In a recent post, co-blogger David Bernstein asks whether political ignorance (voters’ lack of knowledge) matters, or only political irrationality (voters’ biased evaluation of the information they do know). David suggests that ignorance might not matter much if ignorant voters, like many consumers, make good use of information shortcuts, such as relying on the judgment of those more knowledgeable than themselves.
The question of whether ignorance matters independently of irrationality is one that I have long debated with Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. I respond to Caplan in greater detail in my own book on political ignorance (pp. 71-73). The short answer is that both matter because, even if voters are doing a good job of analyzing the information they have, it’s easy to make mistakes that could be avoided with greater knowledge. This is particularly true when voters lack very basic information about what is going on in politics, such as being ignorant of the very existence of major polices, or failing to understand which issues political leaders can affect and which ones they can’t. Such basic errors are extremely common.
Moreover, as I discuss in greater detail in my book, ignorance of basics makes it difficult to find effective information shortcuts, including finding reliable “super-consumers” of political information of the kind that David discusses in his post. Voters seeking to defer to the judgment of such “opinion leaders” (as they are known in the political science literature) should find ones who have a good understanding of policy and a strong track record of predicting its effects correctly. In reality, however, the most popular opinion leaders tend to be people like Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart, who are notable primarily for entertainment value and eloquence rather than accuracy. Some of this is because voters select opinion leaders for reasons other than truth-seeking. But some likely occurs because many people simply lack the knowledge needed to evaluate opinion leaders effectively.
David notes that consumers are also often ignorant. That is, of course, true. But they are much more likely to at least understand the basics of the products they seek to buy. For example, even a person like me, who knows little about cars, can understand that it’s important to consider the mileage, size, reliability, safety, and price of competing options, and can also readily find information on these basics. I at least know not to blame my car if my TV fails, and vice versa. By contrast, voters are regularly confused about which issues candidates for office can affect, and which ones they cannot. In evaluating potential opinion leaders, consumers are far more likely to know enough to find a reliable opinion leader on cars, than voters are to find one on political issues.
Obviously, irrationality adds an extra layer of dysfunction on top of that caused by ignorance alone. Just as the insignificance of any one vote gives voters little incentive to acquire political information, it also gives them little incentive to rationally evaluate the information they do know. If voters were just as ignorant as they are now, but completely unbiased in their evaluation of the information they have, they would perform a lot better. But they still would make significant ignorance-induced errors.
Much more can be said on these issues, and I cover them in much greater detail in my book (especially in chapters 3, 4, and 5). This post just briefly summarizes my answer to David’s important question.