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.
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.”