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Somin and Friedman on Voter Ignorance

Ilya Somin and Jeffrey Friedman have been having a dispute about what is the cause of the low level of information that voters possess. Is it rational ignorance, based on the fact that voters know that their votes are unlikely to decide an election? Or is it inadvertent ignorance in the sense that the voters believe they know enough to make a wise decision, even though they are mistaken?

Friedman appears to make a strong criticism of the rational ignorance theory:

Rational ignorance theory is falsified by the fact that 70 percent of voters say that they think their individual votes are “really important,” as I noted in my earlier post. Moreover, as I noted, 89 percent say that influencing government policy is an important reason for their vote. If these findings do not falsify rational ignorance theory, what would?

In other words, since people do not know that their votes are extremely unlikely to influence an election, rational ignorance theory appears to be mistaken.

Somin, however, also makes a strong point:

Friedman’s theory implies that the average voter would not bother to acquire significantly more information about politics if he suddenly learned that he would be part of a small committee tasked with picking the next president of the United States. I think the vast majority of people would take the decision a lot more seriously if that were the case, and would spend a lot more time learning and evaluating political information. Jurors who make decisions in small groups where each vote matters greatly perform better than voters in part for this very reason.

I have a possible resolution of this apparent inconsistency. It draws on the fact that people’s behavior – and their practices – do not always conform to their verbal accounts of what they are doing. So people believe in some significant sense that their votes influence elections and government behavior. But they do not really act as if that was the case. Sure they are willing to incur the minimal effort in order to vote, but they are not willing to incur greater effort to inform themselves in order make a knowledgable decision.

This occurs because people’s practices are informed by the fact that they do not really influence the outcome, even though they think they have such influence. For example, if one was buying a new car or deciding on whether to have an operation, one would make an effort to inform oneself. One would also not intentionally ignore contrary information. Similarly, if one were selecting the next President, one would attempt to become more informed than people do today when they vote.

The bottom line is that people behave differently than their statements indicate. Our behavior is based on habits, which are informed by the results of our actions. When we buy a lemon, we learn to research car purchases in the future. We decide to change our habits. When we vote based on poor knowledge, we have no cause to change our behavior, presumably because we implicitly recognize that our vote did not make a difference.

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