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Would free time promote civic participation?

Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance (2016) argues that American voters (at least) are immensely ignorant on most political issues. One of the explanations that he gives for this is not so much that they are stupid or uneducated—people are generally much more educated now than they were a century ago, and IQ scores have risen significantly over the same period, all without voters appearing to have become any more politically knowledgeable on the whole—but that they simply have so many more immediate things to worry about than relatively remote and abstract issues like tax rates, infrastructure spending and foreign policy.

Most of Somin’s book is outside the scope of this blog, but his argument did prompt me to wonder if people would show greater civic participation if they had more time to do it in, possibly in conjunction with appropriate incentives or decision-making structures. This is certainly the view of writers advocating “sortition”, meaning decision-making bodies formed of citizens chosen at random and given the time and resources to deliberate upon issues on which the community must decide. Somin doesn’t think so—he doesn’t think that sortition can realistically allow enough time for citizens to become suitably informed—though this is necessarily somewhat speculative since no one has ever tried sortition on a large scale.

Speaking for myself, and based on my experiences working part-time time far, I’m unlikely to be increasing my political knowledge at a much greater rate than I was before, since I already read several news sources throughout the week and a book like Democracy and Political Ignorance every week or two. I had thought I might write a few more comments on The Conversation and elsewhere than I did previously, though I’m yet to have found much to say that hadn’t already been said by other commenters. Recently receiving invitations to comment on proposals from both the IEEE and the Society for Creative Anachronism, however, I feel I’m able to make a little more time to look over these proposals than I might have otherwise, and I’ve already noted that I spend a bit more time out in the community than I did before.

Quite a lot of research exists into what promotes or inhibits political participation amongst people in general, but I wasn’t able to find any definitive analysis of the impact of having free time. Henry Brady and colleagues consider free time as one of the resources in their widely-cited resource model of political participation but I haven’t read the paper itself and the first few pages of citing papers recorded by Google Scholar didn’t make any obvious reference to the impact of free time, even amongst the 1500 citations containing the words “free time”. Others—apparently going back to Alexis de Tocqueville—suppose that being involved in voluntary associations like the IEEE and SCA promote political participation as well, but an empirical study by Tom van der Meer and Erik Van Ingen disputes this.

At the risk of lending support to Somin’s thesis, scouring and synthesising the results of thousands of academic papers is beyond what I’m able to do for the purposes of writing a blog article. Part of what I want to do in writing this blog, however, is to examine how I use my own time when freed of the need to work. Determining what to do with it is an on-going project that I expect I’ll come back to in future entries.

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