The Problem of “Voter Ignorance”


At Cato Unbound, libertarian academics Jeffrey Friedman and Ilya Somin argue over the reason for voter ignorance. They agree that voters know pitifully little of political candidates and questions. Somin says it’s because voters are making a rational decision not to learn more. Friedman says it’s not a rational decision, but because voters think they know more than they do.

Both say it’s either-or. I don’t think it is, or that it much matters.

In the classic manner of debaters, each wants to define the other’s position narrowly and leave the indeterminate territory to himself. For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error.” For Friedman, Somin’s position is that voters are “deliberately underinforming themselves.”

Start with Somin. “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.”

The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing.

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.

On to Friedman. His terms “deliberately” and “underinforming” for Somin’s position are loaded, implying a voter who is consciously choosing to do what he knows is a poor job. And that’s not really Somin’s position.

Friedman tries to sink Somin’s “rational ignorance” with pure logic. He writes:

If voters can plug into Somin’s formulae even a vague estimate of the benefit of their party’s or candidate’s victory, then they must think that they know enough about this benefit to be able to base their vote on this knowledge. Somin and other political scientists may think that voters should know a lot more than they do, but voters seem to think, even in Somin’s account, that they know enough that they can roughly guess who to vote for. And that’s all they need to know if they are to falsify rational ignorance theory, for, according to the theory, they should be deliberately underinforming themselves. But if they did indeed deliberately underinform themselves (by their own standards), then, of necessity, they wouldn’t be able to calculate the benefits of voting, because they wouldn’t think that they could predict the benefits of a given candidate’s or party’s victory.

In other words, “rational ignorance” is an oxymoron. Friedman, too, is drawing a sharp line around his opponent’s position, making sure that common sense is outside it. But he is trying to win by definition.

This isn’t about definitions. It’s about why people do what they do. Well, think about average voters. It’s true that they make decisions on limited data (as do we all). They often don’t maximize the use of the data they have. I knew a journalist who made his livelihood thinking about public questions. He voted against John Kerry because Kerry reminded him of stuck-up frat boys. (At least that’s what he told me.) That’s not much of a reason to choose a president, but it’s common enough. Pollsters will tell you that many Americans vote for the candidate they think “cares about people like me” or is “not phony.”

That voters engage in this sort of Holden Caulfield-style ratiocination is not going to change. Is it “inadvertent”? To a certain extent. Is it “rational”? In the way Somin uses that word, sometimes. Most people know far less about public policy than the candidates they’re electing will need to know, and it’s not worth it to them to learn more, because they have other things taxing their brains. Do they know they don’t know a lot, as Somin says? Yeah. Do they think they know more than they do, as Friedman says? Probably, and for some of them, certainly. Are they “deliberately underinforming themselves”? Deliberate overstates it for most of them, just as rational does. Remember what the choices are: Kerry or Bush? Obama or Romney?

Friedman argues that Somin’s position requires that people understand their vote won’t decide the election, and that most voters don’t understand this. I think just about anyone will admit this if you corner them. But they don’t think of voting in those terms and they resent you cornering them about it. They are small-d democrats, proudly part of a country where the collective voice of the voters does count. As Friedman points out, they have been told since kindergarten that voting is good and that good people vote. It is part of who they are.

Does the Friedman-Somin dispute matter? Friedman says you can make a better case for a libertarian society if voters are ignorantly ignorant. If they’re rationally ignorant, he suggests, maybe you could make the state more powerful, and give voters more reason to pay attention to politics. In other words, people are not paying attention to A, B, C, and D, so let’s pile on E, F, G, H, and I.

Makes no sense to me.

Somin’s argument, above, that the ignorance Friedman posits would be easier to fix does not move me, either. It’s not going to be fixed either way. It’s a permanent condition.

Here is where I end up. The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing, like why he drove to the grocery store at 11 p.m. Thursday night. Here you are trying to explain why he did not do a thing, and there are a million reasons. He never thought of it. He was tired. He doesn’t like to read. He does, but he wanted to read up on the marijuana trade, or disposable razors, or the new trucks instead. He was rationally ignorant. He was irrationally ignorant. He was stoned. He assumed wrongly that he knew enough. He didn’t care whether he knew enough. His wife got sick. His dog got run over. He ate refried beans.

Share This



I'm arriving very late to this discussion, but my two cents:

I agree that resolving the debate between Friedman and Somin is less important to liberty than perhaps Friedman suggests - why get overly bogged down in such definitional debates, etc.?

That said, I wonder if you miss Friedman's essential point, which is the pervasiveness of "radical" ignorance in a hyper-complicated modern world (a Hayekian analysis being more informative than an incentives-oriented analysis).

A more powerful state, e.g., could significantly increase incentives for voters to be better politically informed, but that wouldn't resolve the deeper problems associated with ignorance. By demanding the government to "fix" hyper-complex socioeconomic problems via social policy, we ask policy designers, bureaucrats, etc. to go well beyond human cognitive limits.

Also, because of such inherent challenges, as voters become better informed, they become ideologues, because ideology is a cognitive shortcut we use to make sense of a hyper-complex world.

In other words, no amount of realigning incentives will fix the problems associated with voter ignorance. In that sense, it is important and worthwhile to keep brilliant thinkers like Somin from getting hung up on incentives, even if the debate ends up getting hung up in a different patch of weeds.

Robert K Stock

My 12th grade American Government teacher said that he voted for John Kennedy in 1960 because Jackie Kennedy was prettier than Pat Nixon. From my conversations with voters over the years I have discovered that emotion and family loyalty mean more at the polls than reasoning on the issues.

Regardless of what Thomas Jefferson wrote, a "well informed public" has never existed and never will.

I think the only way to decrease voter ignorance is to decrease the number of people allowed to vote. Limit the franchise to property owners and those who have served in the military. This proposal would exclude me from voting, but I think it should be done.

Fred Mangels

Actually, your statement "...whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple" is what it's all about. In one word: simplicity.

Most people pay scant attention to politics. When they do pay attention, they view it simply. I've found even some partisan types that claim to be interested in politics are the same way: Black vs. White, Red vs. Blue, Rep vs. Dem and Us vs. Them.

When asked for specifics the answers are generally a generic, "...but you don't want THEM to win...". It's really a simple as that, no pun intended.

The comment about Kerry reminding your friend of some frat guy is typical.That's the kind of reasoning many- even with fervent political feelings- come up with.

Back during the Bush vs. Gore race I was mystified by the hatred so many had for George Bush. He seemed like a decent enough guy to me. Why all the vitriol?

The gal that delivered our mail at the time was a Bush hater. We'd chatted about the presidential race a few times. I wondered if she could explain her and others hatred for Bush, so one day I asked why she hated Bush so much.

She got a kind of deer- in- the- headlights look and finally said, "I don't know. I guess I don't like those beady little eyes of his". Simple enough!

Jon Harrison

Intellectuals (real or pseudo-) typically have no idea how working slobs actually go through life. The average working person has little time and no energy to absorb the finer points of public policy. What free time he or she has is eaten up by housework, shopping, looking after the kids, etc. Whatever's left is, understandably, given over to recreation. News is garnered from television. Any reading will be of the "Fifty Shades" variety, and not serious nonfiction.

The Friedman-Somin debate is just another useless intellectual exercise, typical wool-spinning. It has about as much meaning as debates over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

Wayland Hunter

Working slobs? How about professional slobs who believe the same stuff as the working slobs—they just take it from NPR.

A lot of working people spend a lot of time informing themselves about politics. Often they get the details of a bad or even crazy idea, and pursue it—but so does the upper middle class. And sometimes they pursue good ideas, just as the upper middle class does, sometimes.

As for leisure . . . . Nobody has more leisure than an American teacher or auto worker. What do they believe? How truly informed are they?

Jon Harrison

Oh, you're absolutely right about professional slobs. I know several lawyers and doctors, and they're not particularly well-informed on matters outside of their chosen fields. By "working slobs" I really meant anyone who does the 9-5 gig. Unless one is a politician or an intellectual/academic/wonk who focuses on history and policy and their implications, one simply isn't au fait enough. Even the latter, of course, can be blinded by their personal prejudices, laziness, or stupidity. One sees this evey day in the media, in politics, in academe.

I've known a lot of "working people" in my life. None of them -- not one -- has spent considerable time learning about politics or policy matters. Maybe they do in Wayland Hunter land, but not where I come from, or anywhere else I've lived. I hate to make blanket statements, but there it is. You must dwell in some fairy realm out there in the Midwestern region.

Nobody has more leisure than American teachers? Try living in Europe, Wayland. Admittedly, teachers (not to mention professors, Wayland), have lots of leisure time, but, as you point out, that doesn't mean they know stuff. I only meant that leisure is the foundation of knowledge-seeking and knowledge acquisition. It doesn't therefore follow that anyone who has the leisure time devotes it to such pursuits. That's obvious, I would think.

© Copyright 2020 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.