Rational Ignorance vs. Ignorance, substance vs. symbolism

Posted on May 17, 2014 by


A little over a week ago we had primary elections here in Ohio, and despite the low likelihood of my vote mattering in an election (toward the outcome), I made sure my “expressive vote” was heard.  The idea is that while individual votes don’t matter (at least in general, national elections) our votes are very important as an expression of our preferences, and politicians pay great attention to what we are saying–because although individually we don’t matter as voters, collectively we do and politicians are paying attention to our political preferences.  So we make our preferences known.

Nevertheless, doing our civic duty requires us to overcome rational ignorance, since the costs to being politically informed is greater than the benefits.  We’re all to a degree rationally ignorant, because nobody searches out every detail in an election.  Most of us can’t name our local state officials, nor our mayor, council members, etc.–we are rationally ignorant.  In the recent election, I made sure I looked at some of the candidates and perused voter guides from family friendly organizations to lower my search costs for trusted info.  Nevertheless, when I got in the ballot box there were issues/people that I didn’t really know anything about.  My choice in those situations is to abstain–I don’t vote for either candidate if I know nothing about them.  My thought process is I ought to stay out of something I know nothing about, hoping that people that actually know something about it will make more informed votes, and I am essentially deferring to their superior information levels.  Should they be just guessing, then my guess wouldn’t offer any particular value anyway.

Beyond rational ignorance (which is by definition rational–a calculation (often implicit) that gaining information costs more than its benefits), there is simple ignorance.  In this case, the individual may be rationally ignorant, but they think they aren’t!  They think they know a lot about the issues, because they have emoted over it–they have opinions and feelings!  Am I being too harsh?  Perhaps…but watch this video and see if I’m right:

Young Hillary Clinton Supporters Struggle to name her accomplishments

In this video, we have unabashed support for Hillary Clinton to be the next president, yet the students can’t name any of her accomplishments–because as one young lady puts it, they are so many!  Another (who is writing his senior thesis on her!) suggests that Benghazi is her greatest accomplishment, since that showed her expertise at international affairs.  Ordinarily I would think that such a ridiculous assertion must be from a closet republican trying to embarrass Mrs. Clinton–but in this case I think he was very serious.  Amazing.  But here is what these young voters did know:  she would be the first woman president.  And she would follow the first African-American president.  So history would be made, and that seems to be the only criteria that mattered to them.  Yet I don’t really believe that either–Let Mrs. Palin be the republican nominee with a male democratic nominee and the goal of the first woman president will quickly fade away.  Most of our political preferences seem to be no different than picking an NFL team to root for, and our team is our team.  Substance on the issues seems not to matter, symbolism is everything–so we get the politicians we deserve.  If all this appalls you, pray harder!  And don’t do the same thing as these young progressives, just for the conservative camp–know why you stand for what you do, know the substance for at least the most important issues our country faces.  You can’t know everything–we are rationally ignorant for a reason–but you can know some things!  At least what the best substantive reason why your preferred candidate in 2016 ought to be elected.  That would seem to be the minimum.