At My Real Job: The Irrationality of Voting. And What to Do About It.
In the October 2013 Cato Unbound, Ilya Somin tackles a theme I’ve long found interesting: rational ignorance. Voters are demonstrably ignorant about a wide range of clearly important political matters. They can’t identify their representatives. They don’t know which branches of government are tasked with which responsibilities. They imagine nonexistent government programs and are ignorant of real and well-publicized ones. They can’t find on a map the countries we’re bombing. And so on.
And yet they vote. Why on earth would they do such a thing?
Somin’s answer is that voters are rationally ignorant: They know perfectly well that their vote is astronomically unlikely to matter. As a result, they don’t bother to become better informed. It’s just not worth the trouble.
But the political system that this produces is in many ways a dangerous one: It hands the government to people who are clearly not all that accountable to the public; on any theory of accountability, we need the overseers — the voters — to actually know what’s going on. And they don’t.
Somin’s answer here is to accommodate rational ignorance by shrinking the powers of the government. When government is a less important part of our lives, it will matter a lot less that we are ignorant about it. (He is dismissive of efforts to educate voters, noting that even while education levels have risen, voter ignorance hasn’t appreciably lessened.)
There is however a big problem with Somin’s thesis, namely that it can’t explain why voters still go to the polls. If voters know their vote is unlikely to matter, why do they still do it?
In what I find to be the most provocative response essay, Jeffrey Friedman argues that voters are not rationally ignorant. Rational ignorance theory is false, because voters generally and incorrectly declare that their votes do matter. One poll found 70% of voters think their individual votes “really matter.” And, as Friedman notes, 100% of voters actually turn out to vote. (I’m in the 30% here; I know my vote doesn’t matter for the outcome, and I vote to reprogram my own mind.)
Voters think their votes matter to the outcome of elections. And yet voters are demonstrably ignorant. This is a state one would not commonly expect from people who thought they were making a consequential decision. Why does ignorance persist? Friedman’s answer is that usually voters in fact make two errors. First, they mistakenly think their votes matter. And second, they think that political decisionmaking is easy: If all the world simply followed my party or ideological preference, everything would work out for the best. Friedman writes:
If one actually talks to ideologues, one finds find that they firmly believe they’re in possession of the obvious truth. The reason they dismiss counterarguments and counterevidence is that they think such arguments and evidence are implausible: they contradict things that any sane person knows to be true.
In both ignorant voters and dogmatic ideologues we have a good starting point for a truly realistic theory of politics. If voters don’t think they need to know very much if they’re to cast adequately informed ballots, they must think that our society is a mighty simple place, where it doesn’t take much information to be able to identify good policies and good politicians. The same is true of ideologues, who treat their views as reflections of obvious truths about society. (I know Somin would agree with me that modern society is more complicated than that, since he brilliantly demolishes as simplistic many decisionmaking heuristics commonly used by voters.)
Am I an ideologue? Darn right I am.
But a few words in my defense, and perhaps in the defense of others. I do not think I possess obvious truths. The truths I think I have are frustratingly non-obvious, and I struggle all the time in trying to convince people of them. I also wrestle with a lot of questions internally, and I recognize that they are difficult even in the favorable climate of my own mind. I also recognize, or at least I try to recognize, that those who disagree with me are not necessarily evil or stupid. There is room for reasonable disagreement. There has to be, if you want to keep both your ideology and your humanity.
There is also a significant likelihood that I am wrong about many things that I believe. All ideologies that we have so far been able to observe in hindsight have proven to be patchworks. In all likelihood, my own is the same, and so is yours. It would be intellectually immodest to suggest otherwise.
And yet I believe my own ideology nonetheless, and I am helpless not to believe it. Were I to resolve not to believe, a new belief system would immediately spring up on the ruins — a dogmatic skepticism that would itself be the product of a contingent encounter with history, and thus likely wrong in a lot of places. Action in the moment is necessary; it cannot be refused. And yet action when viewed from afar is absurd: Ideology for me at least is an existentialist enterprise.