In my last post based on my new book Democracy and Political Ignorance, I argued that widespread political ignorance is a serious problem. But perhaps it's a problem voters can readily overcome by using "information shortcuts." Alternatively, maybe there is an easy way to increase voters' knowledge through education. Unfortunately, neither of these commonly advocated solutions is as effective as their advocates claim.
I. Information Shortcuts
Some economists, political scientists, and others argue that voters don't need to know much about politics and government because they can rely on "information shortcuts" to make good decisions. Information shortcuts are small bits of information that we can use as proxies for larger bodies of knowledge of which we may be ignorant.
In Chapter 4 of my book, I discuss many different types of shortcuts and explain why they are usually not as effective as advocates suggests. Shortcuts can indeed be useful and political ignorance would be an even more serious problem without them. But they also have serious limitations, and sometimes make the problem of ignorance worse rather than better. The major problems are that shortcuts often require preexisting knowledge to use effectively, and that many people choose information shortcuts for reasons unrelated to truth-seeking.
Perhaps the most popular shortcut is "retrospective voting": the idea that voters don't need to follow the details of policy, but only need to know whether things are going well or badly. If things are looking up, they can reward the incumbents at election time. If not, they can vote the bums out, and the new set of bums will have a strong incentive to adopt better policies, lest they be voted out in turn. As Ronald Reagan famously put it in 1980, perhaps voters need only answer the following question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
Unfortunately, effective retrospective voting requires greater knowledge than Reagan's question suggests. In order to reward or punish incumbents for their performance, it's important to know what events they actually caused, and which ones were beyond their control. Studies show that voters repeatedly reward and punish political leaders for events they have little control over, particularly short-term economic trends. Incumbents also get rewarded or blamed for such things as droughts, shark attacks, and victories by local sports teams.In order to use information shortcuts effectively, you often need background knowledge that most of the electorate often doesn't have.
The other major shortcoming of shortcuts is that voters often choose them for reasons other than their utility for getting at the truth. For example, some scholars argue that "opinion leaders" are useful shortcuts. Instead of learning about government policy themselves, voters can follow the directions of opinion leaders who share similar values, but know more than the voters themselves do. Unfortunately, if we look at the most popular opinion leaders, most of them are not people notable for their impressive knowledge of public policy issues. They are people like Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart, whose main asset is their skills at entertaining their audience and validating its preexisting biases. Relying on such opinion leaders is another example of rational irrationality at work. Because there is so little incentive to actually seek the truth about political issues, it is often rational for "political fans" to choose their opinion leaders largely based on how entertaining they are, and whether they make us feel good about the views we already hold. When we choose information shortcuts in this way, it increases the likelihood that the shortcuts will mislead rather than inform.
Chapter 4 of the book also criticizes "miracle of aggregation" theories, which claim that voting effectively aggregates widespread ignorance at the individual level in ways that lead to well-informed collective decision-making. Such outcomes are, I suggest, theoretically possible, but rare in the real world.
II. Alleviating Ignorance by Increasing Knowledge
Perhaps the most obvious way to overcome political ignorance is by increasing knowledge through education. For centuries, the need to increase public knowledge of politics has been one of the main arguments for public education. Unfortunately, political knowledge levels have increased very little over the last fifty to sixty years, even as educational attainment (and spending on public schools) have risen enormously. Increasing IQ scores have also failed to increase political knowledge, even though teaching political information should be easier when the student body is smarter. This suggests that increasing political knowledge through education is a lot harder than we might think it is.
Perhaps the problem is that the schools are teaching the wrong things. A better curriculum might ensure that high school students don't graduate without learning basic political and historical knowledge, as many currently do. The difficulty here is that governments have very little incentive to ensure that public schools really do adopt curricula that increase knowledge. If the voters effectively monitored education policy and rewarded elected officials for using public schools to increase political knowledge, things might be different. But if the voters were that knowledgeable, we probably wouldn't have a problem of political ignorance to begin with.
Moreover, political leaders and influential interest groups often use public education to indoctrinate students in their own preferred ideology rather than increase knowledge. In both Europe (where it was established in large part to inculcate nationalism) and the United States (where a major objective was indoctrinating Catholic immigrants in true "American" values, including Protestant morality), indoctrination was one of the major motives for the establishment of public education in the first place. As John Stuart Mill feared, public education is often used to indoctrinate students in whatever ideology "pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation."
Even if public schools did begin to do a better job of teaching political knowledge and minimized indoctrination, it is hard to see how students could learn enough to understand and monitor more than a small fraction of the many complex activities of modern government.
This is not to say that we shouldn't try to use education to increase knowledge. Some incremental improvements are probably possible. But if history is any guide, they are unlikely to be very large.
Education is not the only possible strategy for increasing voter knowledge. In Chapter 7 of my book, I consider several others, including media reform, structured deliberation proposals such as those developed by Balkinization's Bruce Ackerman and others, and even just simply paying voters to learn more about politics (my own idea, though I am pessimistic about its feasibility, especially in the short run). Elsewhere, I have suggested that we might potentially improve the quality of the electorate by allowing politically knowledgeable children to vote.
Each of these proposals has some merit. But all either fail to address more than a small fraction of the problem, fail to account for the perverse incentives of real-world government, or some combination of both. Proposals that focus on increasing the availability of information (such as the oft-made suggestion that the media devote more resources to covering and broadcasting "hard" news) also fail to adequately consider the reality that the majority of the public ignores most of the vast amount of political information that is already easily accessible through the internet and other sources. Political ignorance is primarily a problem of insufficient demand for information rather than inadequate supply.
In the book, I also briefly critique two traditional strategies for alleviating political ignorance by limiting access to political power: restricting the franchise to those who are knowledgeable, and giving more power to "expert" bureaucrats insulated from electoral influence. For a variety of reasons spelled out in the book (see also here), I am very skeptical of both.
It's possible that some technological or policy breakthrough will enable us to radically increase political knowledge in the future. In the meantime, we should consider how best to live with widespread political ignorance, since it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. In my next post, I will try to explain how we can help do that by limiting and decentralizing government power.