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.