Sunday, June 11, 2017

The importance of an educated electorate is a bad argument for pressuring higher education

People on the political left often argue that society has an obligation to advance universal or nearly universal college education (in other words, that it’s important to pressure everyone to go to college) because we live in a democracy, so the more educated people are, the better decisions they will make in elections and the better policy outcomes we will be left with as a nation.

There have always been problems with this theory, starting with the fact that even graduates from elite universities who majored in political science (like me!) can’t possibly have enough expertise to form qualified opinions on a great many policy issues, and are no less likely to fervently disagree with their equally educated peers. Another problem is that the political system is not nearly so democratic as your middle school civics teacher may have led you to imagine, due particularly to the two-party system and the primary process (wherein a very small group of people narrow down the list of options most Americans get to choose between, such that no matter how educated the people are, they might still be stuck choosing between Trump and Clinton).

But Ilya Somin’s recent book “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter” presents another reason: political ignorance has not diminished over time, despite the fact that Americans are more educated than ever.

We are all ignorant, only on different subjects. Which subjects people choose to educate themselves in (even when pressured to seek more education than they otherwise would have) has a lot to do with which fields of knowledge they expect to be most useful to them later in life. This leads to an important realization: political knowledge is not all that useful if you didn’t already derive utility from possessing it.

In other words, people are not ignorant of politics because they’re uneducated. They’re ignorant of politics because they have no rational reason to take interest in them, because they have no real power to change political outcomes. Each person’s vote is such an insignificant drop in the bucket that voting is a total waste of time EVEN if you’re already educated on the issues (not to mention the far larger time investment required to read up on what each candidate stands for and understand their positions from an economic, philosophical, and sociological standpoint). 

This is part of why our constitution creates a republic instead of a democracy: learning all the details required to govern effectively was never supposed to be the citizens’ job. Any democracy so large, and making decisions so numerous and complex, as to require a highly educated AND highly invested electorate in order to succeed is doomed to failure.  The larger democratic government becomes, the more social decisions are going to be made by ignorant and disinterested people – no matter how educated those people happen to be about other things.
Inversely, the smaller democratic government is shrunk, the fewer decisions must be made by an ignorant majority, and the more decisions can be decentralized to the accidental aggregation off millions of individuals pursuing something they really do know all about: their own self-interest.  Smaller government is just smarter.

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