Archive | Public Opinion

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


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Video of the Huffington Post Live Discussion on Democracy and Constitutionalism in Egypt

A video of the Huffington Post Live panel discussion on constitutionalism, democracy, and the situation in Egypt is now available here. I was one of four participants. The others were Prof. Stanley Katz of Princeton, Zaid Al-Ali – an expert on constitutional design in the Arab world, and Daniel Landsberg-Rodriguez. I tried to emphasize two points that the other panelists didn’t fully consider: that a good constitution must be enforceable and that enforceability is often tougher than good drafting, and that the illiberal nature of majority public opinion in Egypt creates some painful tradeoffs between democracy and other liberal values. […]

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More on Egypt, Constitutionalism, and Democracy

At the Liberty and Law blog, Michael Rappaport has posted a thoughtful response to my recent post arguing that liberal democrats are sometimes justified in supporting restrictions on democracy in cases where the majority public opinion is highly illiberal. I cited survey data and other evidence suggesting that Egypt is probably such a case. Michael endorses my main point, but suggests various qualifications:

I agree with Ilya, but there is more going on here. Democracy is a vague concept. A single election can be thought of as democracy, but few thoughtful people would defend it as such. Democracy, even if it is not necessarily liberal democracy, still requires a system whereby the people’s will is regularly consulted and done in a fair process. Morsi instituted decrees that purported to be unreviewable by the courts. Such absolute power is not the way to have democracy….

But there is another aspect of both democracy and consensual government, and that is compromise. If a majority of the people or the legislature favors a policy, that does not necessarily mean it should be instituted, if a large minority strongly disapproves of it. This is a tricky issue, but consensual government involves compromises and it appears Morsi was having none of it.

Finally, there is the important issue of enacting a constitution. In my view, a constitution should be enacted through an inclusive, supermajoritarian process. It should reflect the views of a large percentage of the country. The U.S. Constitution did this, at least as to those who had the right to vote. Much of the problem in Egypt appears to involve this matter. A largely Islamist assembly was elected in a single election, which then appointed a largely Islamist constitutional assembly, which then sought to entrench its power.

I largely agree with Michael’s points […]

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Restricting Democracy in Order to Protect Other Liberal Values

Some argue that it would be hypocritical for the United States or other Western nations to support the recent military coup against radical Islamist Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. After all, we supposedly champion democracy, and Morsi was democratically elected. Whether the US should endorse the post-coup government, oppose it, or take a wait-and-see attitude is a tough question. But it isn’t inherently hypocritical for liberal democrats to – in some cases – support the overthrow of an elected government.

That’s because democracy is not the only important liberal value, and not always the most important one. At the very least, the liberal tradition, broadly defined, also values individual freedom, equality for women, toleration of religious and ethnic minorities, economic progress, and the prevention of mass murder, slavery, and genocide. Most of the time, democracy promotes these other liberal values better than the available alternative regimes. But not always. Democracy and liberal values conflict in cases where public opinion is highly illiberal and cases where the democratic process brings to power parties that intend to shut down future political competition. Both problems are relevant to the present situation in Egypt and at least some other nations.

I. Illiberal Majority Opinion.

Democracy is a political system where the government is chosen by the majority of voters. But what if that majority favors oppressive, illiberal policies? What if they want to persecute religious minorities, force women to be second-class citizens, establish systems of forced labor, and so on? In that scenario, democracy can easily end up promoting repression.

This is far from a purely theoretical problem. Majority Egyptian opinion is in fact highly illiberal, with 84 percent supporting the death penalty for any Muslim who converts to another religion, 54 percent favoring legally mandated sex segregation in the workplace, and 58 percent […]

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Updated Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

When the Egypt’s Mubarak dictatorship began to collapse two years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Reflections on the Potential Revolution in Egypt,” shamelessly copying Edmund Burke. I suggested that the rebellion could easily end up establishing a regime even worse than Mubarak’s was. Unfortunately, the new radical Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi did indeed end up surpassing its predecessor in repressiveness. After a series of protests by opposition movements that were met with additional repression, Morsy has apparently been overthrown in a military coup today.

It is hard to say whether the next government of Egypt will be better than Mubarak or Morsi. If it is dominated by the military, it could turn out to be an updated version of the Mubarak era. Some have been much more negative about Morsi’s overthrow than Mubarak’s, because the former was democratically elected. In my view, that is an overly simplistic position. Democracy is just one one of several attributes of a just government, and not necessarily the most important. As I discussed in this February post on the Egyptian protests, rule by military kleptocrats may be a lesser evil compared to rule by quasi-totalitarian radical Islamists who have no real intention of respecting the democratic process in the long run:

If Morsi continues to persecute his political opponents and establishes an Islamist dictatorship, his government might not be “up for re-election in a few years,” at least not a free election in which opposition parties are allowed to compete on equal terms. If Morsi is not overthrown now or at least forced to accept tight constraints on his authority, Egypt’s “democratic transition” could easily turn into a case of “one man, one vote, one time.”

Even if Morsi retains a relatively free democratic process, the illiberal nature of


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Political Ignorance and Partisan Bias Go Down When Survey Respondents Are Rewarded for Correct Answers

Many studies show that there is widespread political ignorance, with large percentages of the public ignorant of fairly basic facts. In addition, voters’ perception of the facts is often heavily influenced by partisan bias. For example, Republicans overestimate the rates of inflation and unemployment when there is a Democratic president, while Democrats have the opposite bias.

An impressive recent study by political scientists John Bullock, Alan Gerber, Seth Hill, and Gregory Huber finds that both ignorance and partisan bias are greatly reduced if survey respondents are given financial rewards for correct answers [HT: Alex Tabarrok]:

In the first experiment, some participants were paid for correct responses to factual questions. The payments reduced observed partisan gaps by about 55%. In the second experiment, we also paid some participants for “don’t know” responses. In this experiment, incentives for correct responses reduced partisan gaps by 60%, and incentives for “don’t know” did so by an additional 20%, yielding partisan gaps that were 80% smaller than those that we observed in the absence of incentives. Taken together, these results provide a lowerbound estimate on the proportion of partisan divergence that arises because of the combination of expressive partisan returns and self-aware ignorance of the truth. Extending our analysis, we found thatpaying people for correct responses sharply reduces the power of factual assessments to predict vote choice.

The authors and Alex Tabarrok suggest that this shows that most partisans don’t really believe the factually inaccurate answers they give in surveys without incentives. The former therefore argue that partisan voters are less biased and less ignorant than conventional surveys suggest. This strikes me as implausible. I doubt that most partisans secretly recognize that the facts are much more opposed to their position than they claim, but continue to strongly believe in it anyway, and refuse […]

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Judging People by their Unpopular Views

Last week, economist Bryan Caplan wrote an interesting post explaining why people’s virtue or lack thereof is often most evident in their unpopular views:

Consider a world where 80% of people are Conformists, 10% of people are Righteous, and 10% are Reprobates. The Conformists are epistemically and morally neutral, so they believe and support whatever is popular. The Righteous are epistemically and morally virtuous, so they believe and support whatever is true and right. The Reprobates are epistemically and morally vicious, so they believe and support the opposite of what the Righteous believe and support….

What happens? There are clearly two equilibria: one good, one bad. If the true&right is popular, then the Conformists and the Righteous have 90% of the vote, so the true&right prevails. If the true&right is unpopular, then the Conformists and Reprobates have 90% of the vote, so the false&wicked prevails.

Now suppose that in this world, you are trying to assess an individual’s virtue. In the good equilibrium, identifying the virtuous is hard. Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo is genuinely virtuous. The vast majority support the true&right out of sheer convenience. Identifying the vicious, however, is easy. In the good equilibrium, all supporters of the false&wicked are vicious.

The mirror image holds in the bad equilibrium. Identifying the virtuous is easy: Everyone who supports the true&right despite their unpopularity is virtuous. Identifying the vicious, in contrast, becomes hard…

On the plausible assumption that most real-world people are basically conformists, you can’t accurately assess virtue by studying people’s views in isolation. You have to look at their unpopular views. Believing true&right things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine virtue. Believing false&wrong things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine vice.

There is a lot of truth to Bryan’s […]

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Upcoming George Mason University Panel on the Tea Party and Voter Rationality

On Monday April 1, I will be speaking at a George Mason University School of Law panel on the Tea Party movement and voter rationality. Lots of data show that voters are often ignorant about politics and highly biased in their evaluation of the information they do know. The panel will focus on the extent to which Tea Party supporters are better than other voters on these dimensions, worse, or roughly the same.

Also participating in the event are co-blogger Todd Zywicki (who is a prominent academic expert on public choice theory), and Matt Kibbe of Freedomworks, one of the leading organizations associated with the Tea Party Movement). The panel will be held at George Mason Law School from noon to 1 PM in Room 222. It is sponsored by the GMU Federalist Society.

I have written about the Tea Party movement and political ignorance in this article, and here. My general take is that Tea Party supporters probably have higher political knowledge levels than the average voter because they have higher-than-average education and interest in politics (two strong predictors of political knowledge). However, as I discuss in my article linked above, they are far from free of the ignorance and political bias that are common across the political spectrum. For example, I cited surveys showing that “birtherism” is much more widespread among Tea Party supporters than among the public as a whole. This is part of a general pattern in which committed partisans are more likely to fall for myths that conform to their preexisting biases. […]

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Americans’ (Relative) Sympathy for Israel at a 22-Year High

Times of Israel:

Americans’ sympathy for Israel is at a 22-year high, according to Gallup figures released on Friday, just five days ahead of Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel as president. In figures gleaned from the polling organization’s early February World Affairs poll, 64 percent of Americans say their sympathies “in the Middle East situation” – Gallup’s term for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace talks – lie more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians. Just 12% favor the Palestinians.

People unfriendly to Israel used to say that Israel was only popular in the U.S. because pro-Israel forces had managed to stifle debate by preventing mainstream sources from publishing critical articles. That turns out not to be true now, if it ever was. From the New York Times op-ed page to a best-seller by Walt and Mearsheimer to Joe Klein’s columns to campus “Israel Apartheid Weeks” to dozens and dozens of blogs, it’s actually pretty hard for anyone at all interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict to avoid reading strong criticism of Israel, even if they tried. One would certainly be hard-pressed to argue that debate is being meaningfully “stifled.”

One thing that puzzles me is that if you read just about any online piece about Israel, whether from a mainstream newspaper or a blog, the comments sections are filled with anti-Israel invective. Even many pro-Israel blogs attract many anti-Israel commenters (see, e.g., this blog), and liberal pro-Israel blogs are in fact dominated by them. Given the statistics recounted above, I find this an odd situation. Is there any other issue where public opinion leans so far to one side, but on-line comments slant so heavily the other way? Are there really that many people who feel so strongly about the other side (and not any other burning issues […]

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Science, Political Ignorance, and Deference to “Authoritative” Experts

Economist David Friedman has an insightful post on the problems inherent in deferring to the views of “authoritative” scientific bodies:

A pattern I have observed in a variety of public controversies is the attempt to establish some sort of official scientific truth, as proclaimed by a suitable authority—a committee of the National Academy of Science, the Center for Disease Control, or the equivalent. It is, in my view, a mistake, one based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. Truth is not established by an authoritative committee but by a decentralized process which (sometimes) results in everyone or almost everyone in the field agreeing.

Part of the problem with that approach is that, the more often it is followed, the less well it will work….

The first time it might work, although even then there is the risk that the committee established to give judgement will end up dominated not by the most expert but by the most partisan. But the more times the process is repeated, the greater the incentive of people who want their views to get authoritative support to get themselves or their friends positions of influence within the organization, to keep those they disapprove of out of such positions, and so to divert it from its original purpose to becoming a rubber stamp for their views. The result is to subvert both the organization and the scientific enterprise, especially if support by official truth becomes an important determinant of research funding.

I. The Dangers of Deference to Biased Experts.

Friedman makes two important points here. Scientific truth cannot be established by the endorsement of an authoritative body such as the NAS or the CDC. And if people start to take the pronouncements of such expert bodies as gospel, there is an obvious potential for abuse. […]

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Public Opinion and the California Gay Marriage Case

In a recent post, co-blogger Orin Kerr cites a poll showing that 61% of Californians now support gay marriage, and considers the implications of this result for the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on the constitutionality of California’s ban on gay marriage. He predicts that:

If last year’s debate over the popularity of the Affordable Care Act provides any clues, each side will have its preferred lesson. For those who want the Supreme Court to strike down Prop 8, the poll shows that the Supreme Court can invalidate Prop 8 without causing a major backlash because the law has become very unpopular. For fans of judicial restraint, however, the poll shows that the Supreme Court doesn’t need to invalidate Prop 8 because California voters will almost certainly repeal it themselves.

These are not mutually exclusive claims, and both are probably true. Growing public support for gay marriage makes it likely that the Court could weather any backlash created by a decision striking down Proposition 8. On the other hand, it is also likely that a ballot initiative reversing Proposition 8 will pass in California sometime in the next few years if the Court chooses not to strike Prop 8 down.

I would add a few caveats to Orin’s analysis, however. First, any decision on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 is likely to have an impact that goes well beyond California. Thus, national public opinion is relevant, not just California opinion. A n December Gallup poll of national opinion shows 53% supporting gay marriage with 46% opposed. Recent Pew Research Center surveys show an average 48% in favor, with 43% opposed. This is a major change from earlier years, and support for gay marriage is rapidly increasing. At the same time, however, it is not nearly as high as the […]

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What to Do When Illiberal, Anti-Democratic Forces Take Power Through the Democratic Process

When Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship began to collapse two years ago, I expressed the fear that the ultimate outcome might be a new Egyptian government more oppressive than the old. The main reasons for my concern were that illiberal radical Islamists were far better positioned to seize power than liberal democrats, and that Egyptian public opinion was itself highly illiberal, which raised the possibility that radical Islamists could prevail even in a genuinely free election.

Since then, the first Egyptian presidential elections have been won by radical Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who proceeded to persecute journalists who “insulted” him, kill numerous protestors, and assume near-dictatorial “emergency” powers.

Fearing a descent into Islamist dictatorship, more liberal Egyptians have taken to the streets in protest. Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman, a leading academic expert on Middle Eastern law and politics, sympathizes with them, but argues that they should not undermine Morsi’s democratically elected government lest they bring on a reversion to military rule:

I hate to agree with an Egyptian general about anything, but Abdelfatah Al-Seesi, who’s also Egypt’s defense minister, had a point when he warned his countrymen on Facebook that continued violent protest in the streets might lead to collapse.

Ordinary Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with the government of President Mohamed Mursi, which has by turns overclaimed its authority and underdelivered in establishing order. Still, it’s one thing to engage in mass protest when your target is a dictatorship — then you are a democratic revolutionary. It’s quite another to use mass protests to try and bring down a democratically elected government that you don’t like. Then you’re running the risk of becoming an unwitting agent of counterrevolution….

If Egypt’s democrats want to avoid becoming another Pakistan, in which democracy is never more than a


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Charles Rangel’s Case for Conscription

If the Pentagon’s recent decision to open up combat positions to women leads conservative Dave Carter to worry that women will be drafted, liberal Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel embraces the idea and calls for the establishment of a draft that applies to both men and women:

Since January 2003, at the height of the debate on the possible unilateral strike against Iraq, I have advocated for a reinstatement of the military draft to ensure a more equitable representation of people making sacrifices in wars in which the United States is engaged….

Currently the burden of defending our nation is carried by less than 1% of the American population. The 2.2 million members of the armed forces in active duty, the National Guard and the Reserve have become a virtual military class that makes the ultimate sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country….

Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them. I sincerely believe that reinstating the draft would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. That is why I wrote the Universal National Service Act, known as the “draft” bill, which requires all men and women between ages 18 and 25 to give two years of service in any capacity that promotes our national defense.

Rangel’s equality argument for the draft is dubious. If we reinstate the draft, it would still be true that only a small percentage of Americans would ever actually serve in combat during wartime and take the risk of “making the ultimate sacrifice.” Even during World War II, only about 16 million Americans served in the armed forces out of a population of 132 million […]

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High School Students for Liberty

In her interesting new study of young libertarians, which I discussed in my last post, Liana Gamber Thompson notes “a significant deficit” in the libertarian movement – the lack of an organization for high school students interested in libertarian ideas:

Of the five participants [in her study] under age 18, four reported participating in the Liberty Movement in a majority online capacity, as did one of the 18-year-old participants with whom I spoke. While access was an issue for these young people, they still considered their political interests and aspirations to be a very important aspect of their lives. Even though they did not participate in local libertarian organizations, they described feeling very much a part of a tangible movement.

This finding also highlights what can be viewed as a significant deficit within the movement: a general lack of high school groups and clubs in which young libertarians can participate….

It is unclear why there is a lack of “in person” spaces for high school libertarians. Young Democrats of America (YDA) clubs are common in high schools, with over 1,500 chapters nationwide. The Young Republican National Federation (better known as Young Republicans), with limited control over its state federations, does not publish statistics on the number of local chapters; but it is the oldest political youth organization in the United States, and thus has a well-organized leadership structure and resources to hold national meetings and events for members. Libertarians have no analogous organization.

This is a significant problem. Many people who are strongly interested in politics first develop that interest in high school, or earlier. And it is easier to influence the political views of younger people than older ones. As people get older, they become more set in their views and less open to new ideas – […]

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The Politics of Young Libertarians

Liana Gamber Thompson of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism has an interesting new paper on the politics of young libertarians, focusing especially on members of Students for Liberty, the rapidly growing student libertarian organization. Here is the summary:

In the past decade, young libertarians in the U.S., or members of the Liberty Movement as it is called, have utilized new media and technology along with more traditional modes of organizing to grow their movement, capitalizing on the participatory nature of the internet in particularly savvy and creative ways. Still, the Liberty Movement is quite unlike more progressive, grassroots movements, with its organizations and participants sometimes relying on established institutions for various forms of support.

As this report highlights, the Liberty Movement represents a hybrid model, one that embraces participatory practices and interfaces with formal political organizations and other elite institutions….

In a letter to Richard Rush dated October 20, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”1 This report suggests that participants in the Liberty Movement would concur with respect to the challenges they encounter; largely ignored by mainstream media and pushed to the margins of the electoral process, libertarians have it tougher than many groups when it comes to the task of gaining voice and visibility in the mainstream political debate. This report examines how young libertarians confront such obstacles and presents readers with a detailed account of young libertarians and their relationship to the contemporary political landscape.

Not surprisingly, the study concludes that young libertarians make extensive use of the internet, that they are very skeptical about the political process, and that most have doubts about the effectiveness of voting as a strategy for promoting political change.

Thompson notes increasing racial and gender diversity among younger libertarians, but […]

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