Knowledge Problems

If voters paid attention, maybe they'd never make up their minds


"If you don't know what you're talking about," South Park co-creator Matt Stone recently told Rolling Stone, "there's no shame in not voting." The comment upset actor-activist Sean Penn, who scolded Stone for "not mentioning the shame of not knowing what you're talking about."

When it comes to politics, Americans who don't know what they're talking about have a lot of company. In fact, as George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin shows in a Cato Institute paper published last month, they represent a majority of voters.

Somin reviews survey data from the 1950s on that indicate "most individual voters are abysmally ignorant of even very basic political information." Furthermore, "a relatively stable level of extreme ignorance has persisted" despite rising education levels and increased availability of information.

How extreme? A survey conducted last April, Somin notes, found that 70 percent of Americans did not know about the ballyhooed, budget-busting Medicare drug benefit, "the largest new federal entitlement in decades, and arguably the most important piece of domestic legislation adopted during the administration of George W. Bush." In a February survey, more than 60 percent of respondents did not realize increases in domestic spending under Bush have contributed substantially to skyrocketing federal budget deficits.

A month and a half after Congress passed the "partial birth" abortion ban, 65 percent of survey respondents did not know about it. As of April, 58 percent admitted to knowing "not much" or "nothing" about the PATRIOT Act.

Unlike Sean Penn, Somin is not optimistic that Americans can be shamed into learning more. "Perhaps the most fundamental cause of ignorance resides in the collective action problem created by the insignificance of any individual vote in determining an electoral outcome," he writes. "Acquiring significant amounts of political knowledge for the purpose of becoming a more informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational."

Not only does learning about politics require a substantial investment of time and effort; it is also, for the most part, really boring. If there's anything duller than Social Security, it's listening to Bush and Kerry drone on about their good intentions instead of answering straightforward questions about how they plan to deal with the system's looming fiscal crisis. It was only a sense of professional obligation that kept me from blowing off the latest debate in favor of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy episode that's been sitting on our TiVo for three weeks.

The real puzzle is not why voters are so ignorant but why they bother to vote at all. Perhaps it's because they've been swayed by propaganda telling them that "every vote counts" or that it's their civic duty to vote. Or perhaps they enjoy voting as an expressive activity, a way of affirming their identity, their aspirations, their membership in a community, or their visceral hatred of particular politicians.

Even on that level, I'm having difficulty choosing. Bush's spend-and-spend conservatism is at least as bad as Kerry's tax-and-spend liberalism–probably worse, since Kerry would have a Congress controlled by a different party to restrain him. I'm not convinced Kerry knows how to fight terrorism, but I find Bush's plan to do so by "spread[ing] freedom and liberty around the world" alarmingly overambitious.

I can't bring myself to vote for a guy who could blithely promise to create a "Department of Wellness." Or who believes that affluence can be achieved by decree and that letting people keep their own money is self-evidently worse than forcibly redistributing it.

But at least Kerry is a candid statist. Unlike Bush, he does not pretend to favor smaller government while delivering the opposite. He does not extol the advantages of the market over central planning in the area of health care (even while bragging about expanding the government's role in medicine), then turn around and say the key to better education is more central planning.

There's a tendency to assume that undecided voters are ignorant voters, that if only they were paying attention they would have made up their minds by now. But in my experience, the more you know, the more you realize how hard it is to pick the candidate who would do less damage to the country.

Fortunately, it's not a choice I actually have to make. Maybe I'll vote Libertarian, or maybe I'll stay home. Even if you know what you're talking about, there's no shame in not voting.