Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:

Whenever I write about the dangers of political ignorance, some people misinterpret me as claiming that ordinary voters are "stupid;" occasionally, I am even accused of having "contempt" for them.

This is an understandable reaction. However, it ignores the important distinction between ignorance and stupidity. My argument is not that voters know too little about politics because they have low intelligence and thereby behave irrationally. To the contrary, my claim is that investing little or no time in learning about politics is perfectly rational and intelligent behavior for most individual voters. I have made this claim (which in its basic form is not my original idea) in all my academic writings on political ignorance, most recently here. Because an individual vote has almost no chance of determining the outcome of an election, a person whose only reason to acquire political information is to make sure that the "best" candidate wins is quite rational to invest very little time in learning such things.

We are all inevitably ignorant about a vast range of matters because they don't interest us much, and because we have little or no incentive to learn about them. For most people, politics falls into that category. The same goes for many other bodies of knowledge, such as theoretical physics or - for me - many parts of pop culture. Unfortunately, political ignorance is a classic example of a situation where rational and intelligent behavior by individuals leads to poor collective outcomes. It is a collective action problem similar in structure to that which causes air pollution or overuse of common pool resources. A person who drives a gas-guzzling car that contributes to air pollution is not necessarily stupid or irrational; he simply recognizes that there is very little chance that getting rid of his one vehicle will actually have a real impact on the broader problem. The same goes for those who contribute to what me can call "political pollution" with their rational ignorance about politics.

Various arguments can be made against my thesis, and I have tried to address them in my writings. However, it is not correct to assert that my claims are based on the assumption that ordinary voters are "stupid" or on "contempt" for them. To the contrary, the assumption is that they are rational and that their ignorance is primarily the result of perfectly reasonable decisions about how best to allocate their time and effort.

Finally, it is worth noting that I do in fact have great confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make good decisions in settings where they have strong incentives to acquire information and evaluate it rationally. That is a major reason why I have defended giving broad rein to consumers acting in free markets and civil society, opposed "libertarian paternalism," and advocated "foot voting."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Political Ignorance is Not Stupidity:
  2. Exploiting Political Ignorance in Europe: