And there doesn’t appear to be much we can do about it, primarily because the government has grown too large to be kept track of. Ilya Somin, assistant professor of law at George Mason University and author of the Cato Institute study “When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy,” takes a detailed look at voter apathy (ignorance?) and comes to a couple of interesting conclusions:
“It is tempting to conclude that voters must be lazy or stupid. But even a smart and hardworking person can rationally decide not to pay much attention to political information. No matter how well-informed a citizen is, her vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election; about one chance in 100 million in the case of a presidential race. Since her vote is almost certain not to be decisive, even a citizen who cares greatly about the outcome has almost no incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice. Acquiring significant amounts of political knowledge so as to be a more informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational. But the rational decisions of individuals create a dysfunctional collective outcome in which the majority of the electorate is dangerously ill-informed.” [My emphasis]
This was the lynchpin of the paper based on the following statistics. Just prior to the 2004 elections, polls found that:
- 70 percent of American adults didn’t know that Congress recently passed a prescription drug benefit for seniors, even though the new law — projected to cost $500 billion over the next 10 years — is probably the most significant domestic legislation passed during the Bush administration
- More than 60 percent do not know that President Bush’s term has seen a massive increase in domestic spending, about 25 percent above previous levels, that has led to a major increase in the national debt
- Despite the extensive media attention focused on employment numbers, almost two-thirds of the public don’t know that there has been a net increase in jobs in 2004.
- 75% admit they know little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act
- 58 percent mistakenly believe that the Bush administration perceives a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks
- 64% were unaware that Congress had passed legislation outlawing partial birth abortions
But the point is, Somin feels that it simply doesn’t make much sense for voters to be informed. Since the odds that one vote will account for much are so slim, he argues, it’s irrational to spend any amount of time educating yourself about what is going on. Further, since the government is so stinking large and has it’s hand in so many things, one person couldn’t possibly be well informed on everything, so it might actually be impossible to make an “informed” vote. Yet another argument for smaller government: it may actually be more democratic because it’s very nature leads to more informed voter participants.
I appreciate his point of view, and I probably agree with most of it. But truly, when only 15% of the population can name a candidate for the House of Representatives in the month before an election, I think we should all be a little frightened.