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Exploiting Political Ignorance in Europe:

In 2005, European political elites were disappointed by the rejection of the proposed European Constitution in referenda in France and the Netherlands. Today, European leaders are working on a way to reverse that result. How? By exploiting political ignorance. As the EU Observer explains (hat tip: Daniel J. Mitchell):

The new EU reform treaty text was deliberately made unreadable for citizens to avoid calls for referendum, one of the central figures in the treaty drafting process has said. Speaking at a meeting of the Centre for European Reform in London on Thursday (12 July) former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato said: "They [EU leaders] decided that the document should be unreadable. If it is unreadable, it is not constitutional, that was the sort of perception". …Mr Amato, who is now minister of the interior in Italy, has been a central figure in all stages of the year-long process of writing a new constitution for Europe....

Following two years of 'reflection' [after the Constitution's defeat in 2005], Mr Amato headed the 16-strong group of politicians which prepared a simplified version of the document. Unofficially known as the "Amato Group" the group stripped the rejected constitution of its constitutional elements - including the article on the EU's symbols. But the main elements of the original constitution were kept in.

The article points out that the Amato Group hoped that an unreadable document labeled as a "treaty" rather than a Constitution would not be perceived as something "new" by voters, and therefore would not be required to go through referenda that might lead to its rejection (as happened in 2005). In other words, the Group's strategy for getting the Constitution accepted by voters is to 1) change some of the verbiage so that it will no longer look like a Constitution (while keeping the substantive provisions the same), and 2) make the document as "unreadable" as possible, thus ensuring that voters won't understand what it will actually do if enacted.

Obviously, such a strategy is unlikely to work with a well-informed electorate. Even if voters in such a hypothetical electorate didn't understand the fine points of proposed legal changes, they would at least know enough not to be fooled by cosmetic changes in nomenclature, and to be suspicious of documents deliberately drafted so as to be "unreadable." In reality, however, most voters fall far short of this ideal. As I have explained in great detail elsewhere(see e.g. here and here), they have strong incentives to be rationally ignorant about politics and to do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know.

The EU Observer quotes one of the Amato Group's critics who denounced them for showing "a total contempt for voters." The Group may well be guilty of that. But, given the reality of rational political ignorance, its ploy might work, and its "contempt" may turn out to be justified.

UPDATE: Most of my work on ignorance is based on US data. However, the more limited European data we have don't paint a picture much different from the widespread political ignorance that exists in this country. For example, this paper by British political scientists shows that the overwhelming majority of British voters do not know the relative positions of the country's major political parties on key issues. This article finds similar patterns of apathy and political ignorance among European and American youth. This 1999 article found that some 2/3 of Western Europeans have little or no knowledge of basic foreign policy issues. The Amato Group is therefore on safe ground in counting on European political ignorance to help promote their agenda.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:
  2. Exploiting Political Ignorance in Europe:
Smokey:
So the EU voters rejected the EU Constitution, but their ruling bureaucrats know what's best for the subjects. That being the case, the conniving EU is going ahead -- not with another vote of the people, as required by its own rules -- but now as a treaty, which can be ratified while bypassing the voters.

A better suggestion: rather than present the Euroweenies with an opaque, 400+ page indecipherable constitution, we should give them ours. Since we're not really using it any more.
7.16.2007 7:32pm
Dave N (mail):
I didn't read the summary as suggesting that there would be no vote. Rather it appears that the exercise is designed to fool voters that the "Treaty" is no big deal.

However, I am sure the EU Constitution's opponents can make a great deal of hay out of it "Don't Be Fooled Again" seems like a catchy enough slogan.

If European voters are like American voters, the perception will ultimately be the reality--even if the perception is different from the truth.
7.16.2007 7:43pm
Ilya Somin:
I didn't read the summary as suggesting that there would be no vote. Rather it appears that the exercise is designed to fool voters that the "Treaty" is no big deal.

Actually, both are true. Read the original EU Observer article rather than just Daniel Mitchell's summary.
7.16.2007 7:52pm
Enoch:
Since Europeans are much smarter, more sophisticated, and more politically aware than fat, stupid Americans, this strategy of "exploiting ignorance" can never work.
7.16.2007 8:24pm
Dave N (mail):
Ilya,

Thank you for the clarification. I made my comment without checking the link. Upon reflection, Neil O'Brien, director of the British think tank Open Europe, said it best:

"The idea of just changing the name of the Constitution and pretending that it is just another complex treaty shows a total contempt for voters."
7.16.2007 8:25pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Ilya, how do you explain French and Dutch referendum voters rejecting the proposed EU constitution in the first place? As I recall, that proposed constitution wasn't exactly a paragon of simple clarity, either. Are you suggesting that voters suddenly erupted in a fit of rational--or perhaps irrational--knowledgeability, and did their homework? Or that they remained rationally ignorant, flipped a coin, and happened to come up lucky in opting to reject?

Or did the system perhaps work exactly the way we defenders expect it to, with voters acting as "hands-off managers" rather than "rational ignorami", and following the advice of the knowledgeable experts whom they judge to have proven themselves trustworthy?

In fact, the example you've chosen provides a perfect test case for your theory. You've identified what you believe to be an example of voters' rational ignorance: their inability to see through the Amato group's smokescreen and recognize the new EU "treaty" as the old constitution that they've already rejected. But what if the voters do see through the smokescreen, and reject the new treaty (either directly, through pressure on their national leaders, or by first forcing those leaders to take it to a referendum)? Will you then concede that democracy can work remarkably well in spite of the widespread rational ignorance you're so fond of harping on? Or will you simply sweep the example under the rug to protect your thesis?
7.16.2007 8:45pm
Alec:
This just mystifies me. First, the EU insists (over objections) on admitting nations that are not the functional equivalent of Western European nations (Poland, Romania, etc.) then bitches (but does nothing) when they do not follow the rules, then bitches when the voters in the more liberal nations trash their crappy constitution, then tries to circumvent the will of the voters by passing it anyway.
Although it is with some irony that real far right Euroskeptics could only form a party at the transnational level after Romania joined and gave them another fascist. I guess they're good enough to work in political parties but they can't be trusted to work farms in France?
7.16.2007 8:48pm
JB:
Europeans, in my experience, are less grumpy than Americans about government. Americans, when the government does something they don't like, hoot and holler and sue and sometimes direct their anger at the right target. Europeans go about their business.

I think it comes from America's government being based on separation of powers, while Europe's are based on combinations of powers. In the US, you can vote your representatives out and occasionally, every 4 years, toss the President out. In Europe, whenever there's an election you can vote out the whole government (on the other hand, once a government is voted in there's nothing short of an election that voters can do to change it). Governments over there are given rope to hang themselves--here we use the rope to keep them on a leash.

I think the EUcrats will have an easier time doing this than the US government would have amending the Constitution.
7.16.2007 9:13pm
wooga:
Dan Simon put it clearer than I could:
voters acting as "hands-off managers" rather than "rational ignorami", and following the advice of the knowledgeable experts whom they judge to have proven themselves trustworthy
As many things in this world are counter-intuitive, deferring to a trustworthy authority is frequently the most efficient and desirable course of action for voters. The trick is finding someone who can accurately be called both an "authority" and "trustworthy." Someone who deliberately uses confusing language is not trustworthy.
7.16.2007 9:19pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
The trick is finding someone who can accurately be called both an "authority" and "trustworthy. "Someone who deliberately uses confusing language is not trustworthy.

Yes, of course. Fortunately, citizens of a democracy are not constrained to choose trustworthy authorities only from among their own elected leaders. (Otherwise, democratically elected governments would never be defeated.)

Clearly, in choosing to reject the first proposed EU constitution, French and Dutch voters did not rely solely on their elected leaders for advice. Like sensible managers, voters make sure to hear from more than one advisor before making an important decision.
7.16.2007 9:35pm
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, how do you explain French and Dutch referendum voters rejecting the proposed EU constitution in the first place? As I recall, that proposed constitution wasn't exactly a paragon of simple clarity, either. Are you suggesting that voters suddenly erupted in a fit of rational--or perhaps irrational--knowledgeability, and did their homework? Or that they remained rationally ignorant, flipped a coin, and happened to come up lucky in opting to reject?

They rejected the Constitution, but not for reasons that are particularly compelling evidence of political knowledge (even though the outcome may have been correct). Surveys showed that most rejected it either because they feared it would undermine socialism (which it almost certianly would not have done), because of dubious nationalist sentiments, or simply because of generalized dissatisfaction with the political establishment and status quo.


Or did the system perhaps work exactly the way we defenders expect it to, with voters acting as "hands-off managers" rather than "rational ignorami", and following the advice of the knowledgeable experts whom they judge to have proven themselves trustworthy?

The problem with that conjecture is that Europe's "knowledgeable experts" (politiicians, journalists, academics, pundits, etc.) were overwhelmingly in favor of the Constitution, not against it.
7.16.2007 9:42pm
Ilya Somin:
In fact, the example you've chosen provides a perfect test case for your theory. You've identified what you believe to be an example of voters' rational ignorance: their inability to see through the Amato group's smokescreen and recognize the new EU "treaty" as the old constitution that they've already rejected. But what if the voters do see through the smokescreen, and reject the new treaty (either directly, through pressure on their national leaders, or by first forcing those leaders to take it to a referendum)? Will you then concede that democracy can work remarkably well in spite of the widespread rational ignorance you're so fond of harping on?

One example can't prove or disprove a general theory of the way political systems work. If the voters do "see through" the Amato Group's deception, that would count as some evidence against the theory. If they don't, it counts as some evidence in its favor. But theories of this type must be evaluated against the full range of evidence on voter ignorance, not one or two data points. And that full range suggests that voters have little knowledge on a wide range of important issues, and that their ignorance quite often influences policy and electoral outcomes.
7.16.2007 9:45pm
TokyoTom (mail):
"voters have little knowledge on a wide range of important issues, and that their ignorance quite often influences policy and electoral outcomes."

Ilya, it's not so much that voter ignorance influences policy and electoral outcomes, it's that such ignorance ENABLES the manipulation of policy and elections by interested elites and rent-seekers. This fundamental point by Gordon Tullock has been very in evidence in the US over the past seven years.
7.16.2007 11:09pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
They rejected the Constitution, but not for reasons that are particularly compelling evidence of political knowledge (even though the outcome may have been correct). Surveys showed that most rejected it either because they feared it would undermine socialism (which it almost certianly would not have done), because of dubious nationalist sentiments, or simply because of generalized dissatisfaction with the political establishment and status quo.

In other words, they didn't trust the political establishment's characterization of the constitution--which happens to coincide with yours--and/or embraced political sentiments which you consider "dubious". Ergo, they were ignorant. Hard to argue with that.

The problem with that conjecture is that Europe's "knowledgeable experts" (politiicians, journalists, academics, pundits, etc.) were overwhelmingly in favor of the Constitution, not against it.

No doubt most were, but some were not. If I'm not mistaken, most of those same establishment "knowledgeable experts" in France bitterly opposed Sarkozy--yet he won his election handily. Apparently, the collection of "knowledgeable experts" whom the public actually trusts on these matters is different from the collection that the government, media and other major institutions like to promote.

If the voters do "see through" the Amato Group's deception, that would count as some evidence against the theory. If they don't, it counts as some evidence in its favor.

Hey, I wasn't the one touting this case as a classic example of politicians attempting to exploit voters' "rational ignorance". Perhaps now that you've conceded that we don't even know yet whether the voters will vote in (a way that you'd characterize as displaying) "rational ignorance"--let alone whether "rational ignorance" will play a role in that vote--you might be a little more careful about applying your favorite "rational ignorance" theory to every case of populations voting in ways that don't appeal to you?
7.16.2007 11:18pm
Ilya Somin:
Hey, I wasn't the one touting this case as a classic example of politicians attempting to exploit voters' "rational ignorance".

It's pretty obviously is an ATTEMPT to exploit ignorance, isn't it? Whether it will succed or not, is a different question.
7.16.2007 11:48pm
Ilya Somin:
The problem with that conjecture is that Europe's "knowledgeable experts" (politiicians, journalists, academics, pundits, etc.) were overwhelmingly in favor of the Constitution, not against it.

No doubt most were, but some were not. If I'm not mistaken, most of those same establishment "knowledgeable experts" in France bitterly opposed Sarkozy--yet he won his election handily. Apparently, the collection of "knowledgeable experts" whom the public actually trusts on these matters is different from the collection that the government, media and other major institutions like to promote.


Again, where's the evidence that the voters were relying on "knowledgeable experts" of any kind, as opposed to simply punishing representatives of a flawed status quo? Yes, after decades of double digit unemployment and other extremely obvious flawed outcomes, French voters punished the political establishment. That is hardly evidence of much political sophistication. Moreover, it is far from clear that Sarkozy will put in policies significantly better than those that currently prevail, or that French voters will insist that he do so.

I have never claimed that voters ALWAYS get it wrong or are always ignorant about everything. I have merely claimed that they are rationally ignorant on a wide range of issues and that this leads to worse outcomes than we would have otherwise.
7.16.2007 11:52pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
It's pretty obviously is an ATTEMPT to exploit ignorance, isn't it? Whether it will succed or not, is a different question.

...One which you answered with, "But, given the reality of rational political ignorance, its ploy might work, and its 'contempt' may turn out to be justified."

You repeatedly make the leap from, "voters lack detailed knowledge of many important issues" (an empirically validated claim), to the much stronger claim that "voters have no effective means of figuring out how to use their votes to protect their interests." Your arguments for this leap (such as those in part III of your paper) are not empirically supported (and in my opinion utterly unconvincing), but you consistently elide that huge leap of logic, giving the false impression that your conclusion is as firmly supported by empirical evidence as your premise.

Again, where's the evidence that the voters were relying on "knowledgeable experts" of any kind, as opposed to simply punishing representatives of a flawed status quo?

The same place as the evidence that the voters had no effective decision-making methods beyond relying on their own "rational ignorance"--that is to say, neither of us has introduced any. The difference is that I'm not trying to dress up my non-empirical arguments as empirically supported, by repeatedly and misleadingly citing evidence for a quite different, far weaker assertion.

Yes, after decades of double digit unemployment and other extremely obvious flawed outcomes, French voters punished the political establishment. That is hardly evidence of much political sophistication.

Funny, I thought the issue was voters' political knowledge--now it's their "political sophistication". Perhaps the two aren't quite as tightly linked as you'd like to pretend? Certainly we all know many people whose quite substantial body of political knowledge fails to cure them of what we'd consider laughable political naivete. And quite a number of very successful politicians have been plausibly accused of the opposite: sophisticated political skills backed up by embarrassing ignorance. That leap of yours is looking more conspicuous--and more tenuous--all the time.

Moreover, it is far from clear that Sarkozy will put in policies significantly better than those that currently prevail, or that French voters will insist that he do so.

Hmm...now "political sophistication" has morphed into willingness to demand "significantly better" policies. By whose standard, I wonder?

No matter--I imagine that with enough basic political knowledge, anyone would immediately concur with Ilya Somin regarding the best policy on any issue....

I have never claimed that voters ALWAYS get it wrong or are always ignorant about everything. I have merely claimed that they are rationally ignorant on a wide range of issues and that this leads to worse outcomes than we would have otherwise.

In fact, very few people have ever disputed part I of your claim. Part II, on the other hand, is extremely controversial, and yet rather than engage people on that issue, you tend to fall back on part I as if part II obviously follows from it. Yet you must know that many people doubt that connection, because you explicitly (though rather weakly) address that criticism in your paper. Why, then, do you consistently treat that leap as if it were self-evident?
7.17.2007 1:30am
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

It's nice to see a discussion that comes a little closer to my area of expertise (EU Law, amongst others). Being Dutch, I had a first row view of the referendum disaster. Referendums are generally a bad idea, and Dutch voters voted against for many of the wrong reasons listed by prof. Somin, not to mention the glorious whopper of "I didn't understand the constitution, it was too complicated, so I voted against".

As for the Treaty revision, Amato's comments were already foreshadowed by an excellent column in the Financial Times a few weeks ago by Gideon Rachman. BTW, I think you've misconstrued the EUObserver article as to what Amato himself has done. The Amato Group proposal was supposed to be as simple and understandable as possible, as far as I can tell.

EurActiv article on the Amato Group proposal. At the bottom, there are links to the proposal itself, and two explanatory documents.
7.17.2007 7:56am