Friday, October 04, 2013

Why Political Ignorance is a Serious Problem

Ilya Somin

In my last post, I explained why political ignorance matters. But how big a problem is it really? Perhaps the public is actually pretty knowledgeable. Unfortunately, it turns out that the problem is extremely severe. Most of the public knows very little about politics and public policy. They also often do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. Such ignorance and irrationality are not the result of "stupidity" or the unavailability of information. They are in fact perfectly rational behavior.

I. The Extent of  Political Ignorance

Political ignorance in America is deep and widespread. I give many examples in Chapter 1 of my book. Here are a couple that relate to issues at the heart of the political battle over the current government shutdown: Although Obamacare is at the center of that fight and has been a controversial issue for years, 44% percent of the public do not even realize it is still the law. Some 80 percent, according to a recent Kaiser survey, say they have heard "nothing at all" or "only a little" about the controversial insurance exchanges that are a major element of the law. Although the shutdown fight is just the latest manifestation of a longstanding conflict over federal spending exacerbated by an ongoing fiscal crisis, most of the public has very little idea of  how federal spending is actually distributed. They greatly underestimate the percentage that goes to big entitlement programs, and vastly overestimate that spent on foreign aid.

Public ignorance is not limited to information about  programs. The public is also often ignorant about the basic structure of government and how it operates. A 2006 Zogby survey found that only 42 percent can even name the three branches of the federal government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. There is also widespread ignorance and confusion about political ideology, and about such matters as which government officials are responsible for which issues. In Chapter 2 of the book, I discuss how the public's level of political knowledge falls below the minimum requirements of even relatively forgiving theories of democratic participation,  much less demanding ones, such as deliberative democracy.

This kind of ignorance is not a new phenomenon. Political knowledge has been at roughly the same low level since the start of modern public opinion polling in the 1930s and 40s. But it is striking that knowledge levels have risen very little, if at all, despite rising educational attainment and the increased availability of information through the internet, cable news, and other modern technologies.

II. Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality

Some people react to data like the above by thinking that the voters must be stupid. But political ignorance is actually perfectly rational for most of the public. If your only reason for following politics is to be a better voter, that turns out to not be much of an incentive at all, because there is so little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example). For most people, therefore, it is rational to devote very little time to learning about politics, and instead focus on other activities that are more interesting, or more useful. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair puts it, "[t]he single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most   of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh...., before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll." Most people don't precisely calculate the odds that their vote will make a difference. But they do have an intuitive sense that the likelihood is small, and act accordingly. 

In Chapter 3 of the book, I discuss in greater detail why rational behavior is probably the best explanation for the persistence of  ignorance despite rising education levels and the increased availability of information. I also discuss why rationally ignorant people often still bother to vote, as opposed to staying home on election day. To briefly summarize, the key factor is that voting is cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues.

Of course there are people who learn political information for reasons other than becoming better voters. Just as there are sports fans who love to follow their favorite teams even though they can't influence the outcomes of games, there are also "political fans" who enjoy following political issues, and cheering for their favorite candidates, parties, or ideologies. I am a political fan myself, as are many of the people who read blogs like Balkinization or the Volokh Conspiracy. So too are most of the people with an unusually high level of knowledge of politics, in the general population. The single most powerful predictor of political knowledge - more important even than education - is interest in politics.

There is nothing wrong with being a political fan. But if you are seeking out political information for the purpose of enhancing your fan experience, that objective is often inimical to the goal of seeking out the truth. Much like sports fans, political fans tend to evaluate new information in a highly biased way. They overvalue anything that supports their preexisting views, and undervalue or ignore new data that cuts against them, even to the extent of misinterpreting simple data that they could easily interpret correctly in other contexts. Moreover, those most interested in political issues are also particularly prone to discuss it only with others who agree with their views, and following politics only through like-minded media. Conservative political fans prefer Fox News, for example, while liberal ones like NPR or MSNBC. 

All of this is highly illogical if the goal is truth-seeking. As John Stuart Mill famously argued, a truth-seeker should make a special effort to focus on viewpoints other than his or her own. But it makes perfect sense if the goal is not so much truth, as enhancing the political fan experience. Economist Bryan Caplan calls this kind of behavior "rational irrationality": when the goal of acquiring information is something other than truth-seeking, it is often rational to be highly biased in the way you evaluate what you learn. 

Unlike Caplan, however, I argue that widespread political ignorance would be a serious danger even if voters were always rational in their evaluation of what they know. Rational ignorance and rational irrationality are both serious problems, and each is made worse by the presence of the other. In combination, they create a situation where most of the public knows very little about politics, and the minority that knows a lot often does a poor job of using that knowledge. 

III. Ignorance and the Complexity of Modern Government

The problem of political ignorance is exacerbated by enormous size and scope of modern government. In the United States, government spending accounts for close to 40% of GDP, according OECD estimates. And that does not include numerous other government policies that function through regulation of the private sector. Almost every aspect of our lives is regulated by government, at least to some degree. Even if  voters followed political issues more closely than they do, and were more rational in their evaluation of political information, they still could not effectively monitor more than  a small fraction of the activities of the modern state. 

In my next post, I will discuss why the twin dangers of political ignorance and irrationality are unlikely to be overcome by using simple "information shortcuts," or by standard proposals for increasing public knowledge.

UPDATE: I initially did not turn on comments for this post because I forgot that the default setting on Balkinization is that they are not permitted. I have allowed them now.


An interesting aspect of these two posts, so far: if I had not already heard of their author elsewhere, and thus had an understanding that his political views lean libertarian, I would not have been able to tell which way this series of posts is heading. If I had to guess, it would've been the opposite political valence; they are almost the standard lead-in to an argument in favor of a technocratic government led by scientific experts.

It will be interesting to see if the subsequent posts clarify the points of divergence.

Economic ignorance is even more widespread. Our highly educated poster: ¨government spending accounts for close to 40% of GDP ..¨ This common estimate is invalid because it conflates apples and oranges. The government budgets (here it´s all levels of government) include transfers like Social Security and purchases of goods and service like Defense. In the system of national accounts, these don´t go into the same table. Transfers are a category of national income - where persons get their money from, along with wages and investment income. Purchases of goods and services, like soldiering and aircraft carriers, go in the national product table: all the valuable stuff produced in the country. The tables should add up to the same total, with appropriate adjustments for capital consumption and foreign trade). In practice they don´t quite, because of measurement problems, and we tend to settle on the production table because it´s usually more up-to-date. But dividing ¨all public spending¨ by GNI or GDP is a nonsense. It would make slightly more sense to divide by 200 (GNI + GDP), giving you a ratio of about 20%.
A thought experiment. In a hyper-Stalinist command economy, all production belongs to the government. Consumer goods are distributed free by lottery. The government´s share of GDP is 100%. It´s 0% of GNI, which doesn´t exist. Alternatively, you can have a libertarian/fascist market economy, where the government provides no services at all. However ther state confiscatee everybody´s income and redistributes it. In this case the share of GDP is zero and of GNI is 100%. By combining th dystopias, you can have an (appalling and practically impossible) society where the state´s production and transfers combined add up to more than 100% of GDP or GNI.

IS: "The problem of political ignorance is exacerbated by enormous size and scope of modern government. In the United States, government spending accounts for close to 40% of GDP, according OECD estimates."

JW: "Economic ignorance is even more widespread. Our highly educated poster: ¨government spending accounts for close to 40% of GDP ..¨ This common estimate is invalid because it conflates apples and oranges. The government budgets (here it´s all levels of government) include transfers like Social Security and purchases of goods and service like Defense. In the system of national accounts, these don´t go into the same table."

Professor Somin is using government spending as a percentage of GDP as a proxy for the size and scope of government power. For this purpose, it does not matter whether the government took Peter's money to give cash to or to buy goods or services for Paul.

Indeed, this fiscal measure substantially understates the size and scope of our increasingly socialist government's power when the government is (ab)using its police power to direct entire industries. See, e.g., Obamacare and Obama's "clean energy economy" programs.

Why is the Apple iBooks version more expensive than the Kindle, even though iBooks offers more generous terms to the author?

If you will fix that, I'll buy the book :)

And why is the hardcover $80? Gulp!


So Bart de Palma doesn´t understand GDP either. And this refutes my point how? He and Professor Somini want to keep using a misleading ratio as a proxy indeed: a proxy for understanding the issue.

I expect they´ll be telling me next that the Davos ¨national competitiveness¨ rankings should be taken seriously.¨

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