Saturday, May 4, 2013

Democracy and Political Ignorance

Political junkies are well aware of the ignorance of the common voter when it comes to politicians and their policies.  The majority of the electorate dons their party’s jersey and pulls the lever every other November without understanding the consequences of their vote.  Carolina Journal Radio discusses this problem with a professor from George Mason University.

RALEIGH — If you’ve ever questioned the quality of our politicians and their policies, you might want to consult the work of Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University. During a recent speech at Campbell University, Somin offered highlights from his forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance. Somin discussed the book with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: What’s the basic message in Democracy and Political Ignorance?

Somin: The basic message is that the level of political knowledge in the electorate overall is very low and that this is not simply a consequence of people being stupid or the information not being available. It’s a consequence of perfectly rational and understandable behavior that even smart people engage in. And, ultimately, the way to best reduce the magnitude of this problem is to reduce the role of government in society and also to decentralize it more than it is today.

Kokai: Why are we so ignorant about politics?

Somin: Obviously, all of us are ignorant necessarily about the vast majority of the knowledge that exists in the world. We have to be. Our brains are limited, and our time is limited. And with politics, as with everything else, we are more likely to learn information if there is actually some benefit or some advantage to learning it. And if your only reason to become informed about politics is to be a better voter — to decide whether Romney or Obama, for example, will be the best president of the United States — that turns out to be very little incentive because the chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election is infinitesimally small, maybe one in 60 million in a presidential election.

So if you’re not interested in politics for its own sake, if you don’t find political information to be a lot of fun, then you’re probably going to acquire only a very small amount of political knowledge because you know, at least intuitively, that it won’t make much difference, just as for the very same reason you’re not going to learn much about theoretical physics because you know it’s not fun to learn that information and it’s not going to be useful to you in your life. There are no decisions that you are going to make, probably, in your life which will turn on your knowledge of physics, at least no decisions that actually will make a difference to you and your family and the like.

Kokai: If most of us are ignorant about politics, how does that impact elections?

Somin: I think it impacts it in a couple of different ways. One is as between the candidates that actually exist, often voters decide based on ignorance. A good example is they often credit or blame incumbents for things they didn’t cause. So, for instance, when there is a drought, for example, incumbents are likely to be voted out even though obviously they didn’t cause the drought. On the other hand, when the local sports team does well, that increases the mayor’s or the governor’s chance of being re-elected even though in most cases they didn’t cause that, either. Also, incumbents are repeatedly rewarded or punished for trends in the world economy, which they didn’t cause.

But the deeper and more important effect is not just about what decision we make between the candidates who are put before us, but on what choices we have in the first place. Obviously the parties are not stupid. They’re trying to put candidates before us and platforms before us that have the best possible chance of winning. And the platforms that have a better chance of winning with an ignorant electorate often are very different and of worse quality in various ways than the ones that might be more successful if the electorate were more knowledgeable.

So the problem is not just between choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee or between Democrats and Republicans. The problem is that how ignorant we are affects what choices are put before us to begin with.

Kokai: Some people will hear what you say and respond, “Well, let’s make people more knowledgeable about politics.”

Somin: Obviously, that’s the solution that many people have advocated. There are a couple of problems with it. One is simply, empirically, we’ve tried this, and it hasn’t worked very well. For instance, education levels have risen enormously for the last 50 or 60 years, the percentage of people who go to college or get high school diplomas and so on is much higher than it was before. It’s even the case that IQ levels have risen enormously. But political knowledge levels have remained roughly the same. So it seems that just making people more educated doesn’t necessarily make them more knowledgeable about politics.

In addition, given the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government, it’s difficult or impossible to get any large fraction of the population to be informed about more than a small percentage of this information. In the United States today, government spending at all levels accounts for nearly 40 percent of our gross domestic product, and that doesn’t account for all sorts of other government activities that are not on the budget. So even if voters knew more than they do today, significantly more, they would still only be knowledgeable about a small fraction of what government does.

Finally, of course, political ignorance also applies to education policy. Given that the electorate is often ignorant about what’s going on in education policy, as in other areas of policy, the government actually doesn’t have much incentive to run education policy in such a way as to increase political knowledge. If anything, they often have an incentive to the opposite: to use education policy to indoctrinate people in whatever beliefs are preferred by political incumbents or by influential interest groups. And you see this kind of thing playing itself out in education policy both in the U.S. and many other counties as well.

Kokai: You contrast the process we use when we buy a television set with the process we use to choose a president.

Somin: Buying a TV or buying a car versus buying a presidential candidate, if you will. When we buy the TV or the car, we do two things differently from when we vote for president. One is we tend to acquire more information. We spend much more time on those decisions, most of us, than on voting decisions. Secondly, we tend to be less biased in the way we evaluate what we do know.

I mentioned earlier that some people acquire political information for the purpose not of becoming better voters, but just because they find it to be fun. They’re political fans just in the way that many people are sports fans and acquire information about sports teams not because they want to influence the outcome of games or they think that they can influence the outcome. It’s because it’s fun to cheer for your team.

The problem is when you’re acquiring knowledge to cheer for your team or cheer against the bad guy, so to speak, you’re not going to be very objective in the way you evaluate the information. You’re not going to seek out opposing points of view. You’re going to be highly biased. And the data show that is, in fact, the way most of us process political information, particularly those of us who are most interested in politics and therefore act most like fans in our behavior. When, on the other hand, we make decisions where we know what we do will actually make a difference, the outcome, we certainly don’t completely eliminate all our biases, but we work harder against them.

So notice just everyday social norms. People hate it when their political views are criticized. If you explain to me why I am wrong about politics, I’m going to be resentful and annoyed. That’s why there is a norm against arguing about politics in polite company. On the other hand, if you point out to me where I could get a better deal on a new car or TV, I’ll be very grateful. Right? So our attitudes toward these things reflect a difference between a decision where we know what we do has little effect on the outcome, so we don’t try very hard to be unbiased, versus one where we know our decision does make a difference, so we welcome new points of view, at least more so than we would otherwise.

Kokai: And you would take account of voter ignorance by having a smaller government. How so?

Somin: I don’t sketch out a detailed trajectory, but I do give some evidence that it’s at least possible to achieve this. Just in the last 20 or 30 years several advanced democracies have successfully greatly reduced the role of government in their societies. Our neighbor Canada is a good example. It used to be Canada was a much less free-market nation than the United States, and now it’s more of one actually than we are. That’s partly because our government has grown but partly because they shrank theirs. Other good examples include New Zealand, Ireland, and there are several other cases of significant shrinkage in the size, scope, and complexity of government.

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