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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The E-Trade Baby Blues


When I was in college I learned about a theory called “the cultural contradiction of capitalism,” which claims that capitalism calls upon the public to assume two conflicting personas. As producers, people must be rational and responsible; but as consumers, they need to be irrational, carefree, and gluttonous, so they will buy as much as possible.

I recently recalled this theory while watching one of the incredibly annoying “E-Trade baby” commercials on television. The E-Trade baby’s message is that investing is fun and easy and, by implication, even a toddler could handle it. Although I am an aspiring lawyer, I do have some degree of background on investment advising, and I consider this message absolutely irresponsible. Investing is difficult. To beat the averages and outperform the indexes (which is the only sensible goal for day-trader-type, individually managed investing accounts such as E-Trade sells), an investor needs brilliance, discipline, and a ton of luck.

Investing without understanding how to research stocks is like gambling your life savings at a casino. A rational strategy for saving for retirement would include buying index mutual funds and highly rated bonds with gold or gold-related stocks as a hedge against inflation. Picking individual stocks (even supposedly “safe” or large-cap stocks such as IBM or Microsoft) is too risky for someone investing retirement savings. It is mathematically impossible to predict future stock prices accurately enough to eliminate the risk that your portfolio will be wiped out by bad luck or short-term swings on precisely the day when you need to dip into your savings. Stock-picking is not suitable for any investor unless you spend several hours each day researching your stocks. But actively managed investing for mainstream America is what the E-Trade baby sells.

Many Americans learned the dangers of Wall Street investment when the recent recession ate their portfolios. And Wall Street is a symbol of capitalism for the American public; when retirement accounts go down, Main Street always blames Wall Street. This happened in 1929, when the stock market crash started the chain of events that led to the Great Depression and the New Deal. It happened recently when the so-called Great Recession instigated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

My own opinion is that a fool and his money are soon parted. The American investing public believed that stock prices and real estate values could never go down, and that the principle of “more reward requires more risk” did not apply. The public got what it deserved. But although I blame the investors, it is undeniable that Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Jim Cramer to E-Trade, promoted itself as an easy, riskless way for mainstream families to make money and save for retirement. The investing public’s “irrational exuberance,” to quote Alan Greenspan, can only help Wall Street to make money. Vast fortunes are made by investment banks when stock market bubbles inflate. Wall Street is partially to blame.

What I am trying to get at here is that even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive. My favorite movies are the original Star Wars trilogy. But George Lucas, desiring to milk as much money from his franchise as possible, has produced several re-edited versions, each more atrocious than the last, and also filmed the pathetic “prequels.” Similar stupidity was behind the decision to film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” as two separate movies instead of one, dooming the two movies to artistic ineptitude. Generally, whenever a novelist or movie studio produces something good that people like, sequel after sequel follow, for no other reason than to make easy money and feed off the brilliance of the original.

Even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive.

From a different angle, consider the widespread use of “intro rates” to persuade people to buy cellphone or cable TV services or six-month intro rates on credit cards. Are consumers so stupid that they don’t plan more than six months ahead? Ads full of colorful sights and sounds and subliminal associations but empty of facts and information about why their product is superior are the rule on television, not the exception. The stupidity of the public makes advertising easier. It is easier to sell car insurance by building a brand image around a jingle or a cartoon character than to produce a product that can be objectively demonstrated through scientific testing to be better than its competitors. Ads paid for by businessmen are a huge part of what shapes American culture and the American media — which helps explain why American culture is so strongly slanted in favor of shallowness, stupidity, and irrationality (though this is not a complete explanation, but merely one piece of the puzzle). America is full of instances in which businessmen appeal to consumers not on the basis of reason and logic but through gimmicks and psychological manipulations. Judging by the widespread success of ads like the E-Trade baby, many members of the public make some horribly irrational choices, in their consumer goods no less than their political beliefs.

You can’t blame capitalism for the fact that people make bad choices. Consumer irrationality is not a valid excuse to strip people of their freedom to choose. Wall Street gives us a far higher standard of living than any of the Soviet states ever achieved, and capitalism is the only system with a proven track record of prosperity and progress.

Nevertheless, the moral of this story is that the profit motive has a dark side. I know that some would say that the desire to make easy money by appealing to irrationality is not actually in any businessman’s long-term rational self-interest. I completely agree. Yet it is natural for people to seek to make money as easily as possible, and we see what results. Instead of blindly insisting that the profit motive can do no wrong, we should take the more refined approach and recognize that the fault lies with the people themselves, not with freedom as an economic system.

So I support the profit motive — but supporting the profit motive does not mean supporting everything that results from the profit motive.

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