Tax-Funded Opinion Poll Biased on Guns
by Ari Armstrong, November 5, 1999
Public opinion polls claim to be "scientific." What a laugh!
According to an opinion poll paid for by the City of Denver and conducted by the Norwest Public Opinion Research Program at the University of Colorado at Denver, 76% of Coloradans support the registration of all guns (Rocky Mountain News, "Poll: Gun control favored in state," Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, November 5, page 4A).
The News reported the results of the survey, but it failed to mention that poll results, especially concerning gun issues, are wildly inaccurate and anything but scientific.
When a complete stranger calls up and starts asking about one's beliefs on gun rights, a significant number of gun owners simply hang up. The identity of the caller is impossible to verify. With all the talk of gun registration, gun owners are understandably concerned about giving out personal information that may render them susceptible to gun confiscation in the future.
Only a small fraction of the people contacted to take a survey agree to answer the questions, which automatically introduces a huge bias into the results. The hysterical claim that poll results are "scientific" rests on the demonstrably bogus assumption that the responders represent a random sampling of the population.
But what is Denver doing spending taxpayer dollars to conduct an opinion poll anyway? The cost of the poll was $32,000. Can anyone guess who announced the results of the survey? Of course, it was Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who has politicized the Columbine tragedy since the bodies were still warm for his own advantage. The only question that remains is whether Webb is counting on riding into appointed office with Al Gore or if he intends to seek higher elected office himself.
Even if the poll were remotely accurate, who ever said that public opinion gets to trump the civil rights outlined in the federal and state Constitutions?
But let us return to the inherent flaws of public polling. Even if pollsters could figure out a way to overcome the unavoidable bias that results when the vast majority of people contacted simply don't respond, the results would still be basically meaningless.
How many Coloradans can even name their state representative or senator? Can they name the governor? How many even know the difference between the state legislature and the federal Congress? How many non-gun-owners have conducted even five minutes of serious research about firearms? How many Coloradans get their news from the editorialized sound-bites of television? How many pay any attention whatsoever to the news?
In the quiet mists of social utopians' dreams, the demos studies every issue carefully and then makes a reasoned decision based on the long-term interests of society. In reality, the vast majority of the population is "rationally ignorant" of politics. That is, because the average individual can make only an infinitesimal impact on politics, whereas the costs of learning the issues in depth is so great, most people choose to spend their time on their personal lives -- with their families, on their career, and with their circle of friends -- rather than on the nuances of politics. As Public Choice economist Gordon Tullock has pointed out, one has a greater chance of getting struck by lightning on the way to the polls than of affecting the outcome of an election, so most people simply don't bother to vote or become highly educated about political matters.
In a seminal issue of Critical Review, the journal of political philosophy and sociology edited by Jeffrey Friedman of Yale University, scholars come to terms with the facts of public ignorance (Fall 1998, Vol. 12, No. 4). In his introduction, Friedman summarizes:
That the public is overwhelmingly ignorant when it comes to politics is not merely the despairing hypothesis of conservatives unable to understand the popularity of Bill Clinton, or liberals unable to understand that of Ronald Reagan. It is a discovery that has been replicated unfailingly by political scientists; indeed, it is one of the strongest findings that have been produced by any social science -- possibly the strongest. Yet for all the rock-solid evidence behind it, the finding of public ignorance is little known to those whose business it is to analyze public opinion. Pollsters, pundits, journalists, and non-specialist scholars routinely attribute movements in public opinion to the effect of subtle philosophical and policy debates that are, in reality, the purview of small elites -- debates of which the general public usually has not the slightest knowledge.
The cited issue fleshes out those arguments to great detail.
A well-known problem with polls is that slight variations of wording can have huge impacts on results. A series of questions can "lead" the responder to make claims he or she wouldn't ordinarily make. It's the "boiled frog" syndrome: some people will say all kinds of outlandish things if they are worked up to it.
What would have been the response to the question, "Do you believe that the government should register the guns of all law-abiding citizens?" Or, "Do you believe that government registration of civilian arms is consistent with the Second Amendment, which reads, 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed?'" Who imagines that 76% of those polled would have called for gun registration if the questions had started with Waco? "Do you believe the FBI, the same organization that killed over 80 persons at Waco, Texas, should be responsible for registering guns?" Or how about, "Do you believe that the government should register the guns of civilians, given that some gun owners have worried such legislation will spark a civil war?" Or, "Do you believe the U.S. government should register all guns, as Germany's Weimar Republic did prior to the rise of Adolph Hitler?"
The fact that poll results are so easy to manipulate is but a manifestation of rational public ignorance. The minority who hold deep-seated, well-reasoned beliefs are not so easily swayed by superficial changes in wording.
Most people who are rationally ignorant don't bother to get involved. That's why, in the recent Colorado election, only about 25% of the potential pool even bothered to vote. Around 80% of the potential voters register, and around 30% to 50% of registered voters vote in any given election.
Politicians concerned with public opinion, then, should bear in mind a couple facts about the recent poll. Most of the people polled won't even vote. Among those who do vote who said they wanted gun registration, most of them do not hold "deep" beliefs on the matter. Their replies likely had more to do the wording of the survey than with reasoned belief. As Richard D. Anderson, Jr. writes in the issue of Critical Review previously cited, "Americans cannot fulfill the citizen's role of independently evaluating leaders and issues, because their opinions are powerfully biased by the editorial slant of the media they consume." This implies that politicians can drive public opinion to the extent that they communicate their ideas with voters.
But let's step back for a moment. My goal was to criticize a recent poll. But in doing that I have criticized the very foundations of modern democracy. What do these deeper criticisms imply for those who advocate greater human freedom?
Most people don't care deeply about human freedom, at least not as envisioned by libertarians. Most people are swayed by social leaders who espouse opinions, be these leaders politicians, media personalities, or vocal friends. However, social opinion does help drive politics, which means that libertarians must try to sway public opinion in a pro-freedom direction. Even more important than swaying the masses, is reaching out to current and potential social leaders who can help spread the freedom philosophy. Small groups of dedicated activists are important precisely because public opinion is swayed by vocal minorities.
Those stuck in the democratic paradigm will surely have difficulty accepting my arguments. Indeed, many will become irrationally angry toward me precisely because the ideas I'm discussing undermine the validity of democratic government. However, understanding human nature is the only path to a politics that respects human dignity.
Today, people are used as pawns by the political elite to advance special interests and personal gain. A respectful politics leaves individuals to do what they do best: run their own lives rather than the lives of their neighbors and countrymen. With government as "night watchman," as it was originally intended by America's founders, government handles only the barest of essentials and leaves people free to live their lives. Of course, this leaves ample room for social charity and community groups. The difference is that, in freedom, social organizations are run with the participation of "the people," rather than by the political elite who use the people for their own ends.