Political Ignorance and Belief in Conspiracy Theory:
Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule have posted an excellent new paper on belief in conspiracy theory. As they point out, belief in highly dubious conspiracy theories about key political events is widespread. For example, they cite survey data showing that some one third of Americans believe that federal government officials either carried out the 9/11 attacks themselves or deliberately allowed them to happen. Large numbers of people also believe that John F. Kennedy's assassination was the result of a wideranging conspiracy in the government, that the AIDS virus was secretly produced in a government laboratory for the purpose of infecting blacks, and that the government is covering up evidence of alien visitation of Earth.
Why are such irrational beliefs so widespread in an open society where information refuting them is easily accessible? Sunstein and Vermeule present some possible answers. But they fail to consider a crucial question: Why is belief in bogus political conspiracies so much more widespread than comparably irrational beliefs about conspiracies in our daily lives? Far more people believe that the CIA killed Kennedy or engineered the 9/11 attacks than believe that a dark conspiracy is out to get them personally or that their associates and co-workers are plotting against them. Millions of people who embrace absurd conspiracy theories about political events are generally rational in their everyday lives.
In my view, the disjunction has to do with the rationality of political ignorance. As I describe in more detail in several of my works (e.g. - here and here), it 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 like Bobby Fischer (who, of course, embraced political conspiracy theories as well).
In the political realm, on the other hand, widespread rational ignorance helps to spread conspiracy theory in two ways. First, the more ignorant you are about politics and economics, the more plausible simple conspiracy theory explanations of events are likely to seem. If you don't understand basic economics, you are more likely to believe that rising oil prices are caused by a conspiracy among oil companies or that the subprime crisis was caused by a conspiracy among banks. If you don't understand the basic workings of our political system, you are more likely to swallow the idea that the federal government could carry out something like the 9/11 attack and then (falsely) blame it on Osama Bin Laden without the truth being quickly exposed through leaks and hostile media coverage.
Second, the 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 (see also Bryan Caplan's excellent book), 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. Many people embrace political conspiracy theories because they are more entertaining and emotionally satisfying than alternative, more prosaic explanations of events. 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.
That is not to say that people are uniformly rational in their nonpolitical decisions. Far from it. But they are likely to be a great deal less irrational than they are about politics.
Why Concern About Political Ignorance isn't Paternalistic:
Some VC commenters and other critics suggest that my concern about political ignorance is a form of paternalism. After all, shouldn't the voters have the right to decide for themselves how much information they need? If they vote on the basis of ignorance, what right have others to complain? And what reason is there to reorganize political institutions so as to reduce the impact of political ignorance? After all, isn't it just a matter of individuals exercising their right to choose?
I think John Stuart Mill gave the best answer to this argument in Chapter 10 of his classic work Considerations on Representative Government:
The spirit of vote by ballot- the interpretation likely to be put on it in the mind of an elector- is that the suffrage is given to him for himself; for his particular
use and benefit, and not as a trust for the public. . . This false and pernicious impression may well be made on the generality, since it has been made on most of
those who of late years have been conspicuous advocates of the ballot....
Mr. [John] Bright [a prominent 19th century British Liberal political leader] and his school of democrats think themselves greatly concerned in maintaining that the franchise is what they term a right, not a trust. Now this one idea, taking root in the general mind, does a moral mischief outweighing all the good that the ballot could do, at the highest possible estimate of it. In whatever way we define or understand the idea of a right, no person can have a right (except in the purely legal sense) to power over others: every such power, which he is allowed to possess, is morally, in the fullest force of the term, a trust. But the exercise of any political function, either as an elector or as a representative, is power over others.
Mill was a staunch opponent of paternalism; after all, he was also the author of On Liberty. But he was nonetheless extremely concerned about the potential harm caused by widespread political ignorance in a democracy. He recognized that voting is not just an individual right, but the exercise of "power over others." Government officials elected by the ignorant and acting on their policy preferences rule over all of us, not just the ignorant voters themselves. Elsewhere in Considerations, Mill argued that the impact of political ignorance should be offset by giving extra votes to the most highly educated portions of the population. We can disagree with his proposed solution to the problem of ignorance. But it's much harder to dispute his characterization of the problem itself.
There is also a second reason why it is not paternalistic to worry about political ignorance and advocate measures to reduce its impact. Widespread ignorance about politics is the result of a collective action problem. An individual voter has little incentive to learn about politics because there is only an infinitesmal chance that his well-informed vote will actually affect electoral outcomes. Political ignorance is therefore perfectly rational individual behavior, but leads to dangerous collective outcomes. It is a classic example of a public goods problem. Economists have long recognized that outside intervention may be needed to provide public goods. Such intervention is not necessarily paternalistic because it may actually be giving the people that which they want but lack the incentive to produce for themselves through uncoordinated individual action. In the same way, it isn't necessarily paternalistic to advocate the restriction of air pollution. Individual citizens and firms may produce more air pollution than any of them actually want because they know that there is little to be gained from uncoordinated individual restraint. If I as an individual avoid driving a gas-guzzling car, the impact on the overall level of air pollution will be utterly insignificant. So I have no incentive to take it into account in making my driving decisions even if I care greatly about reducing air pollution. Widespread public ignorance is, similarly, a type of pollution that infects the political system rather than our physical environment. Unfortunately, it's much harder to prevent.
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.
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.
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.
Voting for All the Wrong Reasons - Why We often Choose Candidates Based on Issues they Have No Control Over:
In a recent interview (linked by Todd), Fred Thompson astutely pointed out that people often vote for presidential candidates on the basis of issues that the president has no control over. This is absolutely correct. For example, short term economic conditions often have a decisive impact on the outcome of presidential elections even though presidents have little or no ability to prevent recessions. No modern incumbent president has ever won reelection in a recession year, and no modern incumbent has ever been denied reelection in a time of strong economic growth. Yet short term growth rates are almost certainly caused by factors that presidents have little or no control over.
The problem is not confined to presidential elections. Candidates for other offices also often win or lose elections on the basis of issues that they can't control. For example, a recent study finds that farm state voters routinely punish the incumbent party whenever agriculture is hurt by bad weather - even though state officials obviously can't control the weather.
Why does this happen? After my last few posts, it probably comes as no surprise that widespread political ignorance is a big part of the answer. Because each individual vote makes so little difference to the outcome of an election, voters have very little incentive to acquire even basic information about politics and public policy. Not surprisingly, extensive evidence shows that most citizens have very low political knowledge levels.
As a result, they often rely on crude "information shortcuts" to choose who to vote for. One of the most common shortcuts is what scholars call "retrospective voting" - punishing incumbents when things seem to be going badly. Retrospective voting is not a stupid or irrational strategy. Unfortunately, however, it breaks down when voters punish incumbents for events that are beyond their control - or reward them for positive events that they didn't cause. And highly ignorant voters often find it difficult to tell the difference between those events incumbents have the power to influence and those they don't. They also often can't tell the difference between a bad outcome that could have been mitigated with improved policies and one that would have been even worse if the incumbents hadn't adopted the best policies they could. To take the recession example, they often can't tell the difference between the following three scenarios:
1. There is a recession, but the president can't affect it in any way, positive or negative.
2. There is a recession, but it would have been even worse if not for the incumbent president's good policies.
3. There is a recession, and the president helped cause it or made it worse than it otherwise might have been by adopting suboptimal policies.
Whenever some visible bad event happens, voters tend to assume it is a case of 3, discounting the possibility that it's really a case of 1 or 2.
For more discussion of retrospective voting and its flaws, see this paper I wrote for the Cato Institute.