Why Write a Book About a Seemingly Intractable Problem like Political Ignorance?

Some VC commenters and readers of my recent book and other work on political ignorance, wonder whether there is any point to writing about this subject if my argument is correct. If most voters are ignorant about politics because such ignorance is rational, and that problem is unlikely to be overcome by information shortcuts, education, or media reform, won’t they simply ignore my argument that we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government? If so, limitation and decentralization might prove to be just as unfeasible as more traditional strategies for alleviating political ignorance.

I can’t deny that this is a genuine dilemma. One possible answer is that there is value to understanding a problem better even if we can’t immediately come up with a workable solution. Other writers might be able to build on my analysis and use it to help develop more effective proposals of their own. The issue of the rationale for writing Democracy and Political Ignorance came up often enough in various presentations I gave about the manuscript before it was published, that I decided to provide a more thorough answer in the book itself. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote (footnotes omitted):

Given the self-perpetuating nature of the problem of political ignorance, readers might wonder whether there is much purpose to a book such as this one. Even if the case for limiting and decentralizing government is correct, rationally ignorant voters could easily ignore it, just as they do a great deal of other relevant information.

The challenge is indeed a daunting one. Nonetheless, there is at least some reason for cautious optimism. Past experience in several countries suggests that substantial liberalization and decentralization can be achieved in modern democracies. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, New Zealand greatly reduced the role of government in its economy, achieving unprecedented prosperity as a result…. During the 1990s and early 2000s, a left-liberal Canadian government also managed to push through massive reductions in government spending. Switzerland has remained a highly decentralized—and highly successful—federal state for decades…

These examples suggest that substantial reductions in the size, scope, and centralization of government are at least possible in a modern democracy, even if often politically difficult. It may not be possible to reduce government to the point where rationally ignorant voters can readily understand all of its major functions. But it is at least possible to make their task easier at the margin, and to increase the range of decisions that are made through foot voting rather than ballot box voting….

In the United States, surveys show that Bryan Caplan’s “anti-market bias” coexists with a considerable suspicion of government. A 2010 Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 58 percent of Americans prefer a “smaller government with fewer services” to a “larger government with more services” (preferred by 38 percent). A majority have consistently preferred “smaller government with fewer services” on this question for the past twenty years…

Such general anti-government sentiments are balanced by strong public support for many specific types of government intervention. For example, an extensive July 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Research Foundation found that large majorities of the public oppose cuts in the benefits provided by Medicare and Social Security, two of the largest federal spending programs. The point is not that major reductions in the size and scope of government are easy to achieve or likely to occur soon. Neither is true. I suggest only that they are probably more feasible than major increases in political knowledge.

Some decentralization and reductions in the size of government might be brought about by persuading either political elites or the small subset of voters who are unusually well informed. The existence of widespread political ignorance helps give these groups a measure of “slack” and autonomy from public opinion.

But even the less-knowledgeable general public might gradually come to support greater privatization and decentralization. At the very least, it is easier to convince rationally ignorant voters to support generalized reductions in government than to invest the vast amounts of time and energy needed to increase their knowledge of numerous individual government programs, so as to facilitate effective monitoring of government’s performance at its current size.

I would add that there may also be some value to pointing out the flaws in solutions suggested by other scholars and pundits, which I do at some length in Chapter 7 of the book. Even if we don’t have a solution that works well, we can at least minimize our commitment of effort and resources to approaches that are likely to fail.

I don’t expect that my book – or any book – is going to significantly alleviate a major problem like political ignorance by itself. Far from it. Many academic works are read only by a tiny handful of people, and never cited by anybody. Very few academic books on any subject have more than a modest, incremental impact, at best. And that modest impact will often just take the form of advancing the debate among experts in the field rather than directly influencing public opinion or government policy. But small positive effects are still worth pursuing.