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When Ignorance is Rational, Democracy Suffers A Students for Liberty Column

The presidential election has concluded. The country is settling down and shifting its focus. Voting is over. The people have chosen, and so the democratic process moves on.

But did it work?

Does the democratic process work efficiently for America or any other country? This assumed efficiency is, after all, one of its central justifications. Through voting, the reasoning goes, society expresses its collective will in order to achieve what it (or at least the majority) considers the “best” result. This assumption of representation partially explains why we place so much emphasis on election outcomes, or other public forums, and grant them great moral weight. It is hard to object when “the people have spoken” or “our voices have been heard.” But though our natural inclination favors the democratic system, a closer look reveals numerous deep flaws.

What is one such flaw? People are rational. They make decisions by evaluating their options and making a cost-benefit analysis. And this reality serves as a colossal but irreducible obstacle, because a person’s rationality can easily lead him to cast an uninformed ballot. Indeed, we might say that the election for U.S. President is analogous to the all-important race for YU class President. Most individuals have little incentive to thoroughly explore the issues and formulate informed views. Political scientists call this problem rational ignorance, and it manifests all around us.

Insofar as a democratic process aims to foster the majority’s version of the good, then it requires, at the very least, informed, rational, and perceptive voters. The number of voters is important, but not enough to produce the positive results we seek. No matter how many people vote, the process falls apart if people have no idea what positions actually promote their worldview, who (if anyone) most embodies their position, and which positions are feasible in their economic and political environment. Informed voting, however, demands a high threshold of knowledge in politics, economics, ethics, and logic. Even more so, this demands a titanic devotion of time. Every country is deviously complex, and there are thousands upon thousands of conflicting, constantly shifting relevant laws, academic studies, news reports, treatises on different political topics, etc. that a person might need in order to personally determine the country’s various “best courses of action.” How much of that literature has anybody read?

The central problem is this: voters are ignorant. Painfully ignorant. Studies by George Mason University Law Professor Dr. Ilya Somin and University College London Professor Dr. Mark Pennington show that when polled, only 37 percent of voters claimed to “understand” the Obama healthcare bill, only 25 percent properly identified the Cap and Trade Bill with environmental regulation, and less than 50 percent successfully named all three branches of government. Get this: 60 percent of people could not even name their own Senators let alone state any of their political positions. Most voters seem to have but a cursory knowledge of politics. How many voters at YU have ever scanned the text of a single major bill in Congress? These numbers merely hint at an informational void in our society.

If you are one of those who cannot name your own Senator, failed to identify the Cap and Trade Bill, or have not read any of the thousands of relevant documents alluded to above, do not worry. This does not imply you are irresponsible or in some other way immoral. It may, however, indicate that you are rational.

How is this rational? Is it not in society’s best interests to arrive at the ideal course of action? Do the ignorant not care about their country, or not see themselves as part of society? None of the above. The reason a person may not bother to brush up on his political knowledge is because the choice to devote that time is made on the individual, personal level. In order to illustrate the significance of this reality, consider driving a car. When we decide to drive our cars, seldom do we often stop and think, “Hey, maybe I should stop driving right now so that there are fewer traffic jams, which benefits society.” This is because that individual action would have virtually no impact on the traffic jams in question. No one could care less if you left the road. Worse, still, if you do decide to leave the road, you may incur upon yourself a larger cost. Think of all the sacrificed personal productivity, convenience, or time with family. Thus, despite the potential social benefit if a large number of people decide to stop driving (or drive only at certain times), most rational human beings will stay in their lanes and settle for trying to cut everybody else off. In this case, each individual makes a rational choice based on a perfectly legitimate cost-benefit analysis. To where does this rational choice lead them? The jams.

This same concept of individual rational decision-making applies to voting. Voters possess little incentive to acquire the empirical knowledge necessary for informed voting. Not only does an individual ballot possess a mere one in sixty million chance to decide a national election (and your vote is still relatively insignificant in more local elections), but should a person fail to vote, the government continues to affect him the same as if he participated. The government functions as a public good in that its services remain non-exclusionary, and no single person changes the distribution of services through his vote. This mirrors the traffic jam case, where there exists little incentive to leave the road. It seems rational, then, for most people to skimp on their political self-education.

Imagine the reaction if you were to ask a YU student to make an informed vote for YU class president. He would probably scoff in your face. In order to be an informed voter, he would have to carefully consider his concerns at YU, the response he desires, and the way he wants it accomplished. Then he would have to identify the most qualified, competent, motivated, and intelligent candidate. Ideally, he has spoken to all the candidates personally or has at least heard them speak publicly about their sought positions. But, of course, our YU student will not do any of this. Even though it may not take too significant of an effort, students are still rational, and realize they can spend their time more effectively elsewhere. Unfortunately, this means that the election can be won simply based on popularity or effective advertising. Could we say that each student is represented in the resulting outcome? For practical democratic purposes, yes. But in the sense that it actually represents the active wills of those ‘represented’? Less so.

A naysayer might object to these concerns based on the perceived uses of ideology.  According to him, voters can use ideologies – or general systems of belief – as shortcuts to cast representative votes. Examples of this include party identification (do you always vote for a certain political party?) or trust invested in a specific person or institution (do you place more trust in a certain news station, or a particular political figure?). As Dr. Ilya Somin argues, however, this shortcut fails to pass muster. Without a preexisting grasp of the relevant information, how can a voter make an informed choice in who/what to trust in the first place? On most political issues there are hordes of “experts” fiercely debating opposing views. Even more so, the voter would have to be able to monitor the chosen expert’s continuing competence, as well as the past success of his guidance. Choosing the wrong expert may lead a person to advocate for destructive policies across the political board! Thus, the “shortcut” is not much of a shortcut at all. Voters have little incentive, due to the enormous time investments required, to build the knowledge necessary to develop informed positions on the desired goals and methods of the government. Thus, they may promote unrealistic, uninformed, or harmful policies.

Just as in the case of traffic jams, where the individually innocuous decisions of drivers combine to undermine the efficiency of transportation, the widespread ignorance of voters combines to undermine the functioning of democracies. Thus, a democracy is prone to fail when it attempts to accurately reflect the informed will of the people, with the problem only growing as government expands both in size and complexity. The potential problem is exacerbated if the power and responsibility of voters is increased, as in full-blown deliberative democracies.

That America voted in the last election does not necessarily mean that “the people have spoken” or “our voices have been heard.” The phenomenon of rational ignorance may caution against relying too heavily on the mechanisms of democracy to represent the people.


Pennington, Mark. Robust Political Economy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2011. 65-70. Print.

Somin, Ilya. "Deliberative Democracy and Political Ignorance." Critical Review 22.2 (2010): 253-79. Internet.