July 8, 2007
The Rational Voter
The July 9 & 16, 2007, issue of The New Yorker has a review by Louis Menand of Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), available here. Menand is usually a very reliable and helpful reviewer. But this book seems to mystify him, and his usual helpful insights seem to desert him. There are snarky comments about economics and economists and only in the last two paragraphs does Menand make substantive critical points. And those are not terribly insightful.
Nonetheless, the review does contain this marvelous catalogue of U.S. voter ignorance:
“The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty percent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty percent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid constitutes twenty-four percent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one percent.
"Even apart from the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as 'affirmative action' and 'welfare' is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they should favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions -- if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer -- but the opinions are not based on on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal or ad hoc."
July 8, 2007 | Permalink
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