Democracy and Political Ignorance

Democracy is supposed to be rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But in order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge. If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance. Unfortunately, public knowledge about politics is disturbingly low. In addition, the public also often does a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. This state of affairs has persisted despite rising education levels, increased availability of information thanks to modern technology, and even rising IQ scores. It is mostly the result of rational behavior, not stupidity. Such widespread and persistent political ignorance and irrationality strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing the power of government.

The Extent of Ignorance

Political ignorance in America is deep and widespread. The current government shutdown fight provides some good examples. Although Obamacare is at the center of that fight and much other recent political controversy, 44% percent of the public do not even realize it is still the law. Some 80 percent, according to a recent Kaiser survey, say they have heard “nothing at all” or “only a little” about the controversial insurance exchanges that are a major part of the law. The shutdown controversy is also just the latest manifestation of a longstanding political struggle over federal spending. But most of the public has very little idea of how federal spending is actually distributed. They greatly underestimate the percentage that goes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, and vastly overestimate that spent on foreign aid. Public ignorance is not limited to information about specific policies. It also extends to the basic structure of government and how it operates. A 2006 survey found that only 42 percent can even name the three branches of the federal government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. There is also much ignorance and confusion about such matters as which government officials are responsible for which issues. I give many more examples of public ignorance in my book.1

Widespread ignorance is not a new phenomenon. Political knowledge has been at roughly the same low level for decades. But it is striking that knowledge levels have risen very little, if at all, despite rising educational attainment and the increased availability of information through the internet, cable news, and other modern technologies.

Rational Ignorance

Some people react to data like the above by thinking that the voters must be stupid. Butpolitical ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people. If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example).2 For most of us, it is rational to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other activities that are more interesting or more likely to be useful. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair puts it, “[t]he single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most  of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh…. before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”3 Most people don’t precisely calculate the odds that their vote will make a difference. But they probably have an intuitive sense that the chances are very small, and act accordingly. 

In the book, I also consider why many rationally ignorant people often still bother to vote.4 The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.

The Rational Irrationality of Political Fans

There are people who learn political information for reasons other than becoming better voters. Just as sports fans love to follow their favorite teams even if they cannot influence the outcomes of games, so there are also “political fans” who enjoy following political issues and cheering for their favorite candidates, parties, or ideologies.

Unfortunately, much like sports fans, political fans tend to evaluate new information in a highly biased way. They overvalue anything that supports their preexisting views, and to undervalue or ignore new data that cuts against them, even to the extent of misinterpreting simple data that they could easily interpret correctly in other contexts. Moreover, those most interested in politics are also particularly prone to discuss it only with others who agree with their views, and to follow politics only through like-minded media.5

All of this makes little sense if the goal is truth-seeking. A truth-seeker should actively seek out defenders of views opposed to their own. Those are the people most likely to present you arguments and evidence of which you were previously unaware. But such bias makes perfect sense if the goal is not so much truth as enhancing the fan experience. Economist Bryan Caplan calls this approach to information “rational irrationality”: when your purpose is something other than truth-seeking, it is often rational to be highly biased in the way you evaluate new information and also in your selection of information sources.6Unlike Caplan, I contend that widespread political ignorance would be a menace even if voters were always rational in their evaluation of what they know.

The problems of political ignorance and irrationality are accentuated by the enormous size and scope of modern government. In the United States, government spending accounts for close to 40% of GDP, according OECD estimates.7 And that does not include numerous other government policies that function through regulation of the private sector. Even if voters followed political issues more closely than they do, and even if they were more rational in their evaluation of political information, they still could not effectively monitor more than a fraction of the activities of the modern state. 

Increasing Knowledge through Education

The most obvious way to overcome political ignorance is by increasing knowledge through education. Unfortunately, political knowledge levels have increased very little over the last fifty to sixty years, even as educational attainment has risen enormously. Rising IQ scores have also failed to increase political knowledge. This suggests that increasing political knowledge through education is a lot harder than it seems.

Perhaps the solution is a better public school curriculum that puts more emphasis on civic education. The difficulty is that governments have very little incentive to ensure that public schools really do adopt curricula that increase knowledge. If the voters effectively monitored education policy and rewarded elected officials for using public schools to increase political knowledge, things might be different. But if the voters were that knowledgeable, we probably wouldn’t have a political ignorance problem to begin with. 

Moreover, political leaders and influential interest groups often use public education to indoctrinate students in their own preferred ideology rather than increase knowledge.  In both Europe (where it was established in large part to inculcate nationalism) and the United States (where a major objective was indoctrinating Catholic immigrants in true “American” values), indoctrination was one of the major motives for the establishment of public education in the first place. 

Even if public schools did begin to do a better job of teaching political knowledge and minimized indoctrination, it is hard to see how students could learn enough to understand and monitor more than a small fraction of the many complex activities of modern government. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to use education to increase knowledge. Incremental improvements are probably possible. But if history is any guide, they are unlikely to be very large.

Shortcomings of Information Shortcuts

Some scholars argue that voters don’t need to know much about politics and government because they can rely on “information shortcuts” to make good decisions. Information shortcuts are small bits of information that we can use as proxies for larger bodies of knowledge of which we may be ignorant.

In Chapter 4 of my book, I discuss many different types of shortcuts and explain why they are usually not as effective as advocates suggest. Shortcuts can indeed be useful, and political ignorance would be an even more serious problem without them. But they also have serious limitations, and sometimes they make the problem of ignorance worse rather than better. The major flaws are that shortcuts often require preexisting knowledge to use effectively, and many people choose information shortcuts for reasons unrelated to truth-seeking.

Perhaps the most popular shortcut is “retrospective voting”: the idea that voters don’t need to follow the details of policy, but only need to know whether things are going well or badly. If things are looking up, they can reward the incumbents at election time. If not, they can vote the bums out, and the new set of bums will have a strong incentive to adopt better policies, lest they be voted out in turn.

Unfortunately, effective retrospective voting requires more knowledge than we might think. In order to reward or punish incumbents for their performance, it’s important to know what events they actually caused, and which ones were beyond their control. Studies show that voters routinely reward and punish political leaders for events they have little control over, particularly short-term economic trends. Incumbents also get rewarded or blamed for such things as droughts, shark attacks, and victories by local sports teams.

The second common shortcoming of shortcuts is that we often choose them for reasons other than getting at the truth. For example, some argue that “opinion leaders” are useful shortcuts. Instead of learning about government policy themselves, voters can follow the directions of opinion leaders who share similar values but know more  than the voters themselves do. Unfortunately, if we look at the most popular opinion leaders, most of them are not people notable for their impressive knowledge of public policy issues. They are people like Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart, whose main asset is their skill at entertaining their audience and validating its preexisting biases. Because there is so little incentive to actually seek the truth about political issues, it is often rational for “political fans” to choose their opinion leaders largely based on how entertaining they are, and whether they make us feel good about the views we already hold. When we choose information shortcuts in this way, it increases the likelihood that they will mislead rather than inform.

In the book, I also criticize arguments that voter errors caused by ignorance can cancel each other out through a “miracle of aggregation,” thereby creating collective wisdom out of individual ignorance. Such a happy outcome is theoretically possible, but highly unlikely in the real world.8

Foot Voting vs. Ballot Box Voting

There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. But we can significantly mitigate it by making more of our decisions by “voting with our feet” and fewer at the ballot box. Two types of foot voting have important informational advantages over ballot box voting.  The first is when we vote with our feet in the private sector, by choosing which products to buy or which civil society organizations to join. The other is choosing what state or local government to live under in a federal system - a decision often influenced by the quality of those jurisdictions’ public policy.

If you are like most people, you probably spent more time and effort acquiring information the last time you decided which car or TV to buy than the last time you decided who to support for president. Is that because the presidency is less important than your TV, or deals with less complicated issues? More likely, it’s because when people choose a TV, they intuitively realize that the decision is likely to make a difference, whereas ballot box decisions are highly likely not to.

The key difference between foot voting and ballot box voting is that foot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. Unlike political fans, foot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get.

That doesn’t mean that foot voters are always well-informed or perfectly unbiased. Far from it. But, on average, they do a much better job than ballot box voters do. In the book, I discuss some dramatic cases of foot voters acquiring and effectively using information even under highly adverse conditions.9 For example, millions of poorly educated and sometimes illiterate African-Americans in the early 20th century Jim Crow South determined that conditions were relatively less oppressive in the North (and also in some parts of the South compared to others) and migrated accordingly. This, despite the fact that southern state governments deliberately tried to keep them ignorant by impeding the flow of information about opportunities in the North. Foot voting certainly did not solve all the problems of oppressed African-Americans in the Jim Crow era. Nothing could in a society as racist as early 20th century America. But it did significantly improve their situation. And it is an important example of how foot voters can effectively acquire and make use of information even under highly unfavorable conditions.

The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is usually much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government, and much easier to do it against a state than against the federal government.

It is also usually easier to foot vote in the private sector than the public. A given region is likely to have far more private planned communities and other private sector organizations than local governments. Choosing among the former usually requires far less in the way of moving costs than choosing among the latter.

Reducing the size of government could also alleviate the problem of ignorance by making it easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor its activities. A smaller, less complicated government is easier to keep track of.

Foot voting has downsides as well as upsides. In the book, I cover several standard objections, such as the problem of moving costs, the danger of  “races to the bottom,” and the likelihood that political decentralization might harm unpopular racial and ethnic minorities.10 Each of these concerns is sometimes a genuine problem. But I suggest that each is a less severe challenge than commonly believed. For example, moving costs can be reduced by decentralizing to lower levels of government or to the private sector, and such costs are in any case declining thanks to modern technology.

Conclusion

Political ignorance is far from the only factor that must be considered in deciding the appropriate size, scope, and centralization of government. For example, some large-scale issues, such as global warming, are simply too big to be effectively addressed by lower-level governments or private organizations. Democracy and Political Ignorance is not a complete theory of the proper role of government in society. But it does suggest that the problem of political ignorance should lead us to limit and decentralize government more than we would otherwise.

Notes

1 Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), ch. 1.

2 See Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin, “What is the Probability that Your Vote Will Make a Difference?” Economic Inquiry 50 (2012): 321-26.

3 Tony Blair, A Journey: My Political Life, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 70-71.

4 Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance, 66-72.

5 Ibid., 78-82.

6 Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

7 Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance, 163.

8 Ibid. 110-17. For an important recent defense of this kind of argument, see Hélène Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence and the Rule of the Many, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

9 Ibid., ch. 5.

10 Ibid, pp. 144-50.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • The Fox and the Hedgehog: How Do We Achieve Political Accountability Given What Voters (Don’t) Know? by Heather Gerken

    Heather Gerken finds much of interest in Ilya Somin’s work on political ignorance, a topic that has only gradually come into its own among law professors despite considerable social scientific research demonstrating political ignorance among real-world voters. She characterizes Somin’s view of political ignorance as “fox-like,” in the sense used by Isaiah Berlin: A fox knows a little about a lot of different things. Like Berlin’s fox, Somin’s voters will be apt to move from one environment to another. But she wonders whether this is a proper description of American voters. She contrasts Somin’s thesis with the work of David Schleicher, who suggests that most voters rely on party affiliation as an information shortcut. Gerken argues that the debate between Somin and Schleicher raises fundamental questions about the future of our democracy.

  • Don’t Voters Get Things Right? by Sean Trende

    Sean Trende argues that while political elites may find voters startlingly ignorant, the system doesn’t really seem to be broken. It has often functioned quite well despite voters’ ignorance. He suggests that this is so for two reasons: First, much of what passes for expert knowledge is really nothing of the kind, so adding it to voters’ heads does not therefore constitute an improvement. Second, public opinion on many normative matters is ultimately more or less decent, and from it, relatively good policies flow.

  • Ignorance, Yes. Rational, No. by Jeffrey Friedman

    Jeffrey Friedman argues that rational ignorance theory is false. Voters vote because they mistakenly believe that their votes are likely to matter. They remain ignorant not because they think their votes are irrelevant, but because they mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place. In such a world, it would take very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in; in reality, political decisions are complex and difficult. Friedman argues that both genuinely ignorant voters and blinkered ideologues fit this model, and that it conforms better to the available data on voter motivations than does the theory of rational ignorance.

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