My History News Network op ed on the dangers of political ignorance

May 12

The History News Network just published an op ed I wrote on the dangers of political ignorance, based in part on my recent book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Here is an excerpt:

Political ignorance is deep and widespread. A 2013 poll found that some 44% percent of the public do not realize that the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare, is still the law. Most of the public does not understand the distribution of spending in the federal budget, despite ongoing political conflict over our fiscal problems….

Widespread public ignorance is not a new problem. Surveys show that political knowledge levels today are roughly the same as fifty to sixty years ago. Throughout American history, ignorance has often resulted in flawed and oppressive government policies. Relatively well-informed voters were much more likely to oppose racial segregation than ignorant ones. If not for voter ignorance, public opinion might have turned against segregation long before it actually did. Some nineteenth century evidence suggests that more highly educated and more politically informed whites were more likely to oppose slavery. If so, political ignorance might have contributed to the persistence of this form of oppression as well. Modern polling data shows that well-informed voters have long supported equality for gays and lesbians at higher rates than poorly informed ones. Absent widespread political ignorance, government persecution of homosexuals might have abated long before it actually did.

For decades, economists across the political spectrum have agreed that free trade is generally much better for the economy than protectionism. Well-informed voters tend to agree. But protectionism remains popular among the relatively ignorant majority, facilitating policies that harm consumers and slow economic growth for the benefit of well-organized business interests. There are many similar examples.

Political ignorance has actually gotten worse over time in one crucial respect: today’s government is significantly larger and more complex than decades ago. Government spending now accounts for nearly 40% of GDP, and government regulation controls more aspects of our lives than in the past. Today, the federal government restricts everything from the way toilets flush to the types of light bulbs we can use. Even if voters started paying more attention to political issues, they would still understand only a small fraction of the issues addressed by the modern state.

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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