Four Reasons Why Being Politically Ignorant May or May Not Matter

3. Yes. People Are Too Ignorant to Know What They're Voting About, So We Should Shrink the Government.

This is the view of Professor Ilya Somin. But he is a libertarian so it's not shocking that his prescription is . . . smaller government. I don't think Somin's answer to the problem is particularly helpful for a number of reasons. First, Somin agrees, the public is very ignorant vis-a-vis traditional notions of political acuity. Dangerously ignorant. Then he dismisses the notion of "information shortcuts" or cues: "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."

Next, Somin decides that there is no feasible way to fix the lack of political knowledge. Therefore, the only way for democracy to really work is to have a small government because people could then wrap their heads around that. I love libertarians. They have one answer for everything: smaller government!

4. No. Because Not Even Politicians Are Not Experts on Every Issue They Vote On.

Lobbyists can be a pejorative word, but politicians will tell you that sometimes they provide useful information on a specific topic that the politician does not know much about. Less happily, there is the story about congressmen filing in to vote on a bill and relying on a "trusted" lobbyist who signals how to vote with a thumbs up or down. Or, congressman and Senators will rely on a trusted colleague who they know has a specific area of expertise (e.g., John Kerry on foreign policy; Paul Ryan on budget issues; Ted Cruz on being a raging as*hole & c.). The bottom line here: maybe we are holding the public to too high of a standard given political elites own inability to master policy.

American politics is really complicated. No one is an expert on everything -- beware of the person who refuses to say, "I don't know enough about to have an informed opinion on it." Elite manipulation of opinion -- JFK and the missile gap, GWB on Iraq -- is sometimes a concern, but the public has mostly shown a stubborn resistance to not be openly manipulated. (See Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence, at p. 26).

I'm sympathetic to the concern that Americans don't pay enough attention to the policies that affect them every day because they are not tangible. But Somin's call for a smaller government is no more than a ideological end-run using political ignorance as a tool to get to his policy preference for smaller government. Another idea that has been around since Plato, is the idea of philosopher-kings/technocrats/experts who are benevolent political rulers. However, in the end, the best evidence is that for all their alleged informational deficits, voters do a pretty good job of accurately expressing their policy preferences. Political ignorance matters, but not as much as some would lead us to believe.

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