Why Are Voters So Uninformed?
Surveys routinely show that the general public is poorly informed about government and politics. In a survey conducted in 2010, for example, fewer than half of respondents even knew which political party held the majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. Professor Diana Thomas asks why the public knows and cares so little.
To answer, she draws upon an argument from Professor Anthony Downs. He claimed that it is actually rational for people to be ignorant about politics because the act of voting itself is irrational. One voter is unlikely to influence an election or lead to improvements in government performance.
Informed voters may put a lot of time and energy into researching the best candidates and understanding the issues in government. For this work, they receive little reward since the chance their votes will change the outcome of an election are virtually zero. In other words, people don’t take the time to be informed because there is little incentive to do so. For this reason, many economists will say it is completely rational to be ignorant about politics.
Animation and post-production by Tomasz Kaye: [email protected]
What do you know? [article]: Economist article exposing rational ignorance in action
Rational Ignorance [article]: Walter Williams explains rational ignorance
An Inconvenient Truth [article]: Forbes article on the extent of voter ignorance
A Good Cartoon [political cartoon]: Political cartoon about an ignorant voter
Democracy, Quality of Govenment, and the Average Voter [Article]: Article arguing that democracy can work well if the public is well educated
Public Knows Basic Facts about Politics, Economics, But Struggles with Specifics [study]: A Pew Research Study quoted by Prof. Thomas in this Learn Liberty video
Budget of the U.S. Government [reference material]: A catalogue of historical U.S. yearly budgeting and spending
You’ve probably seen surveys that show how uninformed the general public is about government and politics. For example, in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010, only 46 percent of respondents knew what party held the majority in the House of Representatives. Worse, only 39 percent knew that national defense is the biggest government budget item, and only 14 percent knew roughly what the current inflation rate was.
The usual response to statistics like these is frustration and calls for better civic education. But maybe there are other factors to blame. Have you ever wondered why the public knows and cares so little? Economist Anthony Downs argued that it’s actually rational to be ignorant about politics because the act of voting itself is irrational.
His argument goes as follows: The costs of being an informed voter are relatively high. You have to follow the news by either reading a paper, reading online, or maybe watching the news. Ideally, to be well informed, you do all of those things. If we value the time it takes you to get informed at your hourly wage, this can get expensive pretty quickly. On a practical level, becoming an informed voter is competing with a lot of other demands on your time.
And what about the benefits of voting? Well, you might think that the benefit of being an informed voter is better government performance. But that is false and here’s why: Just because you’re better informed doesn’t mean that politicians will do a better job. As a voter, you can only affect their actions if your vote changes the result of an election. But the probability that your vote will change the outcome of an election is, for all practical purposes, zero—even in close elections. In other words, people don’t take the time to become better informed because there is a fundamental incentive problem. This is why many economists will tell you it’s completely rational to be ignorant about politics.
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