Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | Rational Ignorance

It is perfectly rational and a good use of one’s time to be ignorant of what one’s national politicians are doing.

In fact, it’s probably quite sane and reasonable to simply find a party you generally ally with, and vote the party line every November.

“What’s that?” you say. “But wouldn’t a responsible citizen educate himself on the candidates and make a decision based on what he believes to be best for the nation as a whole?”

“An excellent point,” I would reply, “and quite true. Now go and convince your fellow citizens likewise.”

From the looks of the Presidential voter turnout rate – which usually barely manages to clear 50% – and considering that those who do turn out aren’t the most informed folks anyways, you’ve got a long ways to go.

The American Voter -- Self-Interested, Ignorant, and Perfectly Rational.

So why is it that the majority of American voters, though realizing that government affects every aspect of their lives, choose not to turn out and vote?

Imagine with me a Kansas farmer, who has spent all of his life raising crops from the land. He realizes that everything he does comes from the weather, and that a premature frost, or an untimely storm, can destroy his crops for a year and leave him with no livelihood. Is it then rational for him to seek a degree in meteorology, studying everything he can about the weather which affects his entire livelihood?

No, for the simple reason that he has no control over the weather and his time is better spent doing other things – such as actually working.

The American voter is in a similar situation when it comes to government. Given all of the places that he could spend his time – with family, at work, in leisure – where does this year’s presidential election rate? Considering that his vote is simply one of untold millions, the chance of his vote being decisive is miniscule. Turning out to vote may give him a sense of having fulfilled a civic duty, but casting a truly informed vote requires time, energy, and research, and apart from an intrinsic issue in the subject, the voter decides, quite rationally, that he has better things to do with his time.

This effect has been described by economist Anthony Downs as “rational ignorance,” and it is important in understanding how politicians relate to voters. Rather than expecting the voter to be casting a well-informed vote, the politician focused on re-election concentrates instead on advertising himself to voters. And when it comes to putting his best foot forward, getting a small demographic riled up about a particular issue might be more effective in the race than making a moderate, well-reasoned decision that benefits his entire constituency. Why? Because moderate and reasonable decisions don’t cause fireworks, they don’t get people riled up and out to the polls. Moderate and reasonable decisions don’t provoke the water-cooler conversations that most Americans rely on in making their decision to vote.

A candidate’s re-election plan, then, is about selling himself to his constituency on a surface level and getting them out to vote, not necessarily about making the decision that is the best for the public. It’s about grandstanding, public appearances, and well-designed TV ads, as we get taken for a ride every couple of years or so.

So what then is the just response? Cynicism?

Perhaps. But in America, politics seems to run through our blood. Politics, in the United States, has always been a matter of immense interest for its citizens. It’s a cultural phenomenon, whether at the barbershop or town hall (or, in more modern days, Facebook). Perhaps there’s enough natural American interest to keep us more involved and active than we might be.

At the very least, Americans have always been incredibly active at levels of government where their voice matters more. Just show up at a New England town hall meeting, or drive through a small-town during election season for city council or school board. Maybe the government that governs best governs locally.

Anyways, leave a comment and come back next week for the next post.

By Nick Barden

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