these sources, are
of paramount importance in a liberal democracy.
1. Downs, 1957, p. 207.
2. Downs, 1957, p. 210-211.
3. Downs, 1957, p. 213.
4. Downs, 1957, p. 215-216.
5. Downs, 1957, p. 218-219.
6. Downs, 1957, p. 220.
7. Downs, 1957, p. 239.
8. Downs, 1957, p. 259.
9. Dunleavy, 1991, p. 251-252.
10. Mueller, 1989, p. 1-2.
11. Dunleavy and O'Leary, 1987, p. 4-5.
12. Schumpeter, 1987, p. 269.
13. Sartori, 1975, p. 186.
14. Lijphart, 1994, p. 13.
15. Dunleavy, 1991, p. 14-15.
16. Dunleavy, 1991, p. 15-16.
17. Dunleavy, 1991, p. 53.
18. Dunleavy, 1991, p. 53-54.
19. Eichenberger and Serna, 1996, p. 137.
20. Eichenberger and Serna, 1996, p. 138.