Archive | Political Ignorance

My Cato Unbound Lead Essay on “Democracy and Political Ignorance”

My essay, “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” – which summarizes some key themes of my new book on the same subject, is the lead essay in this month’s Cato Unbound forum. Here is the first paragraph:

Democracy is supposed to be rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But in order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge. If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance. Unfortunately, public knowledge about politics is disturbingly low. In addition, the public also often does a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. This state of affairs has persisted despite rising education levels, increased availability of information thanks to modern technology, and even rising IQ scores. It is mostly the result of rational behavior, not stupidity. Such widespread and persistent political ignorance and irrationality strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing the power of government.

The Cato Unbound website will soon post responses by Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, and Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics. I will then post a rejoinder, and the conversation will continue from there. Each of these commentators is a leading expert on democratic theory, federalism, or political participation, and each is likely to have a significantly different take on these issues from mine. So it should be an interesting exchange. I look forward to it! [...]

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Bryan Caplan’s Voter Achievement Test

Widespread political ignorance has persisted despite major increases in education and IQ, and in the availability of information through the media. But economist Bryan Caplan – a leading academic expert on political knowledge suggests a possible solution – the Voter Achievement Test:

After years of reflecting on voter cognition,… I’ve come up with a remedy that seems both practical and palatable. At risk of being pragmatic and constructive:

1. Get rid of traditional civics and government education; the data show it’s waste of money.

2. Create an annual Voter Achievement Test with questions about politics, economics, and policy.

3. Each year, any citizen who wants to take the test can do so at testing centers around the country for free.

4. Participants receive cash rewards based on their score. E.g.: $1000 for 90%+, $500 for 80-89%, $100 for 70-79%, $0 for less.

The Voter Achievement Test doesn’t just give citizens a clear incentive to actually master the material by whatever means they find effective – elective classes, free reading, Internet, discussion, etc. It also gives them a clear incentive to maintain their mastery of the material, because they can retake the test for cash prizes every single year.

I actually discussed the idea of paying voters to learn political information in Chapter 7 of Democracy and Political Ignorance. But I don’t develop it in as much detail as Caplan. His plan has some virtues beyond the ones he mentions.

First, unlike with the literacy tests of old, it doesn’t actually deprive anyone of the vote. No one is even required to take the test, much less forfeit the franchise if they don’t do so. Second, liberal egalitarians should like the fact that this plan would probably increase knowledge among the poor more than the affluent. The [...]

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Jack Shafer on the Limits of the Media’s Ability to Increase Political Knowledge

Jack Shafer of Reuters has an interesting column on the implications of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, and other recent scholarship, for claims that public knowledge of politics can be subtantially increased if only we had more or better media coverage of political issues:

The surplus of quality journalism in print, on the Web, and over the air should give the public little to no excuse for being uninformed about political issues. Never before has so much raw and refined political intelligence been available at such a low cost to citizens willing to buy a cheap computer and Web connection — or pay the bus fare to the local public library.

But uninformed the people are, as Ilya Somin delineates in his subversive new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, and their ignorance is willful!….

The public has been cashing the information dividends tossed off by new information technologies. But as Somin and others point out, most Americans are spending most of their new wealth on entertainment media — more football, more baseball, more online games, more movies and TV shows, and lots and lots more social media — and comparatively little on political information. [Already] Well-informed audiences are more likely to avail themselves to the new technologies to become better informed…

We could try to mimic Europe — if the First Amendment allowed — and mandate more political news on TV, in print, and on the Web; government could regulate political news content in an attempt to increase its quality; and it could even be directly producing political news that it, and not PBS or NPR, supervised.

This sort of government intervention into the news media would be rightly attacked as political indoctrination and state propaganda, although Somin doubts (as do I) that the programs would have much

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My Balkinization Post On the Implications of Political Ignorance for Judicial Review

My final substantive Balkinization guest-blogging post about Democracy and Political Ignorance focuses on the implications of widespread political ignorance for judicial review and the “countermajoritarian difficulty.”

For those who may be interested, I addressed the related question of the implications of political ignorance for originalism, in this article. [...]

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Duke Leto Atreides on Political Ignorance

I recently noticed that several of Frank Herbert’s Dune books are among the books that purchasers of my new book on political ignorance buy at the same time on Amazon. That brings to mind the following interesting quote on political ignorance by Duke Leto Atreides in Chapter 7 of Dune:

“My propaganda corps is one of the finest,” the Duke said….

“Yes, I am tired,” the Duke said. “Did you know we’re using spice residue as raw material and already have our own factory to manufacture filmbase?”


“We mustn’t run short of filmbase,” the Duke said. “Else, how could we flood village and city with our information? The people must learn how well I govern them. How would they know if we didn’t tell them?”

[emphasis added]

Frank Herbert was a political activist and journalist before becoming a science fiction writer, and the exploitation of political ignorance and irrationality was one of the themes of Dune and its sequels. [...]

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Democracy and Political Ignorance – Response to Two Questions from Orin Kerr

In a recent post, co-blogger Orin Kerr asks two thoughtful questions about the arguments advanced in my new book Democracy and Political Ignorance: whether the existence of political parties reduces the dangers posed by ignorance, and whether my argument for smaller government is undermined if it turns out that the public prefers big government.

I. Political Parties.

This is one I address at some length in Chapter 4 of the book. Political parties can, to some extent, be a useful information shortcut for voters. If you know that Candidate X is a Democrat or a Republican, that gives you some sense of his or her policy positions even if you know nothing else about that individual. In that respect, party labels make life easier for relatively ignorant voters. However, this falls far short of overcoming the problem of political ignorance. To use that shortcut effectively, you actually need to know what policies the parties are supporting. Large percentages of the electorate often don’t know that. Moreover, they often fail to pick up on even major changes in party platforms and ideology. In addition, most of the time people do not favor particular policies for their own sake. They support them because they think they will achieve some desirable goal, such as increasing economic growth or protecting national security. Many of the most important issues in American politics are about disagreements over means to widely shared ends, not disputes over fundamental values.

Furthermore, in one important respect parties often exacerbate the dangers of political ignorance rather than alleviate them. When many voters have a sense of party identification, they tend to evaluate new information in a highly biased way that overvalues anything that makes their favorite party look good, and ignores or undervalues anything that makes it [...]

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My Balkinization Post on Whether Political Ignorance Can be Overcome through Education and Information Shortcuts

The fourth in my series of Balkinization guest-blogging posts on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance is now up. It explains why it is extremely difficult to overcome political ignorance through information shortcuts, education, and other conventional strategies for increasing public knowledge. [...]

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My First Two Balkinization Posts About Democracy and Political Ignorance

My first two Balkinization guest-blogging posts about my new book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter are now up. In the first post, I introduce myself and the book to Balkinization readers, and thank Jack Balkin and his co-bloggers for their invitation. The second explains “Why Political Ignorance Matters,” channeling John Stuart Mill. If you would like to comment on these posts, I request that you do so at Balkinization. [...]

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Introducing my New Book Democracy and Political Ignorance

My new book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter is out in print this week from Stanford University Press. The book argues that widespread political ignorance is a serious problem for modern democracy, one that strengthens the case limiting and decentralizing government, and for robust judicial review.

Over the next few days, I will be guest-blogging about the book at Balkinization. I am grateful to Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin and his co-bloggers for the opportunity. I will post links to my Balkinization posts about the book here at the VC. But I request VC readers who wish to comment on them to do so at the Balkinization site. Interested readers may also wish to check out this very early short review of the book by Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting, at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. [...]

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My Forbes Column on Political Ignorance and the Government Shutdown

The Forbes website recently published an op ed I wrote on public ignorance about the issues involved in the government shutdown. Here is an excerpt:

As a government shutdown begins, much of the public knows very little about the issues behind it: Obamacare and the future of the federal budget. An August Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 44% do not even realize that Obamacare is still the law. Kaiser’s June poll found that 33% say they have heard “nothing at all” about the controversial insurance exchanges that are a central element of the law, and 34% “only a little.”

When it comes to the budget, numerous polls show that voters grossly underestimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, while greatly overestimating the amount spent on foreign aid….

Public opinion will probably play a key role in determining the outcome of the shutdown battle. Both parties want to attract public support and focus voters’ frustration on their opponents. But the voters politicians seek to win over are often very ill-informed.

Widespread political ignorance isn’t limited to spending and health care. It cuts across many other issues, and even the basic structure of government….

There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. Providing more information is unlikely to work, since most people fail to assimilate the information that is already available. But we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government. When people “vote with their feet” in the private sector or in choosing what state or local government they want to live in, they have much better incentives to acquire information and use it rationally than when they vote at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, public ignorance about these issues is just the tip of a larger [...]

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Reality Imitates The Onion on Public Ignorance About Obamacare

In this recent article, The Onion pokes fun at public ignorance about Obamacare [HT: several readers and Facebook friends who alerted me to the article]:

As debate continues in Washington over the funding of President Obama’s health care initiative, sources confirmed Thursday that 39-year-old Daniel Seaver, a man who understands a total of 8 percent of the Affordable Care Act, offered a vehement defense of the legislation to 41-year-old Alex Crawford, who understands 5 percent of it.

“First of all, Obamacare will reduce insurance premiums for most people, and no one can be denied coverage if they have preexisting conditions and stuff like that,” said Seaver, displaying over half of his 8 percent grasp on the sweeping health care reform policy. “Which means a whole bunch of uninsured Americans—I’m talking millions of people here—will finally have access to health care. How can you not get behind that?”

“And Medicare has nothing to do with this, by the way—that’s a separate thing,” continued Seaver, adding one of the few remaining facts he knows about Obamacare. “This just deals with the private insurance companies and makes sure they can’t, you know, drive up costs through the roof.”

According to reports, Seaver mounted an impressive case given his severely limited knowledge of the actual law itself, bolstering his 8 percent understanding of the Affordable Care Act with his 6 percent awareness of the nation’s current economic landscape. Crawford, meanwhile, demonstrated just about the full extent of his understanding of Obamacare by claiming that its provisions could potentially kill jobs.

Sources confirmed that, if asked, neither man would actually be able to correctly define the term “HMO” or coherently explain what a health care exchange actually is and how such a thing would actually work on a regional basis.

The Onion’s
fictional characters [...]

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Two Upcoming Speaking Engagements

Over the next two weeks, I will be doing two out-of-town speaking engagements that may be of interest to some of our readers.

On Thursday, October, 3, 12:00-1:15 PM, I will be doing a talk on my new book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, at Columbia Law School in Jerome Greene Hall, Room 105. Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger will comment.

On Thursday, October, 10, 3:30-5 PM, I will be participating in a panel on the Supreme Court’s recent same-sex marriage decisions at Chicago-Kent Law School, along with Chicago-Kent professors Carolyn Shapiro and Kathy Baker. My presentation will expand on my answer to a question that Justice Scalia famously posed in oral argument in the Proposition 8 case: When did laws banning same-sex marriage become unconstitutional? [...]

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Democracy and Political Ignorance – The Book Tour

It’s not actually an integrated book tour, but merely a set of individual speaking engagements. But, for readers who may be interested, here is a list of upcoming talks I will be giving about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. In most cases, these events will last about 60 to 90 minutes and are open to the public unless otherwise noted. I will announce additional details about some of these later, and there will probably be a few additional talks that I haven’t scheduledyet:

October 3, Noon: Columbia Law School Federalist Society (with commentary by Columbia Law School Professor Philip Hamburger).

October 22, noon-1:30: Georgetown University Law Center, co-sponsored by the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, the Georgetown Federalist Society, and the Federalist Society Faculty Division (with commentary by economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, and Georgetown law professor Louis Michael Seidman).

October 24, Noon-1:30: Florida State University College of Law, Faculty Enrichment seminar (this one is for FSU faculty).

October 29, Noon: Yale Law School Federalist Society

October 31, Noon: Pepperdine Law School, Federalist Society

November 1, Noon: Los Angeles Federalist Society, Lawyers Division Chapter

November 5 (Time TBA): Duke Law School, Federalist Society

November 6, Noon: Cato Institute, Washington DC, (with commentators TBA).

November 18, Noon: University of Virginia School of Law, Legal Theory Workshop (this one is primarily for UVA faculty).

November 26 (Time TBA): Institute of Economic Affairs, London

November 28 (Time TBA): King’s College, London

January 9, 4:30-6 PM: McGill University, Montreal, Canada, Research Group on Constitutional Studies

January 28 (Time TBA): University of Illinois Law School (Urbana), Federalist Society

January 31, 11-12:30 AM: University of Texas School of Law, Austin Texas, Conference on “Is Democracy Desirable?” (with commentary by Yale Law School [...]

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Steven Teles on “Kludgeocracy” and the Role of Government in Society

In the fall issue of National Affairs, Johns Hopkins political scientist Steven Teles has an interesting article on what he dubs the problem of “kludgeocracy” in American government:

In recent decades, American politics has been dominated, at least rhetorically, by a battle over the size of government. But that is not what the next few decades of our politics will be about. With the frontiers of the state roughly fixed, the issues that will define our major debates will concern the complexity of government, rather than its sheer scope.

With that complexity has also come incoherence. Conservatives over the last few years have increasingly worried that America is, in Friedrich Hayek’s ominous terms, on the road to serfdom. But this concern ascribes vastly greater purpose and design to our approach to public policy than is truly warranted. If anything, we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever.

The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. As we increasingly notice the consequences of that regressive redistribution, we will inevitably also come to pay greater attention to the daunting and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of American life, and so will need to start thinking differently about government.

Understanding, describing, and addressing this problem of complexity and incoherence is the next great American political challenge. But you cannot come to terms with such a problem until you can properly name it. While we can name the major questions that divide our politics

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