The Ignorance in “Rational Ignorance”

It would seem there is among the politically-minded professoriate a widespread belief that there is such a thing as “rational ignorance,” which holds that it is not particularly rational for any potential voter to waste time studying up on political affairs, researching candidates’ histories and positions, and so forth. Maintaining ignorance of the political factors of the day is “rational.” From this it follows, of course, that any political activism or activity is a waste of time except for those whose hobby, profession, or hustle it is. From which it follow that voting itself may be a pointless activity for any particular individual.

© Colin

© Colin

But wait. Isn’t this the cart pulling the horse? Actually, these foolish intellectuals present the argument for “rational” ignorance based on the claim that any given person’s probability of affecting the outcome of the vote is statistically tiny. And if that’s the case, voting’s a waste of time and, therefore, so is becoming educated on political matters. (It’s important to note that that’s a complete non-sequitur, since you can do a lot to influence how OTHERS vote even if you forgo doing it yourself.) Proponents of this amazingly ignorant doctrine include such up-and-comers as Michael Huemer of the U. of Colorado, who is considered by many to be a libertarian. But Prof. Huemer has plenty of company.


On the contrary.

First, and as to voting most obvious, there is such a thing as the cumulative effect of tiny increments. That, of course, is in fact the way voting works; the very notion of the statistical probability of a given person’s vote’s determining the outcome is really not even applicable.

Usually it’s not because of any one, particular person’s vote that X won the election. It’s because of the aggregated effect of the votes for and against X. And (assuming all the votes are counted accurately and are honestly reported), every vote cast counts toward that aggregate effect. And that includes the votes for the losing candidate or the losing ballot initiative or referendum.

Let me restate from a comment I made in a Libertarian Home discussion last week:

The doctrine is beyond false; it’s downright silly. Why? Because we DO have elections that DO produce winners and losers BECAUSE OF the proportion of votes that WERE cast. The fundamental error in the whole thing is that it isn’t this or that or these or those votes IN PARTICULAR which matter: It’s the cumulative effect of all the votes cast for each candidate or each ballot initiative or in each referendum that makes the difference.

The Democrats always run a huge and successful get-out-the-vote campaign. Because what matters is the bottom line, and they understand that if nobody on their side votes, their bottom line will be a goose-egg: LOSE! But if enough folks can be persuaded to vote (whether by argument, intimidation, or bribe), the result will be WIN!

Returning to my earlier comment:

Had another mere 4% of the voters in 2008 taken the trouble to be aware of Obama, his history, his background, they and we would at least have not ended up with a Chicago-Machine-cum-totalitarian-wannabe as President. –Not everything he said was a lie, however: For those who do understand that there’s a point to non-ignorance, he said forthrightly what he was gonna do, and he’s doing it.

Indeed, according to Wikipedia the final popular vote was 65,915,796 for Obama, 60,933,500 for Romney. Not counting any votes for some other candidate, this adds up tot a total of 126,849,296 votes cast, and Obama won by 51.96% of the total vote; Mr. Romney carried 48.04% of the vote. The spread between them, then, was less than 4%.


Second, it’s true that all of us have only a finite amount of time at our disposal, and (probably) infinitely many ways in which we could spend each second of it. So we must prioritize, and it may well turn out to be, per our own circumstances and value system, better to spend time learning how to take the best possible care of the coming infant than to educate ourselves properly regarding political philosophy, the current situation, and the candidates. But that’s a question of the rational choice of priorities, and persons in different situations might choose differently–for instance, perhaps the pregnant lady has already chosen adoptive parents who will assume parentage of the newborn immediately she delivers, so she can take time gather political information; whereas the lady next door, also expecting for the first time, judges that the more important priority is to learn how to avoid breaking the infant’s neck by accident.


But — this leads us to the third point, which is that each of us has to live with the consequences of the fact that X won. And this will often enough have an effect not only on our own lives even years hence, but also on the lives of the next generation, and the one after that, and ….


Finally, in general: while ignorance in any field may be necessary for any of a variety of reasons, it is rarely in and of itself rational–even knowing baseball statistics is of value to some. (Although, very rarely, willful blindness to the realities of the situation may be the only way to overcome panic enough to act.)

“There is no such thing as useless knowledge.”


However, all of this impinges on the issue of whether a society is encouraged to maintain itself in a state of ignorance in general, and is encouraged to believe the educational theory making the rounds in the early 70′s. This was (and, if you believe in Rational Ignorance as a good excuse not to bother learning, still is) that “you don’t need to know it, you just need to know how to Look It Up.” The college-kid sages of that era loved to spout that one. Well, intellectuals have always been full of prunes — I should know, having been pretty pruny myself from time to time — but when the teachers teach such baloney, I call it malfeasance. And similarly for any theory implying that ignorance is a value, that it is irrational to confront and try to affect a situation or event that so clearly can be affected by those with a certain kind of knowledge. (In politics, also by uneducated or miseducated fools, alas.)

Which brings us to the concept of Enlightened Self-interest. The concept includes (among other things) the understanding that one sensibly and rationally seeks knowledge, rather than a comfy maintenance of ignorance, in matters which seem likely to have a serious effect on the long-term course of one’s life. And, as Mr. Robert A. Heinlein wrote:

Politics is “barely less important than your own heartbeat.”


  1. I have known a few local elections where a handful of votes (indeed where ONE vote) have made all the difference.

    Also even if one vote does not change things – do we really want an ignorant population?

    It is bizarre for academics (people who are supposed to transmit knowledge) to say that ignorance does not matter – because one vote normally “does not make a difference” .

    Someone who knows nothing about the world around them (who only knows about what is in front of their nose) is a rather poor excuse for a human being.

    Yes “mind your own business” – but please be interested (and have some basic knowledge) about the world around you.

    As Julie points out.



  2. On the importance of individual action……

    If Mr McCain had stuck to his original position of opposing the 2008 bailout he would have win the election (Obama supported the bailout – but it did not matter that he supported it, his voters were not conservatives who needed to be motivated to go and vote).

    Someone had to have convinced Senator McCain to change his position – and I suspect it was one person (it was certainly one person who failed – Mr McCain himself).

    In 2012 any competent computer person would have told Mr Romney that you do NOT use a new voter finding system on election day.

    It will crash – and even if it does not your people will not know how to use it.

    You use a system that your people have been working with for months – as the Obama people did.

    As the election was so close (in terms of percentage of the vote) that this may have made the difference.

    A single computer person (having the guts to actually talk to Mr Romney at some social event – some weeks before election day) might have made all the difference.



  3. As far as I’m aware, Rational Ignorance is not a normative concept. It is merely an extension of cost/benefit analysis to the activity of casting a ballot.

    Also there is a difference between the act of voting on the one hand, and the act of becoming well acquainted with the information needed to vote ‘properly’ on the other. Each have their perceived costs and benefits, and – given that the act of voting is (usually) all but costless, voting is (in these cases) not irrational.



  4. Rocco, as to “Rational Ignorance as a normative concept”: The horribly mathematically-illiterate argument made for it in discourse upon politics is itself normative. “Here’s why you shouldn’t bother” is an argument for not bothering, which is a normative stance. Even if you water it down to “Here’s why you *needn’t be bothered* if you don’t bother,” you’re telling people what’s acceptable, and that is specifically what “normative” means in the area of human action.

    As for cost-benefit analyses, I said prioritizing is inescapably necessary, hence rational, and that sometimes means curing political ignorance sometimes (even often…even mostly! given the need to eat, sleep, and such frivolities) comes second, or third.

    Still, what first socked me in the stomach about the name of this doctrine — “Rational Ignorance — was that it already carries the implication that ignorance can be rational (it can, but such cases are extremely rare). And that people with the Very Important title of “Professor” in front of their names tout the analysis under that name adds an implication that the doctrine is true, valid, and acceptable.

    If The Intelligentsia called it that but proceeded to explain what’s wrong with the usual arguments, that in fact it *does* refer merely to cost-benefit analysis, and that a sensible analysis will usually show that curing ignorance is of high value to each person since it affects his life directly; that it is in his rational self-interest to do so — then that would be entirely different, and praiseworthy.

    As to your other observation, I think you’re on the right track, although I do think there’s a non-negligible cost associated with getting to the polling place, waiting in line, getting home or to work, etc. depending on individual circumstance.



    1. But Julie, Rational Ignorance doesn’t say “It’s not worth voting”. It’s a device to explain vote behaviour. It says that (just like in other areas of life) if costs outweigh benefits acting is a mistake, or “irrational”. Given that the difference voting for one party rather than another makes to an individual’s life is generally almost imperceptible, spending six hours a day reading websites, newspapers, blogs,, etc, is a cost that many people will not be willing to pay. Their “ignorance” is “rational” (not necessarily “praiseworthy”) in the sense that they don’t act when perceived costs outweigh perceived benefits.



  5. Given that the difference voting for one party rather than another makes to an individual’s life is generally almost imperceptible….

    But, Rocco, one of my arguments is that your “Given” assumption is false on its face. Believe me, we here Near Chicago (that is, within 3500 miles of that glow-in-the-dark city, plus Hawaii) find an appreciable difference in our lives since the ascent of the Sith to the Throne of the — the Republic ???!!

    On a smaller, much smaller, scale, the choice of Mayor can make a huge difference, or the choice of County Sheriff. Leaving voting out of it altogether, a change in management in the tiny society of a small workplace can bring a person out of the bottle with a spring in his step, or, alternatively, drive him into it.

    The same goes for referenda and ballot initiatives, for instance bond issues for the local school district, to be repaid by increased property taxes.

    Looking round the Web, I see that it’s not only people like me (who rode in a Model-A Ford as a matter of course in my very young youth) who talk about how different, and less free, daily life is than it used to be. It also includes young folks born as few as 30 years ago who notice the changes.

    There are appreciable differences between Now and Then that exist because the bulk of the votes went to X and not Y, or indeed mostly to the candidates of Party Z and not Party Q even when the candidates themselves are “mere ciphers” for their party. Think how different life would be today for all of us in the States (and probably world-wide) if Goldwater had won in 1964 instead of Johnson. No Medicare, no War on Poverty, no Great Society….

    Always assuming, of course, that Sen. Goldwater had stuck to his guns once elected. Miss R., if I remember right, said that part of the reason he lost was that he fell victim to “Me Too.”

    No. What happens is that too many people have paid too little attention to the general condition of things in their society, both cultural and physical; to the small changes politics makes to their lives, so they find themselves in the boiling stewpot with that frog. And then if — when — they do notice, facing the truth is so often too downright scary, so they pretend it isn’t happening, and bury themselves in other things, and the intelligentsia encourage that head-in-the-sand attitude by telling them it’s rational since their vote wouldn’t make a difference in the outcome (of the election or referendum or whatever) anyway.

    And, generally speaking, I don’t fault the poor souls who are in that position nearly so much as I do the Public Intellectuals (even when their actual public is rather small) who encourage this.



    1. Yes, but Julie, costs are subjective and choices are ex ante. And I don’t imagine the choice between “living today” and “living 50 years ago” features on ballots too often.

      (Also – and this may or may not be important – Michael Huemer doesn’t believe in Rational Ignorance. Rational Irrationality is his bag, apparently.)



  6. Rocco, my comment containing the remarks about the consequences of a Johnson presidency vs. those of a Goldwater presidency were intended to elucidate the ongoing effects of the way an election came out. These effects of great importance not only to those who voted in that particular election (we all started bearing the costs of Medicare, for instance) but also to everyone who will live in our society and under the rules as they developed as a result of electing Johnson. Including, now, people’s great-grandchildren.

    In particular, though, that comment was in response to your claim that I quoted at the top of it. I’ll just reiterate that first little bit:

    “Given that the difference voting for one party rather than another makes to an individual’s life is generally almost imperceptible….”

    Your “Given” assumption is false on its face. Believe me, we in the U.S. find an appreciable difference in our lives just since the ascent of the Sith–over just the last 5 1/2 years.

    Admittedly you said “generally,” but in the first place, when disaster strikes it’s not very comforting to know that it often hasn’t done so in the past. And in the second place, political disaster that strikes apparently “out of the blue” isn’t all that uncommon.

    And, again, the results of a vote approving a bond issue for the schools are felt pretty promptly, as they sock the voter right in the wallet.

    And whether or not those who voted for LBJ recognized that the changes affecting their lives as a result connected the negative ones to their own vote, that connection did exist and their own lives did change — perceptibly.



  7. It’s also true that most of present disasters (plural…very plural) were predictable, indeed were predicted in some cases two or three or more centuries ago. Not to mention that some are also illustrated in our own history as a country.

    How about those “rationally-ignorant” voters who voted for the Sith, thought Obamacare sounded like a pretty good deal, and then found themselves altogether uninsured in the event? I wonder if they would recommend ignorance of history and politics as a rational strategy for Coping with Life.

    This observation is intended purely only to illustrate my point. :>)



    1. Julie, Rational Ignorance is an attempt to understand things like why people voted for Obama. It’s not an attempt to convince people to remain ignorant or to stay at home on election day. Rational Ignorance is not a recommendation of ignorance.



      1. Rocco, the explanation of “Rational Ignorance” rests on the idea that ignorance is rational in the sense that to a given person, the curing of ignorance, that is the acquisition of knowledge, may not be worth the time it takes. Therefore for him, in his context and given his value system, in some particular area it may be rational for him to prioritize how he spends his time, with gathering information on the subject in question very low on the list. As for instance, at this moment in my life it’s more important to me to reply to your comment than it is to find out what was the first engine Henry Ford put into his Ford.

        So it’s not the ignorance itself that’s rational; it’s the setting of priorities. Ignorance in and of itself is not rational but anti-rational. One cannot reason about X absent some knowledge about X.

        But I already said all that…..

        However, the name of this doctrine or theory is, specifically, Rational Ignorance. Which carries an implication or connotation that “Ignorance is Rational.”

        When a Learned Professor proceeds to use this doctrine under that name, and to present arguments based on it in order to support his own stance on some issue; and when in particular those arguments include specious arguments supporting or illustrating the doctrine; all that adds up to his support for the idea that ignorance is in itself rational, unless one feels motivated to become less ignorant.


      2. Yet when a person in a perceived position of expertise accepts and promulgates and even uses the argument that “your vote has virtually no chance of making a difference” rather than refuting it, that amounts to an endorsement of the conclusion.

        Such a person has done his bit to encourage not only non-voting, but also the maintenance of political ignorance. Because, people have a tendency to think (shallowly), why bother to become informed if you’re not going to vote?

        The answer, of course, is simply that as each of us goes about being whoever he is, his knowledge and his opinions do have an effect on other people. That’s why there are political writers and political activists. That’s why people may write to their congressmen even if they’re philosophically opposed to voting.

        A parent may make a remark at the dinner table about some political issue or historical fact, and it may plant a seed in the mind of a child or a hook in the mind of an adult.


  8. As to the doctrine, or principle, or theory so unfortunately called “Rational Ignorance” itself, the Wikipedia article starts by describing the theory of Rational Ignorance. The bold typeface is mine, to emphasize the pseudo-statistical fallacious argument:

    Ignorance about an issue is said to be “rational” when the cost of educating oneself about the issue sufficiently to make an informed decision can outweigh any potential benefit one could reasonably expect to gain from that decision, and so it would be irrational to waste time doing so. This has consequences for the quality of decisions made by large numbers of people, such as general elections, where the probability of any one vote changing the outcome is very small.

    Farther down:

    Additionally, rational ignorance is scrutinized for its broadening effect on the decisions that individuals make in different matters. The investment of time and energy on the specified subject has ramifications on other decision areas. Individuals sometimes rationally ignore this when unconsciously assessing the investment cost versus payout. The external benefits are therefore not adequately taken into account.[clarification needed]

    A point of amusement: the “clarification needed” certainly is!

    But I think the point is that it’s easy to overlook the benefits of curing ignorance when deciding whether it’s “rational” to remain ignorant. Especially in view of the fact that the quote is from the section of the article entitled “Criticisms.”

    . . .

    As to Huemer. I actually transcribed most of his TED talk. The theme of the talk is to try to explain the occurrence of what he sees as irrational political policies, insofar as they are effects of voters’ ignorance and irrationality. The two problems are, he says, voters’ political ignorance, which “Rational Ignorance” theory explains, and their “Political Irrationality,” which he also seeks to explain.

    He outlines these two theories, tells why Political Irrationality constitutes a severe problem, and ends with advice as to how we can diagnose and cure our own “biases and irrational tendencies.”

    As these are the two elements that he sees as constituting the basis of irrational political policies, I can only believe that he accepts both. In particular, yes, he does accept the doctrine of Rational Ignorance as applicable to the behavior of voters. He finishes his explanation of the theory:

    …[T]he expected rewards of political information are negligible. They are approximately zero. And the reason for this is, most people know that their individual information is not going to change public policy. In other words if you go out and become more politically informed, you personally are probably not going to change the policy of the United States government, and so for that reason, if you’re doing the calculation in a purely selfish manner, you would say, “Well, it’s not worth the cost.”

    This line of reasoning doesn’t go far enough. That is, it seems plausible, but a little deeper examination shows what it misses. Exercise for the reader.

    He actually presents the Argument from Mathematical Ignorance in his explanation of Political Irrationality, whereas most people cite it in support of the Rationality of Political Ignorance:

    …[A]gain, most people will accept a cost only if the expected rewards exceed the costs. But, again, the benefits in this case are negligible, because most people realize that the probability that they’re going to change the outcome of an election with their vote is very close to zero. It’s not zero, but it’s maybe one in 10 million or something like that.

    Just to wrap up, he tells us Why We Should Care about Political Irrationality. Well, in a nutshell, because it’s bad for Society:

    Why is it important for you to correct the problem of rationality? Um, the reason is that although it is kind of in your self-interest to continue to be irrational, it’s against the interest of society as a whole. You’re imposing serious risks on the rest of society. Now there’s only a small probability that you’re going to change public policy with your attitudes, your behavior, and your beliefs. However, the consequences to society as a whole are very large. And of course, if a large number of people are irrational, which is in fact the case, then it’s a virtual certainty that society’s going to suffer negative outcomes.

    Actually, that “virtual certainty” is intuitive. What happens depends on the context in which all these irrational ignoramuses live and vote, and what form their irrationalities take.

    He next says that human irrationality is the most severe problem we face, ahead of world poverty, pollution and “the destruction of the environment,” and “even the problem of war.”

    And then he tells us how to fix ourselves.



  9. Julie,
    ” the explanation of “Rational Ignorance” rests on the idea that ignorance is rational in the sense that to a given person, the curing of ignorance, that is the acquisition of knowledge, may not be worth the time it takes. Therefore for him, in his context and given his value system, in some particular area it may be rational for him toprioritize how he spends his time, with gathering information on the subject in question very low on the list. As for instance, at this moment in my life it’s more important to me to reply to your comment than it is to find out what was the first engine Henry Ford put into his Ford.”

    Exactly. So what is it you’re objecting to? That people don’t share your priorities? That people don’t care about politics as much as you do?



  10. I object to:

    1. The implication by the title of the theory that ignorance is in and of itself rational, that is, that it is a value. Now, not everyone may take the title that way, as you yourself apparently do not; nevertheless that title will be so registered by some, as it was by yours truly, and as such is contrary to reason and reality. To speak of “rational ignorance” is like like speaking about a square circle. If one uses the term at all, one should point out immediately that it’s a contradiction in terms.

    2. Those who accept the theory claim that political ignorance IS rational, on two grounds: first, that a single person’s endeavours in politics are unlikely to “affect national policy,” or just generally to “make a noticeable difference.” Among these are the gathering of political and historical knowledge (curing ignorance in this area); and also any political activity, such as weblog postings and comments, letters to the editor or you congressmen or other politicians, participating in elections or other voting, giving speeches, organizing rallies or protest movements…. This is shallow reasoning, as any cursory observation of current events will show, and as does the historical record as well. So, in sum the first objection is to obviously shallow and specious reasoning sold under the imprimatur of the Learned.

    Second, the reasoning above also involves a completely false idea about “statistical chance,” as in “the chance that your vote will make a difference/determine the outcome/AFFECT the outcome [even]”; as explained before, but if you want I have analogy at hand that might clarify things.

    3. When this theory is presented, at least to the general Web audience, it is NOT presented as a theory that might explain something about voter ignorance, or voter apathy; if that were the intent, one would not use it to argue for some position without noting that it is theory and not proven fact. As in, “In support of my argument I will present an interesting theory devised by Mr. A and Mrs. B, which claims that….”

    Instead, it is used as proven fact, as Received Wisdom, as Settled Science.

    Along these same lines, let us suppose that the theory does accurately describe the non-thinking that goes on in people’s heads when they elect (cumulatively, day by day or month by month or whatever) not to find out what’s going on politically. In that case it is in the job description of the teacher or professor or public intellectual to explain what is wrong with such reasoning, why political knowledge and activity are quite important to people, why the pseudo-math-sounding reasoning is completely false, and that in short one person can and does “make a difference.”

    In other words, the Expert should be exercising his expertise to shoot down the shoddy reasoning that the politically unengaged may be using.

    . . .

    I am “complaining” about intellectual dishonesty inherent in the oxymoronic term “rational ignorance” as a title for a doctrine or a theory, although I certainly don’t claim that it was purposely chosen (unlike some euphemisms) to obscure the obvious fact. I am “complaining” about its unquestioned status as a Proven Fact justifying ignorance in general, but in particular political ignorance, as being rational. I am “complaining” that it is not pointed out as being actually merely a theory of human behavior and not a proven fact which also justifies that behavior.

    I claim that poor nomenclature, even poor-but-honest nomenclature, has all kinds of pernicious effects. As does specious reasoning, especially when sold by people who are supposed to be learned.

    . . .

    I suppose if I were a doctor, I would complain when people who somehow have extra credibility go around claiming that Ignorance is Rational in the field of simple hygiene. (Or, say, on the issue of the re-use of dirty needles.)

    I suppose I would complain when these pundits, or their fans, put a lower priority on the maintenance of health than I do. I suppose I might complain that they don’t “care” as much about health, even their own health, as I do.

    . . .

    People who don’t accord importance to politics can only hope the ship isn’t sinking; they have no means to try to stop it, if it is. With luck, an in certain places at certain times, they’re not disappointed. But elsewhen….



  11. Rational Ignorance would suit many, academics for one. Why invite competition or challenge. “They” are the ones to decide, and the cattle can chew the cud.



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