Rational Ignorance: Why Voters Are Not Better Informed

Michael Kurth Thursday, October 16, 2014 0
Rational Ignorance: Why Voters Are Not Better Informed

Democracy may be a great political system, but it is not perfect. One of its flaws is what economists call “rational ignorance,” which some have dubbed “the dumb voter theorem.”

The premise is simple: information is costly, and rational people choose to acquire knowledge only to the extent that the expected benefits exceed the expected cost.

To illustrate this concept, a few years back my wife, Cathy, decided she needed a new car. I quizzed her about her needs: size, number of seats, fuel efficiency, price, etc., then spent two days on the Internet researching and comparing various makes and models to come up with a list of the top five vehicles I thought met her needs. I printed the list and gave it to her with the suggestion that she visit local dealerships and test drive each car.

She set off with one of her girlfriends, and returned that evening the proud owner of a bright red car that didn’t come close to resembling any of the vehicles on my list.  “Why did you choose that car?” I queried. Her answer was simple: “I liked the color.”

I am not faulting Cathy’s decision. It was her car, and she got what she liked. But I walked away shaking my head at myself and wondering why I had invested all that time into acquiring information about a choice over which I had no control.

This is the proposition faced by voters trying to decide which candidate to vote for in an election: how much time and effort should they invest in learning about the issues and the candidates, when the probability that their informed vote will affect the outcome of the election is close to zero?

My good friend Lynn Jones, the clerk of court for Calcasieu Parish, disagrees with me on this. He says there are many cases of elections being decided by a small number of votes, and once in a while an election is even decided by a single vote.

I will grant him that this happens on occasion, but the probability of an election being decided by a single vote certainly decreases as the number of voters increases. In other words, an election for governor, senator or president is far less likely to be decided by a single vote than an election for dog catcher.

So, if one vote is unlikely to change the outcome of an election, why bother voting? Part of the answer is that many of us don’t. Just over 50 percent of eligible voters turn out for presidential elections, and the turnout for local elections is generally much lower.

But among those who do vote, I suspect the most common answers are that they consider it their civic duty to vote or, like the millions who vote for their favorite performer on American Idol, they want to register their support for a particular candidate.

The bigger question is how informed are those who show up at the polls on election day? The theory of rational ignorance suggests they have little incentive to expend much effort acquiring information. That is why candidates spend millions of dollars “informing” voters with selective information, half-truths and outright lies … and get away with it. Name recognition and image are what really matter in a political campaign.

One of the most famous cases of voter ignorance occurred in 1986 when Adlai Stevenson II, a well-known Democrat politician in Illinois, was running for governor against Republican John Thompson. The night of the primary, people were shocked to learn that followers of the political nut-case Lyndon LaRouche won the Democrat Party nomination for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

The most likely explanation was that so much attention had been focused on the hotly contested Stevenson-Thompson race that nobody was paying attention to the races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. The voters — acting out the theory of rational ignorance — did their civic duty by voting for the first names on the ballot for the positions that weren’t getting media attention. The names just happened to be those of the followers of LaRouche. The end result was that Stevenson refused to run on the ticket with the LaRouchites; formed an ad hoc “Solidarity Party” and lost the general election to Thompson by 10 points.

When it comes to image over substance, one of the best known examples is the 1960 presidential campaign between Nixon and Kennedy.  In the first-ever televised presidential debate, Americans glued to their television sets saw a young, charismatic John Kennedy take on then Vice President Richard Nixon, who had a five-o’clock shadow that made him look like a crook — an image Nixon never lived down.

Kennedy won the election by an extremely thin margin. Many credit his victory to the poor job done by Nixon’s make-up artist for the debate.

We have a very important election coming up Nov. 4 — an election that could change the course of the nation.  Some will tell you it is your civic duty to vote. I say it is your civic duty to cast an informed vote. Casting an ignorant vote does not further the cause of democracy; rather it undermines democracy by reducing it to little more than voting for your favorite singing contestant.

Take your civic duty seriously.  Don’t just sit on your couch ingesting the B.S. fed to you in slick commercials or form your opinion based on image.  Do the research yourself; check the facts; then go to the polls to perform your civic duty.