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Exploiting Political Ignorance in Europe:

In 2005, European political elites were disappointed by the rejection of the proposed European Constitution in referenda in France and the Netherlands. Today, European leaders are working on a way to reverse that result. How? By exploiting political ignorance. As the EU Observer explains (hat tip: Daniel J. Mitchell):

The new EU reform treaty text was deliberately made unreadable for citizens to avoid calls for referendum, one of the central figures in the treaty drafting process has said. Speaking at a meeting of the Centre for European Reform in London on Thursday (12 July) former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato said: "They [EU leaders] decided that the document should be unreadable. If it is unreadable, it is not constitutional, that was the sort of perception". …Mr Amato, who is now minister of the interior in Italy, has been a central figure in all stages of the year-long process of writing a new constitution for Europe....

Following two years of 'reflection' [after the Constitution's defeat in 2005], Mr Amato headed the 16-strong group of politicians which prepared a simplified version of the document. Unofficially known as the "Amato Group" the group stripped the rejected constitution of its constitutional elements - including the article on the EU's symbols. But the main elements of the original constitution were kept in.

The article points out that the Amato Group hoped that an unreadable document labeled as a "treaty" rather than a Constitution would not be perceived as something "new" by voters, and therefore would not be required to go through referenda that might lead to its rejection (as happened in 2005). In other words, the Group's strategy for getting the Constitution accepted by voters is to 1) change some of the verbiage so that it will no longer look like a Constitution (while keeping the substantive provisions the same), and 2) make the document as "unreadable" as possible, thus ensuring that voters won't understand what it will actually do if enacted.

Obviously, such a strategy is unlikely to work with a well-informed electorate. Even if voters in such a hypothetical electorate didn't understand the fine points of proposed legal changes, they would at least know enough not to be fooled by cosmetic changes in nomenclature, and to be suspicious of documents deliberately drafted so as to be "unreadable." In reality, however, most voters fall far short of this ideal. As I have explained in great detail elsewhere(see e.g. here and here), they have strong incentives to be rationally ignorant about politics and to do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know.

The EU Observer quotes one of the Amato Group's critics who denounced them for showing "a total contempt for voters." The Group may well be guilty of that. But, given the reality of rational political ignorance, its ploy might work, and its "contempt" may turn out to be justified.

UPDATE: Most of my work on ignorance is based on US data. However, the more limited European data we have don't paint a picture much different from the widespread political ignorance that exists in this country. For example, this paper by British political scientists shows that the overwhelming majority of British voters do not know the relative positions of the country's major political parties on key issues. This article finds similar patterns of apathy and political ignorance among European and American youth. This 1999 article found that some 2/3 of Western Europeans have little or no knowledge of basic foreign policy issues. The Amato Group is therefore on safe ground in counting on European political ignorance to help promote their agenda.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:
  2. Exploiting Political Ignorance in Europe:
18 Comments
Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:

Whenever I write about the dangers of political ignorance, some people misinterpret me as claiming that ordinary voters are "stupid;" occasionally, I am even accused of having "contempt" for them.

This is an understandable reaction. However, it ignores the important distinction between ignorance and stupidity. My argument is not that voters know too little about politics because they have low intelligence and thereby behave irrationally. To the contrary, my claim is that investing little or no time in learning about politics is perfectly rational and intelligent behavior for most individual voters. I have made this claim (which in its basic form is not my original idea) in all my academic writings on political ignorance, most recently here. Because an individual vote has almost no chance of determining the outcome of an election, a person whose only reason to acquire political information is to make sure that the "best" candidate wins is quite rational to invest very little time in learning such things.

We are all inevitably ignorant about a vast range of matters because they don't interest us much, and because we have little or no incentive to learn about them. For most people, politics falls into that category. The same goes for many other bodies of knowledge, such as theoretical physics or - for me - many parts of pop culture. Unfortunately, political ignorance is a classic example of a situation where rational and intelligent behavior by individuals leads to poor collective outcomes. It is a collective action problem similar in structure to that which causes air pollution or overuse of common pool resources. A person who drives a gas-guzzling car that contributes to air pollution is not necessarily stupid or irrational; he simply recognizes that there is very little chance that getting rid of his one vehicle will actually have a real impact on the broader problem. The same goes for those who contribute to what me can call "political pollution" with their rational ignorance about politics.

Various arguments can be made against my thesis, and I have tried to address them in my writings. However, it is not correct to assert that my claims are based on the assumption that ordinary voters are "stupid" or on "contempt" for them. To the contrary, the assumption is that they are rational and that their ignorance is primarily the result of perfectly reasonable decisions about how best to allocate their time and effort.

Finally, it is worth noting that I do in fact have great confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make good decisions in settings where they have strong incentives to acquire information and evaluate it rationally. That is a major reason why I have defended giving broad rein to consumers acting in free markets and civil society, opposed "libertarian paternalism," and advocated "foot voting."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:
  2. Exploiting Political Ignorance in Europe:
31 Comments