Political Ignorance in Congress

David Boaz has an interesting post discussing Jonathan Martin’s Wall Street Journal review of veteran Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser’s recent book Act of Congress. Martin explains how Kaiser shows that most members of Congress are ignorant about much of the important legislation they vote on:

Congress is dominated by intellectual lightweights who are chiefly consumed by electioneering and largely irrelevant in a body where a handful of members and many more staff do the actual work of legislating. And the business of the institution barely gets done because of a pernicious convergence of big money and consuming partisanship.

That is Robert Kaiser’s unsparing assessment in “Act of Congress,” the latest volume in a growing body of work lamenting our broken capital….

It did not help, notes Mr. Kaiser, that many members of Congress are politics-obsessed mediocrities who know little about the policy they’re purportedly crafting and voting on….

Mr. Kaiser [writes]: “Most members both know and care more about politics than about substance.”

The ignorance of these political elites parallels the voter ignorance described in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance. Most members of Congress are significantly more knowledgeable about public policy than the average voter. The congressmen probably know that Obamacare is still the law and that foreign aid isn’t close to being one of the major spending categories in the federal budget. However, as Kaiser and other writers show, their knowledge is nonetheless very poor overall. There are exceptions, of course. For example, the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan not only knew a great deal about public policy, but had actually been a leading political scientist before entering politics. In general, however, there is little correlation between knowledge of policy and the ability to win elections.

Voter ignorance and elite ignorance are in fact closely related. If the voters were more knowledgeable, they could select candidates who demonstrate a deep understanding of policy issues and, to paraphrase Kaiser, “know and care more about substance than politics.” But in a world where most people don’t even know the name of their representative, they are unlikely to be able to evaluate his or her knowledge of policy issues. Moreover, evaluating that knowledge would require the voters themselves to know more about policy than most of them actually do. In this way, voter ignorance helps produce political leaders who are often ignorant themselves, albeit not quite to the same degree.

Towards the end of his post, David Boaz poses a good question:

If you understand just how poorly most legislation is crafted, if you understand the corruption and ignorance that go into making rules for 300 million Americans, why are you still wedded to the idea that inevitably ignorant and corrupt people should make rules for everything from health care to banking to retirement to drug policy?….

Faith in government, like a second marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience.

I of course agree. One of the main points of my book (which David generously cites) is that political ignorance strengthens the case for limiting the role of government – especially the federal government.

But David isn’t entirely correct in analogizing faith in government to second marriages. Most people devote far more time and effort to figuring out who they should marry than they do to deciding who to vote for in elections. While many marriages still fail, the average marriage promotes happiness far better than the average politician promotes the public interest. For all its flaws, the marriage/dating market is actually a good example of “voting with your feet.” Participants in foot voting institutions have strong incentives to seek out relevant information and evaluate it rationally because they know their choices will make a real difference. By contrast, ballot box voters have strong incentives to be ignorant, and irrational in their evaluation of what information they do know. Lots of people still make mistakes in deciding who to marry. But imagine what the error rate would be if spouses were chosen in an election, assigned by Congress, or allocated by a government bureaucracy.

UPDATE: I have made some modest stylistic revisions to this post.

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