The Volokh Conspiracy

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Political ignorance around the world


An interesting recent study by Ipsos MORI provides new evidence that political ignorance is a serious problem in many democracies, not just the United States. Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos MORI's Social Research Institute, discusses some of the results here. For example, survey respondents in the 14 nations included in the study massively overestimate the unemployment rate, and the percentage of immigrants and Muslims in their country's population. Most also believe that the murder rate is rising, even though it has actually been falling in every country. Even in Sweden, the country that scored highest, respondents are on average badly off on politically important issues such as the unemployment rate (which they think is 3 times higher than it actually is) and immigration (which they overestimate by "only" about 45 percent).

Many of these mistakes are politically consequential. Undue pessimism about the economy is obviously relevant, given that economic issues are almost always near the top of voters' list of priorities. Overestimating the percentage of immigrants and Muslims may promote exaggerated fears of being "swamped" by foreign cultures and strengthens support for restricting migration, which can inflict great harm on both would-be immigrants and natives. Inaccurate perceptions of the crime rate are also problematic.

These results are consistent with previous studies showing widespread political ignorance abroad, as well as in the United States. As Duffy notes, voters in many countries are misinformed about the distribution of government spending, tending to greatly overestimate the percentage that goes to foreign aid, and badly underestimate the amount that goes to major entitlement and pension programs (the largest items in most government's budgets). A previous Ipsos-Mori poll found that political ignorance in Britain is remarkably similar to that in the United States, with voters in both countries making similar errors.

Since ignorance is high in all of the countries covered in the Ipsos MORI study, we can't take much comfort from the fact that some do better than others. Indeed, on many of the politically relevant issues measured, the extent of ignorance in most of the nations varies only modestly. Moreover, as Duffy notes, the differences that exist don't seem to be correlated with differences in either education policy or media behavior. The US, it is worth noting, scores second to last among the fourteen nations in Ipsos MORI's overall Index of Ignorance, just ahead of Italy (though the differences between the US and most of the other nations on the most politically significant issues, such as immigration and unemployment rates, are fairly modest).

I do disagree with Duffy's analysis of the results on one point. He argues that "[our ignorance is as much a symptom of our lack of control as a reason to keep power with an elite who supposed]ly know better. We should not conclude that people are too dumb to be trusted to make decisions—if we want a better-informed population, we need to trust them more."

Duffy is right to suggest that the voters are not ignorant out of stupidity. But I doubt that trusting the voters more will lead to increased political knowledge. We already trust them to elect officials who wield enormous power over society, including spending 40 percent or more of GDP in most advanced democracies. In some countries, including many American states, we also trust them to vote on ballot initiatives on a wide range of policy issues. Moreover, faith in the judgment of the common voter is a standard precept of modern liberal democratic ideology that most of us imbibe from elementary school onwards. To the extent that trust in the voters is a factor, I suspect it does more to breed complacency about political ignorance than stimulate efforts to alleviate it.

At election time, we hear many exhortations to vote and numerous denunciations of politicians who are supposedly failing to heed the voice of the people. By contrast, few suggest that it might not be such a good idea to vote on issues we know little about. For the most part, our ignorance about politics arises not from a lack of trust, but from a combination of rational behavior by individual voters and the enormous size and complexity of modern government. That reality makes political ignorance a very difficult problem to solve. It implies we might do better by making fewer decisions at the ballot box, and more by "voting with our feet," where there are better incentives to acquire relevant information.

But whether we fully agree with Duffy's assessment of the problem or not, he and Ipsos MORI are doing valuable work that sheds light on the international dimensions of political ignorance. I look forward to their future studies on this vital, but often difficult to study, subject.