The Rationality of Political Ignorance Revisited

Bruce Ramsey of the Liberty website isn’t happy with either participant in my recent debate with Jeffrey Friedman over the the rationality of political ignorance at Cato Unbound. He claims that we misrepresent each other’s positions, and that in any case the question we are debating doesn’t matter much.

Here is his critique of my argument:

For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error…” “Inadvertent” is a loaded term. It implies a voter who is trying reasonably hard but just messing up, again and again. That’s not really Friedman’s position.

If voter ignorance were “inadvertent,” Somin writes,“We could probably [reduce it] 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.”

Actually, the kind of political information Somin would want voters to have is complicated and detailed, whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple: Quit smoking. Use a condom. The comparison is not apt.

Even if “inadvertent” is a loaded term, I was not the one who first used it to describe Friedman’s position. He did so himself in a series of articles going back several years (I cited some of them in my book on political ignorance). In the Cato Unbound debate, he later repudiated it in favor of “radical ignorance” (a term borrowed from Austrian economics). Regardless, throughout the debate and in his earlier work, Friedman has consistently argued that voters are ignorant because they believe they already know enough to make good decisions and that acquiring additional information is unlikely to lead to better ones. That strikes me as a theory of inadvertent ignorance by any reasonable definition of the term. And it surely does imply that voters are “trying reasonably hard [to understand politics] but just messing up, again and again.” At the very least, it suggests that they themselves believe they are trying “reasonably hard.” Otherwise, they would know that they are making only a minimal effort to acquire information relative to the difficulty of the task at hand, in which case their ignorance would be at least in large part deliberate (and therefore probably rational, in the sense I used that term).

Ramsey’s critique of my analogy between political knowledge and knowledge of the health risks of smoking and unprotected sex is also off-base. Some of the political information that I would ideally want voters to have is indeed complex. But a lot of is fairly simple information about matters like which politicians are responsible for which issues, what major policies the government has adopted, and the distribution of spending in the federal budget. This is not inherently more complex than information about the health risks of smoking and or unprotected sex. Ramsey makes the latter seem simple by reducing it to “quit smoking… use a condom.” But these strictures are not the information itself, but merely the actions you should take once you learn the information.

The actual information is the degree to which, e.g., smoking increases the risk of getting heart disease or cancer, and unprotected sex increases the risk of getting herpes or AIDS. Moreover, learning additional basic political information may not require much more effort than giving up smoking or unprotected sex. Given how much many people enjoy smoking and/or sex without protection, giving up these habits often requires a lot more time and effort than spending a couple additional hours per week studying political information. If most political ignorance really were inadvertent, a public education campaign could put a major dent in the problem, just as earlier campaigns greatly diminished inadvertent ignorance about the dangers of smoking and unprotected sex. On the other hand, such efforts are unlikely to do much to diminish rational ignorance.

As I noted in the Cato Unbound debate, figuring out whether political ignorance is primarily rational or primarily inadvertent doesn’t by itself tell us what to do about the situation. But the cause of the problem does have some important implications for possible solutions. I briefly discuss those in the Cato Unbound symposium (see here and here), and in greater detail in Chapters 3 and 7 of my book.