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Friday, January 3, 2014

Knowledge, Ignorance, and Limited Government

Many posts have discussed the limits on what Americans know about politicsAt The Washington Post, columnist George F. Will writes:
In “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter” (Stanford University Press), Ilya Somin of George Mason University law school argues that an individual’s ignorance of public affairs is rational because the likelihood of his or her vote being decisive in an election is vanishingly small. The small incentives to become informed include reducing one’s susceptibility to deceptions, misinformation and propaganda. And if remaining ignorant is rational individual behavior, it has likely destructive collective outcomes.

Somin says that during the Cold War in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, only 38 percent of Americans knew the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO. In 2003, about 70 percent was unaware of enactment of the prescription drug entitlement, then the largest welfare-state expansion since Medicare (1965). In a 2006 Zogby poll, only 42 percent could name the three branches of the federal government.
A better ameliorative measure would be to reduce the risks of ignorance by reducing government’s consequences — its complexity, centralization and intrusiveness. In the 19th century, voters’ information burdens were much lighter because important federal issues — the expansion of slavery, the disposition of public lands, tariffs, banking, infrastructure spending — were much fewer.
An engaged judiciary that enforced the Framers’ idea of government’s “few and defined” enumerated powers (Madison, Federalist 45), leaving decisions to markets and civil society, would, Somin thinks, make the “will of the people” more meaningful by reducing voters’ knowledge burdens. Somin’s evidence and arguments usefully dilute the unwholesome democratic sentimentality and romanticism that encourage government’s pretensions, ambitions and failures.