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.

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