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.