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One Last Political Ignorance Post (For Now):

This will probably be the last political ignorance post for at least a few days, as I must return to other work. However, I do want to give readers some links that may help address questions some of you have posed.

In this 2004 paper I compile some of the extensive evidence showing that the majority of citizens lack even very basic knowledge about the parties, the structure of the political system, and major issues. The findings are consistent with a lot of previous research on the subject. In that paper and in this article, I try to explain why standard "information shortcuts" such as relying on political parties and opinion leaders are not enough to offset such deep and pervasive ignorance. I also relate actual levels of voter knowledge to the demands of different normative theories of democracy and explain why the actual levels fall short. They even fall short of the demands of relatively forgiving theories such as "retrospective voting" and Joseph Schumpeter's approach. People can disagree about how much knowledge voters should have. But it's very hard to show that the persistently abysmal knowledge levels that exist in the real world are anywhere close to adequate, even under a fairly weak undemanding conception of democratic participation.

Scholars such as Scott Althaus and Bryan Caplan (both cited in my last post) show that political ignorance has a major impact on people's views on major public policy issues. In turn, the public's views have an important impact on the policy choices made by elected officials. While we cannot foresee all the difference that a better-informed electorate would make, it would likely be quite substantial. In my recent paper on post-Kelo eminent domain reform, I show how political ignorance can have a profound impact on policy even with respect to an issue where the vast majority of citizens come down on one side and have fairly strong opinions. The impact on other, more complicated, issues may well be even greater.

I don't believe that political ignorance is the only flaw in modern democratic government. But it's a quite important one that has profound effects.

NOTE: I may not have time to look at the comments to this post, and may therefore not respond to as many of the points and questions raised there as I might have otherwise.

ReaderY:
The purpose of representative government (a republic as distinct from a direct democracy) is to address the issue of political ignorance. Mastery of detail issues is delegated to representatives. However, voters are expected to have enough of a big-picture perspective and a sense of what direction they want to go in to choose representatives wisely.

It strikes me as fundamentally inconsistent with the constitution's guarantee of a republican form of government for lawyers and courts to assume that elected representives' decisions are not the legitimate choices and responsibility of their constitutents. As Benjamin Franklin (I think) put it, a republic does not guarantee the people the best form of government, it merely guarantees them the form of government they deserve.
2.4.2008 12:16am
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
I was also thinking of the issue of using the parties as information shortcuts. One of the arguments Michael Medved uses in pimping McCain is that McCain did not go against the Republican Party - as defined by the GOP President Bush and his Congressional loyalists - in his amnesty plan. Yet clearly it went against the conservative sentiment. We run into dangers when we conflate a party with interests. I.e, conservatives who solely align themselves with the GOP will find themselves as well served as blacks that tie themselves only to the Democrats.
2.4.2008 12:22am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
As I understand it, people tend to know about politics in unstable countries that routinely go through major political upheavals. These places have huge voter turnout, and my guess is that the average voter in those places is much more informed than the voter in the US.

Here, we have an ignorant electorate, and a remarkably stable government. For the most part, ignorance has worked well in our system. If I was given a choice between a stable, and relatively benign, government where the leaders are chosen by a bunch of idiots, or a powder keg that gets put into place by a well informed group of voters, I'll take the choice of the ignoramuses any time.

I realize this may be a false choice. But Prof. Somin himself admits that he does not know what the results from a better informed electorate would be. Since he doesn't know, I think its hard to argue that he somehow knows that it would be better. I have my doubts. Rather, I think that people would start to become informed about politics when it matters to them. As long as things are running pretty smoothly, its fine to stay uninformed. Actually, I think you might be able to argue that ignorance of political matters is directly proportional to how smoothly, in general, the government runs.
2.4.2008 12:53am
Bruce2:
It seems like the sting of Prof. Somin's analysis decreases if you don't assume that elected officials will stick with whatever policy they run under. Leaders could suggest one (ignorant) policy to get elected and then set a different (well-informed) policy once in office; as long as they're not truly ignorant, it's less important (in this sense) what they actually tell people on the campaign trail.

Perhaps this actually does happen; consider how many politicians don't act according to their campaign promises!
2.4.2008 1:22am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
I try to explain why standard "information shortcuts" such as relying on political parties and opinion leaders are not enough to offset such deep and pervasive ignorance.

That's a highly misleading characterization. As you in fact admit in the second paper you cite, you merely argue that, rather than "try to explain why", standard information shortcuts are not enough to offset voter ignorance. You may find your own arguments convincing--I certainly do not--but the topic is clearly a matter up for debate rather than one of settled, objective fact. And since your whole case that political ignorance renders democratic government suspect depends on political ignorance not being mitigated by information shortcuts, your overconfidently assertive language looks suspiciously like question-begging.
2.4.2008 1:34am
steve (mail):
As was said above, the founders of this country not only took ignorance into account, but many other human shortcomings in designing a republican form of government. In particular, the two-party system, while frustrating, really helps to blunt the ignorance factor. The problem with our democracy now, is that there are too many elections, special elections, propositions, etc.
2.4.2008 1:36am
Jerry F:
I was truly shocked by the statistic that as many as 1/3 of American voters believe that the U.S. government either engineering 9-11 or knew about it and let it happen. If one makes the two (admittedly imperfect) assumptions that (1) American voters are evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and (2) American voters would not support an administration that they knew engineered 9-11, this basically means that ***66% of Democratic voters believe 9-11 was engineered (or intentionally allowed to happen) by the U.S. government.*** To me, this says more about who politically ignorant voters support than about political ignorance generally.
2.4.2008 1:45am
Jerry F:
How is political ignorance distinguishable from any other kind of ignorance? A great deal of people are completely ignorant about, say, geography, history, theology, basic science, literature. Some even have trouble writing in English. I suppose that Ilya would argue that political ignorance is more troublesome than ignorance about other fields because people are expected to vote and elect politicians, while they would not elect, say, theologians or scientists. But political ignorance is hardly surprising. And what I find comforting is that even people who are very ignorant of most things that educated people find important are still quite knowledgeable about things that directly affect their lives.
2.4.2008 2:12am
Adeez (mail):
"this basically means that ***66% of Democratic voters believe 9-11 was engineered (or intentionally allowed to happen) by the U.S. government.*** To me, this says more about who politically ignorant voters support than about political ignorance generally."

Thanks for raising this point.

I wonder, out of those who are "sure" that officials within our government had nothing to do with 9/11 and there was no coverup whatsoever: how many of these people actually know the arguments of those who argue in favor of a coverup? And not the false claims that are planted to make those who suspect a coverup look foolish (e.g., the planes were holographs). No, I mean an actual parsing of everything the admin. has done before and after the attacks, as well as a close look at all its assertions of detail. Or are people here suggesting that we take the media/gov's version as fact, and thus, any assertions to the contrary must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt?

Wouldn't people want to know for sure whether people within their gov. helped attack them? I suspect yes and no, considering that some people subconsiously/consciously prefer to remain ignorant. I mean, how many actually visit, e.g., patriotsquestion911.com and whatreallyhappened.com, the latter being a site that has posted info on this issue virtually every day for years. Why does the American media ignore that FBI translator (whose name presently escapes me) who is currently in the foreign press whistleblowing? Why did the "liberal" media ignore the fact that, 2-3 weeks ago, our allies in the JAPANESE PARLIAMENT discussed it being an inside job? These are just two of the most recent happenings.

Oh yeah: new info just came out today about Zelikow's closeness with the White House and attempts to influence the 9/11 Report. Let's see how widely reported this one is.
2.4.2008 10:42am
guy in the veal calf office (mail) (www):
I'm not sure that better "political" knowledge brings about better results. Whoever votes must select among a pool that is almost inherently venal, duplicitous and ambitious for the power to tell people what to do. You don't need a budget expert at the Heritage foundation to select the 566 people that rule over a $1,000,000,000,000 budget, or academics to select the people who confirm judges, etc. I much prefer having the collective wisdom in selecting the least worst candidates among a bad pool. It's a judgment call on character.

Saying it could be better handled by experts is dangerous wish casting. The hunger for paternalistic authority figures is now softened into calls for a "technocrat" or "expert" class to protect it from themselves, but this Eastern notion has been rightly and consciously rejected by Western people from the time of Greeks (against despotic Persians) to the recent renunciation by all of central Europe (of traditional Russian paternalism).
2.4.2008 1:34pm
Jerry F:
Just to be clear (since I think this may have been missed by Adeez), my point about 66% of Democrats believing that the U.S. government engineered 9-11 was meant to show how horrendously ignorant a majority of Democrats are, and not to suggest that the Truthers should be taken seriously because a majority of Democrats believe in their claims.

As for why I do not think the Truthers' claim are worthy of serious consideration: the media is consistently anti-Bush and anti-Republican. If they make up scandals where no scandals exist, you can bet that if there was even 1% chance that the Truthers had any credibility, this would be all over the news. As such, I don't personally feel the need to examine the specific claims of the Truthers, just I do not examine the arguments in favor of Holocaust denial or of the existence of lycanthropy.
2.4.2008 1:37pm
rarango (mail):
Jerry: media notwithstanding, the truthers are arguments are so ludicrous they fall of their own weight! They live in a completely closed system where any arguments confirm their original beliefs. Alas.
2.4.2008 2:07pm
Brian K (mail):
Just to be clear (since I think this may have been missed by Adeez), my point about 66% of Democrats believing that the U.S. government engineered 9-11 was meant to show how horrendously ignorant a majority of Democrats are

the claim is ridiculous on its face and lacks any grounding in reality. all it really shows is your own ignorance.
2.4.2008 2:13pm
Adeez (mail):
Oh, by the way: her name is Sibel Edmonds. And she even has a website now: justacitizen.com.

But of course all of those who criticize the "truthers" are well aware of her and her site, right? Of course! And I'm sure you visit whatreallyhappened and patriotsquestion911 regularly.

It's scary how some people could be so intelligent, yet so naive, simultaneously. But if living in denial makes you all sleep better at night, God bless. I suppose nothing less than Dick himself going on national TV and admitting it to the world would make you change your closed minds.
2.4.2008 3:01pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Ilya,

You post a good number of items on this topic, but most are assertions, with little explanation or background. Reference to other materials is appreciated, but a fuller discussion of your contentions in these posts would also be appreciated. You have told us a lot about what you have done in other publications. Just do some of it right here.
2.4.2008 3:14pm
pete (mail) (www):

But of course all of those who criticize the "truthers" are well aware of her and her site, right? Of course! And I'm sure you visit whatreallyhappened and patriotsquestion911 regularly.

Nope. Visited once and that was more than enough.


I suppose nothing less than Dick himself going on national TV and admitting it to the world would make you change your closed minds.


Just a little bit of rational, concrete evidence would be nice please. The burden of proof will always on the truthers to prove a positive, not on the mainstream theories to disprove a negative.

Here is the popular mechanics page that debunks the Adeez type crazy 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Thanks for posting this comment Adeez. I now know to discount whatever you write in the future comes from a severely warped worldview completely detached from reality and is not to be taken seriously. BTW my mind is also closed to the fact that the Apollo missions did reach the moon, that "chemtrails" do not exist, that the government did not invent AIDS to kill black people, that aliens did not build the pyramids, and that Elvis is dead.
2.4.2008 3:28pm
Adeez (mail):
You're quite welcome Pete. And you stated it well, so rather than try to reword it, I'll simply say that I now know to discount whatever you write in the future and that it comes from a severely warped and closeminded worldview completely detached from reality and posits that whatever the government and lying media tells you is 100% true.

But focus my brother, focus. The topic was September 11th; not the moon, aliens, AIDS, and Elvis. Peace.
2.4.2008 3:40pm
pete (mail) (www):
You are no brother of mine Adeez. Quite frankly, I find that your attachment to 9/11 conspiracy theories makes you a vile and/or deranged human being because it willingly redirects the blame for thousands of murders from the guilty parties onto innocents.

I never said I believe 100% of what the media and government tell me. I do know that Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center by flying hijacked planes into the buildings and murdered the thousands of innocents that were there and it is up to you to prove otherwise. So far no truther has offered any rational, concrete evidence to the contrary.

Burden of proof still on you.

Sorry to the other people reading these comments since I know it is not possilbe to reason with a true crank, but I think such derangement needs to opposed as much as holocaust denial or other speech that tries to excuse, justify, or diminish mass murder and obviously evil actions.
2.4.2008 4:05pm
Ken Arromdee:
how many of these people actually know the arguments of those who argue in favor of a coverup?

Well, I do remember an argument made by someone who said one of the planes wouldn't be visible by someone who claimed to see it. I did some calculations and proved that it was. I also remember arguments by people claiming that some things like pieces of wreckage don't exist when that could be proven false with a simple Google search. It doesn't take holograms to prove them wrong.

Besides, the Truther arguments are wack-a-mole. No matter how many get refuted it's easy to say "oh, you're looking at the wrong ones, the *real* Truther arguments are the ones you haven't addressed yet".
2.4.2008 4:06pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Adeez,

What are the arguments of those who argue in favor of a coverup?
2.4.2008 4:50pm
SeaLawyer:

Besides, the Truther arguments are wack-a-mole. No matter how many get refuted it's easy to say "oh, you're looking at the wrong ones, the *real* Truther arguments are the ones you haven't addressed yet".


The whack a mole comment is perfect. The Kennedy assassination is another example of this. You clearly refute something and they just make up another lie.
2.4.2008 5:17pm
Adeez (mail):
Elliot123: I really want to answer your question. Unfortunately, it's unclear to me whether you are asking in good faith, or rather you have your mind made up and are asking just in anticipation of attacking me.

But hell, I'm trying to be more optimistic, so I'll assume it's the former and forgive you it's if the latter. I did once on this site long ago, and but for one exception no one actually refuted my main points. They did curse me to high hell though. Regardless, my best bet is to direct you to the websites I already mentioned. Read them thoroughly. Like really, really thoroughly. You are intelligent, and can evaluate the facts for yourself. It's this knee-jerk reaction that really baffles me. And I was blocks away (for what that's worth).

And contrary to what some continue to imply, it's not about the "truthers" making up lies. It's rather a matter of pointing out the numerous holes in the official story as well as the many improbably-linked events that we'd have to believe were all mere coincidences.
2.4.2008 6:01pm
SeaLawyer:

And contrary to what some continue to imply, it's not about the "truthers" making up lies. It's rather a matter of pointing out the numerous holes in the official story as well as the many improbably-linked events that we'd have to believe were all mere coincidences.


You really need to check out those sites. Every single one of the lies they post are easily refuted.

Please post one truther argument that hasn't not been completely discredited.
2.4.2008 6:17pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
SeaLawyer:

Of course their lies are refuted, but Adeez is unintentionally right: the more sophisticated Truthers don't post affirmative statements that can be refuted. They "point out" "holes." The clever part about this is that precisely because it wasn't pre-scripted, there will always be "holes." The "holes" they point out don't actually prove anything, which is why they never attempt to answer them. They want people to think that the mere fact that they ask questions shows something significant.

Things like, "Why did Bush continue reading the Pet Goat book?"

Even 10 seconds thought would make it clear that this question doesn't prove the Truthers' point at all; his behavior is far more consistent with someone who didn't know what was going on than with someone who did. But hey, it's a "hole" in the "story."
2.4.2008 7:58pm
pete (mail) (www):
Still waiting for one rational, concrete piece of evidence Adeez. Burden of proof on you.

David, my favorite question is that if BushCo is so incredibly competent that it can pull off the biggest conspiracy in history with 9/11 with no one coming forward in six years, including people who had friends and family killed that day, why couldn't it have planted some WMD in Iraq? It had years to plant the WMD and doing so would have been much easier in chaotic and vast Iraq than it would be to blow up the largest office complex in the country with only about 8 months to plan it out and thousands of potential witnesses.

One of my favorite Southpark episodes is where they take on the truthers. The truther Bush shoots is even wearing a 911truth.org t-shirt. Its conclusion is that it was in fact Bush who started the consipiracy theories about 9/11 to make people think he was more powerful than he really is.
2.4.2008 9:35pm
Adeez (mail):
God bless you all, really. And to prevent me from going on ad infinitum, I'll just respond to this "with no one coming forward in six years" business:

S-I-B-E-L E-D-M-O-N-D-S

I await a reasoned response to her charges. Thanks.
2.5.2008 12:48pm