My Response to Jeffrey Friedman’s Critique of Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has now posted my response to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman’s insightful criticism of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

Here is an excerpt:

In his critique of my book, Jeffrey Friedman continues his longstanding efforts to show that most political ignorance is inadvertent rather than rational. In his view, voters are ignorant because they believe our society “is a mighty simple place” and “think they have information adequate to [the] task.” They simply don’t realize there is lots of other information out there that could help them make better decisions.

Friedman is a top-notch political theorist who has made valuable contributions to the literature on political knowledge… But on this point, I think he is barking up the wrong tree… Moreover, the mistake is of more than theoretical importance. Inadvertent ignorance has very different implications for political theory than rational ignorance….

Inadvertent error might explain why voters ignore highly abstruse (though potentially relevant) bodies of knowledge. But it cannot account for widespread ignorance of very basic facts about politics and public policy. For example…., two-thirds of the public in 2010 did not know that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year, even though most said that the economy was the single most important issue in the election. Similarly, most had little if any understanding of the Obama health care plan, another major issue. If you think the economy or the president’s health care plan is the biggest issue on the public agenda, it isn’t rocket science to figure out that these basic facts are highly relevant. Yet the majority of the public is often ignorant of such basics….

The inadvertence theory also cannot explain why political knowledge levels have remained largely stagnant for decades, despite massive increases in education and in the availability of information through the media and modern technology, such as the Internet. These developments have made it much harder for voters to remain unaware of the reality that there are vast bodies of knowledge out there that are likely to be helpful in making political decisions….

Friedman’s theory implies that the average voter would not bother to acquire significantly more information about politics if he suddenly learned that he would be part of a small committee tasked with picking the next president of the United States. I think the vast majority of people would take the decision a lot more seriously if that were the case, and would spend a lot more time learning and evaluating political information.