21 February 2010

Journal special issue on political ignorance in democracy

In autumn 1998, "Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society" carried a symposium on "Public Ignorance and Democracy" (12 [4]). In winter 2006, it carried another one on "Democratic Competence", also with some articles of possible interest (18 [1-3]). On occasion of the last but one annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in Boston, then, the Critical Review Foundation convened a "Conference on Political Ignorance and Dogmatism" titled "Homo Politicus: Ignorant, Dogmatic, Irrational?" on 31 August 2008. The conference comprised five hour-long roundtables, the transcripts of which were published again in a special issue of "Critical Review" (20 [4], December 2008):



Jeffrey Friedman (University of Texas, Austin/Editor, "Critical Review"), "Preface" (p. 415), "Introductory Remarks" (pp. 417-21), and "Closing Remarks" (pp. 527-33).

Scott Althaus (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; moderator), Bryan Caplan (George Mason University), Jeffrey Friedman, Ilya Somin (University of Pennsylvania), and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (New York University; discussant), "Roundtable 1: Public Ignorance: Rational, Irrational, or Inevitable?" (pp. 423-44).

Excerpts: "[Friedman:] [A]mazingly little – as far as I know – survey research has been done asking people why they do or don't vote. Do people not vote because they realize that their vote doesn't really count, given the large size of the electorate? [...] [I]t's hard to [...] explain the political ignorance of voters, who by virtue of voting seem to think that their vote does count. [...] The fact that they vote [...] suggests that many hundreds of millions of voters around the world don't know the odds against their vote making any difference, and probably have never even thought about that. [...] [Somin:] [A] recent survey shows that over 70 percent of the public can name all three of the Three Stooges. [...] On the other hand, only about 40 percent can name the three branches of the federal government. [...] Similarly, most people cannot name more than one of the rights that are in the Bill of Rights, but most people can name multiple characters on 'The Simpsons.' [...] [Y]ou probably spend much more time deciding what car you're going to buy or what television you're going to buy than deciding who you're going to vote for for president. It's not because the presidency is less important than these other things, it's because you know that your choice is individually decisive on the car or the house but is not going to be decisive on the presidency."

Scott Althaus (discussant), John Bullock (Yale), Jeffrey Friedman (moderator), Arthur Lupia (University of Michigan), and Paul Quirk (University of British Columbia), "Roundtable 2: Ignorance and Error" (pp. 445-61).

Excerpts: "[Lupia:] How should we measure voter competence? To measure competence, it has to be competence with respect to something, such as a task. [...] For now, we can think of the task to be voting. [...] What I want to point out to you first, is that if you take a chimpanzee and you give it a fair coin and you make its vote based on the outcome of that coin toss, the chimp gets the answer right half the time. [...] So the question you might want to ask yourself is, 'Is the voter in a binary-choice situation dumber than a chimp with a coin?' [...] [Quirk:] Why should we say, or why do I say in the things that I write, that the public is prone to error or maybe that it lacks competence in public-policy judgments? [...] There is no SAT on public policy where people need to score a 600 in order to get into the voting booth. [...] One could imagine, and attribute to a scholar like me, such views as that we ought to find ways to limit voting participation, or that we should delegate absolutely as much policy making as we can to expert commissions, or that possibly we should limit the frequency of elections, or endorse vast increases in the amount of secrecy that the government uses: these are some of the recommendations you could make on the grounds that the public was not competent about judging policies. [...] I think it's reasonable to oppose the expansion of direct democracy – that is, to oppose more use of referendums or teledemocracy and so forth. [...] [Althaus:] [L]ook at what those so-called 'classical democratic theorists' had to say, none of them presumed that democracy required an informed citizenry. Quite the contrary, they were writing before universal education. Most people were ignorant, according to conventional standards; they could not read. The problem of democracy was how to design a system that worked despite the fact that most people who would have had the power under universal suffrage to choose the government might lack the competence to carry out this task."

Samuel DeCanio (Georgetown University), Jeffrey Friedman (moderator), David R. Mayhew (Yale; discussant), Michael H. Murakami (Yale), and Nick Weller (University of Southern California), "Roundtable 3: Political Ignorance, Empirical Realities" (pp. 463-80).

Excerpts: "[DeCanio:] [M]ost voters [...] cannot name their elected officials, much less describe what these individuals are doing once they're in power. [...] [Murakami:] [R]ecent papers highlight the public's inability to distinguish between the outcomes of policy and the outcomes of random chance. [...] I'm actually arguing against a popular political environment, including journalism, where it's assumed that citizens should be making these kind of very sophisticated, knowledgeable decisions, which is unrealistic. [...] I think that there is a bridge that needs to be built [...] to overcome the misinterpretation of people who are highly critical of the competence of citizens as attacking democracy."

Scott Althaus (moderator), David Barash (University of Washington), Jeffrey Friedman (discussant), George E. Marcus (Williams College), and Charles S. Taber (State University of New York, Stony Brook), "Roundtable 4: Political Dogmatism" (pp. 481-98).

Jeffrey Friedman (moderator/discussant), Tom Hoffman (Spring Hill College), Russell Muirhead (University of Texas, Austin), Mark Pennington (Queen Mary, University of London), and Ilya Somin, "Roundtable 5: Normative Implications" (pp. 499-525).

Excerpts: "[Muirhead:] 'How should democracy take stock of the fact of voter ignorance?' [...] We inhabit, as you know, a commercial republic, not the Greek polis, and the commercial republic asks for much less of citizens than did the participatory democracy of ancient Athens. It asks that citizens work regularly and vote only very occasionally. [...] So the problem of citizen ignorance is less acute for commercial republics than it would be for a participatory republic or a participatory democracy. It's less acute for us than it would be if we filled our Supreme Court by lottery or if we filled the Senate by lottery. It's less acute for a representative democracy, where citizens are basically engaged in commerce, than it would be for others. [...] [Pennington:] I think the major normative implication to arise from this work on public ignorance is the notion that we should actually limit the scope of democratic collective-choice mechanisms."

While probably none of the speakers in this conference would call themselves anti-democratic, it has been suggested by others (such as Bruce Gilley) that in fact they are.

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