Rational Ignorance Can’t Explain Voter Behavior

Before saying a bit about Ilya’s defense of rational ignorance theory, I want to keep the big picture in view. I pointed out that the “paradox” that people vote casts serious doubt on rational ignorance theory, because the premise of the theory is that people know that their votes are unlikely to matter. However, sometimes we are lucky enough to move from having serious doubts about a theory to being able to falsify it. Rational ignorance theory is falsified by the fact that 70 percent of voters say that they think their individual votes are “really important,” as I noted in my earlier post. Moreover, as I noted, 89 percent say that influencing government policy is an important reason for their vote. If these findings do not falsify rational ignorance theory, what would?

There is also the fact that voters don’t vote randomly for major offices. That might seem to be an arcane point, but it demonstrates that people think they know enough to make a good choice. If they think they know enough, despite not knowing what (say) Ilya thinks they ought to know, then we have all the explanation we need of why they are (in Ilya’s judgment) poorly informed: in effect, they disagree with him about the information that is adequate to decide, for example, who the president should be. Non-random voting is an airtight falsification of rational ignorance theory.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that there is no evidence for the theory whatsoever. There is no reason to think that people know their votes don’t matter, and the fact that both their actions (voting) and their survey responses show that they do think their votes matter should be enough for us to retire rational ignorance theory once and for all.

Ilya’s responses to these points strike me as being like the epicycles that defenders of the geocentric view of the universe came up with to account for anomalies. Gut-level intuitions that are groundlessly attributed to voters play a huge role in keeping these epicycles spinning. According to Ilya, voters must intuit that their votes don’t matter; and they must realize that they should know the things Ilya thinks they should know about important issues; such that the only reason they don’t know these things must be that they realize that learning these things is too costly, given the insignificance of their vote. I suppose we have to attribute this occult knowledge to voters if we insist on defending rational ignorance theory, but the simpler course would be to admit that people can form opinions on the basis of what others consider to be insufficient knowledge without themselves thinking that their knowledge is insufficient.

Justice Scalia, for example, simply says that the bias of the Washington Post upset him. This is completely consistent with my account, according to which people refuse to take the other side seriously because they think the other side is, to be blunt, full of it. But Ilya (as I read him) misinterprets Scalia as saying that what upset him when he used to read the Post was that it contained information he would rather avoid, truths that might hurt. Here Ilya is attributing to Scalia not just the intuition that reading the other side is likely to reveal information that’s devastating to his own side, but the actual knowledge that this is the case, such that Scalia is deliberately insulating himself from what he knows to be the important truths found in the pages of The Washington Post. This, I think, is absurd.

There’s a lesson here. Despite its name, rational ignorance theory is really a theory of something like omniscience. (Note the parallel to mainstream neoclassical assumptions of perfect knowledge.) According to the theory, everyone knows the one really important thing about politics—that their vote doesn’t matter—even though nobody is taught this outside a few economics and political science classrooms. Everyone knows that they don’t know enough about politics or policy to form intelligent opinions. Everyone knows they have learned a biased sample of information that is skewing their judgment. And what do we do about the fact that people deny all of these things in both their deeds and their words? For example, how do we study ideologues who claim that they do know what they other side has to say, but that they find it so patently absurd that they refuse to waste any more time listening to it? We ignore their deeds and their words, because we know that they know better. I don’t see much scope here for genuine investigation. The theory contains all the knowledge we need about political ignorance, a priori.

Many of Ilya’s responses are variations on the theme that people could learn more about politics (if they were sufficiently motivated), but it is not as if I disagree. That people could learn more about politics means that they are politically ignorant, and I was one of the first political theorists to make a big deal out of that very fact.[1] In the two ensuing decades, I’ve turned the journal I edit, Critical Review, into the leading scholarly forum for considering the implications of political ignorance. But since it simply isn’t true that people’s political ignorance is due to their knowledge that their votes don’t matter, we need a better explanation.

I now see that calling my explanation “inadvertent ignorance” can be misleading. Inadvertent ignorance, as I use the term, is not accidental. Inadvertent ignorance comes about when one thinks that one has reached the right conclusions, so that whatever else one might learn is unlikely to overturn them. So one more or less deliberately chooses to be ignorant only of things that one assumes are likely to be unimportant. What is accidental here is that one may thus be inadvertently choosing to be ignorant of particular things that, if one had known them, would have changed one’s mind.

For someone who thinks he already has a handle on the political truth, the problem is unknown unknowns: facts that, if he knew them, would change his political conclusions. Nobody deliberately chooses to err, or to forego the opportunity to learn something that would keep him from erring. But if he’s going to learn something that will help him avoid an error, he first has to think there’s a real likelihood that learning this or that, or reading this or that newspaper, will have such an effect. In the case at hand, he has to think that if he learns more about politics by reading a certain newspaper or consulting some other source, what he learns has a good chance of contradicting everything he thinks he already knows (about, for example, those selfish, mean-spirited Republicans or those perfidious, freedom-hating Democrats). To learn more about public policy, he’d have to think that doing so would likely reveal something (e.g., an unintended consequence) that refutes the desirability of a policy that he thinks is obviously necessary because it is intended to solve a pressing problem. The better term for my theory, then, which I shamelessly borrow from Austrian economics, is “radical” ignorance. If we don’t know the value of what we don’t know, we have no reason to learn it.

In the face of radical ignorance, it is simply irrelevant that people are bombarded now with more information than ever through education and the Internet. Easing people’s access to more political information by making it free isn’t going to interest them if they think they already know enough. However, the plummeting cost of political information does cause problems for rational ignorance theory, since the theory claims that political ignorance is based on a cost-benefit calculation about the value of learning more about politics. If the cost drops, so should the level of ignorance.

Finally, I agree with Ilya that if one is asked to justify her conclusions to others, such as other members of a jury or the entire population of the United States, she would be likely to bone up on whatever information those other people might find important. But that doesn’t mean that people deliberately inform themselves inadequately about politics. That they think they are adequately informed to justify their political conclusions to themselves (i.e., to establish their truth, not to establish their truth in a way that will persuade others) is shown by the fact that they vote non-randomly, and by the fact that they say that their votes are really important in affecting public policy.

Note, however, that Ilya’s examples here show how rational ignorance theory leads to technocratic conclusions. The high incentive to “get things right” that comes with making very important decisions is, in his view, sufficient. In that case, it stands to reason that we should turn government over to highly visible experts and give them every incentive not to err. In my view, however, technocracy is no solution at all, because the problem is not ignorance caused by low incentives; it is ignorance caused by the illusion that one’s existing set of information suffices to understand a complex society. “Experts” are even more susceptible to this illusion than ordinary citizens are, because their sets of information are larger.




[1] Jeffrey Friedman, “Public Opinion and Democracy,” Critical Review vol. 10, no. 1 (Winter 1996); “Public Ignorance and Democratic Theory,” Critical Review vol. 12, no. 4 (Fall 1998).

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.