Posted by: captainfalcon | March 22, 2010

Question

Roughly, the theory of rational voter ignorance says that, because your vote is so unlikely to have any impact on policy, it is rational to remain ignorant of politicians’ records and views. (Or, more specifically, it is rational for someone who would only be interested in politics if he had a decent chance of impacting upon it to remain ignorant.) Rational ignorance is a lemma of public choice theory; combine it with the view that politicians are self-serving and it follows that (in certain circumstances) they have strong incentives to act contrary to the public good (in favor, for example, of a particular group’s interests) and few incentives pushing the other way. From this, in turn, it is an easy step to the Final Conclusion that politicians often don’t make good decisions; their power should be limited.

My question is: does the theory of rational ignorance writ large actually undermine the Final Conclusion? Writ large, (it is rather obvious that) the theory says something like: it is rational for people to remain ignorant of x if the (probable) costs of learning about x outweigh the (probable) benefits. Certainly, if all you care about is having a positive impact on politics, and the odds that you have an impact on politics are close to nil, and the costs of learning about how to impact politics in a positive way are, inter alia, a lot of time spent wading through uninspired prose (that might be too technical for you, anyway) then it is rational to remain politically ignorant. But, likewise, if all you care about is taking a salubrious medication, the odds that the medicine you saw advertised is total bunk are low, and the costs of learning about it (whose promoters, including an MD!, insist is great) are, inter alia, a lot of time spent wading through uninspired prose (that might be too technical for you, anyway), then (doesn’t the theory of rational ignorance imply?) it is rational to remain pharmacologically ignorant.

Rational ignorance, then, combines with the view that politicians are self-serving to yield the Final Conclusion, but it also combines with the view that producers are self-serving to yield its spiritual opposite: producers often don’t make good decisions; their power should be limited.

It thus strikes me that the theory of rational ignorance is neutral among all plausible ideologies. Its only definite ideological implication is that we live in a fallen world. But the mark of a plausible ideology is its recognition of that fact.

Does this seem right?

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Responses

  1. Your conclusion, that rational ignorance leads to “producers often don’t make good decisions; their power should be limited,” isn’t as significant a problem as I think you think it is.

    Producers are already limited. They can’t force you at the point of a gun to buy their (defective) product. (Politicians, however, can and happily do.) They’re limited, too, by market forces. If you buy a bad product from Producer X, and you do so because it was in your rational interest to not learn everything there was to know about Product X and Y and Z, and Product X turns out to suck, you don’t buy it again. And you tell your friends about how much it sucks and soon Product X develops a reputation for sucking and, like Windows Mobile phones, soon nobody wants it anymore.

    (But if rational ignorance leads you to buy Product X from politicians, you end up not with a crappy phone you soon get rid of but with Social Security.)

    More broadly, though, public choice isn’t a sweeping theory of everything. It’s an attempt to apply already existing economic reasoning to the field of politics. So, of course, rational ignorance applies outside of the public sphere because economics applies outside of the public sphere.

    Or am I misunderstanding what you’re getting at?

  2. A lot of our current regulations can be represented as addressing precisely the problem of rational ignorance leading to private-sector decisions which are sub-optimal for consumers. Consumer-safety laws are the obvious ones but far from the only examples.

    So I think CF had a reasonable point – while in some cases politicians make poor decisions for consumers because their incentives and those of voters are misaligned, in other cases politicians make excellent decisions for consumers because their incentives are closer to those of consumers than to those of manufacturers. To tell only half the story – talk about rational ignorance’s effect on consumer’s political decisions but not their private purchases – is a bit misleading.

  3. Aaron:

    I’d make three points.

    1. I agree that “public choice isn’t a sweeping theory of everything. It’s an attempt to apply already existing economic reasoning to the field of politics. So, of course, rational ignorance applies outside of the public sphere because economics applies outside of the public sphere.” That said: (a) I don’t think I claim that public choice applies beyond politics, just (as you say) that rational ignorance is a problem within politicians and outside of it. Maybe you’re right and this is just obvious to everyone. But, given (i) public choice theory is thought a natural traveling companion of libertarianism and (ii) rational ignorance theory is thought a natural traveling companion of public choice, I’m not so sure. (Or, rather, I don’t doubt that many would acknowledge the relevance of rational ignorance outside the context of voter ignorance, maybe they don’t think about it that much.)

    2. One reason they might not bother with rational ignorance outside the context of voter ignorance is that it’s not as big a problem outside that context. I can see two reasons for thinking so.

    (a) One is a difference of degree: It is rational to be ignorant of politicians’ preferences because (you judge) there’s a negligible chance that you COULD POSSIBLY have ANY impact on the effect those preferences have on you. (So the benefits of learning about the politicians’ preferences are nil, the costs substantial.)

    To be sure, in the case of a product, you probably won’t judge that there’s a negligible chance that you COULD POSSIBLY have ANY impact on the effects it has on you (not buying it is an available course of action). But you might still judge that there’s a low probability, for any given product, that it’s going to be a total dud. The costs of learning a lot about the product thus outweigh the benefits.

    (b) The second difference, which you point to, is that the costs of learning a lot about a product might be lower than the costs of learning a lot about a politicians’ preferences. It’s easy: “If you buy a bad product from Producer X, and you do so because it was in your rational interest to not learn everything there was to know about Product X and Y and Z, and Product X turns out to suck, you don’t buy it again. And you tell your friends about how much it sucks and soon Product X develops a reputation for sucking and, like Windows Mobile phones, soon nobody wants it anymore.”

    My response is that this is sometimes so, sometimes not. If the product is prominent, targeted at the well-educated, not pregnant with emotional meaning (etc.) then good information about it is going to be relatively easy to obtain. That’s the case with Windows Mobile phones.

    But here’s an alternative just-so story that showcases the possibility that learning about a product could be quite costly: The product is targeted at the impoverished unemployed and promises to fully solve their most desperate problem. Marketing is distributed in such a way that geographically disparate groups of these people are targeted, and the product does not guarantee an INSTANT fix. Under these circumstances, it seems possible that the unemployed are rational to remain ignorant (not only do they have a general disposition to think products are not fraudulently advertised, but they are especially inclined to wishful thinking in this case and, because of the marketing strategy, their compatriots don’t know about the product). It also seems possible that the product is a scam.

    Rational ignorance, then, leads to problems in both the private and public sector. The question WITHIN ECONOMICS is whether, in any given sphere, politicians or producers perpetrate the most damaging scams. Given that rational ignorance is not different IN KIND for politics than for industry, this seems an open, empirical question.

    3. I emphasized “within economics” in the foregoing paragraph because you are absolutely right that moral considerations might trump economic considerations. I spoke sloppily when I said “producers often don’t make good decisions; their power should be limited.” You pointed that out: “Producers are already limited. They can’t force you at the point of a gun to buy their (defective) product. (Politicians, however, can and happily do.)”

    There is a legitimate question here. Even granting that rational ignorance can be exploited by producers to screw over consumers, do producers have THE RIGHT to do that? If so, then economic considerations don’t directly lead to the conclusion that producers’ “powers should be [more] limited [than they already are].” So, point well taken.


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