How Egalitarianism Undermines the Study of Voter Competence
By Bryan Caplan
The clever Arthur Lupia is launching a multi-pronged contrarian defense of the competence of the average voter. He’s got a whole series of new papers (some co-authored) trying to debunk the broad consensus in political science that voters don’t know which way is up:
- “How Elitism Undermines the Study of Voter Competence”
- “Public Ignorance and Estate Tax Repeal: The Effect of Partisan Differences and Survey Incentives”
- “Were Bush Tax Cut Supporters ‘Simply Ignorant?’ A Second Look at Conservatives and Liberals in ‘Homer Gets a Tax Cut'”
- “What Citizens Know Depends on How You Ask Them: Political Knowledge and Political Learning Skills”
In the last of these papers, Lupia and co-author Markus Prior report that if you administer tests of political knowledge to the general public, both financial payments for correct answers and extra time substantially increase average test scores. Thus:
Our findings imply that conventional knowledge measures confound respondents’ recall of political information and their motivation to engage the survey question. The measures also provide unreliable assessments of respondents’ abilities to access information that they have stored in places other than their immediately available memories. As a result, existing knowledge measures likely underestimate peoples’ capacities for informed decision making.
While I respect Lupia’s intellect and energy, his whole project strikes me as deeply misguided. Yes, if voters were paid for correct answers, they would know more. But in the real world, they aren’t paid. Tests without incentives mimic real world conditions; tests with incentives don’t. Furthermore, the fact that giving voters extra test time raises scores is not too interesting; after all, voters have already had their whole lives to think about this stuff if they care to. Again, the “pop quiz” is a more credible measure of actual voter competence.
In any case, Lupia seems to ignore the most telling evidence of all: As Scott Althaus and others have shown, demographically similar people with different levels of political knowledge have systematically different policy preferences. (Here’s the best survey of the whole literature). While Lupia keeps telling us that uninformed voters can use “proxies” to act as if they were informed, there is plenty of evidence that this is wishful thinking. Systematic disagreement between otherwise identical people with different levels of information is the norm, not the exception.
Lupia doesn’t like the way that elitist professors use their own ideas as the benchmark of truth. He’s got a point. But the right way to deal with this concern is not to hide behind philosophical relativism – as Lupia sometimes seems to advise. The right way to deal with this concern to raise specific, testable objections to elite opinion, and see if they hold water. For example, since critics accuse economists of being rich, tenured, right-wing hyenas, my analysis of systematically biased beliefs about economics controls for income, job security, ideology, and more.
For the record, these doubts turn out to be unimportant, leaving the elitist position looking better than ever.