Kind of related to my previous post about cynicism in politics, I’ve been hearing a lot lately about political ignorance. A lot of the stories about Obamacare have focused on the extent to which people — even people who enthusiastically supported it — had no idea what was in the law. Full grown adults, who apparently haven’t spent a lot of time living on earth, are shocked to learn that things aren’t turning out exactly like politicians promised.
Law professor Ilya Somin has written a book called Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter. He explains his premise in a couple of blog posts, excerpted below.
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.
Wow, that hypothetical example sounds terrifyingly familiar. Somin further expounds on the theme in Why Political Ignorance is a Serious Problem:
The problem of political ignorance is exacerbated by enormous size and scope of modern government. In the United States, government spending accounts for close to 40% of GDP, according OECD estimates. And that does not include numerous other government policies that function through regulation of the private sector. Almost every aspect of our lives is regulated by government, at least to some degree. Even if voters followed political issues more closely than they do, and were more rational in their evaluation of political information, they still could not effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the activities of the modern state.
Yes, it would be better is all Americans understood everything about their government and the consequences of government actions. But it is good that Americans have lives that are full enough that they don’t have time to worry about crap like that.
I am a vociferous proponent of political apathy. Somebody has to be, because the apathetic certainly aren’t going to do it. If you’re not interested in learning all about the minutiae of Washington politics, I say good for you. Do your thing, take care of your family, and spare yourself the grief.
The only problem with political apathy is that it takes two to play at that game, and the government is not apathetic about you at all. It is, in fact, very interested in you, like a bad ex-girlfriend with infinite resources who doesn’t have anything better to do. No matter how little you care, the government is so big that it — along with all of its stupid ideas — is going to land on you in some way.
In my mind, the best cure for political ignorance is to have a government that is small enough so that ignorance about it doesn’t matter. It is a pipe dream to ever hope for all Americans to suddenly devote a significant chunk of their spare time to studies of tax law and Supreme Court precedent. But reduce the reach and power of government, and you reduce the need to know about any of that stuff.
Unfortunately, the people who do care enough to know that stuff don’t want less government; they want more of it, so that their otherwise esoteric knowledge will matter more. So, to ever have smaller government, Americans will have to rise up and fight for their right to be apathetic. It seems contradictory, but it’s more likely than anyone ever learning what’s in the Affordable Care Act.