Rational Political Ignorance
Consumers vote with dollars for the things they want in private transactions, but few consumers have identical amounts of dollar votes. In modern democracies, adult citizens (except convicted felons) have equal rights to vote, so their opinions theoretically carry equal weight. Then why do so many people seem indifferent about politics?
Why People Don't Bother to Vote
An election-year cliché is that “every vote counts.” If people were unfailingly rational and if the outcome of every election hung on every vote and were crucial for everyone, then everyone eligible would vote. We would not hear commentators lamenting voter apathy after every election. However, fewer than 10% of adult citizens bother to go to the polls in most local elections. Even in hotly contested national elections, a 60% turnout is rare. Many of us evidently conclude that the personal costs of voting outweigh the personal benefits. Why do so many people view voting as not worth the effort?
Suppose opinion polls indicate that 80 million people plan to vote in the next presidential election and they are split 50/50 between the Republican and Democratic candidates. This split maximizes the probability that your vote would matter if presidents were elected by popular vote. How likely is a single vote to swing this election? The probability of an exact 50/50 split of the vote is identical with the probability of flipping a coin 80 million times and obtaining exactly 40 million heads and 40 million tails: infinitesimal! Even if only 1,000 people voted, the probability of you being the tiebreaker if you were the 1,001st voter is less than 1%. The probability that any single vote will break a tie is, of course, much lower the larger the number of votes.
The transaction costs of voting are not trivial when you consider the time and resources used to register, walk or drive to the polls, wait in line, learn about candidates and issues, and so on. This raises the question of why so many people do vote. Although voting costs little, the odds of one vote swinging any important election are nearly zero. Some people argue that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain, but there is no law or religious commandment to that effect.
One possible explanation for widespread apathy is that most people living in democracies are reasonably content and are skeptical that the outcome of any election is likely to change their lives very much. People living in dictatorships often correctly believe, however, that democratic voting will allow people more control over their lives. People who defy thugs and bullets to vote are asserting their belief in the desirability of voting as a group process. Few of them believe that each individual vote is highly likely to change the outcome of every election.
Why Many People Do Vote
The preceding analysis makes it seem almost irrational to vote. Major elections, however, usually draw a majority of eligible voters. Some people may vote because political campaigns resemble spectator sports; the stakes are generally higher, but voting is a bit like cheering for your favorite football team or buying a ticket to a game. Others view voting as a democratic duty. Most voters like to think of themselves as good citizens or feel guilty if they don’t vote. Just as no soldier alone is likely to win or lose a war, no single vote is likely to swing a major election. Nevertheless, most of us derive some pleasure from participating in group processes that shape history.
Apathetic nonvoters who contend that individual votes don’t matter are statistically correct. It may even be fortunate that many people don’t vote. Voting is most likely among people with intense political preferences and least likely among people who are indifferent about politics and who know relatively little about the issues.
Rational Political Ignorance and Asymmetric Information
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
Can you name even five candidates on the ballot in the last election? Did you know much about their positions on budget deficits? Immigration? Gun control? Reform of Social Security? Unless you are a political buff or a policy wonk, your answer to such questions is probably, "Not much."
Information is costly. The future is uncertain. Thus, consumers and producers must operate in markets with less than perfect information. They are, to some degree, rationally ignorant.
Rational ignorance is the result when people decide that the marginal costs of acquiring more information exceed its marginal benefits.
Similarly, voters rely on far from perfect information. The personal payoff from in-depth knowledge about all the candidates and issues decided in any important election is trivial and generally far less significant than the benefits of information about market choices. For example, textile import quotas now cost consumers billions of dollars annually. If your share is only $5 to $10 and the probability of influencing an election by voting is negligible, then the time and effort required to learn about candidates’ positions on import quotas so that you can vote wisely probably exceed the personal benefits from a more informed vote. There are, however, significant personal benefits in knowing about the quality and price of clothing you buy.
Rational ignorance on the parts of most voters compounds the principal–agent problem arising from asymmetric information. Election results share many attributes of public goods: your president is my president; we share the same sets of laws, and so on. Managers of firms have substantially greater incentives to monitor employees to prevent shirking than voters have to monitor the positions and activities of political candidates and elected officials.
Reports in the media can help voters monitor politicians, but few citizens closely track campaign events or the voting records of their elected officials. (Although special-interest groups certainly pay close attention if they think they will be affected.) The public goods aspects of elections create incentives for free riders who either don’t vote or rely on other voters to acquire knowledge about the candidates and issues. Thus, we should not be surprised that many voters select candidates based on charisma—a flashing smile and a shock of wavy hair or an impression that a certain candidate is dependable, experienced, or reflective. Small wonder that every major political campaign abounds with public relations flacks.