Ignorance in power

Yes, it would be nice if the members of the Congressional intelligence committees knew a Sunni from a Shi’i. It would also be nice to have such knowledge widely diffused through the Executive Branch, starting at the top.

I agree with Ilya Somin: No one should serve on the Congressional intelligence committees (or, for that matter, the committees on defense or foreign relations) without being about to pass this simple binary quiz about the Sunni/Shi’a split.

Of course, Somin has a solution to the problem of Congressional ignorance. Comfortably, it turns out to be the same solution he and his fellow libertarians offer for every problem from the price of fish to the common cold: “reducing the size and scope of government.” If Congressmen weren’t so busy passing out the pork, he says, they’d have more time to study Middle Eastern politics. And if you believe that, he’ll tell you another one.

No doubt it was by mere oversight that Somin didn’t suggest the same test for various posts in the Executive Branch, starting of course with the Presidency. (I seem to recall, when the Republicans nominated for President an ignorant provincial who didn’t know the name of the President of Pakistan and got Slovakia confused with Slovenia, the right-wing commentariat all chorused “This isn’t a game of Jeopardy.”) How many of the twentysomethings the Bush Administration recruited from the Heritage Foundation resume bank to run the Coalition Provisional Authority could have passed the ABC quiz?

Ignorance in government is a problem. The only solution is to attract a better class of elected and appointed officials. Somehow I doubt that constantly chanting “Private sector good! Public sector bad!” helps that solution along.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com