Monday, October 24, 2011

Ignorant Citizens Are Not Stupid

I don't think I've blogged yet about Suzanne Mettler's work on what she calls The Submerged State, mostly because, well, I haven't read it and haven't even carefully read through her recent articles about it (i.e. here). I'll recommend it anyway -- it's important stuff.

What I do want to write about a bit is Mettler's guest post today over at the Monkey Cage. She writes:
In reading the comments, I’ve noticed that some readers interpret me to be implying that people are stupid or ignorant. That is not my argument and the data do not support that conclusion... the fact that citizens often fail to recognize these policies as government social provision is attributable not to some fault of citizens, but rather to the characteristics of the policies themselves.
She's using "ignorant" as a pejorative there, but if we use it instead descriptively -- people just don't know about things -- then I very much agree with her, and find that this kind of confusion shows up a lot if you think about citizens in a democracy.

For example, one of the things that I'll say all the time is people's opinions are inconsistent: for example, they'll approve of cutting government spending in the abstract, but support increasing virtually all the individual components of that spending. Or that they don't know very much, with the classic example being that virtually everyone wants foreign aid cut, but if you ask them what percentage of federal spending should go to foreign aid, they'll support some figure that's many times what is actually spent.

Anyway, it's worth noting that in all of these cases, I don't mean to draw any negative conclusions about American voters. I don't think they're stupid. I just think that people have a lot of other interests besides the minutia of politics and public policy. There's nothing wrong with that; indeed, it's in most cases very smart to use shortcuts such as political party and other opinion leaders to substitute for detailed study of public policy.

That people respond to pollsters with silly, illogical, or nonsensical views, in my opinion, doesn't "count" for all that much. What counts is what they do on election day, or when they otherwise take political action, whether it's giving to a candidate they support or lobbying the government for some policy they support. And in those situations, they're mostly likely to act pretty rationally, as long as we accept that using party as a shortcut is rational.

Think of it this way: when you need to buy a home appliance, you probably wind up spending a bit of time and effort researching it  -- although that might come down to "ask a friend who has proved reliable on these things in the past" rather than a careful start-from-scratch approach. But if you get a marketing survey about washer/dryers today and you've never thought about them before or haven't for a decade, you might well give some awfully foolish answers if you do decide to answer their questions. That doesn't make you stupid, and doesn't make you ignorant in that pejorative sense. It's just that you don't travel around the world with ready-made, carefully-researched, intelligent things to say about home appliances.

The trick in designing a democracy is to make it work for everyone, the political junkies and the occasionally attentive and the rarely attentive. Political parties, as it happens, do a fair amount of that work; interest groups do a lot of the rest. And there are real, and very difficult in my view, questions about how much extra influence the especially attentive should have. But I like to remind everyone every once in a while that those of you who read blogs like this are not at all typical of most citizens when it comes to political knowledge and interest, and that's not because of anything great about us and terrible about everyone else. It's just one of the basic conditions of large-polity democracies.


  1. I teach economics, and one of the things I tell my students is that a fundamental assumption of economics is that people aren't stupid. For much the same reasons as yours, by the way.

  2. I try to remember that many folks know as much about politics as I know about NASCAR. It's occasionally in the news, and I might recognize some of the major participants, but I really have neither the time nor the interest to follow it with any kind of regularity or passion. If I had to answer a survey about auto racing, I'd have some goofy, contradictory opinions too!

  3. I detect a (non-pejorative) ignorance of Latin abbreviations here. You mean "e.g." (= for example), not "i.e." I.e. would mean that the articles were all at that link.

    Also, your heading is missing a word. It should say, "Ignorant Citizens Are Not ALL Stupid."

  4. This is why issues based polling is almost worthless, and a sabermetrical approach to politics which attempts to leverage issues based polling is inevitably gonna bring a big surprise to the political sabermetricians, when reality kicks in.

    Things aren't important until they are. And they're very important until they aren't.

    It has been ever thus.

  5. I basically agree with all of this, but it's also worth noting the kind of example people cite despairing of mass rationality: e.g., when instead of using party as a shortcut, large numbers of people use incumbency/non-incumbency as their shortcut. There are a lot of reasons this might be rational as a shortcut, but it does lead to things like punishing Democratic failure to do financial regulation/immigration reform/mortgage modification programs/whatever by voting in Republicans who are actively opposed to financial regulation/etc.

    P.S. Jeff, you're poaching on my territory here!

  6. The flip side is that for us (presumably) high-information voters, politics is rather like a sport we DO follow. Which explains why high-information voters tend to be strong partisans: We're fans, and we root for our chosen team. (As I believe Plainblogger has said more than once.)

    @the classicist - I wonder if that is really so much the case when you look at individual voters (not 'the electorate'). To take the case of 2010, were potential Dem voters really mad at the Dems, or just not excited enough to show up and vote? While tea party types were all fired up, and did vote.

  7. In the past, I've somewhat subscribed to this opinion. Lately, though, it seems like the screaming right-wing media has swayed people to positions they wouldn't support if they had some knowledge. The unpopularity of Obamacare being a case in point.

  8. @Rick -- I don't know! I suspect the empirical data on turnout would largely bear out your hypothesis, but the despairers will always have newspaper quotations from individuals who sound like they're saying that sort of thing. That's why I thought it would be worth addressing the question ;)

  9. I'm willing to go further, though. Yes, ignorance can be rational, if good heuristics/proxies are used to reduce misinformed voting. But what if people use bad heuristics? Can we actually claim that heuristics are reevaluated with anything approaching rationality?

    Basically, I'm trying to figure out a way to lay out a number of the ways that I think demonstrate stupidity without it being a liberal/Democratic diatribe, and I'm having trouble doing so. But, at what point in making stupid collective decisions do we ascribe stupidity to a population? At some point, ignorance, while individually rational, is collectively irrational. Heck, at some point, it's even individually irrational.

  10. @Rick -- actually, if it's what you're saying, that wouldn't change anything much: the people who don't vote in an election that people widely expect to produce an anti-incumbent wave are still punishing incumbents, albeit not as severely as, and more contingently than, the ones that vote against the incumbents. This gets into what Matt Jarvis is saying about bad heuristics (if there really is such a thing as "an anti-incumbent mood," then that's much less sensitive to cues from people who know what they're taking about than is partisan voting) and also about the points at which individually rational shortcuts might add up to a mess of collective irrationality.

  11. As an avowed deficit hawk, I suspect that the reason the 'ignorant' meme gets thrown around is to minimize the great difficulty in cutting spending, i.e. if only folks weren't so ignorant, deficit reduction could be achieved quite easily.

    Speaking of foreign aid and cutting spending, folks often display inherent inconsistency that arises not from ignorance but rather that we live in a multivariate world. This really comes home when considering the implications of the Arab Spring.

    Before the Tahrir Square uprising did in Mubarak, the US was providing a billion or two in annual military aid more or less directly to Mubarak; chicken feed when the US deficit is well over a trillion, but a pretty big deal when Mubarak's entire military budget was only a few billion. Predictably, Mubarak's appreciation was expressed in part by suppression of anti-Israeli sentiment in his country and being an important catalyst for US interests in the region.

    Against the backdrop of federal spending of almost $4 trillion, was a billion or two for Mubarak's acquiescence worth it? Most would probably agree. Is it stupid that the US has to spend such money to buy civility from a country like Eqypt? Most would probably agree.

    Multiply this vignette by 1,000 and there's your deficit. The fact that either road is difficult doesn't make one ignorant, it just means its hard. Its like saying a fat guy, trying to lose weight, is ignorant for finding chocolate cake irresistible. Ignorant? A lot of things, maybe, but not really 'ignorant' as its conventionally defined.

  12. @the classicist - individually rational shortcuts might add up to a mess of collective irrationality

    True! The paradox of politics is that disenchanted fans lead directly to losing games (and vice versa).

  13. CSH,
    While I'm open to the argument, I'm not following it. People say they want a lower deficit, they want lower taxes, and they only want to cut spending on foreign aid and "waste, fraud and abuse."
    The problem is that we can't multiply that vingette by 1000. Polls say that there are people out there who think that cutting foreign aid will balance the budget, or at least make a big dent in it. That has to be either ignorance or stupidity, doesn't it?

  14. The ignorance and stupidity is to think that issues based polling is to be wielded as a scalpel in analyzing political outcomes. There is no way to model the peculiar dynamics that occur in politics and elections, and the sabermetric political types are gonna fail nearly every time they wield their dull scalpel, if larger tectonic forces are in play.

    The deficit and spending are too big. People recognize this, even if they don't discretely identify the issues involved. Get caught on the wrong side of that recognition, in the wrong district, against the wrong opponent, with the right attacks, and you can kiss your seat goodbye. And your issues based polling can go into the fireplace to keep you warm, through the winter, when the new guy gets sworn in.

  15. Matt,

    Thanks for taking up my argument. I probably didn't express my point particularly well; I meant to say that it is reasonable to think that $1-$2 B support for Mubarak is worthwhile for the positive externalities while simultaneously supporting cutting foreign aid or spending generally. Such a person may be 'weak' or 'cowardly' or 'nonserious'; it strikes me though that they would not necessarily be ignorant.

    Ignorance or stupidity require a lack of information; that may apply to some of those who support money for Mubarak-types in the particular and oppose foreign aid in general, though it surely doesn't have to, as one can easily reside within such contradictions for a whole host of reasons other than ignorance.

    As far as multiplying Mubarak's (formerly) $1 B by 1,000 to get rid of the deficit, if we had the inclination and the patience we could repeat this story enough times to get rid of a $1 T deficit, yes? That is, assuming the relevant actors had the necessary courage.


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