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Why Political Ignorance Matters

By Ilya Somin on October 28, 2013 in Civic Blog

The first big question I ask in Democracy and Political Ignorance is why we should care about political ignorance in the first place. Political knowledge may not have much inherent value. But even if we don’t value it for its own sake, it matters a great deal for instrumental reasons.
I. Why Voter Ignorance Can be Dangerous

Some legal and political theorists argue that voters are entitled to make decisions at the ballot box on the basis of whatever criteria they want. As Robert Bork put it,“[i]n wide areas of life majorities are entitled to rule, if they wish, simply because they are majorities.” If voters make their decisions on the basis of ignorance, maybe that is their right, just as we are entitled to make many other decisions in ignorance, if we want to. For example, people ignorant about nutrition can choose an unhealthy diet.
John Stuart Mill effectively refuted this kind of argument in his classic 1861 book Considerations on Representative Government. As he pointed out, voting is not a purely personal decision.  It is the exercise of “power over others.” The people the electorate chooses will rule over all of society, not just those who voted for them. When exercising power over other people, we have a duty to make decisions in at least a reasonably informed way.

Ultimately, political ignorance matters because public opinion has a major impact on the policies adopted by democratic government. If that opinion is influenced by ignorance, voters will often support bad policies, and be unable to hold political leaders accountable for their performance. It’s hard to judge whether incumbents are doing a good job if you don’t know much of what the government is doing or cannot understand its effects. Even if we believe that voters have no responsibility to the rest of society and are entitled to vote purely based on narrow self-interest, ignorance can still be a problem. Ignorance might lead such voters to support one set of policies in the expectation that it will benefit them, only to find that they actually cause them great harm.
In addition,  most normative theories of democratic participation implicitly assume some degree of knowledge on the part of voters. This is clearly true of  theories that demand a great deal of voters, such as deliberative democracy. But, as I explain in Chapter 2 of the book,  it is also true even of theories that at first glance seem to require little of the electorate.

II. Factual Ignorance, Moral Ignorance, and Potentially Beneficial Ignorance18117643_l
In my book, I focus mostly on public ignorance about factual matters, such as the policies adopted by government, the likely effects of those policies, the structure of the political system (e.g. – which officials are responsible for which issues),  and the differences between opposing candidates and parties. I recognize that factual knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge relevant to political decision-making. Ideally, we want voters to have good moral knowledge too.
If voters have bad moral values, factual knowledge might actually be harmful. For example, if the majority of the electorate has racist values and prioritizes the goal of inflicting harm on some despised racial minority, a high level of factual knowledge might just enable them to support policies that oppress that minority even more severely than would be the case if the voters were ignorant. I consider this and several other examples of potentially beneficial ignorance in Chapter 2.
In most cases, however, political ignorance is likely to cause more harm than good. Many of the most important issues in American politics turn not on disputes over fundamental values, but on disagreement over how best to achieve widely shared goals such as prosperity, security against external attack, reducing violent crime, and environmental protection. On these kinds of  issues – which are the majority of voters’ top priorities in most elections, according  to survey data – factual knowledge is crucial.
Even some issues that at first glance seem to be primarily about values actually have an important factual dimension. For example, some racists and anti-Semites may hate African-Americans or Jews just because they are “different.” But many do so because they believe (incorrectly) that these groups are harming or threatening to harm whites or gentiles.  As I discuss in the book, historically many white American racists believed that African-Americans must be segregated and denied equal rights, because otherwise whites would suffer a variety of harms, including even widespread rape of white women by black males. Such fears were largely based on ignorance or irrationality. The Nazis and other German anti-Semites believed that the Jews must be suppressed because they were plundering the German economy and otherwise harming “Aryan” gentiles. In reality, German Jews had far less influence than anti-Semites believed, and their impact on the nation’s economy was overwhelmingly positive. Much of what looks to us like bad values is at least in part the product of ignorance. Not all racism and anti-Semitism is the result of ignorance. But a great deal is. The same is true of a number of other common forms of prejudice, such as homophobia, which I also briefly cover in the book.
The kind of ignorance I focus on is far from the only factor that causes dysfunctional policies in a democracy. But it’s important enough to merit greater consideration than it now gets in most debates over law and public policy.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law and Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2013), and coauthor of A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming Nov. 2013). He regularly writes at his home blog The Volokh Conspiracy. This particular post was originally published in Balkinization and is republished here with permission from the author and Balkinization Editor Jack Balkin.