Mixing Ignorance and Democracy

Steve Chapman

4/19/2012 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman
This is an election year, which means all of us will spend the next few months carefully following the campaigns, finding out all we can about the candidates' proposals and pondering what issues are most vital for the nation's future.

Just kidding. Most of us wouldn't do that if you Tased us to within an inch of our lives.

In fact, many won't learn the most rudimentary facts about the people running for office and the policy issues they will have to address. Some of us will jump to believe any half-baked rumor or stereotype that confirms our prejudices.

We'll vote to reward or punish incumbents for events that they have nothing to do with. Some voters won't even find out the names of the people running for many offices. In short, the citizenry as a whole will carry out what looks like a giant cartoon parody of democracy.

Our form of government is one of those inventions that often look much better in concept than in practice. We see ourselves as a sober, enlightened people who jealously guard the national ideals and voting prerogatives for which our forebears died. We trust that our sound principles and attention to current events will yield good government in the end.

But we rarely live up to our self-image. There is a consistently large gap between what people need to know and what they actually do know.

Most think the federal budget is too big, but the only program a majority wants to cut is foreign aid -- which makes up about 1 percent of spending. Voters think taxes are too high but don't realize they've been reduced. One reason Americans supported the invasion of Iraq was that most of them had the erroneous idea that Saddam Hussein carried out the 9/11 attacks.

It's not just the issues of the day that flummox people. Most Americans don't know the three branches of government. They don't know the name of the person representing them in Congress.

Civics teachers, foundations and the League of Women Voters strive to improve the functioning of democracy by educating people about politics and government. Their efforts bring to mind the joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb: only one, but it has to really want to change.

The most concerted efforts to inform voters won't work unless voters have good reason to learn. And they don't.

After all, a person who learns a lot in order to vote intelligently has almost zero chance of changing the outcome of any election. Aside from the feeling of virtue it may confer, it's an irrational indulgence. Ignorance, by contrast, is perfectly rational.

"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.