The Cato Unbound symposium on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter is wrapping up up today. I am grateful to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, and Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics for their thoughtful critiques of the book, and to Jason Kuznicki of Cato Unbound for his excellent work organizing and hosting this event. Here is a link to my final post in the exchange, which summarizes the discussion as a whole, and responds to final posts by Jeffrey Friedman and Sean Trende. [...]
At Cato Unbound, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman and I are continuing to debate whether widespread political ignorance is primarily the result of rational behavior (my view) or mostly inadvertent (his view). Friedman argues that most voters simply don’t realize that there is lots of political information out there that might help them make better decisions at the ballot box. In my view (outlined in greater detail in my book), this theory cannot account for the depth and persistence of political ignorance even about many very basic facts. Here are Jeff’s most recent reply to me, and my most recent rejoinder.
To some extent, this debate may be of only academic interest. Whether political ignorance is rational, inadvertent, or some combination of the two, it is still a serious problem. But, for reasons I explained in my initial response to Jeff, the two explanations have different implications for efforts to remedy the problem:
Widespread political ignorance is a menace regardless of whether it is rational or inadvertent. But the difference between the two explanations for it matters. Inadvertent ignorance is a much easier problem to address than rational ignorance.
We could probably make a major dent in the former simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information. It could also lead them to be more objective in evaluating that information.
With rational ignorance and rational irrationality, by contrast, such simple solutions are far less likely to work.
Cato Unbound has now posted my response to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman’s insightful criticism of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.
Here is an excerpt:
In his critique of my book, Jeffrey Friedman continues his longstanding efforts to show that most political ignorance is inadvertent rather than rational. In his view, voters are ignorant because they believe our society “is a mighty simple place” and “think they have information adequate to [the] task.” They simply don’t realize there is lots of other information out there that could help them make better decisions.
Friedman is a top-notch political theorist who has made valuable contributions to the literature on political knowledge… But on this point, I think he is barking up the wrong tree… Moreover, the mistake is of more than theoretical importance. Inadvertent ignorance has very different implications for political theory than rational ignorance….
Inadvertent error might explain why voters ignore highly abstruse (though potentially relevant) bodies of knowledge. But it cannot account for widespread ignorance of very basic facts about politics and public policy. For example…., two-thirds of the public in 2010 did not know that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year, even though most said that the economy was the single most important issue in the election. Similarly, most had little if any understanding of the Obama health care plan, another major issue. If you think the economy or the president’s health care plan is the biggest issue on the public agenda, it isn’t rocket science to figure out that these basic facts are highly relevant. Yet the majority of the public is often ignorant of such basics….
The inadvertence theory also cannot explain why political knowledge levels have remained largely stagnant for decades, despite massive increases in
Cato Unbound has posted my response to RealClearPolitics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende’s thoughtful commentary on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.
Here is an excerpt:
Sean offers three important criticisms of the argument advanced in Democracy and Political Ignorance: that voters know enough to make good decisions on really important issues, that they can make good choices between the two options on offer in major elections, and that the historical success of American democracy suggests that political ignorance may not be such a serious problem. Each of these points has some merit. But each is overstated. Political ignorance does not prevent voters from making good decisions in some important situations. But it does make the performance of democracy a lot worse than it would be otherwise….
Sean cites the 2010 midterm election as one where the voters were well-informed about big issues. According to the majority of Americans at the time, the most important issue was the state of the economy. Yet preelection polls showed that 67% of voters did not even realize that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year. The majority also did not know the basics of the 2009 stimulus bill, the most important policy adopted by the Obama administration to try to promote economic recovery. Moreover, a plurality believed that the 2008 bailout of major banks enacted to try to contain the financial crisis and recession that occurred that year – had been enacted under Obama rather than under President George W. Bush (only 34% knew the correct answer)….
This kind of ignorance about major issues was far from unique to 2010. There was comparable ignorance in numerous other elections, some of which I discuss in detail in the book….
In addition, ignorance sometimes
Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan has an excellent post defending a prospect that many people find repugnant: the possibility that we might soon have “designer babies,” such that parents can use genetic engineering to increase their babies’ intelligence and other abilities. One major concern about designer babies is that it would lead to huge inequalities between the rich (who, it is assumed, will be the only people who can afford designer baby technology) and the rest of society.
Jason points out that if designer baby technology follows the same trajectory as most previous technological innovations, it will, over time, become available to the vast majority of society, even if initially only to the rich. More interestingly, he contends that designer baby technology would be a net benefit to the rest of us even if it does greatly increase cognitive inequality. That’s because increasing the proportion of people with unusually high intelligence or other abilities creates valuable potential trading partners for the rest of us. For example, if humans someday make contact with race whose intellectual and physical abilities are vastly superior to others, such as Star Trek’s Vulcans), we could benefit enormously from the resulting relationship, in part precisely because of the Vulcan’s intellectual superiority (at least so long as they did not conquer or enslave us, which is not a likely prospect with high-IQ designer babies, even if it might be more of a concern with super-intelligent extraterrestrials).
Another way of putting Jason’s point is to ask whether we would support the mandatory application of a technology that would ensure that all babies in future generations have IQs no higher than 120 (but the rest of the IQ distribution would be the same). That would greatly reduce cognitive inequality in our society. But it would also make the vast [...]
My essay, “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” – which summarizes some key themes of my new book on the same subject, is the lead essay in this month’s Cato Unbound forum. Here is the first paragraph:
Democracy is supposed to be rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But in order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge. If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance. Unfortunately, public knowledge about politics is disturbingly low. In addition, the public also often does a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. This state of affairs has persisted despite rising education levels, increased availability of information thanks to modern technology, and even rising IQ scores. It is mostly the result of rational behavior, not stupidity. Such widespread and persistent political ignorance and irrationality strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing the power of government.
The Cato Unbound website will soon post responses by Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, and Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics. I will then post a rejoinder, and the conversation will continue from there. Each of these commentators is a leading expert on democratic theory, federalism, or political participation, and each is likely to have a significantly different take on these issues from mine. So it should be an interesting exchange. I look forward to it! [...]
The Forbes website recently published an op ed I wrote on public ignorance about the issues involved in the government shutdown. Here is an excerpt:
As a government shutdown begins, much of the public knows very little about the issues behind it: Obamacare and the future of the federal budget. An August Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 44% do not even realize that Obamacare is still the law. Kaiser’s June poll found that 33% say they have heard “nothing at all” about the controversial insurance exchanges that are a central element of the law, and 34% “only a little.”
When it comes to the budget, numerous polls show that voters grossly underestimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, while greatly overestimating the amount spent on foreign aid….
Public opinion will probably play a key role in determining the outcome of the shutdown battle. Both parties want to attract public support and focus voters’ frustration on their opponents. But the voters politicians seek to win over are often very ill-informed.
Widespread political ignorance isn’t limited to spending and health care. It cuts across many other issues, and even the basic structure of government….
There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. Providing more information is unlikely to work, since most people fail to assimilate the information that is already available. But we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government. When people “vote with their feet” in the private sector or in choosing what state or local government they want to live in, they have much better incentives to acquire information and use it rationally than when they vote at the ballot box.
In the fall issue of National Affairs, Johns Hopkins political scientist Steven Teles has an interesting article on what he dubs the problem of “kludgeocracy” in American government:
In recent decades, American politics has been dominated, at least rhetorically, by a battle over the size of government. But that is not what the next few decades of our politics will be about. With the frontiers of the state roughly fixed, the issues that will define our major debates will concern the complexity of government, rather than its sheer scope.
With that complexity has also come incoherence. Conservatives over the last few years have increasingly worried that America is, in Friedrich Hayek’s ominous terms, on the road to serfdom. But this concern ascribes vastly greater purpose and design to our approach to public policy than is truly warranted. If anything, we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever.
The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. As we increasingly notice the consequences of that regressive redistribution, we will inevitably also come to pay greater attention to the daunting and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of American life, and so will need to start thinking differently about government.
Understanding, describing, and addressing this problem of complexity and incoherence is the next great American political challenge. But you cannot come to terms with such a problem until you can properly name it. While we can name the major questions that divide our politics
It is said that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist.” Well, it obviously wasn’t all that great a trick, because recent survey data shows that 57% of Americans still believe he does exist, including 72% of African-Americans, 65% of Republicans, and 61% of women (but only 25% of Muslims and 17% of Jews). Interestingly, even 20% of survey respondents who say they don’t adhere to any religion still believe in the devil. The devil clearly needs to work harder at covering his tracks. [...]
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum and Chris Mooney have interesting posts discussing a new paper by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his coauthors, which finds that even people who are generally good at interpreting statistics act as if they are innumerate when faced with data that goes against their political views.
Mooney summarizes the results as follows:
The study…. has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their “numeracy,” that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a “new cream for treating skin rashes.” But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of “a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public.”
The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream….
[H]ow did people fare on the handgun version of the problem? They performed quite differently than on the skin cream version, and strong political patterns emerged in the results—especially among people who are good at mathematical reasoning. Most strikingly, highly numerate liberal Democrats did almost perfectly when the right answer was that the concealed weapons ban does indeed work to decrease crime (version C of the experiment)—an outcome that favors their pro-gun-control predilections. But they did much worse when the correct answer was that crime
CNN recently published an interesting article about how most of the public believes that violent crime is rising, despite the fact that it has actually fallen dramatically over the last twenty years:
You can’t escape the headlines. An Australian going to college in the United States is gunned down by teens who police say killed him out of boredom. A few days later, a World War II veteran is beaten to death for reasons still unknown….
Although the cases have struck a nerve with their disturbing randomness and apparent cruelty, the reality is that living in the United States may never have been safer, and you’re much more likely to be the victim of a crime committed by someone you know than you are to be assaulted by a stranger.
Nearly eight of every 10 murders in the United States between 1993 and 2008 were committed by someone the victim knew, according a 2010 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics….
Pair that with figures on overall crime: According to the FBI, the violent crime rate in the United States is about half what it was in 1992.
And between 1992 and 2011, the annual number of murders in the United States fell from 23,760 to 14,612 despite a growing population.
Rape, robbery, assault, even property crimes also fell in a well-documented decline that has gone on for years….
But perceptions of crime haven’t always followed the reality.
In May, a Pew Research Center study found that 56% of Americans believe that gun violence is higher than it was 20 year ago, even though it has fallen precipitously since the 1990s.
And in 2011, Gallup found that 68% of Americans believed crime was getting worse, despite the reality of declining crime rates nationwide.
Public overestimation of the crime rate [...]
In my last post, I discussed economist Dwight R. Lee’s article about why most of the electorate does not decide who to vote for on the basis of narrow self-interest. Unfortunately, the very same incentive structure that leads most voters to base their decisions on the public interest also leads most of them to be ignorant. In this post, I would like to suggest that a narrowly self-interested electorate might actually be better than an altruistic one, so long as the former is much more knowledgeable about policy than the latter. I have a more detailed discussion of this scenario in Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book on political ignorance.
Imagine a political system (call it, “democracy”) where public opinion has a lot of influence over public policy. Politicians know that if they don’t do what the majority wants, their chances of winning election and reelection will be significantly reduced. Imagine, also, that the electorate is highly knowledgeable, but also extremely selfish. They understand the effects of different policies very well, but always prefer whatever policy maximizes their personal material wealth, and perhaps that of their families. Many people would intuitively assume that this is a kind of nightmare scenario. It would lead to 51% voting to enslave or at least severely oppress, the other 49% for the benefit of the majority.
Maybe it would. But a little reflection would soon lead to knowledgeable majority to recognize that slavery and severe oppression of the minority are not actually in their interest. Basic economics, plus lots of empirical evidence, suggest that slaves and forced laborers are usually less productive than free workers who get to keep a substantial proportion of what they earn. Thus, the 51% would do better to let the 49% live freely and earn a good [...]
Both right and left have standard stories explaining how selfish voters often prevent the government from adopting good policies. The right-wing story – made famous by Mitt Romney’s much-derided “47 percent” speech last year – is that voters become dependent on government transfer programs and then support those programs despite the harm they cause to the economy. The left-wing counterpart is the theory that middle and upper class voters selfishly refuse to support programs that benefit the poor or provide useful public goods, because doing so would require them to pay more taxes.
In reality, however, the data suggest that there is only a weak correlation between narrow self-interest and public opinion on most issues. For example, the young support Medicare and Social Security almost as much as the elderly do. During the Vietnam War, men eligible for conscription actually supported the war at higher rates than the general public. Although there are some exceptions, in general voters’ decisions are based on their perceptions of the public interest far more than on narrow self-interest. In this recent article, economist Dwight R. Lee has a good discussion of the reasons why voters act this way:
People face very different incentives in markets than they do in the voting booth. In the marketplace the shopper’s choice decisively determines what he receives and pays for. In the voting booth, the voter’s choice is almost never decisive in determining what he receives and pays for. At best, voters receive and pay for what the majority of voters choose, whether they vote for it or not. Your vote is as decisive as a market purchase only if the election would have been a tie without your vote….
The costs and benefits of what we are thinking about buying in the marketplace are
David Boaz has an interesting post discussing Jonathan Martin’s Wall Street Journal review of veteran Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser’s recent book Act of Congress. Martin explains how Kaiser shows that most members of Congress are ignorant about much of the important legislation they vote on:
Congress is dominated by intellectual lightweights who are chiefly consumed by electioneering and largely irrelevant in a body where a handful of members and many more staff do the actual work of legislating. And the business of the institution barely gets done because of a pernicious convergence of big money and consuming partisanship.
That is Robert Kaiser’s unsparing assessment in “Act of Congress,” the latest volume in a growing body of work lamenting our broken capital….
It did not help, notes Mr. Kaiser, that many members of Congress are politics-obsessed mediocrities who know little about the policy they’re purportedly crafting and voting on….
Mr. Kaiser [writes]: “Most members both know and care more about politics than about substance.”
The ignorance of these political elites parallels the voter ignorance described in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance. Most members of Congress are significantly more knowledgeable about public policy than the average voter. The congressmen probably know that Obamacare is still the law and that foreign aid isn’t close to being one of the major spending categories in the federal budget. However, as Kaiser and other writers show, their knowledge is nonetheless very poor overall. There are exceptions, of course. For example, the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan not only knew a great deal about public policy, but had actually been a leading political scientist before entering politics. In general, however, there is little correlation between knowledge of policy and the ability to win elections.
Voter ignorance and elite ignorance are in fact [...]
Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute has an interesting post analyzing recent survey data on widespread political ignorance in Britain [HT: Nigel Ashford]:
The public is ignorant about politics and lacks even the basic facts that it would need to make sound judgments about political issues. A new poll by Ipsos-MORI shows just how deep this ignorance is. Among other things, the poll found that:
* 29% of people think we spend more on JSA[ed. note: the JSA is Britain's unemployment benefit program] than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn)
* 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn)
* the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.
* people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+. In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.
These are not just little mistakes, they’re absolute howlers.
This ignorance is perfectly rational and understandable. The problem is that these