Another Perspective

What To Do? What To Do?

Voters either know nothing -- or know all too much.

By 10.26.04

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A friend of mine says the whole thing is doomed to failure because half the voters are below average in intelligence. Winston Churchill wasn't much more encouraging: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

Too mocking? Maybe not. A recent report from the Cato Institute by George Mason law professor Ilya Somin, "When Ignorance Isn't Bliss," doesn't paint a pretty picture. "The overwhelming evidence," writes Somin, shows that "the American electorate fails to meet even minimal criteria for adequate voter knowledge."

The extent of the ignorance? Somin points to the almost 70 percent of Americans who don't know that Congress recently added a massive prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the largest new federal entitlement in decades, and to the more than 60 percent who don't understand how the substantial increases in domestic government spending are connected to the recent upsurge in the federal deficit, and to the 70 percent of adult Americans who can't name either of their state's senators.

On issues directly linked to Tuesday's election, a recent Roper Center poll shows that 61 percent of respondents mistakenly believe that there's been a net loss of jobs in 2004, 65 percent don't know of the recent passage of a ban on partial birth abortion, and 58 percent said they know "nothing" or "very little" about the USA Patriot Act.

If defense of this lack of knowledge, one could rightly argue that it's damn near impossible for voters to be sufficiently informed about government, given the size and scope of the modern state. Likewise with the current election, one can easily make the case that voter ignorance about the particulars of all the things that the candidates are promising is not exactly inefficient, given that it's fairly naïve, at best, to give much weight to anything that politicians say. Or as I. F. Stone said: "Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed."

The peace candidate in the 1964 presidential race, for instance, was Lyndon Johnson. "We are not," he said, "going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." Johnson won in a landslide, and American boys were sent nine or ten thousand miles away to do what Asian boys ought to have been doing for themselves.

In a nutshell, here's how it works. They lie, and we know they lie, so we don 't pay a lot of attention. We stay basically unaware of the minutiae of their day-to-day shenanigans, remain essentially in the dark about the passage of this or that, and then just hope every four years that we're wise enough to turn the keys over to the guy who sounds like he's the most likely to get things back on track. Or as H. L. Mencken put it: "Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

Or said another way, it's like monkeys throwing paint at a wall and expecting a Rembrandt. The way Claire Wolfe sees it, it's unlikely that any Rembrandts are forthcoming -- in spite of that idea that says enough monkeys pounding away at enough keyboards will eventually produce a perfect Sunday edition of the New York Times. As Wolfe writes in the opening lines of 101 Things To Do 'Til The Revolution, "America is at that awkward stage. It's too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards."

She's not alone in thinking it's too late to vote, or too useless. "I am a principled nonvoter," writes Brian Doherty, a senior editor of Reason, in the magazine's November issue. "Those who vote have no reason to complain." Richard Epstein, law professor at the University of Chicago, sees little more than a superficial choice: "It's just two members of the same statist party fighting over whose friends will get favors."

Others polled by Reason are similarly separated from cheerleading for either side. "I'd like to see Bush lose, but without Kerry winning," writes Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the magazine. And from supply-side guru Jude Wanniski: "Bush does not deserve to be re-elected, and Kerry does not deserve to be elected -- Bush because of Iraq and Kerry because his economics are dreadful." And so, what is it, the lesser of two evils again? Or is it the evil of two lessers?

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.