"Physicists do it...Psychologists do it...Even political scientists do it...Research findings confirming a hypothesis are accepted more or less at face value, but when confronted with contrary evidence, we become "motivated skeptics" ... picking apart possible flaws in the study, recoding variables, and only when all the counterarguing fails do we rethink our beliefs...
But what about ordinary citizens?...On reading a balanced set of pro and con arguments about affirmative action or gun control, we find that rather than moderating or simply maintaining their original attitudes, citizens - especially those who feel the strongest about the issue and are the most sophisticated - strengthen their attitudes in ways not warranted by the evidence."
-- Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge, Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs
I am going to suggest that democratic politics is a very poor information-processing mechanism. The great mass of people form their political beliefs with little regard for facts or logic. However, the elites also have a strategy for avoiding truth. Elites form their political beliefs dogmatically, using their cleverness to organize facts to fit preconceived prejudices. The masses' strategy for avoiding truth is to make a low investment in understanding; the elites' strategy is to make a large investment in selectively choosing which facts and arguments to emphasize or ignore.
This essay represents a distillation of some ideas contained in a voluminous issue of a journal called Critical Review. I was particularly influenced by Jeffrey Friedman's introduction and by Gregory J. Wawro's "The Rationalizing Public?" Readers who are willing to plow through the rest of my essay will also enjoy Critical Review, as well as a new blog called overcoming bias, which is about dealing with psychological obstacles to objective analysis.
The Critical Review issue is built around a 1964 essay by public opinion researcher Philip E. Converse, called "The Nature of Belief Systems of Mass Publics." Converse suggested that the political beliefs of roughly 90 percent of the population are incoherent. Most voters lack elementary knowledge of our political system, they hold views that are ideologically jumbled and logically inconsistent, and their opinions change over time in ways that suggest almost random behavior. He suggested that there is a relative sharp fall-off in the coherence of opinions as one goes from the most highly-involved segment of the voting public. Hence, although it is likely that citizens' level of information falls along a continuum, it is a reasonable approximation to speak in terms of elite and mass.
Ignorance is Blissfully Cost-Effective
The general public follows what I would call a "low-investment" strategy for avoiding the truth. They do not know the names of their representatives. They do not know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. They do not know the approximate size of the Budget deficit or its outlook. And so on.
Ilya Somin, in his contribution to the Critical Review volume, points out that there is no particular reason for citizens to make a large investment in learning facts or forming coherent beliefs about political issues. The low probability that your vote will make a difference makes for an adverse cost-benefit calculation from obtaining information. Bryan Caplan, in this essay based on his forthcoming book, Myth of the Rational Voter, makes a similar point.
The authors in the Critical Review volume give a number of illustrations of public ignorance. For instance, Wawro writes,
One of my favorite examples...In February 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 72 percent of those surveyed believed that it was "likely" that "Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks."
...Self-identified Republicans were (and still are) far more likely to think there was a connection than were Democrats.
Somin points out that
a 2002 Gallup Survey of public opinion in Arab and Muslim nations found large majorities denying that the September 11 attacks were carried out by "groups of Arabs." ... A 2002 survey conducted by the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram found that 39 percent of Egyptian respondents blamed the September 11 attacks on "Israeli intelligence/the Mossad," while only 19 percent said that "Al-Qa'eda or other Islamic militants" were responsible.
Micro Ignorance, Macro Wisdom?
Some theorists have tried to put a positive spin on the fact that most people make very little investment in developing logical coherence or factual underpinnings for their political beliefs. As Wawro puts it,
But all is not lost, according to many public-opinion researchers. They claim that neither factual knowledge of American government and politics, nor well-formed political opinions, are essential to making "good" political choices. The typical citizen can get by pretty well by using various cues that are easily and cheaply accessible. Furthermore, although things may look problematic at the individual level, the aggregation of choices and opinions eliminates the pernicious effects of ignorance and apathy, making the public as a whole appear "rational" or competent.
These are two arguments that are commonly made to suggest that in spite of the individual ignorance of the typical voter, the overall decisions of the political process are sound. The political process gives us the wisdom of crowds, as it were.
The argument for macro wisdom is that ignorant individuals either take their cues from informed elites or vote randomly. In either case, the elites become the decisive actors, and the ignorance of the masses has little impact.
Converse himself strongly rejects the view that mass ignorance is unimportant. In his 1964 article, he pointed out how the voters who gave the Nazi party a plurality in 1930 "represented one of the more unrelievedly ill-informed clienteles that a major party has assembled in a modern state." He argued that that the peasants and first-time voters who gave the Nazis their victory could have easily been captured by the Communists or some other political party, with very different historical results.
Moreover, if the general public is ignorant, then elites are free to act against the interest of the general public. Converse sees this from a left-leaning perspective, leading to policies that favor the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Somin sees it from a right-leaning perspective, leading to government power that is excessive and unchecked. He writes,
Rationally ignorant voters are unable to keep track of more than a tiny fraction of all this government activity. Indeed, they probably would be unable to do so even with considerably greater knowledge than most of them currently possess. Other things equal, the greater the size and complexity of government, the greater the likelihood that many of its activities will escape meaningful democratic control.
Shaping and Slicing
In May, 2005, the ombudsman or "public editor" for the New York Times, Dan Okrent, wrote
Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.
Krugman uses what I call a high-investment strategy for avoiding truth. He puts considerable effort into emphasizing facts and arguments that support his overall position, while ignoring conflicting evidence. However, in this regard, he is far from atypical as an opinion leader. As Jeffrey Friedman puts it,
To liberal ears, a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity, while well informed about which policies are advocated by conservatives and liberals, will seem appallingly ignorant of the arguments and evidence for liberal positions. The same goes in reverse for a Frank Rich or a Paul Krugman
Rush Limbaugh and Paul Krugman clearly fall within the elite, according to the standards set by Converse and other opinion researchers. They know the facts about the structure of the American political system and the identities of major office-holders. They understand the connections between various beliefs. They maintain consistent positions, and their opinions are highly predictable, unlike the unstable, random positions that show up in polling of the mass public.
Limbaugh and Krugman may not necessarily be wrong (although it is hard for both of them to be right). However, both follow strategies that are designed to reinforce prior beliefs of conservatives and liberals, respectively. They highlight information and arguments that support their prior beliefs. When they encounter contrary evidence, they engage in "motivated skepticism," seeking to undermine the credibility or minimize the significance of the adverse information.
In fact, one could argue that Limbaugh and Krugman do not have wisdom that exceeds that of the ignorant public. However, while the typical individual's rationalizations of his or her beliefs are illogical and ill-informed, Limbaugh's and Krugman's rationalizations are clever and erudite.
Of Politics and Markets
One of my strongly-held beliefs, for which I tend to attract supporting evidence and repel contrary arguments, is that markets process information more effectively than does the political process. Perhaps it as an exaggeration to refer to the market as the "world of truth," as Tim Harford does in The Undercover Economist. However, it strikes me that it is easier for market forces to drive a bad firm out of business than it is for political forces to extinguish a policy that fails to meet the objectives that purportedly drive its enactment.
Those who believe in the wisdom of the political process might argue that the competition between political elites--between Democrats and Republicans or between Krugman and Limbaugh--promotes reasonable outcomes. However, I suspect that the net result of this competition is to lead to greater accretion of government power, giving the elites more to fight over. Politics ultimately becomes a competition to promise the undeliverable, whether it be better public education, inexpensive health care, or government suppression of drug abuse or sexual immorality.
I believe in democracy because I distrust the elites. I distrust the elites because I believe that self-deception is widespread, and the elites are particularly skilled at it. Accordingly, I believe that it is important for those in power to have the humility of knowing that they may be voted out of office.
Others believe in democracy because they are hoping to see the triumph of a particular elite. Many liberals want to see sympathetic technocrats manipulating the levers of government, nominally for the greater good. I see government technocrats as inevitably embedded in a political system that inefficiently processes information. The more they attempt, the more damage they are likely to do. Many conservatives want to see government used for "conservative ends." However, I believe that the more that government tries to correct the flaws of families, the more flawed families will become.
As Taber and Lodge observe in the quotation with which this essay began, in all of our intellectual pursuits we tend to follow strategies for avoiding truth. The more knowledgable we are, the more we follow a high-investment strategy of selectively accepting evidence that favors our outlook while discounting contrary information. In science, this process ultimately is checked by the methods of experimentation, prediction, and falsification. In markets, it is checked by the process of profit and loss. In politics, the checks are less powerful. Our political beliefs are likely to be especially unreliable, regardless of which strategy we use to avoid truth.