Friday, June 17, 2011

People Are Ignorant. Big Deal...Right?

In my previous three posts, I wrote about the fact that people generally don't know much about politics, though there is variance, and I wrote about why people know what they know. Basically, learning about politics takes effort, so people only know the things that are the easiest to learn about, which isn't much.

Okay, so people don't know much about politics, and we have some idea why. Today and next time, I'll look at whether it actually matters. In particular, I'll look at whether individuals and societies can make good decisions in spite of their ignorance. Roughly, there are three arguments:


1) People don't need to know all the details as long as they know enough to figure out what's best for them.

2) People don't need to know very much as long as the voting public as a whole gets the answer right.

3) On the other hand, it isn't about whether people can get by or whether voters get things right in some sense—it's about making sure everyone's voice is heard, and those with more knowledge have an easier time getting their voices heard.

These points aren't mutually exclusive. It could be that individuals can make good decisions based on limited knowledge but that some of them don't get their say because they don't know how to register to vote—that counts as political knowledge, too.

More than most of what I write here, the questions and issues I'll raise are still under debate. You can participate in that debate—I welcome your thoughts in the comments below. Remember to be nice to each other and don't take anything personally. Now on to the first argument.

Knowing enough to make the right choice
One point of view of democracy is that it's not about having an intellectual public that discusses and dissects everything going on. Requiring such things, I suppose, might tread too closely to requiring people to pass a test to vote or having an intellectual ruling class like that in Plato's The Republic. It's a fair point. Not everyone has the time and energy to deal with the details of politics, and that doesn't necessarily mean they shouldn't have a say.

Instead, people like Sam Popkin and Paul Sniderman argue, people need to know just enough about a policy to understand whether it's good for them, and they don't need a lot to do that. For example, they can use shortcuts, or "heuristics," like party or interest group endorsements to get the information they need. Furthermore, the system might be set up to provide people with exactly these kinds of shortcuts.

A good example of the shortcuts idea is a 1994 paper by Arthur Lupia, in which he studied insurance reform initiatives on the 1988 ballot in California. Each initiative claimed it would lower California's high auto insurance rates, but voters had an onerous task: there were five—five!—such initiatives, and they were complicated. Key to Lupia's analysis, they also had diverse sources of support. A consumer group called Voter Revolt sponsored the winning initiative, Proposition 103. Trial lawyers sponsored one, and insurance companies sponsored the other three.

Lupia argued that people didn't need to understand every detail of the initiatives as long as they knew who sponsored which initiative, and he had evidence to back that up. Using surveys, he looked both at voters' knowledge of the proposals and whether they knew the initiatives' sponsors. People who knew the sponsors, Lupia found, voted the same as those who knew all the details. In other words, ignorant people can at least get by if they have a clue as to whether a policy is good for them. In this case, if the insurance industry supports it, it probably won't lower your insurance rates. (Fun fact: political scientists and psychologists use "cue," meaning a small piece of information, in place of "clue," meaning hint.)

Paul Sniderman and Simon Jackman, professors of mine from Stanford, took this a step further and argued that the U.S. system is set up to help people make decisions by giving them one giant cue—party endorsements. The two-party system, they claim, makes it easy for voters to decide between candidates and policies because it makes it easy to understand what those candidates and policies stand for. In a time when the parties overlap less and less, this makes some sense: the parties are different, and people can draw inferences from those differences.

Now, not everyone buys these arguments. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels, for example, looked at some other surveys and showed that the well-informed do vote differently from the poorly-informed, all other things being equal. This may be an issue of focus—Lupia looked at insurance reform initiatives, while Bartels studied congressional elections. In the former, everyone has a clear interest in a particular outcome, namely lower insurance rates, and it's easy to see that insurance companies probably don't want what you want. In the latter, even if you know what you want, knowing which party will get you there isn't necessarily so clear.

The difference, I think, is the Downs argument, redux: the easier something is to understand, the more likely people are to understand it. By extension, the easier something is to understand, the more likely people are to make good decisions. So, people can get by on a little knowledge sometimes, but maybe not when it comes to choosing who to represent them in government.

I'll leave it at that for today. Next time, the wisdom of crowds and related arguments, and the big downer regarding demographics, knowledge, and participation. Stay tuned.




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