Rational Behavior is Not the Same Thing as Morally Praiseworthy Behavior

In this recent post commenting on George Will’s column about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, Bill Quick of the Daily Pundit blog commits the understandable and common mistake of conflating rational behavior with good behavior. He claims that my argument that voter ignorance is rational must be wrong, because voter ignorance has harmful consequences:

I like Ilya, but his hackneyed apologia for individual rational ignorance when it comes to politics is pretty easy to shoot down…. You see, dead is dead, and dead doesn’t care whether it comes from an individual or a collective decision.

Nor does the dead individual care, either. Dead comes only on an individual basis, whether the terminal stroke is delivered by a single fist, or a nuclear explosion. What this means is that if you decide that it’s okay to remain an ignorant dumbass because your one single vote isn’t likely to decide anything, you may think you’ve offered a perfectly rational, unshakeable argument for doing so. But your ignorant dumbassery is painfully exposed when the collective decisions from which you have deliberately excluded yourself squashes the individual you like a bug.

It’s the same thing with the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons: It may seem perfectly rational for the individual to misuse the common field for his own benefit – until that field is destroyed and he dies because of his suicidal fecklessness….

Bottom line: If your individual actions lead to your own destruction, it doesn’t matter whether the destructive outcome arrives on an individual or collective basis. There is no way such suicidal actions can be rational as a general proposition.

Quick assumes that by calling political ignorance rational, I am offering an “apologia” for it. But, as I explain in the book, and here, individually rational behavior can still be unethical and harmful. This is true both in the case of voter ignorance, and in the case of the tragedy of the commons to which Quick correctly analogizes it. Political ignorance and overexploitation of the commons are often rational in the sense that their benefits, in terms of the individual’s own goals, exceeds their costs. They do so because, in both cases, the individual has only an infinitesmal chance of affecting the collective outcome. To put it Quick’s terms, even if an individual voter works hard to avoid being an “ignorant dumbass,” the likelihood that poor collective decisions will lead to his being squashed “like a bug” is virtually the same as it would be otherwise. The same is true in the case of the tragedy of the commons: even if one individual user exercises exemplary restraint, they are still going to be depleted at nearly the same rate as before.

In both cases, we can still legitimately decry the bad behavior of individuals. The fact that it is rational does not mean that it is right. In my view, like Jason Brennan’s, voters have a moral obligation to be at least minimally informed. But we should also recognize that, precisely because it is rational, the behavior in question is unlikely to change unless we alter the structure of incentives. In the case of the tragedy of the commons, that means creating private property rights, social norms, or some form of appropriate regulatory regime. In the case of voting, it means making more of our decisions by voting with our feet (where incentives to become informed are better), and fewer at the ballot box.

NOTE: I don’t think that George Will meant to make the same point as Quick did, though Quick interprets him as doing so.