Transparency and Political Ignorance

Jerry Brito, a technology policy expert at the Mercatus Center, has an interesting essay describing his loss of faith in the idea that increasing government transparency will necessarily lead to smaller government or better policy:

The theory that government transparency, and in particular better access to government spending data, will lead to limited government is premised on the idea that the reason the public doesn’t press for an end to out-of-control government spending—whether on defense or entitlements or anything else—is that they are rationally ignorant.

If the cost to citizens of informing themselves about public policy is higher than the potential benefits of such knowledge, the theory goes, then the rational course of action for a citizen is to not invest in acquiring such information and thus to remain ignorant. Sadly, it’s a fact that there is a near-zero probability that any action an individual takes will have a decisive effect on any given policy outcome—whether it’s voting or calling congress or tweeting. Citizens, therefore, rationally choose to be ignorant….

Greater access to government data, the theory posits, can help undo the information asymmetry and weaken the dynamic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs…

The lynchpin of the theory is that citizens will act rationally. It assumes that if citizens are shown evidence that a particular bill or regulation is very costly, or that a government program does not perform well, they will, at least on the margin, take some action to oppose it…

[But] [b]elieving things that are not true can feel good for ideological or emotional reasons. So as long as the cost does not outweigh the benefit of the fine feeling, it is rational to indulge in irrational beliefs. This is what [economist] Bryan Caplan calls rational irrationality….

Indulging in a belief that evolution is a myth is also virtually costless, unless you intend to make your living in the life sciences. As a result, many hold this belief without a problem….

As Caplan has shown, politics presents people with an opportunity to consume irrational beliefs very cheaply. This is because they do not have to completely internalize the cost of errors the way they would if they stopped believing in gravity.

For example, what is the material cost to a citizen of supporting a bad policy that will cost him $5,000? The answer is not $5,000, but $5,000 multiplied by the probability that his support—whether a vote, a call to congress, or a tweet—will have a decisive effect on the policy outcome. Because the probability that his action will be decisive is nearly zero, the material cost to him of holding an irrational belief is essentially zero. As a result, people will believe whatever makes them feel best about politics and act accordingly, and the aggregate costs of the political outcomes are borne by everyone.

Bryan Caplan’s theory of rational irrationality is a major contribution to the study of political ignorance. It is indeed true that people tend to evaluate new political information in a highly biased way, overvaluing anything that confirms their preexisting views and downplaying or simply ignoring evidence that cuts against them. Such biased evaluation of evidence is perfectly rational behavior once we recognize that, for many people, the purpose of following politics is not to get at the truth about political issues but to enjoy the experience of being a “political fan” cheering on one’s preferred party or ideology.

This should trouble transparency advocates even if they are not libertarians. If the purpose of transparency is to generate a public reaction that will lead to better policy (whether in a libertarian direction or not), rational irrationality is a significant obstacle.

Moreover, Brito is too quick to assume that increased transparency can at least greatly alleviate the problem of rational ignorance, even if it will not eliminate rational irrationality. Some government transparency enthusiasts have a kind of X Files vision of politics in which “The Truth is Out There” and the public is dying to get at it, only to be stymied by sinister forces who want to cover up their evil machinations. If only Mulder and Scully can somehow reveal the truth to the people, they will rise up and set things right.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is more realistic:

The single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh…., before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll…..

For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog.

The main reason why most of the public is ignorant about politics is not that the information isn’t readily available, but that they don’t take the time to read it and study it. That’s why majorities are often ignorant about basic facts that are easily found in the media or the internet, including basic facts about the federal budget, whether taxes recently went up or down, and whether the economy is growing. In many cases, majorities have never even heard of prominent political leaders, such as Paul Ryan before he was nominated for vice president.

The good news for libertarians is that, despite rational irrationality, increasing political knowledge does tend to make people somewhat more libertarian than they would be otherwise. The bad news for transparency advocates of all stripes is that increasing transparency is unlikely to increase knowledge very much. Most of the public makes little effort to study the political information that is already widely available, and there is little reason to believe that they will treat new information any differently.

This doesn’t mean that transparency is completely useless. Sometimes, beneficial change can be achieved simply by revealing the existence of abuses to a small but influential elite. More rarely, some revelations are so blatant and so striking that they can even penetrate the haze of rational ignorance. The revelation of the Watergate scandal is an obvious historical example. Often, however, the truth about government won’t set the public free because they aren’t paying attention.