Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Myth of the Rational Voter

The New Yorker recently published a review of a new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter." I will certainly buy this book (since the library doesn't have a copy) because not only does it posit some interesting, counterintuitive theories, but it may also feed my growing sense of misanthropy.

The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

Even apart from ignorance of the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as “affirmative action” and “welfare” is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions—if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer—but the opinions are not based on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal and ad hoc.

For fifty years, it has been standard to explain voter ignorance in economic terms. Caplan cites Anthony Downs’s “An Economic Theory of Democracy” (1957): “It is irrational to be politically well-informed because the low returns from data simply do not justify their cost in time and other resources.” In other words, it isn’t worth my while to spend time and energy acquiring information about candidates and issues, because my vote can’t change the outcome. I would not buy a car or a house without doing due diligence, because I pay a price if I make the wrong choice. But if I had voted for the candidate I did not prefer in every Presidential election since I began voting, it would have made no difference to me (or to anyone else). It would have made no difference if I had not voted at all. This doesn’t mean that I won’t vote, or that, when I do vote, I won’t care about the outcome. It only means that I have no incentive to learn more about the candidates or the issues, because the price of my ignorance is essentially zero. According to this economic model, people aren’t ignorant about politics because they’re stupid; they’re ignorant because they’re rational. If everyone doesn’t vote, then the system doesn’t work. But if I don’t vote, the system works just fine. So I find more productive ways to spend my time.

Read the entire article here.

2 comments:

MC said...

Dude, I was so going to post about this book review. However, I had singled out the paragraph preceeding your quote.

I'm not sureI I feel the need to read this book, but it voices a lot of the concerns I have about the short comings of our politcal system. Louis Menand is also a very analytical reviewer IMHOP.

Eric said...

That's cool. Post your paragraph, and we'll have about half the article covered.

I like Louis Menand, too. His reviews are better than Updike's for sure.