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Education in political philosophy July 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, intellectual, politics.

Every sentence in this article looks worth reading to me, if you like the topic that is. Infact, its more of a book review than an opinion piece ( well, actually book review is one kind of opinion piece … okay, whatever ! ). I will paste some interesting bits :

In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

Gets more interesting.

Even apart from ignorance of the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as “affirmative action” and “welfare” is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions—if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer—but the opinions are not based on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal and ad hoc.

I find this amusing – the level of political discourse in a matured democracy like the United States is rather poor for all the above reasons. Think about countries with high illiteracy rates, no history of democracy, multi-ethnic composition, poor, almost landlocked.

I have said this before and say it again – I find it hard to understand that here we have this great question of our times and of the last 200 years perhaps – that of the relation between the citizen and the state, one that encompasses political rights and freedoms, allocation of economic resources and one that has a huge bearing on the nature and quality of our lives. Yet, not one minute of my secondary education was spent pondering this question. And it is questions like these and the exposure to such ideas that ensure that a democracy can function meaningfully. It may sound over-rated at a stage when billions don’t have the most basic of skills, but I feel that in the long run for an advanced society to be able to make optimal public policy choices such an education is necessary.


Alex asks a rather provocative question. And folks in the comments section match the provocation with their uuh…provocative thoughts.



1. leslieyoung - July 3, 2007

One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Thank you for pointing it out.

I find it very interesting how the author applies basic economic principles (for example assuming the rational actor) to complex political and policy issues. I personally find that an economic model provides an excellent starting point for analysis of such issues, but that it falls short in accounting for emotive reactions, morals, values and other such “irrational” actions and feelings on the part of the subjects. I suppose that, in short, I agree with the view presented near the end of the book review (is it really a book review?):

“Negotiating the tension between “rational” policy choices and “irrational” preferences and anxieties—between the desirability of more productivity and the desire to preserve a way of life—is what democratic politics is all about. (…) But many policy decisions don’t have an optimal answer. They involve values that are deeply contested: when life begins, whether liberty is more important than equality, how racial integration is best achieved (and what would count as genuine integration).”

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