Why (Most) Political Ignorance is Rational and Why it Matters: Reply to Jeffrey Friedman

In his critique of my book, Jeffrey Friedman continues his longstanding efforts to show that most political ignorance is inadvertent rather than rational. In his view, voters are ignorant because they believe our society “is a mighty simple place” and “think they have information adequate to [the] task.” They simply don’t realize there is lots of other information out there that could help them make better decisions.

Friedman is a top-notch political theorist who has made valuable contributions to the literature on political knowledge.1 But on this point, I think he is barking up the wrong tree.2 Moreover, the mistake is of more than theoretical importance. Inadvertent ignorance has very different implications for political theory than rational ignorance.

Inadvertent Error Cannot Explain the Sheer Depth and Persistence of Political Ignorance. 

Inadvertent error might explain why voters ignore highly abstruse (though potentially relevant) bodies of knowledge. But it cannot account for widespread ignorance of very basic facts about politics and public policy. For example, as I noted in my response to Sean Trende, two-thirds of the public in 2010 did not know that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year, even though most said that the economy was the single most important issue in the election. Similarly, most had little if any understanding of the Obama health care plan, another major issue. If you think the economy or the president’s health care plan is the biggest issue on the public agenda, it isn’t rocket science to figure out that these basic facts are highly relevant. Yet the majority of the public is often ignorant of such basics.3

The inadvertence theory also cannot explain why political knowledge levels have remained largely stagnant for decades, despite massive increases in education and in the availability of information through the media and modern technology, such as the Internet. These developments have made it much harder for voters to remain unaware of the reality that there are vast bodies of knowledge out there that are likely to be helpful in making political decisions. Americans have been quick to take advantage of these technological developments in their capacity as private sector consumers. But not, for the most part, in their role as voters. This is a striking divergence that the inadvertence theory cannot account for, but rational ignorance easily can.

Friedman argues that his theory is supported by polls showing that most voters thought they had sufficient information to make a decision in recent elections. But this ignores the reality that the amount of knowledge we consider enough to make a relatively unimportant decision is often much smaller than what we consider enough to make an important one. I think I have enough information to conclude that The Hunger Games was probably the best movie of 2012, even though I haven’t even watched most of its competitors. But that’s in large part because I know that the correctness of my opinion on this issue isn’t very important. If I were solely responsible for deciding who should win the Oscar for Best Picture, I would study the issue much more carefully.

Friedman’s theory implies that the average voter would not bother to acquire significantly more information about politics if he suddenly learned that he would be part of a small committee tasked with picking the next president of the United States. I think the vast majority of people would take the decision a lot more seriously if that were the case, and would spend a lot more time learning and evaluating political information. Jurors who make decisions in small groups where each vote matters greatly perform better than voters in part for this very reason.4

In making decisions that are likely to have only a small effect, people naturally set lower standards of informational adequacy than in making decisions that are likely to make a big difference. Given limited time and cognitive ability, we have to make such tradeoffs all the time. Friedman assumes that people who choose to limit their acquisition of information would also take care not to form opinions on issues where there knowledge is very limited. But in fact, it is perfectly rational to form opinions on the basis of small amounts of information in cases where the cost of error is low.

This key distinction also explains why many people choose to vote, but do not choose to learn very much about the issues they are voting on. Voting usually requires very little time and effort, while studying more than minimal amounts of political information requires a lot. People with a modest sense of “civic duty” are willing to spend modest amounts of time and effort on activities that have only a small chance of making a difference. But, given the odds, they are unlikely to make big sacrifices or to set high informational standards.

Friedman suggests that most people can’t possibly be rationally ignorant about politics because the theory of rational ignorance was only developed by economist Anthony Downs in 1957, and to this day it is known by few nonexperts. But, like many economic theories, rational ignorance is simply a formalization of an intuition that people routinely apply in their everyday lives. People exploited comparative advantage in trade long before economists formalized that theory. Similarly, long before 1957, people learned to prioritize some types of information acquisition over others based on the likelihood that learning it would make a difference. The value of these formal theories lies not in giving counterintuitive advice to individual voters or consumers, but in their nonobvious implications for the large-scale operations of economic and political systems.

The Rationality of “Political Fans” 

The same weaknesses that undermine Friedman’s critique of rational ignorance theory also undercut his critique of “rational irrationality” – the idea that people might rationally do a poor job of evaluating the political information they learn. Just as sports fans evaluate information in a way that is highly biased in favor of their favorite teams, “political fans” do so in a way that is biased in favor of their preferred party, candidate, or ideology.

Friedman protests that, unlike “sports fans who, for the sheer fun of it, willfully ignore unfriendly arguments and evidence,” ideologues “firmly believe they’re in possession of the obvious truth. The reason they dismiss counterarguments and counterevidence is that they think such arguments and evidence are implausible: they contradict things that any sane person knows to be true.” But if you talk to a dedicated sports fan, you will often find that he believes it’s “the obvious truth” that a disputable referee’s call that went against his team must be wrong, or that his favorite player is the best in the league, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Both sports fans and political fans tend to be dogmatic and closed-minded in large part because seeking truth is not the main reason why they chose to pursue these activities in the first place. Instead, they have motives such as entertainment, confirming their preexisting views, enjoying the camraderie of fellow fans, and so on.

That does not mean that either type of fan deliberately endorses conclusions they know to be false. With rare exceptions, fans sincerely believe that their opinions are true, often even “obviously” so. But in reaching this conclusion, they make little effort to objectively evaluate the relevant data, seek out opposing points of view, or otherwise behave as genuine truth-seekers do. Like information acquisition, objective evaluation of information requires time and effort. In addition, it can result in great psychological pain if it leads a fan to question cherished preexisting beliefs or reach conclusions that diverge from those of friends, family, and fellow fans. Even just reading opposing viewpoints can be unpleasant. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently said that he stopped reading the liberal Washington Post because it made him “upset every morning.” Numerous liberal political fans tend to avoid conservative publications for similar reasons.

Most people understandably prefer to avoid all that effort and pain unless there is some substantial offsetting benefit. Many of us have thoughts that we would rather not think, and information that we avoid because we would prefer not to know. When the truth might hurt, we are less likely to seek it out, and more likely to seize on any excuse for denying it.

Why it Matters 

Widespread political ignorance is a menace regardless of whether it is rational or inadvertent. But the difference between the two explanations for it matters. Inadvertent ignorance is a much easier problem to address than rational ignorance.

We could probably make a major dent in the former simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information. It could also lead them to be more objective in evaluating that information.

With rational ignorance and rational irrationality, by contrast, such simple solutions are far less likely to work. Rationally ignorant people choose not to acquire new knowledge because the incentive to do so is weak, not because they are blissfully unaware of the possibility that additional knowledge could improve the quality of their voting decisions.

As Friedman points out, decentralizing and limiting government is not the only possible solution to rational ignorance. I devote an entire chapter of my book to considering other approaches, and explaining why they are less promising.5 Still, in weighing competing options, it helps to know what kind of problem we are trying to solve.

I don’t doubt, of course, that some political ignorance is inadvertent. Even the most careful truth-seekers sometimes overlook important information by mistake. But the magnitude and persistence of political ignorance and bias is more readily explained by rational behavior.


1 See, e.g., Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus, Engineering the Financial Crisis, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

2 I give a more detailed critique of Friedman’s theory in Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 71-77.

3 I give many other examples in Ibid., ch. 1.

4 See Ilya Somin, “Jury Ignorance and Political Ignorance,” William and Mary Law Review (forthcoming), available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2312806.

5 Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance, ch. 7.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Ilya Somin argues that political ignorance is pervasive and extends to an alarming number of elementary topics. Voters simply don’t have the information that they need to make informed decisions. Increasing education seemingly hasn’t alleviated the problem, and voters tend to choose based not on facts or values, but on the basis of team-like partisan allegiances. This behavior is to some extent rational, because the payoffs are essentially zero for any one voter becoming more informed. It may thus be unreasonable to expect voters to become highly educated on matters of public policy. What we need, he argues, is instead a structural change: Make government a smaller and less consequential part of our everyday lives.

Response Essays

  • Heather Gerken finds much of interest in Ilya Somin’s work on political ignorance, a topic that has only gradually come into its own among law professors despite considerable social scientific research demonstrating political ignorance among real-world voters. She characterizes Somin’s view of political ignorance as “fox-like,” in the sense used by Isaiah Berlin: A fox knows a little about a lot of different things. Like Berlin’s fox, Somin’s voters will be apt to move from one environment to another. But she wonders whether this is a proper description of American voters. She contrasts Somin’s thesis with the work of David Schleicher, who suggests that most voters rely on party affiliation as an information shortcut. Gerken argues that the debate between Somin and Schleicher raises fundamental questions about the future of our democracy.

  • Sean Trende argues that while political elites may find voters startlingly ignorant, the system doesn’t really seem to be broken. It has often functioned quite well despite voters’ ignorance. He suggests that this is so for two reasons: First, much of what passes for expert knowledge is really nothing of the kind, so adding it to voters’ heads does not therefore constitute an improvement. Second, public opinion on many normative matters is ultimately more or less decent, and from it, relatively good policies flow.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that rational ignorance theory is false. Voters vote because they mistakenly believe that their votes are likely to matter. They remain ignorant not because they think their votes are irrelevant, but because they mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place. In such a world, it would take very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in; in reality, political decisions are complex and difficult. Friedman argues that both genuinely ignorant voters and blinkered ideologues fit this model, and that it conforms better to the available data on voter motivations than does the theory of rational ignorance.