Thursday, February 07, 2008

What Voter Ignorance Can Tell Us About The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Recently I linked to a paper by Ilya Somin, a member of the Volokh Conspiracy and a law professor at George Mason. The theme of his article is that voters are rationally ignorant and this phenomenon creates practical problems (we choose leaders for bad reasons) and normative difficulties (democratic theory presupposes a certain amount of voter knowledge if democracy is going to function).

The end of his paper deals with how the war on terror is affected by ignorance in Muslim countries. As examples he cites surveys that shows people in those countries are woefully ignorant about international affairs, including believing that the 9/11 attacks were not carried out by Al Qaeda. This study fits well within his theory. If Americans, who are educated and have almost unlimited, easy access to information choose to remain ignorant, people in Muslim countries who do not have a free press and limited access to information should be even more ignorant.

I think this point is true. If Americans are ignorant because their votes have little value, people living in dictatorships are going to have less incentives to learn about the issues. However, I think there is a countervailing consideration. Much of our ignorance hinges on the idea that the differences between the candidates are not really that vast. Electing McCain as opposed to Hillary will have real consequences, but not in the same way as overthrowing a dictator. So the average Arab might have more of an incentive to learn the issues for that reason.

Either way ignorance in the Arab world is a real problem. Applying this concept to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, we can definitely draw conclusions that have serious ramifications. If Palestinians are as ignorant as we are, since their voting options and access to information are much more constrained, perhaps we cannot influence them much politically through grandiose ideas like statehood or autonomy. I'm not saying the Palestinians are stupid and won't know the difference between living under Israeli or Palestinian control. But no matter what we do, we'll be running up against a situation where the very people we are trying to impact won't really know how we are helping them.

Perhaps the best way to influence the average Palestinian is to make changes on the ground. People might be ignorant about national and political issues, but everyone knows about the factors that affect him directly. Palestinians know all about roadblocks, closures and military incursions either because they themselves experienced them or because someone they know did. It is the actual experiences of the Palestinians that really matter.

This can work in two different ways: we could try to make their lives easier (how the Left approaches it) or we can try to show them that terrorism will only hurt them (the approach of the Right). The former view expects the Palestinians to give up their irredentist aspirations once they realize we are not trying to destroy them and take their land. That can only succeed once we take action to make their lives better. The latter approach believes the Palestinians will never agree to a peaceful arrangement unless we show them they have no choice. We must show them that violence will never lead to their desired aims.

I don't know who is right, but I think it's important to recognize that ignorance is a real obstacle we have to overcome and modify our thinking accordingly. Minor moves, like releasing a few hundred terrorists, is not going to have a real effect on the situation, unless it is coupled with farther reaching moves. Similarly, a small incursion into Gaza isn't going to stop Kassams or even convince the average Palestinian that shooting Kassams is a bad thing. We need to do something that will cut through the ignorance and affect the average Palestinian himself.

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