Commentary

Are American Voters Stupid? Maybe Not

As the US presidential election enters the home stretch, the majority of citizens remain ignorant about many of the issues at stake.

Surveys show that 70 per cent of American adults do not know that Congress recently passed a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens, even though the new law - projected to cost US$500 billion over the next 10 years - is probably the most significant domestic legislation passed during the Bush administration. More than 60 per cent do not know that President George W. Bush’s term has seen a massive increase in domestic spending that added greatly to the budget deficit. Three-quarters admit that they know little or nothing about the Patriot Act.

However sad those results may be, they are not surprising. Decades of research show that most citizens know very little about politics and public policy. Ignorance goes beyond a lack of awareness of specific issues. Even more alarming is that most people lack basic knowledge about political leaders and the structure of government.

It is tempting to conclude that voters must be lazy or stupid. But even a smart and hardworking person can rationally decide not to pay much attention to politics. No matter how well-informed a person is, his or her vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election. Since that vote is almost certain not to be decisive, even a citizen who cares greatly about the outcome has almost no incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice.

Acquiring significant amounts of political knowledge to be a more informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational. But the rational decisions of individuals create a dysfunctional collective outcome in which the majority of the electorate is dangerously ill-informed.

If political ignorance is rational, there are limits to our ability to reduce it by reforming the education system or by improving media coverage of politics. With the rise of the internet and 24-hour news channels, political knowledge is readily available to those willing to take the time and effort to find it. The problem is not that the truth is not out there, it is that most do not bother to seek it out.

Even if the majority of voters were willing to pay more attention to politics, that still might not be enough to cope with the complexities of modern government, at a time when government spending accounts for one-third of the gross domestic product, and regulations affect nearly all aspects of life.

The problem of political ignorance is not going to be solved soon. But it may be possible to ensure that more people possess at least basic political knowledge. At the same time, we should consider the possibility that a government with fewer functions might be easier for voters to understand and control.

Ilya Somin, an assistant professor of law at George Mason University, is the author of the new Cato Institute study, “When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy.