Taking the Sunni-Shiite Quiz:

ABC News has recently posted this handy Sunni-Shiite quiz. The quiz tests your knowledge of which important Middle Eastern Muslim countries and political factions - such as Al Qaeda and Iran - are Sunni and which are Shiite. As I explained in this post, many members of Congress, including some who sit on the House Intelligence Committee would probably flunk. In general, I'm skeptical of the utility of "good government" reforms. However, here's one that I can support:

No congressman should be allowed to join the Intelligence Committee - or any other committee that deals with US Middle East policy - without first scoring a perfect 8 for 8 on this very simple quiz.

UPDATE: Mark Kleiman comments on this post. He agrees with me on the desirability of applying the test to would-be members of relevant congressional committees. And I agree with him that it would make sense to apply a similar test to executive branch officials responsible for foreign policy issues. However, I part company with his claim that ignorance in government is unrelated to the vast size and complexity of the public sector and can easily be solved by "attract[ing] a better class of elected and appointed officials" (I originally made the opposite argument here). I'm all for attracting more knowledgeable officials, but the modern state creates perverse incentives that make this laudable objective difficult to achieve.

Voters don't select candidates based on the latters' knowledge of policy issues, and given the voters own massive ignorance (see e.g., my publications here and here), it is highly unlikely that they will ever do so. Successful politicians must devote their time to those activities that help them get reelected, which involves more time spent fundraising, handing out pork, and lining up interest group support, and relatively little time spent studying public policy in any depth.

As for executive branch officials, they are selected for the kinds of qualifications that help to achieve the objectives of their superiors and often those of powerful interest groups that influence the selection of appointees. Sometimes these agendas will lead to the hiring of knowledgeable policy experts, but often they won't. Moreover, given the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government, it is highly unlikely that top officials will be knowledgeable about more than a small fraction of its activities, even if those officials were much smarter and better educated than those we have now. Even with a degree of specialization, the knowledge burden of running the modern state will still be enormous. As F.A. Hayek explained in this classic essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society," this is one of the main reasons why markets are superior to central planning.

If we want leaders who are knowledgeable about the issues they decide on, we need to reduce the number of those issues, and also reduce their opportunities to ensure their election and reelection by means other than good policy performance. Much of the time, the only way to achieve these objectives is to reduce the size and scope of government. If Congress lacked the power to hand out pork, give political payoffs to interest groups, and engage in other similar activities, its members would have much stronger incentives to become knowledgeable about major issues, since it would be harder for them to achieve reelection other than by good performance on those issues.

Contra Kleiman's characterization of my views, I don't believe in the mantra of "private sector good, public sector bad." Rather, I believe that the public sector can be good (especially compared to the status quo) if its functions are confined to a narrow range. Otherwise, its performance will indeed be "bad" a high percentage of the time.