Why Ignorant Voting is Rational – Further Rejoinder to Jeffrey Friedman

In his latest post, Jeffrey Friedman emphasizes that rational ignorance is inconsistent with the fact that voters vote and do not do so randomly. If voters understood that their votes have little chance of affecting electoral outcomes, they would not vote at all. Since they do vote, that also suggests that their ignorance is not the result of a rational calculation of the costs of acquiring additional political information.  Rather, they must be ignorant because they simply don’t realize that acquiring additional information would help them make better decisions at the ballot box.

Friedman’s argument would be sound if individual votes had no chance of influencing electoral outcomes. In that scenario, any rational person would simply choose not to vote at all (at least if the goal of voting was to affect electoral outcomes). But, in reality, individual votes do have a chance of determining electoral outcomes, albeit usually only a very small one.  There is an important difference between a very low chance and a zero chance. A low probability is enough to make it rational to vote so long as 1) the cost of voting is low, 2) voters are at least mildly altruistic (they care about the welfare of their fellow citizens as well as their own), and 3) they believe there is a significant difference between the opposing candidates or parties. As I discuss in more detail in the book,[1] these assumptions describe the real world fairly accurately: the cost of voting usually is fairly low, most people really are mildly altruistic (though usually not much more altruistic than that), and many do believe there is a significant difference between the candidates. These realities also explain the various polls that Friedman cites indicating that voters believe their votes make a difference or “really matter.”[2]

Obviously, very few voters know the exact odds of affecting an electoral outcome. But most do intuitively understand that the odds are relatively low. They are thus willing to incur the small costs of voting to do their “civic duty,” but not the much higher costs involved in learning and processing more than minimal amounts of political information. They are also, in most cases, not willing to incur the high psychological cost of analyzing political information in an objective and unbiased way.

Friedman claims that there is “no evidence” to support this explanation. But, as I explained in my initial response to him, it is the best explanation for why voters 1) often ignore even very basic and obviously relevant political information, and 2) have not increased their knowledge substantially despite rising education levels and the increasing availability of information thanks to modern technology. These trends are difficult to explain through inadvertent or “radical” ignorance. If you believe that the economy is the most important issue in the 2010 election, for example, it is blatantly obvious that the facts about whether the economy is growing or shrinking are highly relevant data that might well affect your decision. In Friedman’s terminology (borrowed from Donald Rumsfeld), this is not an “unknown unknown,” but a glaring “known unknown.” Similarly, if you believe (as many voters did in both 2010 and 2012) that Obamacare was a major electoral issue, it was fairly obvious that basic knowledge of what that program actually does is relevant to evaluating its quality. Yet the vast majority of the public was ignorant on  both these points. And there are many similar examples, as I describe in my earlier posts and in the book.[3]

Friedman suggests that the greater availability of information created by the Internet and other modern technology is “irrelevant” to radical ignorance because radically ignorant voters “think they already know enough” and have no desire to learn more. But the more people are aware that there are large bodies of political information out there that they do not yet know, the more likely they should be to believe that it might be relevant to their decisions – especially if much of it is relatively basic and fairly obviously relevant. The same should be true of increased education. If nothing else, greater education makes people more aware than they would be otherwise that there are useful bodies of knowledge out there.

In his latest response, Friedman admits that most voters would acquire more information if they were part of a small committee tasked with choosing the next president, or if they were part of a jury. He claims, however, that this is not because of the greater odds of influencing the outcome, but because in these settings participants must “explain their views to others,” not just themselves. In reality, however, jurors are not required to explain their views to others. They have every right to vote without offering any explanation at all.  Even in contexts where there is even less expectation of having to offer an explanation than in a jury setting, people routinely make greater efforts to acquire and objectively evaluate information than they do on political issues – for example, when they make decisions about consumer purchases such as buying a car, a laptop, or a TV.

Moreover, if the reason why voters are ignorant is, as Friedman claims, that they are confident they have “reached the right conclusions, so that whatever else one might learn is unlikely to overturn them,” they should also be confident that that information would be sufficient to justify their views to others. If they believe the information they already have is so clearly sufficient that the truth becomes obvious once you know it, why should they think they need any more information to persuade others? Perhaps they believe those others are stupid, indifferent to the truth, or impervious to evidence. But if so, additional information is unlikely to help.

Finally, Friedman reiterates his argument that, if rational ignorance theory were correct, it would justify technocracy, rather than political decentralization or limitations on government power. This is indeed a possible response to rational political ignorance. But, for reasons that I discuss at greater length in the book,[4] it is not as good a response as limiting and decentralizing government power.  Friedman somewhat misrepresents my position when he states that it amounts to claiming that “[t]he high incentive to ‘get things right’ that comes with making very important decisions is …. sufficient.”  A high incentive to get things right is often necessary, but that doesn’t make it sufficient to achieve beneficial outcomes. It is also important that decisionmakers have a strong incentive to use their knowledge to achieve beneficial results. If Friedman’s technocrats are subject to control by the electorate, they have strong incentives to cater to its ignorance and irrationality rather than to use their expertise to promote good policies. If, on the other hand, they are largely insulated from electoral control, they will have incentives to use their power to promote their own interests rather than that of the general public. Especially over time, technocratic experts whose main goal is to perpetuate their own power and influence are likely to win out in bureaucratic competition over those who are objective truth-seekers and who wish only to promote beneficial policies.

Friedman’s own theory also has potential technocratic implications that he does not consider. If the major problem is one of “radical ignorance” where people fail to acquire additional information because they simply don’t realize it might have value, then experts in a given field are likely to be less susceptible to it than laypeople. An expert on, say, health care policy, is likely to be much more aware than either voters or politicians of the kinds of information that might be relevant to health care decisions. He or she is also likely to be familiar with the relevant literature in the field authored by scholars on different sides of the question. Thus, he would be less likely to assume that views he reaches on the basis of very limited information are obviously correct and unlikely to be overturned by new evidence. Indeed, as Socrates famously recognized, part of being a real expert on any subject is that you have a relatively good understanding of the potential significance of what you don’t  know.



[1] Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 66-73.

[2] In one instance, Friedman makes a small mistake, stating that one poll discussed in my book (ibid., pg. 74), found that 70% of respondents stated that their votes are “really important.” In reality, they stated that their votes “really matter.”

[3] Ibid., ch. 1.

[4] Ibid., 183-85.

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.