Vox Populus, Vox Bellum

by Don Boudreaux on April 7, 2014

in Hubris and humility, Myths and Fallacies, Trade, War

The following finding is discouraging, although not a bit surprising:

Does it really matter whether Americans can put Ukraine on a map? Previous research would suggest yes: Information, or the absence thereof, can influence Americans’ attitudes about the kind of policies they want their government to carry out and the ability of elites to shape that agenda. Accordingly, we also asked our respondents a variety of questions about what they thought about the current situation on the ground, and what they wanted the United States to do. Similarly to other recent polls, we found that although Americans are undecided on what to do with Ukraine, they are more likely to oppose action in Ukraine the costlier it is – 45 percent of Americans supported boycotting the G8 summit, for example, while only 13 percent of Americans supported using force.

However, the further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily. Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent  confidence level. Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: The less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.

Ignorance, it appears, isn’t merely bliss; it’s also ballistic.

(I thank Tyler Cowen for the pointer.)

Lest “Progressives” get all snooty about this finding – thinking, perhaps, that Republican doofuses in benighted locales such as Alabama, Texas, and Orange County, CA, have some monopoly on pressing for policies out of sheer ignorance – I’ll bet that a survey asking people to identify, say, the average age and family circumstances of the typical minimum-wage earner would find that the more likely a respondent is to give an incorrect answer the more likely that respondent is to support government intervention to raise the minimum wage.  And I’ll bet that similar survey questions about the specifics of, say, international trade – for example, “What is a trade deficit?” or “What portion of American imports are used as inputs in production in the U.S.?” would likewise show a statistically significant positive correlation between the likelihood of incorrect answers to these factual questions and the likelihood that respondents support tariffs and other trade-restricting policies.

Ignorance is not only bliss; it’s fertile ground on which politicians can grow their political careers.

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