Why Politicians Ignore Facts

Professor David Schultz discusses why U.S. policymaking is often based on political myths, not actual evidence.

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Often ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence, government officials continue to enact policies that have been proven to be failures in the past, says David Schultz, a professor at the Hamline University School of Business and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. In American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research, Schultz argues that policy is often based on political myths, rather than empirical evidence. He recently spoke to U.S. News about why politicians sometimes ignore facts, the level of voter knowledge, and what he says needs to change. Excerpts:

Why write about failed American policies?

To really empower voters to say that here is a starting list of ideas that really have been repeated and failed. Ideas seem to get replicated and oftentimes failed ideas get constantly reproposed. And that's what the book is about; to examine why failed policies, failed ideas, and political myths capture our lawmaking process.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, and insider's guide to politics and policy.]

What are the most salient political myths today?

One of the beliefs is that undocumented aliens and illegal immigrants are a net economic drain on the United States. In fact, the overwhelming evidence suggests that immigrants pay more in taxes than they take back from the government. There [also] seems to be this assumption that taxes are a major determinant of business location decisions or [that they] affect investment decisions in general, when overwhelming evidence suggests that taxes come in about fifth or sixth [among] factors that are important to businesses in terms of their decision where to invest.

Is policymaking a rational process?

No. To a large extent, the policy process is surrounded by partisanship, ideology, special interest money, and politics. Oftentimes what that means is that the best available evidence at hand doesn't influence how we make policy. Now does that mean that the policy process should be completely rational? Not necessarily. Questions about a woman's right to choose, or should gay and lesbian couples be allowed to marry are resolved by a sense of values.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

How are failed policies perpetuated on the state level?

States will borrow ideas from other states without asking if they really worked and, if so, for what reasons? A lot of times states engage in competition with one another to produce bad ideas. For example, all 50 states enact tax breaks to try to lure businesses, and they really engage in a bidding war against one another.

Why do you say that politicians ignore scientific facts?

First, the role of money in politics, special interest influence, partisanship, and ideology. A second level gets down to the individual. A lot of state legislatures are [made up of] part-time individuals who may not always have the skill sets that are necessary to be able to understand the information they need. Third, there are times when legislatures and public officials just willfully turn a blind eye to the facts or evidence partly because it works for them politically.

Is ignorance of failed policy a byproduct of the democratic system?

Government can do lots of good things, but it seems that in the last generation or two, it's harder and harder for the political process to act upon good information and really act for the public good.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Where do voters get their information?

We increasingly have a generation of people who get more and more of their political information from nontraditional news formats. Everybody seems to have their own facts now and their own sort of perspective on the world. [They don't] really want to hear counterfacts or objections to their own arguments. We've really created a situation where we have the potential to be better informed than ever, but in many ways the American public is more poorly informed about many aspects of American politics than it was in the past.