Let’s examine the shocking implications of a study done by Just Facts a public policy think tank. For reference, the study can be found here: http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/fact-based-poll-reveals-fictions-believed-voters. The study polled participants by asking them twenty questions, two of which were used to establish their political identity, and the other eighteen were objectively verifiable facts about different public policy questions pertaining to current issues. The study then compiled the answers, and calculated what percent of respondents answered the each question correctly, further breaking the results down by political affiliation. An example of one of the questions asked; “Do you think the federal government spends more money on social programs, such as Medicare, education, and food stamps … or does the federal government spend more money on national defense, such as the Army, Navy, and missile defense?”
This study shows that an astonishing proportion of voters are grossly misinformed about many of the relevant political issues in this year’s election cycle. Out of the eighteen questions asked, only four were answered correctly by a majority of respondents. Also notable is the drastic difference between Romney voters and Obama voters on some of the questions. These factors should make us reconsider being such staunch advocates of democracy After all how good is it for everyone to have a say, when people are not only ignorant but in fact wrong about the facts surrounding important policy issues?
The partisan divide on some of the questions was dramatic as well as quite telling. Question 10 reads, “Some policymakers are proposing that individuals be allowed to save and invest some of their Social Security taxes in personal accounts instead of paying these taxes to the Social Security program. In your view, do you think such proposals generally improve or harm the finances of the Social Security program?” The correct answer that they provide is that it Social Security’s finances would be improved. The correct answer was, “given by 25% of all voters, 5% of Obama voters, and 47% of Romney voters.” Democrats claim they don’t want to cut seniors’ benefits but are always averse to privatization schemes when they are proposed with regard to entitlements. The fact that only five percent knew that privatization proposals would improve the program’s finances and thus mitigate the necessity of cutting benefits to seniors demonstrates that Democrats as a whole are woefully uninformed in this area due to economic misconceptions.
On the other hand, while Republicans were much more aware regarding social security, still less than half of them knew the correct answer. This shows that while Republicans may be less ignorant than Democrats on matters of economic policy, they are both still relatively ignorant. It’s not exactly confidence inspiring that of the members of the party that espouses these privatization schemes, most members sampled did not even know that their preferred policy option was beneficial.
On the flip side we have Question 2 which reads, “Do you think combined federal, state, and local taxes now consume a larger portion of the economy or a smaller portion of the economy than they did 10 years ago?” The correct answer was a smaller portion. The correct answer was given by, “19% of all voters, 38% of Obama voters, and 6% of Romney voters.” So now we have a mere six percent of Romney voters responding correctly and we can see how their views would have been infected by partisan propaganda. Romney continued to talk about how tax rates were too high, although he then marginalized his position by saying any cuts he made would be revenue neutral. It seems that Romney voters were led to believe that taxes were currently irregularly high by the constant push for lower taxes.
Once again it is informative that although Obama voters outperformed Romney voters by more than thirty percent, they still were far from having a majority of respondents giving the correct answer. This is almost perplexing since Obama harped so frequently on revenues being too low to sustain our “need” for government spending.
The concept of democracy is one that is held in high esteem in our society. We value it as one of our founding principles so much so that it has become a hallmark of American political society. In light of this study, assuming its results are representative of the voting population as a whole, should we think twice about how blindly we value democracy in our political society today?
I am certain that no one reading this would be satisfied with a surgeon performing open heart surgery on them if they weren’t too knowledgeable about the procedure. Or a mechanic who was knowledgeable about how to fix cars in 25% of cases to perform their auto repair services. So why in the world do we allow people who are so ignorant of the details of relevant policy issues to make decisions that will affect the country by voting for politicians whom will represent us? Why should we let someone who knows nothing about the effectiveness or lack thereof of private school voucher programs vote as to whether or not our children should be allowed to receive vouchers? Why should we allow the poor to be devastated by economically illiterate liberals who impose forced unionism and the minimum wage in the name of helping the poor? Why should we let those who know nothing of tariffs vote to make all of our consumer goods needlessly more expensive?
This problem persists due to a term known as rational ignorance. A voter is said to be rationally ignorant with regards to a specific issue when the costs of educating themselves on an issue outweigh the potential benefit to doing so. In national and even statewide politics, this is almost always the case. If a voter is considering an issue (say the minimum wage) and how they should vote based upon it, the benefit of educating themselves as to all of the possible benefits or problems associated with the policy are negligible because at the end of the day they only have one vote out of millions (750,000 in the case of house races). The cost however can be quite burdensome. If they don’t get formal schooling on the subject they will at least have to sacrifice some of their own time to study the issue. Instead they listen to what their party and the Superpac television ads tell them about politicians and issues and that is what they base their decisions off of. This is why most voters remain ignorant on many issues, because it is rational for them to do so.
Some would propose as a remedy for this tenuous situation, that we simply improve our national public education curriculum by including lessons on many of our nation’s current issues or that we simply have government funded, “non-partisan” commercials on television to explain issues in their proper context. Or perhaps pamphlets could be handed out to all voters when they register. This type of solution seems exceedingly dubious to me on a number of fronts.
To narrow it down to a single reason, I believe that no matter how much the government tries to subsidize education on political issues, it would not be enough to overcome the rationality of ignorance from the perspective of the individual voter. No matter how much the government tries to lower the cost for the individual, it will still require time and effort that most voters will not believe is worth it
The only workable solution is that we should push for limiting the amount of power and scope that the government, and by extension voters, have. If we reduce the functions of the government to the greatest extent, then voters will not have to try to learn about thousands of different areas of policy and specific proposed laws and regulations and executive actions. By severely limiting the government we can end the tyranny of ignorance that we currently live under.