The Paranoid Style of Political Ignorance:

Jesse Walker has an interesting column tracing the longstanding prevalence of paranoid conspiracy-mongering in American politics, which dates all the way back to the Revolution and before. What Richard Hofstader famously called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" has always been common on both the right and the left. Widely believed claims that the US government itself planned the 9/11 attacks Obama is a secret terrorist-sympathizer, that the US government developed the AIDS virus for the purpose of killing blacks, or that the Iraq War was cooked up for the secret purpose of enriching Halliburton and Dick Cheney are among the latest examples (for links to polls on some of these, see here).

An interesting question is why paranoid conspiracy-mongering has persisted despite massive increases in education levels and a great reduction in cost of acquiring accurate political information in the age of the internet and 24 hour cable news. A related question is why so few people are similarly paranoid in their personal lives. Many more people believe that a government conspiracy caused the 9/11 attacks than believe that their coworkers or acquiantances are out to get them.

In my view, the answer to these questions is widespread political ignorance and irrationality. As I explained more fully in my February post on belief in political conspiracy theory:

[I]t is perfectly rational for most people to know very little about politics and public policy - and indeed most people are quite ignorant about even basic aspects of these subjects. Because the chance of your vote influencing the outcome of an election is infinitesmally small, there is little payoff to becoming informed about politics if your only reason for doing so is to be a better voter. By contrast, there are very strong incentives to be well-informed about issues in our personal and professional lives, where our choices are likely to be individually decisive. The person who (falsely) believes that a dark conspiracy is out to get him will impose tremendous costs on himself if he bases his decisions on that assumption; he's likely to end up a paranoid recluse....

...[T]he rationality of political ignorance implies that even people who do have considerable knowledge are likely to be more susceptible to conspiracy theories about political events than in their personal lives. As I explain in this paper . . ., the rationality of political ignorance not only reduces people's incentives to acquire political information, it also undercuts incentives to rationally evaluate the information they do learn. As a result, we are more likely to be highly biased in the way we evaluate political information than information about most other subjects . . . Unlike in our nonpolitical lives, most people have little incentive to critically evaluate their political beliefs in order to weed out biases and and ensure their truth.

Rational political ignorance also helps explain why conspiracy-mongering hasn't declined in an age of increasing education levels and easily available information. Quite simply, even a well-educated rationally ignorant voter has little or no incentive to acquire accurate information or to rationally evaluate the information he does learn. As a result, much of his information-gathering activity will be directed to learning "facts" that are interesting rather than informative and that tend to confirm his preexisting views rather than challenge them. A great deal of social science research shows that people mostly read political media that reflects the views they already hold and show little interest in considering opposing perspectives. Once they accept a conspiracy theory, they are unlikely to seek out information that might refute it.

Is there a solution to the problem? Perhaps not; certainly not an easy one. But if we really want to reduce the impact of paranoid conspiracy-mongering on our society, we should consider reducing the size and scope of government. That way, fewer of our decisions will be made by electoral processes in which ignorance-driven paranoia plays a major role.