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Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:

Whenever I write about the dangers of political ignorance, some people misinterpret me as claiming that ordinary voters are "stupid;" occasionally, I am even accused of having "contempt" for them.

This is an understandable reaction. However, it ignores the important distinction between ignorance and stupidity. My argument is not that voters know too little about politics because they have low intelligence and thereby behave irrationally. To the contrary, my claim is that investing little or no time in learning about politics is perfectly rational and intelligent behavior for most individual voters. I have made this claim (which in its basic form is not my original idea) in all my academic writings on political ignorance, most recently here. Because an individual vote has almost no chance of determining the outcome of an election, a person whose only reason to acquire political information is to make sure that the "best" candidate wins is quite rational to invest very little time in learning such things.

We are all inevitably ignorant about a vast range of matters because they don't interest us much, and because we have little or no incentive to learn about them. For most people, politics falls into that category. The same goes for many other bodies of knowledge, such as theoretical physics or - for me - many parts of pop culture. Unfortunately, political ignorance is a classic example of a situation where rational and intelligent behavior by individuals leads to poor collective outcomes. It is a collective action problem similar in structure to that which causes air pollution or overuse of common pool resources. A person who drives a gas-guzzling car that contributes to air pollution is not necessarily stupid or irrational; he simply recognizes that there is very little chance that getting rid of his one vehicle will actually have a real impact on the broader problem. The same goes for those who contribute to what me can call "political pollution" with their rational ignorance about politics.

Various arguments can be made against my thesis, and I have tried to address them in my writings. However, it is not correct to assert that my claims are based on the assumption that ordinary voters are "stupid" or on "contempt" for them. To the contrary, the assumption is that they are rational and that their ignorance is primarily the result of perfectly reasonable decisions about how best to allocate their time and effort.

Finally, it is worth noting that I do in fact have great confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make good decisions in settings where they have strong incentives to acquire information and evaluate it rationally. That is a major reason why I have defended giving broad rein to consumers acting in free markets and civil society, opposed "libertarian paternalism," and advocated "foot voting."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:
  2. Exploiting Political Ignorance in Europe:
Guest27:
If anything, the contempt is for the informed voter. Wasting their time with little chance of any actual reward.
7.17.2007 12:31am
B D McCullough (mail):

To the contrary, my claim is that investing little or no time in learning about politics is perfectly rational and intelligent behavior for most individual voters. I have made this claim (which in its basic form is not my original idea) in all my academic writings on political ignorance, most recently here.


Sowel made this argument over 25 years ago. I believe it was in his book "Knowledge and Decisions".

Bruce
7.17.2007 12:36am
Ilya Somin:
If anything, the contempt is for the informed voter. Wasting their time with little chance of any actual reward.

Perhaps. But most well-informed voters have reasons for acquiring political information that go beyond voting itself. For example, many of them just find politics interesting in much the same way as sports fans find sports interesting and learn about their favorite teams for reasons other than the hope of influencing the outcomes of games.
7.17.2007 12:36am
Ilya Somin:
Sowel made this argument over 25 years ago. I believe it was in his book "Knowledge and Decisions".

I'm not sure that he did make that particular point, although it's been awhile since I read K and D. In any case, the idea actually traces back to Anthony Downs' 1957 book, An Economic Theory of Democracy.
7.17.2007 12:38am
finec:

Finally, it is worth noting that I do in fact have great confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make good decisions in settings where they have strong incentives to acquire information and evaluate it rationally.


I know that this is a parenthetical, but it's worth pointing out that, where we have evidence, it overwhelmingly contradicts your statement. Retirement savings are one setting in which individuals have such strong incentives -- and yet they routinely screw up in dramatic ways. In 401k plans, employees fail to take advantage of extraordinarily good matching deals and underdiversify (investing exclusively in company stock, for example). The welfare consequences of these mistakes are dire, by any measure. James Choi, David Laibson, Brigitte Madrian, and Andrew Metrick have done tons of research on this which you should look at. In fact, every micro-level dataset we have on individuals' investment choices reveals the same problems -- widespread ignoring of tax incentives, underdiversification, overtrading.

Like you, I am strongly against constraining choice in this and other areas, but, as you know, that is not what libertarian paternalism is all about.
7.17.2007 1:18am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
As they say, the difference between ignorance and stupidity is that ignorance can be corrected.
7.17.2007 1:30am
Ilya Somin:
Retirement savings are one setting in which individuals have such strong incentives -- and yet they routinely screw up in dramatic ways....In fact, every micro-level dataset we have on individuals' investment choices reveals the same problems -- widespread ignoring of tax incentives, underdiversification, overtrading.


The key question is not whether they make mistakes, but whether they make more mistakes than they would in their capacity as voters, voting on government-mandated or -controlled insurance plans. For more, see my posts on libertarian paternalism.

Like you, I am strongly against constraining choice in this and other areas, but, as you know, that is not what libertarian paternalism is all about.

Actually, as Glen Whitman shows here, leading

advocates of libertarian paternalism do in fact seek to constrain choice in many areas. That may not be true in your case, but it does seem to be true of Sunstein, Thaler, and other leading scholars who defend the libertarian paternalist thesis.
7.17.2007 1:33am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Actually the claim (without economic analysis) dates back at least to John Harrington in the 17th century, and thus the origins of English republican theory. The average voter cannot be expected to know exactly what to do on matters of national policy -- be he can be expected to know who in his community he would trust to know those things. (This was of course in the days of a much smaller nation).
7.17.2007 1:38am
Christopher Cooke (mail):
Your argument about voter ignorance may be correct, except you fail to take into account certain situations and issues that may motivate a voter to take a very active interest in a candidate or position: e.g., the Vietnam war and the draft combined to make the average 18 year old very and personally interested in the war.

I think that a better thesis is that the amount of voter apathy is directly related to social stability. Switzerland has very low voter turn out, whereas Iraq, Venezuela and some other highly violent countries have some of the highest voter turn out. In short, my thesis would be that voters become interested in politics when they see the cost of not paying attention to be high, and are not that interested when the cost is low. Another example might be the voter turn out on some hot button local issues: the elderly voters voting for Proposition 13 in California during the 1970s, as a means of reducing their tax burdens and, in some instances, saving their houses from foreclosure due to an inability to pay property taxes.
7.17.2007 1:53am
finec:

advocates of libertarian paternalism do in fact seek to constrain choice in many areas. That may not be true in your case, but it does seem to be true of Sunstein, Thaler, and other leading scholars who defend the libertarian paternalist thesis.


Sunstein and Thaler address this issue head on, differentiating between libertarian paternalists and libertarian paternalists. I am sure that some advocates of libertarian paternalists fall into the second camp, but the basic idea of preserving choice (libertarianism) is common to both. Constraining choice is hardly part of their definition of libertarian paternalism.

Glen Whitman points out that some (not the majority, I think) of the proposals mentioned in Sunstein and Thaler constrain choice. But then why not just argue that these proposals shouldn't be called libertarian paternalism? The energy of committed libertarians might be better spent trying to shape a more appropriate definition of libertarian paternalism rather than arguing that it doesn't (or can't) exist. It's pretty hard to argue against setting sensible defaults, for example.

I have to admit I have a hard time putting this in the context of voting, though -- it's hard to see where LP has any contribution to make. (Here's one crazy idea, though -- tell voters that their vote will be randomly (and independently) assigned to a candidate if they don't vote. No real impact, if number of voters is large, but it might spur higher participation/involvement, if voters misunderstand statistics.)
7.17.2007 2:02am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
As I explained in the previous thread, your argument passes far too lightly over the huge logical leap from "voters are rationally ignorant about specific political issues", to, "voters have no effective means of using their votes to protect their interests". You make some casual, non-empirical arguments in your paper in defense of this leap, but they're far from conclusive. Yet your arguments and examples on this blog routinely treat it as though it were self-evident.

Few defenders of the effectiveness of the democratic process claim that it works because voters are very well-informed. Criticizing democracy by harping on voters' "rational ignorance" is therefore a classic example of attacking a straw man.
7.17.2007 2:20am
BruceM (mail) (www):
Ilya, you've set up a false dichotomy. Political ignorance CAN be stupidity. Not knowing who George W. Bush is, or who the vice president is, is evidence of stupidity. Not knowing who the 14th vice president of the United States is, however, is not evidence of stupidity.

Ignorance and stupidity are not mutually exclusive concepts. It's a Venn diagram, and the two circles overlap.
7.17.2007 2:31am
Stating the Obvious:
Ilya: Whenever I write about the dangers of political ignorance, some people misinterpret me as claiming that ordinary voters are "stupid;" occasionally, I am even accused of having "contempt" for them.
This is an understandable reaction.

But it is ignorant. Stupid, even...
:->
7.17.2007 2:37am
Ilya Somin:
Few defenders of the effectiveness of the democratic process claim that it works because voters are very well-informed. Criticizing democracy by harping on voters' "rational ignorance" is therefore a classic example of attacking a straw man.

Actually many such defenders do indeed argue that citizens are well-informed, while others claim that they can easily make up for their ignorance by using various information short cuts. I attack both arguments (while providing plenty of citations to their advocates) in my articles that I link to in this and other posts.
7.17.2007 2:46am
Ilya Somin:
Your argument about voter ignorance may be correct, except you fail to take into account certain situations and issues that may motivate a voter to take a very active interest in a candidate or position: e.g., the Vietnam war and the draft combined to make the average 18 year old very and personally interested in the war.

There is no evidence that young people eligible for the draft had greater knowledge about the Vietnam War than older people did. Although getting drafted would indeed have a big effect on the 18 year old's life, it was still the case that there was virtually no chance that his vote could have a decisive impact on the war or the draft. Hence, he still had little incentive to become well-informed about war policy.
7.17.2007 2:48am
Ilya Somin:
As I explained in the previous thread, your argument passes far too lightly over the huge logical leap from "voters are rationally ignorant about specific political issues", to, "voters have no effective means of using their votes to protect their interests". You make some casual, non-empirical arguments in your paper in defense of this leap, but they're far from conclusive. Yet your arguments and examples on this blog routinely treat it as though it were self-evident.

In the papers I link, I cite a large number of empirical and logical reasons why rational ignorance greatly impairs voters ability to "protect their interests" (though nowhere do I say that that they have NO ability to do so at all). The examples in the blog are all cases of bad policy outcomes or attempts at manipulation that would be difficult or impossible to account for absent the effect of voter ignorance.
7.17.2007 2:50am
Mr. Impressive (mail):
Two points.

(1)
People are not rational in any area of life. Especially when it comes to money. Witness all the people who have "scarcity mentalities" who mindlessly consume as a sort of therapy.

(2)

The key question is not whether they make mistakes, but whether they make more mistakes than they would in their capacity as voters, voting on government-mandated or -controlled insurance plans.


This is comparing apples and oranges. When it comes to choosing different policies, differences are usually a matter of values, not merely right or wrong.

A libertarian thinks taxation to save the lives of poor people who would otherwise die of preventable diseases through life insurance is wrong and immoral, since taxation is theft. A person with a normal sense of morality, in contrast, does not feel it is right to deprive people of preventative medical care because they committed the crime of being poor.

The differences in policy preferences are matters of value, not right or wrong.

It should be kept in mind there are at least two kinds of libertarians. Dogmatic libertarians, who think taxation is theft. And pragmatic libertarians (like Richard Posner) who think that limited government is usually more optimal, but not always more optimal. They would support greater taxation for a government program if the benefits outweight the costs. Obviously, the pragmatic libertarians are more intelligent. My hypothetical above was comparing dogmatic libetarians to normal people, but not addressing pragmatic libertarians.

Overall, my point if as follows. Policy choices represent different values. There is no "right" answer (outside of morality) about whether and how we should structure or society to make it more equitable.

In contrast, if someone does not invest in a 401k with matching, where the tax penalty for immediate early withdrawal is less than the match, not taking advantage of this plan is clearly irrational and clearly a mistake. No set of values I can think of would justify not taking advantage of the matching.

You are comparing apples and oranges. Not matching can be simply wrong, in a value independent way. To oppose universal healthcare, in contrast, in not independent of one's moral values.

It is fun to see you libertarians flail around, acting as though your libertarian philosophy is perfectly rational and independent of any system of morality. You libertarians have so much hubris, that you think that the only reason someone might disagree is because they are irrational, not because they have different values. (And I would argue morally superior values).
7.17.2007 7:05am
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

I'm still reading the article, but just to point out a (potentially) useful reference:

Dixit &Olsen (2000), 76 J. Pol. Econ. 309. Amongst other things, it contains some pretty spectacular (=low) calculations of the probability that one actor's participation will be decisive.

"Table 3 shows a case with numbers more appropriate to non-trivial group decision problems. Here M=50, and values of N ranging from 60 to 250 are considered. The probabilities of the good being produced are uniformly close to zero. FN: We hope the 0.28*10^-111 in Table 3 is a record for the smallest number ever to appear in an
economics paper."
7.17.2007 9:06am
FantasiaWHT:
Ilya- I think a strong case can be made that intentional ignorance is a sign of stupidity. Choosing to be ignorant may be stupid.

To not know there is a President of the US is ignorance.
To know there is a President but not take the time to know who he is is stupidity.

Only accidental, unintended ignorance is really "innocent".
7.17.2007 9:33am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
For better or for worse, I think the term "ignorant" has taken on, in the past 10 years, a strongly negative implication. Certainly Prof. Somin is correct in the technical meaning of the term, but I wonder if he, and others who write on this and similar topics, might not fare better by using a less loaded term, perhaps "uniformed."
7.17.2007 9:40am
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

I'm sure the guys in Iraq will love that last comment...
7.17.2007 9:44am
Mr. Impressive (mail):

For better or for worse, I think the term "ignorant" has taken on, in the past 10 years, a strongly negative implication.


Actually, the term "ignorance" has had a negative connotation for much more than 10 years. I very much doubt that between the choice of "ignorant" versus "uninformed" the decision to use "ignorant" with its negative connotation was accidental. After all, Somin wants to delegitimize democratic decision-making in order to elevate markets. Obviously, using the term "ignorant" to describe voters more effectively deligitimizes them than using the softer word uninformed.
7.17.2007 9:46am
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

In the SSRN version of the article, the references are missing. However, I'm guessing they are the same as in this version: Link
7.17.2007 10:15am
Steve P. (mail):
In any case, the idea actually traces back to Anthony Downs' 1957 book, An Economic Theory of Democracy.

Every time you post about rational voter ignorance, I always want to bring up Downs. Thanks for reaffirming faith in my memory. Economic theory has a lot to offer political science — indeed, many fields that are arguably too reliant on qualitative analysis.
7.17.2007 10:33am
Mr. Impressive (mail):
Steve P.,


fields that are arguably too reliant on qualitative analysis.


Numbers are just a sort of communication. Mathematics a sort of logic. Real sciences (and economics is not and never will be a real science) like physics and chemistry use both quantitative and qualitative analysis.

The worship of numbers for their own sake is nothing more than so much stupidity. To truly appreciate mathematics, one must know what mathematics is and what it is not.
7.17.2007 10:47am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
In the papers I link, I cite a large number of empirical and logical reasons why rational ignorance greatly impairs voters ability to "protect their interests" (though nowhere do I say that that they have NO ability to do so at all).

Ilya, can you point to a single empirical reason for this impairment? As far as I can tell, you make a bunch of qualitative arguments for why you would expect the various voter "shortcuts" that have been suggested to work poorly. But they're certainly no more methodologically compelling--and in my view are actually far less compelling overall--than the various qualitative arguments that have been made, by blog commenters here and by others elsewhere, that these shortcuts can together work fairly well. Perhaps if you engaged these arguments, rather than simply dismissing them as having been "empirically" refuted (by the publication of your paper, I guess), we could make some serious progress in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of democracy.

To make an obvious analogy, economists have done a great deal of work trying to understand the effects of asymmetric information on markets, and the various means used by market participants to overcome it. If, instead, some arrogant economist were to claim to have established "customer ignorance" as a fundamental flaw of markets and an argument for downgrading or replacing markets as a vehicle for economic activity, he would properly be dismissed as simplistic and largely ignored (except, perhaps, by a few radical leftists). Your harping on voter ignorance is similarly arrogant and simplistic.
7.17.2007 11:40am
Ed Unneland (mail):
I have come to have a good, experiential understanding of the idea of rational voter ignorance. In my teen and college years I had an intense interest in politics that most normal people of that age would reserve for the Chicago Cubs or Bergen Brann. In my youthful superiority, I could not understand how ignorant people were of the most basic bits of civics. Now that I have full-time work and parental responsibilities, I can better to voter ignorance and apathy.
7.17.2007 2:37pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
At 18, I worked a summer as a laborer at Pima Mines. I found it absolutely amazing. The guys down in the No. 1 and No. 2 tunnels had a far greater grasp of national politics than I did. Looking back, I think they treated it as a competitive sport, the way I later noticed some easterners kept track of their favorite teams, player trades, new coaches, etc. It was fun, essentially, rather than a rationally-chosen interest.

I'm quite serious -- these guys shoveling dirt alongside me would know the latest polls, the big issues, how the Arizona delegation had voted, the arguments for and against this or that. If they had any concern for sports, I never heard it, beyond how was the big game last night. I saw the same concern applied to sports when I worked at Interior.
7.17.2007 2:53pm
LM (mail):
Ilya,

Your "rational ignorance" defense of the ordinary person's intelligence looks ironically patronizing, since most people (IQ < 101) would no more grasp the substance of your argument than of the reading comprehension test qua "Constitution" devised by the EU elites.
7.17.2007 4:37pm
Mr. Impressive (mail):
Dan Simon,

Excellent point.
7.17.2007 6:04pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):

Hence, he still had little incentive to become well-informed about war policy.


Ilya: how much information did an 18 year old need to know about Vietnam and "war policy" to know that he didn't want to die, and was at risk of doing so if he were drafted? Not very much, I would imagine. That is the flaw in your argument. I would posit that people do not have to be super well-informed to make political choices that are rational for them. In my 18 year old example, he or she only needs to understand that he or she might get drafted, and have to serve in a war, in which many many Americans were dying, to make a rational choice that self-preservation counseled that he or she should vote for an anti-war candidate. Of course, that may not be the rational choice you or some other hypothetical 18 year old might make. You or the other hypothetical 18 year old might have concluded that the US had to stop communism in Vietnam before it spread elsewhere, or our nation's existence was threatened.
7.17.2007 11:28pm