Steve Chapman

"Political knowledge levels have risen little if at all over the last several decades, despite major increases in education and the availability of information," writes George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin in a draft book, "Democracy and Political Ignorance." "Demand for information, not supply, is the main constraint on political learning in a world where most people are rationally ignorant about politics."

This knowledge void is hard to square with our belief in democracy -- which relies on ordinary people to 1) figure out what the government should do and 2) elect candidates who will implement their preferences.

Their depressing failure is enough to raise doubts about the validity of government by the people. Of course, the founders of the American republic had plenty of those doubts. That's why they built in checks on popular control, particularly restrictions on who may participate in elections.

But we're not going back to limited suffrage, and it's hard to believe the country would be better off if most people were barred from voting. Even an ill-informed electorate will fare better if it has a role in choosing its leaders -- just as patients gain from being allowed to choose their doctors, despite not having been to medical school.

Can widespread political ignorance be cured? Probably not -- though, as Somin argues, we can minimize its effects through simple, transparent institutions and decentralized power, which reduce the amount of knowledge voters need. But however serious the flaws of popular government, we really have no alternative.

Democracy may produce fiscal bloat and political gridlock, but it doesn't produce Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il. It's not an assurance of the best outcomes. It is, however, a pretty good protection against the worst.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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