Political Ignorance and Muslim perceptions of 9/11 and the War on Terror:

Both the blogosphere and the press have noted the important recent Pew survey of American Muslim opinion. Ali Eteraz makes some good points about it in this post. On the positive side, the survey provides extensive evidence that most American Muslims are assimilated, opposed to Muslim religious extremism, and generally happy with their lives in the United States. In these respects, they differ greatly from their co-religionists in most majority-Muslim countries and in Western Europe.

However, there are some skunks at this otherwise wonderful garden party. To me, the most worrisome is not the widely cited finding that 13% of American Muslims support suicide bombing in at least "rare" instances. It is the fact that only 40 percent agree that "groups of Arabs" committed the 9/11 attacks, while 28% rejected this proposition, and 32% refused to give an opinion. Public opinion researchers have long recognized that survey respondents sometimes conceal views that are considered socially unacceptable. At least some of the 32% who said that they had no opinion in fact agree with the 28% who believe that someone other than Arab terrorists committed the 9/11 atrocities. Ignorance on this point is more than a detail. If you believe that 9/11 wasn't really perpetrated by Arab Muslim terrorists, then you are unlikely to support any efforts to retaliate against the perpetrators and track them down. Any such efforts will seem like unjustified persecution of Muslims. It is not, surprising, therefore, that a 48% plurality of respondents to the survey oppose the war in Afghanistan, as compared to 35% who support it (despite divisions over the war in Iraq, polls show that non-Muslim Americans overwhelmingly support the war in Afghanistan).

This kind of ignorance is far more prevalent among Muslims in other countries than in the US. As I note in this article(pg. 275), surveys taken in majority Muslim countries have a much higher rate of respondents who reject the proposition that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by groups of Arabs. That was the answer given by 89% of Kuwaitis, 86% of Pakistanis, and 58% of Lebanese, among others. Many Muslims in Western Europe hold similar views. Pew's 2005 international survey of Muslim opinion (pg. 5) found that 56 percent of British Muslims, 46 percent of French Muslims, and 44 percent of Spanish Muslims also believe that "groups of Arabs" did not carry out the 9/11 attacks.

As I have argued in much of my academic work, ordinary citizens have strong incentives to be "rationally ignorant" about politics. Because there is very little chance that any one vote will be decisive to the outcome of an election, there is little incentive to invest time and energy in acquiring political information. Muslims are far from unique in this regard. But it is also rational for citizens to do a poor job of analyzing the information they do have, a point I made in the article linked above and that Bryan Caplan drives home in his excellent recent book. Because individual citizens do not pay any cost for clinging to false beliefs about politics, they are likely to embrace emotionally satisfying falsehoods rather than search assiduously for the truth. Bryan calls this "rational irrationality."

At least in the case of Muslims living in the West, I suspect that rational irrationality is more responsible for ignorance about 9/11 than pure rational ignorance. Even the most ignorant person living in the West has likely been exposed to numerous news reports identifying Al Qaeda as the perpetrators of 9/11. Meanwhile, there is no evidence supporting the proposition that any other group was responsible. Muslims who persist in rejecting the evidence probably do so because they are unwilling to believe that their own coreligionists perpetrated such a horrendous atrocity, and are unwilling to give objective consideration to evidence that goes against their preconceptions.

Again, Muslims are far from unique in refusing to give a fair shake to evidence that undercuts their political or religious views. Numerous studies show that this is a trait that cuts across ethnic, religious, and ideological lines (I cite some in my article linked above). Muslims are not even unique in their reluctance to believe that members of their own group could be responsible for terrible atrocities. For decades, the majority of white Americans refused to believe that Jim Crow segregation and other policies instituted by whites were responsible for the plight of African-Americans.

Nonetheless, Muslim ignorance about 9/11 is an important and underrated problem, one that makes it far more difficult to attract Muslim support for the War on Terror and for efforts to curb radical Islamism. Unfortunately, there may not be any easy solution. Still, we should start by recognizing the scope of the problem and the degree to which it exacerbates anti-Americanism among Muslims.

UPDATE: The link to Ali Eteraz's post on the Pew Survey seems to be dead. I am leaving it up in case the people at Huffington Post (where Etaraz blogs) restore it.

UPDATE #2: Thanks to commenter "Serenity Now," we now have a working link to the Eteraz post.

UPDATE #3: Some commenters on this post have been trying to downplay the significance of the data I cite by pointing out that various other groups are also ignorant about important issues. A few of the analogies they make seem apt, while others are much less so. In any case, I don't deny (and in fact emphasized in the post) that rational ignorance and irrationality about politics are common among many groups. The fact that other groups are ignorant about many issues doesn't mean that Muslim ignorance about 9/11 isn't a serious problem.

Political Ignorance and Libertarian Paternalism:

"Libertarian Paternalism" is all the rage in law and economics circles these days. To slightly oversimplify, libertarian paternalists claim that people systematically make mistakes as a result of cognitive errors and biases. Afterwards, they end up with outcomes that they themselves consider inferior to at least some of the alternatives they could have gotten by making a different decision in the first place. As a result, third party intervention (usually, but not always, by the government) can help people make the "right" decision. The difference between the new paternalism and the old is that the former defines "right" by reference to the actor's own preferences, not by some "objective" theory of morality or utility imposed by others. Thus, claim libertarian paternalists, we aren't saying that government should override people's preferences; we just want to help people get what they themselves want. For an introduction to the concept by Richard Thaler (a leading proponet) and a critique by NYU economist Mario Rizzo, see this debate in the Wall Street Journal Econoblog.

At least tentatively, I agree with libertarian paternalists that cognitive errors often lead people to make mistakes that they afterwards regret. The question is, however, compared to what? To justify paternalistic policies ("libertarian" or otherwise), advocates must prove not only that autonomous individuals make mistakes, but that the government will make fewer mistakes if you let it constrain individual choices.

If government policy is subject to democratic control, the key question is whether people are more irrational and ill-informed when they act as consumers than when they act as voters. Regular VC readers won't be surprised to learn that my answer to this question is an emphatic "no." Ignorance and irrationality heavily influence voting decisions, and voters are routinely ignorant about very basic things, such as the mere existence of extremely important government policies. They also hold irrational and ill-founded beliefs about even simple political issues (e.g. - believing that the economy is a zero-sum game and that free trade reduces national wealth instead of increasing it). While direct comparisons with markets are hard to come by, few if any market errors are as widespread as numerous voter errors (of which the free trade example is a notable case). Similarly, few consumers are likely to be as ignorant of the basic characteristics of the products they buy as the 70 percent of eligible voters unaware of the very existence of President Bush's medicare prescription drug plan, the largest and most expensive new government program voters have "bought" over the last 40 years.

Overcoming bias and cognitive error requires time and effort. In political markets, voters have only an infinitesmal chance of influencing the outcome (less than 1 in 100 million in a presidential election, for example). That gives you very little incentive to do the hard work of increasing your knowledge and overcoming your biases. By contrast, when you choose to buy a product in the market, your individual choice is highly likely to be decisive in determining what you get. That gives you a much stronger incentive to try to choose wisely. Casual empiricism bears out this hypothesis. I have yet to meet a person of any ideological persuasion who spends more time and effort deciding which candidate to support for president than they do deciding which car to buy. And it's certainly not because the presidency is less complicated than your car, or less important!

Libertarian paternalists may be right to be pessimistic about how well people make decisions in market settings (though my colleague Josh Wright has an excellent article questioning this). They are, however, implicitly overoptimistic about the quality of the decisions we make as voters.

For some libertarian paternalists, of course, the alternative to market decisionmaking is not democracy but decisionmaking by unelected experts. I will take up this possibility in a follow-up post.

Power to the Experts! - A Solution to the Problem of Political Ignorance?

As I noted in my last post, some advocates of libertarian paternalism try to get around the problem of political ignorance by suggesting that their policies be implemented by government-appointed experts rather than by elected officials. This is not a new argument. Totalitarians from Plato to Lenin have argued that the ignorance of the masses can be offset by concentrating power in the hands of an expert elite. So too have some moderate liberal scholars such as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and even libertarian Bryan Caplan. Breyer, the libertarian paternalists, and Caplan would never think of taking the argument as far as Plato or Lenin. But the core logic is similar: the experts know better than the average person - and therefore they should make the decisions.

For advocates of limited government, the rule of experts is like the vampire that refuses to die no matter how often we drive a stake through its heart. We've been fighting it for 2500 years, but have never quite managed to finish it off. Nevertheless, I'm going to put on my vampire slayer hat, and take a wee little stab at it.

As a solution to the problem of political ignorance, the rule of experts has major shortcomings relative to letting individuals make their own decisions with the help of markets and civil society.

First, it is essential to recognize that individual consumers don't have to rely on government for expertise. They can hire their own experts in the market or rely on more knowledgeable friends and acquiantances. When I get seriously ill, I go to a doctor. When I decide how to invest my money, I rely on the advice of friends who work in venture capital and investment banking. The real question is not whether we are going to rely on experts to help us make decision, but who gets to choose the experts and whether or not the experts will have veto power over the final decision on what to do.

I. Who Gets to Choose the Experts?

If instead of each individual choosing his or her own experts, there is a single set of specialists chosen in democratic elections, then the quality of the decision is likely to be impaired by political ignorance - the very problem that the rule of experts is supposed to stave off. Voters' choice of experts is just as likely to be compromised by rational ignorance and rational irrationality as any other electoral decision. By contrast, market participants generally have much stronger incentives to pick experts wisely.

Of course the experts could instead be chosen by nondemocratic means and insulated from political pressure. Yet, in the absence of democratic control, it will be difficult to ensure that the experts are actually serving the interests of the people as opposed to their own. By contrast, experts hired in a competitive market have better incentives; they know that if they pursue their own interests at the expense of the consumer's, they are likely to be out of a job.

Finally, both democratic and nondemocratic means of choosing government experts have a common weakness: both eliminate the option of dispensing with experts entirely. For some people, that may well be the best choice.

II. Should the Experts Get the Final Word?

The second major shortcoming of government-appointed experts relative to those hired in the market is the fact that government coercion deprives the consumer of the right to make the final decision. If I hire an expert in the market, I retain the right to reject his advice and pursuing a different course of action. This is a vitally important option. Although the expert is more knowledgeable than I am about technical issues in his field, I am more knowledgeable than he is about my own values. An expert on smoking knows more about the health risks involved than I do. But I am in a better position to determine whether the enjoyment I derive from smoking (if any) is enough to outweigh those risks. This insight is central to Hayek's classic critique of economic central planning, and it applies also to less extreme forms of expert control.

Libertarian paternalist policies that use expertise only to "nudge" or "frame" decisions for individuals are less vulnerable to the Hayekian criticism than are more aggressive exercises of expert authority. Yet even relatively modest assertions of expert-driven coercion carry the risk of preventing individuals from applying their own knowledge by increasing the cost of doing so. In any event, as Glen Whitman points out, the libertarian paternalist agenda goes well beyond reframing decisions. In many cases, it seeks to dictate them.

Ultimately, it is a question of whether we control the experts or they control us. Personally, I prefer the former.

Whitman on Libertarian Paternalism:

Economist Glen Whitman has two excellent posts criticizing libertarian paternalism, here and here. I was going to make some of these arguments in a new post myself. But Glen beat me to it, as well as adding some good points that I hadn't thought of!