My University of Pennsylvania RegBlog article on “The Problem of Political Ignorance”

February 3, 2014

The University of Pennsylvania RegBlog website has just published a short article I wrote on “The Problem of Political Ignorance,” which draws on my recent book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Here is an excerpt:

Democracy is intended to be rule by the people. But all too often, the people have all too little understanding of what they rule over. Political ignorance is a ubiquitous and persistent problem in modern democracy. It strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing political power, and for judicial review.

Much evidence shows that the public is ignorant about many aspects of government and public policy. Despite years of debate over the federal government’s fiscal problems, polls show that voters grossly underestimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, while massively overestimating the amount spent on foreign aid. Although the latter accounts for about 1 percent of the federal budget, surveys show that most Americans believe that it is five to ten times more than that. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 is another major current political issue. Yet an August 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 44% did not even realize that Obamacare is still the law….

Public ignorance is not the result of stupidity or lack of available information. The internet and other modern technology has made political information more widely available than ever before in human history. Average IQ scores have risen substantially over the last several decades. The problem is not lack of information or intelligence. It is that most of us are not using our intelligence to learn and process the political information that is readily available.

I outlined the argument of the book in greater detail in this October essay for Cato Unbound.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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