Political Ignorance in Britain

Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute has an interesting post analyzing recent survey data on widespread political ignorance in Britain [HT: Nigel Ashford]:

The public is ignorant about politics and lacks even the basic facts that it would need to make sound judgments about political issues. A new poll by Ipsos-MORI shows just how deep this ignorance is. Among other things, the poll found that:

* 29% of people think we spend more on JSA[ed. note: the JSA is Britain’s unemployment benefit program] than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn)
* 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn)
* the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.
* people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+. In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.

These are not just little mistakes, they’re absolute howlers.

This ignorance is perfectly rational and understandable. The problem is that these are the people who decide who runs the country. How can you choose the best set of welfare policies – ‘the best’ being what you would choose if you had all the information available – when you know absolutely nothing about welfare? How can you choose which of the two main parties is offering the best immigration policy if you haven’t got a clue about immigration?

These examples of British political ignorance are very similar to the American data discussed in my new book Democracy and Political Ignorance. Given the reality that political ignorance is rational behavior for most voters, it is not surprising that political knowledge levels in both countries are generally low. What is more interesting is that the public in both countries is ignorant about the same types of issues in the same way. Like the British, Americans greatly overestimate the percentage of the government budget spent on foreign aid, greatly underestimate the amount spent on entitlement programs, and exaggerate the percentage of immigrants in the population.

As Bowman suggests, such extreme ignorance about major issues on the public agenda increases the likelihood that the public will make poor decisions at the ballot box. For example, if public opinion does not realize that entitlements constitute the lion’s share of federal spending, they probably will not understand that we cannot balance the budget without reducing entitlement spending. A public that vastly exaggerates the number of immigrants is likely to make poor choices in that field (e.g. – they are more likely to believe that Americans or Britons are getting “swamped” by immigrants or that the latter impose a massive fiscal burden).

Some argue that this kind of ignorance doesn’t matter much, so long as the voters still make reasonable choices between the options put before them by the major political parties. But as I discuss at greater length in my book, those options are themselves in large part a result of voter ignorance. Parties and politicians catering to an ignorant electorate are likely to put forward different (and usually worse) platforms than if they were facing more knowledgeable voters. If they want to win, politicians have to learn to manipulate political ignorance to their benefit. In the 2012 election for example, both parties – including the supposedly pro-free market GOP – pretended that the fiscal crisis could be addressed without cutting entitlements significantly, even as both accused the other of planning such cuts.

UPDATE: I have fixed an annoying omission in the last sentence of this post.