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Academics' Political Views and the Impact of Political Ignorance:

Various commenters on my posts on political ignorance raise the issue of academics' political views (which, of course, tend to be very left-wing relatively to the general population). Ironically, liberal commenters claim that this proves that increased political knowledge won't make people more libertarian, while some conservative ones claim it proves that political knowledge doesn't actually lead to better judgment on political issues (because the supposedly highly knowledgeable academics hold what these commenters see as foolish views).

Both claims are flawed because both implicitly assume that academics are a representative sample of well-informed voters. This is simply not true. If you take the top 5% of the electorate in terms of political knowledge, or even the top 1%, academics will be only a small fraction of the total. Business executives and high-ranking military officers also probably have vastly more political knowledge than the average citizen, yet their views are on average well to the right of those of both academics and the general public (for military officers' views, see here). Academia is a profession that disproportionately attracts liberals and leftists; whether or not this is the result of discrimination against nonliberal candidates for academic jobs, it results in a highly unrepresentative sample.

If we want to know the true impact of political knowledge on political opinions, it's necessary to test that impact while controlling for other variables in a randomly selected sample of adults. Political scientist Scott Althaus has actually done this in his book Collective Preferences and Democratic Politics. He shows that, controlling for a variety of demographic and other variables, increased knowledge makes people more socially liberal and economically conservative (i.e. - more libertarian). That does not mean that high political knowledge necessarily turns you into a libertarian. Far from it. It does mean that it is likely to make you more libertarian than you would be otherwise. The pattern is not completely consistent across all public policy questions. For example, greater knowledge reduces opposition to taxation (I suspect because antitax arguments are less counterintuitive than the protax ones). But it does hold true across most issues.

Finally, low knowledge levels are just one of two major negative effects of rational political ignorance. The second is poor evaluation of the information that we do possess, what economist Bryan Caplan has called "rational irrationality." As I discuss in this article, the fact that there is little incentive to acquire political information for the purposes of becoming a "better" voter implies that most of the information people do learn is acquired for other purposes. Many of these purposes - such as entertainment value and confirmation of preexisting prejudices - are antithetical to rational, unbiased evaluation of evidence. In my article, I explain how rational irrationality may account for the fact that most citizens tend to discount information that goes against their preexisting views and only read and watch those political media that reinforce those views, while ignoring opposing positions. Such behavior is inexplicable if the goal is to get at the truth in order to be a better voter; it is perfectly rational, however, if truth-seeking is not the primary objective.

Academics, business executives, and other relatively well-informed voters know a lot more about politics than the average citizen. But they too usually have little incentive to do a good job of evaluating the facts they know. Indeed, rational irrationality in evaluating political information may be even more common among academics than average citizens (though I must stress that we don't yet have a study testing this proposition). Most academics have a lot more emotional commitment to their political views than do average citizens, and therefore may find it even more difficult to assess opposing views in an unbiased way.

Bender (mail):
IMHO the ignorance of academics and their "negative knowledge" (what they believe to be true but which can objectively shown to be false) outside their particular areas of expertise can be awe inspiring. I teach part-time at various universities and am sometimes appalled at the levels of ignorance among some faculty, even within their own discipline but outside their particular, very narrow, area of expertise. Add to this the insulation of most academics from any but "annointed" sources of knowledge and it should be no surprise that many college and university faculties are stews of political and economic ignorance.
2.3.2008 4:30pm
Federal Dog:
It is already a false premise to state that academics are politically well-informed. Some may be, but there is no evidence to support the proposition that many or most are. In fact, the echo chamber in which academics exist actively limits the extent to which academics can be considered well-informed. Much information simply never reaches them because it does not conform to prevailing orthodoxies.


The most one can say is that academics have spent more time in classrooms and have received more diplomas than many other people. That is very different from being well-informed -- or even educated, for that matter.
2.3.2008 4:32pm
DG:
Lets be clear - liberal arts and humanities faculties are chock full of leftists. Engineering, hard sciences, business, and other professional programs tend to look much more like the general population.
2.3.2008 4:49pm
akwhitacre (mail):
An academic has the same limitations in political knowledge--or any knowledge--that any professional dependent on specialization does. When you're a surgeon, everything looks curable with a scalpel. When you're an academic--when your career depends on reinforcing your niche--everything looks fixable by your own ideas. When all you have is a hammer...etc.
2.3.2008 5:07pm
OrinKerr:
I'm still having a hard time understanding what makes a voter "ignorant" versus "well informed."

Take the issue of surveillance law, and the Terrorist Surveillance Program specifically. Imagine five possible voters:

1) Voter 1 is a conspiracy theorist who thinks the government is out to get him. He is against the TSP because he thinks it's a plot by the government to target him.

2) Voter 2 is very afraid of Al Qaeda, but thinks the chances of the U.S. government violating his rights are very low. He favors the TSP.

3) Voter 3 identifies as a liberal democrat. He has no idea of the details of the TSP or whether it works, but he knows that the Bush Admin is for it, so he is against it.

4) Voter 4 is a libertarian who generally believes that the power of the state must be as limited as possible. He doesn't know the details of the TSP or whether it works, but it sounds like past programs that he has opposed on libertarian grounds, so he opposes it.

5) Voter 5 is a computer scientist who has figured out exactly how the TSP works. He has also studied the legal debate closely for two years. However, he thinks civil liberties are stupid, so he favors the TSP.

Which of these voters are ignorant? Which are well informed?
2.3.2008 5:11pm
frankcross (mail):
I'm just not sure how relative education would shed much light here. Because the ignorance is "rational," one might expect more rational people to be more ignorant. I know lots of regular folks who think their vote "matters." A well-educated, intelligent person would know better.
2.3.2008 5:31pm
Riccardo Schiaffino (mail) (www):
Orin:

5) is well informed ("has figured out exactly how the TSP works. He has also studied the legal debate closely for two years")

3 and 4) are not ("He has no idea of the details of the TSP or whether it works" / "He doesn't know the details of the TSP or whether it works")

As regards 1) and 2): impossible to say, at least on the basis of your description alone.
2.3.2008 5:38pm
Mr. Liberal:
We do not need to have perfect knowledge to make good political decisions. All we need to do is identify those experts who share our values and vote accordingly.
2.3.2008 6:10pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
To call military officers conservative is kind of deceptive. They tend to be nominally Republican because the Republicans have the image of being friends of the military (and you can argue whether this is myth or reality) and they are also socially conservative in some aspects. But in many ways they are politically very liberal. They tend to just love socialized medicine and although they may claim to like low taxes they certainly fight tooth and nail to preserve all the benefits both during service and as veterans that come with military service.
2.3.2008 6:14pm
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

@Mr. Liberal: Yes, that's pretty much what Burke said. (Vote for people, not issues.)
2.3.2008 7:17pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
Remember the old story about the physicist and biologist who both read Velikovsky? The physicist said, "Well, he doesn't know anything about orbital mechanics, but his theories about evolution are fascinating and deserve further study." The biologist said, "He doesn't know anything about biology, but his theories about the history of the solar system are fascinating and deserve further study."

The point being, academics aren't necessarily experts on anything outside of their field of study. I doubt the people who gather at a faculty meeting (excluding poli-sci and econ departments) are, on average, more politically informed than the people you find at the local bar.
2.3.2008 7:21pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Ilya,

Can you define what you mean by political ignorance? Politically informed? Specifics would be helpful, not just something like, "knows enough to make an intelligent and informed decision on a ballot measure."

In some ways, your ideas seem similar to those of Thomas Frank in "What's the Matter With Kansas?" He didn't agree with their evaluation criteria, so he saw a problem.
2.3.2008 7:58pm
George Weiss (mail):
orin:

your examples themselves clearly identify the voters who know the details of TSP vs those who don't. IE those who are informed and those who aren't

what your examples show is that one can be well informed yet irrational anyway. but thats a separate point no?
2.3.2008 8:22pm
MXE (mail):
Prof. Somin, thank you for the posts on political ignorance; I've found them very interesting!
2.3.2008 9:21pm
DG:
{They tend to just love socialized medicine and although they may claim to like low taxes they certainly fight tooth and nail to preserve all the benefits both during service and as veterans that come with military service.}

The military medical system is not a high point of the US Military and is generally quite disliked. The issue isn't the socialistic aspect, its the general incompetence of the more senior docs. The socialized medicine of the military isn't much different than that of a large corporation, anyway, at this point. See: TRICARE.

As far as veteran's benefits - are you a veteran? I am, and have never used any benefits at all. The only one used by most vets is the GI Bill (which requires a pay-in) - other benefits like mortgages have become functionally obsolete, and when leaving the military, I was told to stay away from the VA health system if I had any good sense at all.

On most major issues, career military folks (as opposed to non-career, which is very different) are quite conservative - I was considered quite the liberal for supporting gay rights, drug legalization, etc - and I'm just a right of center libertarian. I once had to threaten a couple of fellow junior officers for making rather incendiary and threatening comments about then-president clinton - and I was called a jerk for doing so by others. Do not be fooled - the career military is quite conservative
2.3.2008 9:43pm
Eli Rabett (www):
I'm sort of with Kerr here, Somin assumes he can identify the most informed 5% or 1%, makes a wild assed guess about who is in which and proceeds to buy a pony. This post is really in the if cows were horse pigs would fly category.
2.3.2008 10:42pm
tvk:
Orin, all your example points out is that "well informed" can ride on many axes, not just one. That is true, but that doesn't undermine Ilya's point.

In your example, voter 5 is well informed on the TSP program and the legal debate. He may or may not be well informed about democratic theory and the value of civil liberties. Now, if he has read Mill &Co. and still thinks civil liberties are stupid, that is of course his perogative. But the fact that the wealth of knowledge required to be truly "well informed" as a citizen is impossibly enormous is a substantive point against Ilya's views (which is my problem with them); not a definitional one.

"Well informed" regarding TSP is not difficult to define. It is someone who has a reasonable level of knowledge regarding computer and communication technicalities, national security and military theory, counterterrorism and counterespionage tactics, philosophy, law, and international relations. The fact that the number of actual voters who meet this knowledge threshold can be counted on someone's hand (and that increasing this number will be prohibitively expensive) is, again, a substantive problem with Ilya's position, not a definitional one.
2.3.2008 11:15pm
Thomass (mail):
Often the most 'informed' are those who spent the most time building knowledge... to support the opinions they held before acquiring the knowledge....
2.3.2008 11:27pm
Ilya Somin:
I'm just not sure how relative education would shed much light here. Because the ignorance is "rational," one might expect more rational people to be more ignorant. I know lots of regular folks who think their vote "matters." A well-educated, intelligent person would know better.

They might be more ignorant if their only reason for acquiring knowledge were to become "better" voters. But part of my point is that many of them in fact acquire knowledge for other reasons (such as entertainment value or confirmation of their prejudices).
2.3.2008 11:40pm
Ilya Somin:
We do not need to have perfect knowledge to make good political decisions. All we need to do is identify those experts who share our values and vote accordingly.

This is known as the "opinion leader" information shortcut, and I discuss it in several of my articles. To briefly, summarize, there are several problems with it:

1. Identifying experts itself requires knowledge, often more than voters have.

2. Many political issues are not conflicts over "values" but over how to achieve agreed upon goals.

3. Before you even begin to look for experts, you need to know about the existence of the relevant issue and alternative solutions for it. Many voters don't even know that.
2.3.2008 11:44pm
Ilya Somin:
I'm still having a hard time understanding what makes a voter "ignorant" versus "well informed."


There is a large literature on this (going back to Plato). I have contributed my mite in several articles. In my view, an informed voter at least knows about the basic structure of the political system, the key differences between the parties, and the meaning and consequences of opposing political ideologies. The majority of citizens don't even know that much, as decades of survey research show.

To be well-informed about a particular issue might require a lot more knowledge than that, depending on the issue and how complicated it is. At the very least, you should know what the status quo and what the main alternatives to that SQ are. Again, even for many major issues, the majority of citizens don't know that.
2.3.2008 11:47pm
Ilya Somin:
Can you define what you mean by political ignorance? Politically informed? Specifics would be helpful, not just something like, "knows enough to make an intelligent and informed decision on a ballot measure."

I discuss this issue in great detail in several articles. See this paper for a relatively nontechnical version.
2.3.2008 11:49pm
OrinKerr:
In my view, an informed voter at least knows about the basic structure of the political system, the key differences between the parties, and the meaning and consequences of opposing political ideologies.

I don't mean to be pesky, but why? These are bread and butter issues for law professors, as we are concerned with the basic structure of the legal system, the role of ideology in lawmaking, etc. But before I went to law school it wouldn't have occurred to me that these are the things that make a voter informed.
2.4.2008 12:01am
Chris Smith (mail):
This is a country, not an ant colony.
Let us gently ignore the Socialists.
2.4.2008 7:21am
Bama 1L:
Surely there has been some reporting on the political opinions of military officers since 1999! I do not think you will find the brass so Republican anymore.
2.4.2008 10:38am
Bama 1L:
Surely there has been some reporting on the political opinions of military officers since 1999! I do not think you will find the brass so Republican anymore. See Jim Webb and a host of down-ticket Democrats in Virginia. Neither the candidates nor many of their supporters were Democrats ten years ago, but they made the switch.
2.4.2008 10:39am
rarango (mail):
It has been my belief that politics is about values--and it would be nice to think that one's values are based on some rational thought process grounded in a good education. Values are statements of "ought" and, IMO, simply cannot be factually correct. Makes no difference about the education underlying the value that is held.
2.4.2008 10:50am
David M (www):
The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 02/04/2008 A short recon of what's out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.
2.4.2008 12:56pm