Rational ignorance and institutions

I’m grading a question I gave to my class on rational ignorance so I’ve been restating myself repeatedly… and in doing so refining my view on rational ignorance.

Here’s the basic story: an election is forthcoming and we need to decide how we will vote. One possibility is that we follow heuristics (such as “I’m going to vote for the Democrats”). Another is that we delve through all the available information and make a calculated decision based on what we expect will be the outcomes of each candidate’s proposed policies (or what we think their policies actually will be). In a perfect world the median voter would be making a decision on the second basis. But each voter faces an opportunity cost of being more informed. And because a tie is highly unlikely I can cast a ballot I might otherwise regret but I won’t have to worry that it will actually change the outcome of the election.

The outcome is that people vote stupidly. But if that were really the problem it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Yes, people are wasting their votes. But really, we’re not facing a situation where “the truth” is on the ballot. The real problem is that the terms of political competition aren’t what we want them to be. This is still a Prisoners’ Dilemma, but the outcome isn’t “we all accidentally vote for the jackass.” The outcome is “the competition is inescapably between jackasses.”

In a world where rational ignorance were a problem because of the ignorance part political races would still be about a reasoned debate about how to improve the world. But that isn’t what politics is (and it probably never was). Instead it’s about marketing. It’s about grabbing the scarce attention of voters that has little if anything to do with information or anything you can be ignorant about.

In other words, rational ignorance is not an epistemic problem, it’s an institutional problem. It does not simply change the intelligence of the outcome of a vote, it reduces the role of intelligence and rationality in elections. It changes the rules of the game so that a politician’s efforts towards being “right” have little bearing on their success. What really matters is garnering the irrational support of voters.

7 thoughts on “Rational ignorance and institutions

    • Short answer: classical liberalism and federalism.

      Longer answer: first enough people need to be cognizant that this is a problem that the response isn’t “It’s your civic duty to vote, how dare you imply that anyone could possibly do harm with their vote… except those damn Repemocrans!” At that point it becomes possible to discuss changes to the voting system.

  1. This is an excellent analysis of mass democracy, but what are the institutions that promote rational ignorance?

    This is probably the most trouble I have with pinpointing the problems of our democratic system.

    • Let’s go a step further than institutions: Instincts.*

      Our ancestors survived a dangerous natural environment by taking on genetic strategies that allow us to use our big-old-dolphin-brains in clever ways, but that falls short of perfect Spock-ness. We are easily excited by certain things and will often answer easier questions than the ones posed to us without realizing it.

      So besides the fact that it’s genuinely rational to be ignorant, our psychological makeup creates a situation that exacerbates the problem. Voters ask the question “will I be better off in four years with that asshole in charge or this one?” but answer the question “which of these schmucks would drive me to suicide slowest if I were trapped on a desert island with one of them?”

      Let’s get back to the institutional question… Rational ignorance is a thing because we are facing a collective action problem. Through repeated play the problem of rational ignorance has created an electoral institution that rewards showmanship (playing on the psychology of voters). There are two questions: 1) Why did things unfold so that this is the case? 2) How might we change them for the better?

      I suspect the answer to 1) is that people genuinely thought voting was going to be about information. Perhaps it even was at some point. And if it was successful it’s only natural that its scope would be expanded. But as its scope expands the informational issues become larger and it becomes more rational to be ignorant. (That’s one possible story but not the only one.)

      The status quo isn’t going to change without a major shift in the way people think. One way to get that shift would be to fix high school civics classes (Okay, where do I sign up for sea-steading?!). I think one of the higher marginal benefit things is satire (tangent: my introduction to satire was This Hour has 22 Minutes which I watched before I was a full-blown libertarian). One reason I like Jon Stewart so much is that he fights back against the non-role of information in the political-media nexus. If “the people” acknowledge that politics isn’t about making “the right choice” in some objective sense they will be admitting the problem.

      *Now, if I remember my last anthropology class correctly instincts aren’t as real as we think they are… but what from what I’ve gleaned about evolutionary psychology and neurology there is hard-wiring, or something like it, that kinda-sorta stands between instinct and culture. So I’ll (perhaps incorrectly) use the word instinct as short-hand for psychological features of humans that arose from our evolution as a social animal.

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