Search results for "rational ignorance"

Rational Ignorance Alert! Rational Ignorance Alert!

I hereby respectfully draw Co-Conspirator Ilya’s attention to Alan Wolfe’s witty and insightful book review in today’s New York Times of Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness. In particular to the following two sentences; should we call this rational political ignorance or not?

Americans are most certainly misinformed.  Dumb they are not.

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Testing My Rational Ignorance of Pop Culture:

Looking at Forbes’ list of the top 100 celebrities (as measured by pay and media exposure), it turns out that there are 26 of these people that I’ve never heard of, and another 10-15 whom I vaguely recollect but don’t really know what they do. If you take out the 20-30 athletes (I am a big sports fan), my ignorance of the actors and pop stars would really be evident. I suspect that the average American could identify a significantly higher percentage of the nonathlete celebrities on the list than I could.

Just as the average American is rationally ignorant about politics because it doesn’t interest him much, I am rationally ignorant about Hollywood and pop music stars because most of them don’t interest me much (other than the ones who co-star with Randy Barnett, of course!).

The lesson to be learned, if there is one, is that rational ignorance is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the “stupid” unwashed masses. We are all inevitably ignorant about a wide range of topics. Unfortunately, however, popular ignorance about politics probably causes more social harm than academic geeks’ ignorance about pop culture.

The highest-ranking celebrity I’d never heard of: Jay-Z, ranked no. 9. [...]

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Rational Ignorance, Academic Blogging, and the Schiavo Matter:

I’ve gotten a bunch of media calls, and a bunch of reader e-mail, about the Schiavo matter. I’m staying out of it, but I thought it might be interesting to briefly note the questions that at least some academic legal bloggers ask themselves to decide which controversies to jump into and which to stay out of:

  1. How much factual and procedural detail do I have to learn to speak competently about this? Do I need to read one or two newspaper articles, or do I have to spend time acquiring a huge amount of knowledge about the facts and the procedural history of this case — knowledge that won’t be reusable for future controversies, since it’s specific to this incident?

  2. How close is this to my core area of academic expertise? If it’s really close, it’ll be (1) easy for me to figure out the right legal answer without learning much more about the law, (2) unlikely that I’ll make a stupid mistake, and (3) important for me to know this for my future academic work. If it’s far, then it means more work, more risk of error, and less long-term benefit from knowing about the subject.

  3. How many other experts are talking about this already? If there are plenty, then I’m less likely to be able to say much that’s new and valuable.

  4. How controversial is this particular incident? If it’s highly controversial, that’s a plus (at least for many academic bloggers), because it means that people are listening and there’s more of a chance to do some good by providing useful analysis. But on the other hand, the more controversial it is, the more demands there’ll be for responses to counterarguments, follow-up posts, refinements in light of new developments, corrections of alleged errors, and so on — which

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The Rationality of Political Ignorance Revisited

Bruce Ramsey of the Liberty website isn’t happy with either participant in my recent debate with Jeffrey Friedman over the the rationality of political ignorance at Cato Unbound. He claims that we misrepresent each other’s positions, and that in any case the question we are debating doesn’t matter much.

Here is his critique of my argument:

For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error…” “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.”

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.

Even if “inadvertent” is a loaded term, I was not the one who first used it to describe Friedman’s position. He did so himself in a series of articles going back several years (I cited some of them in my book on political ignorance). In the Cato Unbound debate, he later repudiated it in favor of “radical ignorance” (a term borrowed from Austrian economics). Regardless, throughout the debate and in his earlier work, Friedman has consistently argued that voters are ignorant because they believe they already know enough [...]

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Why Both Political Ignorance and Political Irrationality Matter

In a recent post, co-blogger David Bernstein asks whether political ignorance (voters’ lack of knowledge) matters, or only political irrationality (voters’ biased evaluation of the information they do know). David suggests that ignorance might not matter much if ignorant voters, like many consumers, make good use of information shortcuts, such as relying on the judgment of those more knowledgeable than themselves.

The question of whether ignorance matters independently of irrationality is one that I have long debated with Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. I respond to Caplan in greater detail in my own book on political ignorance (pp. 71-73). The short answer is that both matter because, even if voters are doing a good job of analyzing the information they have, it’s easy to make mistakes that could be avoided with greater knowledge. This is particularly true when voters lack very basic information about what is going on in politics, such as being ignorant of the very existence of major polices, or failing to understand which issues political leaders can affect and which ones they can’t. Such basic errors are extremely common.

Moreover, as I discuss in greater detail in my book, ignorance of basics makes it difficult to find effective information shortcuts, including finding reliable “super-consumers” of political information of the kind that David discusses in his post. Voters seeking to defer to the judgment of such “opinion leaders” (as they are known in the political science literature) should find ones who have a good understanding of policy and a strong track record of predicting its effects correctly. In reality, however, the most popular opinion leaders tend to be people like Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart, who are notable primarily for entertainment value and eloquence rather than accuracy. Some of this [...]

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Debating the Rationality of Political Ignorance

At Cato Unbound, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman and I are continuing to debate whether widespread political ignorance is primarily the result of rational behavior (my view) or mostly inadvertent (his view). Friedman argues that most voters simply don’t realize that there is lots of political information out there that might help them make better decisions at the ballot box. In my view (outlined in greater detail in my book), this theory cannot account for the depth and persistence of political ignorance even about many very basic facts. Here are Jeff’s most recent reply to me, and my most recent rejoinder.

To some extent, this debate may be of only academic interest. Whether political ignorance is rational, inadvertent, or some combination of the two, it is still a serious problem. But, for reasons I explained in my initial response to Jeff, the two explanations have different implications for efforts to remedy the problem:

Widespread political ignorance is a menace regardless of whether it is rational or inadvertent. But the difference between the two explanations for it matters. Inadvertent ignorance is a much easier problem to address than rational ignorance.

We could probably make a major dent in the former 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. It could also lead them to be more objective in evaluating that information.

With rational ignorance and rational irrationality, by contrast, such simple solutions are far less likely to work.

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Gun Control, Mass Shootings, and Political Ignorance

Law professor Josh Blackman and Yale student Shelby Baird have posted an interesting paper entitled “The Shooting Cycle,” on the reaction of public opinion to mass shooting incidents, like the tragic events in Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard in 2012 and 2013. Political ignorance plays an important role in their explanation for why such events result in temporary spikes in public support for gun control, followed by reversion to the mean. Here is Josh’s more detailed description of the findings:

The pattern is a painfully familiar one. News breaks that an unknown number of victims were killed by gunfire at a school, store, or other public place. The perpetrator wantonly takes the lives of innocent people. After the police arrive, the perpetrator is soon captured or killed, often by suicide. Sadness for the losses soon gives way to an emotional fervor for change. Different proposals for gun control are advanced—some ideas that were proposed earlier, but never obtained popular support, and other ideas that are developed in response to the recent tragedy. Politicians and advocates are optimistic for reform. However, as time elapses, support for these laws fades…..

This contribution to a symposium issue of the Connecticut Law Review on the Second Amendment peels back much of the rhetoric surrounding gun violence, and, distant from the passions, explores how the government and people react to these tragedies. This article offers a sober look at what we label the shooting cycle, and assesses how people and governments respond to mass killings….

We address this important issue in five parts. In Part I, we define the term “shooting,” and quantify how frequent they occur. Shootings, labeled “mass murders” by the FBI, are killings where the “four or more [murders] occur[] during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the

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Why Write a Book About a Seemingly Intractable Problem like Political Ignorance?

Some VC commenters and readers of my recent book and other work on political ignorance, wonder whether there is any point to writing about this subject if my argument is correct. If most voters are ignorant about politics because such ignorance is rational, and that problem is unlikely to be overcome by information shortcuts, education, or media reform, won’t they simply ignore my argument that we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government? If so, limitation and decentralization might prove to be just as unfeasible as more traditional strategies for alleviating political ignorance.

I can’t deny that this is a genuine dilemma. One possible answer is that there is value to understanding a problem better even if we can’t immediately come up with a workable solution. Other writers might be able to build on my analysis and use it to help develop more effective proposals of their own. The issue of the rationale for writing Democracy and Political Ignorance came up often enough in various presentations I gave about the manuscript before it was published, that I decided to provide a more thorough answer in the book itself. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote (footnotes omitted):

Given the self-perpetuating nature of the problem of political ignorance, readers might wonder whether there is much purpose to a book such as this one. Even if the case for limiting and decentralizing government is correct, rationally ignorant voters could easily ignore it, just as they do a great deal of other relevant information.

The challenge is indeed a daunting one. Nonetheless, there is at least some reason for cautious optimism. Past experience in several countries suggests that substantial liberalization and decentralization can be achieved in modern democracies. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, New Zealand greatly

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Rational Behavior is Not the Same Thing as Morally Praiseworthy Behavior

In this recent post commenting on George Will’s column about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, Bill Quick of the Daily Pundit blog commits the understandable and common mistake of conflating rational behavior with good behavior. He claims that my argument that voter ignorance is rational must be wrong, because voter ignorance has harmful consequences:

I like Ilya, but his hackneyed apologia for individual rational ignorance when it comes to politics is pretty easy to shoot down…. You see, dead is dead, and dead doesn’t care whether it comes from an individual or a collective decision.

Nor does the dead individual care, either. Dead comes only on an individual basis, whether the terminal stroke is delivered by a single fist, or a nuclear explosion. What this means is that if you decide that it’s okay to remain an ignorant dumbass because your one single vote isn’t likely to decide anything, you may think you’ve offered a perfectly rational, unshakeable argument for doing so. But your ignorant dumbassery is painfully exposed when the collective decisions from which you have deliberately excluded yourself squashes the individual you like a bug.

It’s the same thing with the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons: It may seem perfectly rational for the individual to misuse the common field for his own benefit – until that field is destroyed and he dies because of his suicidal fecklessness….

Bottom line: If your individual actions lead to your own destruction, it doesn’t matter whether the destructive outcome arrives on an individual or collective basis. There is no way such suicidal actions can be rational as a general proposition.

Quick assumes that by calling political ignorance rational, I am offering an “apologia” for it. But, as I explain in the book, and here, individually rational behavior [...]

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Upcoming Talk on Democracy and Political Ignorance at McGill University

On Thursday, January 9, I will be doing a talk about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter at McGill University in Montreal. Th lecture is sponsored by McGill’s Research Group on Constitutional Studies, will run from about 4:30 to 6 PM (including time for questions), and will be held in Leacock 232. I may even do a small part of the talk in French!

As co-blogger Eugene Volokh notes, Washington Post columnist George Will recently made the book the subject of his most recent op ed. Here is an excerpt:

It was naughty of Winston Churchill to say, if he really did, that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Nevertheless, many voters’ paucity of information about politics and government, although arguably rational, raises awkward questions about concepts central to democratic theory, including consent, representation, public opinion, electoral mandates and officials’ accountability.

In “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter” (Stanford University Press), Ilya Somin of George Mason University law school argues that an individual’s ignorance of public affairs is rational because the likelihood of his or her vote being decisive in an election is vanishingly small. The small incentives to become informed include reducing one’s susceptibility to deceptions, misinformation and propaganda. And if remaining ignorant is rational individual behavior, it has likely destructive collective outcomes.

I am, of course, very flattered that George Will decided to write a column about the book, especially since I have been reading his work since I was in high school. [...]

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Concluding Thoughts on the Cato Unbound Symposium on Democracy and Political Ignorance

The Cato Unbound symposium on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter is wrapping up up today. I am grateful to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, and Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics for their thoughtful critiques of the book, and to Jason Kuznicki of Cato Unbound for his excellent work organizing and hosting this event. Here is a link to my final post in the exchange, which summarizes the discussion as a whole, and responds to final posts by Jeffrey Friedman and Sean Trende. [...]

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My Response to Jeffrey Friedman’s Critique of Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has now posted my response to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman’s insightful criticism of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

Here is an excerpt:

In his critique of my book, Jeffrey Friedman continues his longstanding efforts to show that most political ignorance is inadvertent rather than rational. In his view, voters are ignorant because they believe our society “is a mighty simple place” and “think they have information adequate to [the] task.” They simply don’t realize there is lots of other information out there that could help them make better decisions.

Friedman is a top-notch political theorist who has made valuable contributions to the literature on political knowledge… But on this point, I think he is barking up the wrong tree… Moreover, the mistake is of more than theoretical importance. Inadvertent ignorance has very different implications for political theory than rational ignorance….

Inadvertent error might explain why voters ignore highly abstruse (though potentially relevant) bodies of knowledge. But it cannot account for widespread ignorance of very basic facts about politics and public policy. For example…., two-thirds of the public in 2010 did not know that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year, even though most said that the economy was the single most important issue in the election. Similarly, most had little if any understanding of the Obama health care plan, another major issue. If you think the economy or the president’s health care plan is the biggest issue on the public agenda, it isn’t rocket science to figure out that these basic facts are highly relevant. Yet the majority of the public is often ignorant of such basics….

The inadvertence theory also cannot explain why political knowledge levels have remained largely stagnant for decades, despite massive increases in

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My Response to Heather Gerken’s Comment on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted my response to Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken’s thoughtful critique of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Over the next day or two, they will also post my response to the insightful commentaries by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics and political theorist Jeffrey Friedman. The conversation will continue over the next couple weeks, as each commentator will have the opportunity to respond further to me or to each other, or to raise new issues related to the book and my lead essay.

Here is a brief excerpt from my response to Prof. Gerken:

Gerken raises two important potential criticisms of my argument that people make better decisions through foot voting than ballot box voting. First, she contends that knowledge of the two major parties’ positions can enable otherwise ignorant voters to make good decisions at the ballot box. Second,…. she worries that foot voting may often be too difficult because of moving costs.

These are legitimate points, and I address both at some length in my book… On balance, however, neither seriously undermines the informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting….

Gerken interestingly contrasts my “fox”-like view that informed voting requires knowledge of a range of issues with the “hedgehog” view that all voters need to know is the difference between the two parties. It’s worth noting that Philip Tetlock’s important research on the predictive accuracy of policy experts shows that “fox” experts who take many variables into account make far more accurate judgments than “hedgehogs” who focus only on one or two big ideas.[5] Voters obviously don’t need to know as much as policy experts. But narrowly focused hedgehog decisionmaking is unlikely to work well even for them. It is especially problematic in a

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Upcoming Georgetown University Law Center Event on Democracy and Political Ignorance

On Tuesday, October 22, noon-1:30 PM, I will be speaking about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter at the Georgetown University Law Center. There will be commentary by economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, and Georgetown law professor Louis Michael Seidman. There will also be substantially discounted copies of the book on sale, for those who may be interested.

The event is co-sponsored by the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, the Georgetown Federalist Society, and the Federalist Society Faculty Division, and will be held in McDonough Hall, Room 203, 600 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington DC. [...]

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My Cato Unbound Lead Essay on “Democracy and Political Ignorance”

My essay, “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” – which summarizes some key themes of my new book on the same subject, is the lead essay in this month’s Cato Unbound forum. Here is the first paragraph:

Democracy is supposed to be rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But in order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge. If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance. Unfortunately, public knowledge about politics is disturbingly low. In addition, the public also often does a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. This state of affairs has persisted despite rising education levels, increased availability of information thanks to modern technology, and even rising IQ scores. It is mostly the result of rational behavior, not stupidity. Such widespread and persistent political ignorance and irrationality strengthens the case for limiting and decentralizing the power of government.

The Cato Unbound website will soon post responses by Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, and Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics. I will then post a rejoinder, and the conversation will continue from there. Each of these commentators is a leading expert on democratic theory, federalism, or political participation, and each is likely to have a significantly different take on these issues from mine. So it should be an interesting exchange. I look forward to it! [...]

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