Debating the Rationality of Political Ignorance

At Cato Unbound, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman and I are continuing to debate whether widespread political ignorance is primarily the result of rational behavior (my view) or mostly inadvertent (his view). Friedman argues that most voters simply don’t realize that there is lots of political information out there that might help them make better decisions at the ballot box. In my view (outlined in greater detail in my book), this theory cannot account for the depth and persistence of political ignorance even about many very basic facts. Here are Jeff’s most recent reply to me, and my most recent rejoinder.

To some extent, this debate may be of only academic interest. Whether political ignorance is rational, inadvertent, or some combination of the two, it is still a serious problem. But, for reasons I explained in my initial response to Jeff, the two explanations have different implications for efforts to remedy the problem:

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.