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.”

Full text: Democracies, Republics, and Other Unnecessary Evils versus Libertarian Anarchy

This talk comprises a few related and modified entries taken from the draft of my forthcoming Dictionary of Anti-Politics. I shall begin by giving some libertarian analysis of the ideas of democracy, republic, and monarchy—and asking what political systems the UK and the USA really have. Then, as elected oligarchy is dominant, I shall consider some of the issues that surround voting and political apathy. Finally, however—as the best alternative to what we have now—I shall look briefly at anarchy generally and anarchic law in particular.

Jan C Lester reading

This material was also delivered as a talk by Jan C Lester.


There are few ideas about which there is more commonsense confusion and political hypocrisy than ‘democracy’ (‘liberty’ is a rival in this). Etymologically, ‘democracy’ means ‘people rule or power’. The original democracies in Greek city-states involved voting on important matters for all citizens—which at that time excluded women, slaves, and guest workers. A civil organization that freely chooses to adopt some form of voting as a decision procedure is not thereby democratic, as voting itself is not inherently political (i.e., about state rule).

Most Western nation-states today claim to have ‘representative democracies’, which are asserted to be a kind of ‘indirect democracy’. But the people manifestly do not rule or have power. Therefore, this is somewhat like calling slavery ‘representative self-ownership’ or ‘indirect self-ownership’. For these so-called democracies are, in fact, elected oligarchies merely posing as democracies; because of the legitimisation that is afforded by the false propaganda that ‘the people are ruling themselves’ in this way and so somehow ‘consent’ to the consequences. That is, most adults have a vote that collectively decides who is elected (which is the one rare and fleeting moment that a glimmer of democracy might be asserted to exist), and then the elected oligarchs do whatever they want, if they have a majority, until the next election possibly changes the majority party or coalition. However, even most would-be ‘oligarchs’ are themselves, in effect, political eunuchs (or ‘lobby fodder’), unless they are also elected among themselves, or appointed to high office, or (threaten to) collectively rebel by voting against the government.

‘Delegational democracy’ means that people are elected to implement the actual wills of their electors. And this would be a sort of democracy. But it is a mystery how the delegates are supposed to know what the electors want beyond a few issues. If the delegates are going to do regular surveys and adhere to the results, then why would they be needed as delegates? Some form of full-blooded democracy, with people directly voting on any number of issues, would easily be practicable.

It is clearly possible to be far more democratic than we are now, but politicians do not want democracy. This might partly be because they see the pitfalls of rule by an uninformed and capricious majority, but it must also be for the obvious reason that they prefer to be elected as oligarchs with all the power, prestige, and pelf this personally gives them. Luckily for them, most members of the public lack any real interest in, or understanding of, politics; so the public do not seek any serious democratic involvement.

None of this is intended to argue for real democracy. Any more-serious form of democracy would almost certainly be more dangerously authoritarian, even totalitarian, than the current elected oligarchy. Democracy as such is inherently a form of majoritarianism. There is no democratic principle limiting what democracy can interfere with. However, any attempt at democracy would probably soon collapse into a less dangerous oligarchy following Robert Michels’s (1876-1936) “iron law of oligarchy”: as career politicians come to dominate the apathetic masses.

Just like elected oligarchy, all forms of democracy are the continuation of ‘civil war’ by other means. One side proactively imposes on the other by threat of force but without actual bloodshed. Thus democracy is an enemy of liberty and also welfare; not least as it flouts the efficient economic calculation of the market. A ‘liberal democracy’ is more or less a contradiction in terms, at least insofar as ‘liberal’ refers to liberty. The more it is liberal, the less it is democratic. A completely liberal system would be a libertarian anarchy.


In the UK, especially but not solely, a republic is popularly contrasted with the UK’s own supposed constitutional monarchy. The US was established as a republic, but this was intended to be contrasted with a democracy as much as with a monarchy. The main republican conception is that the people, or at least those entitled to vote, have ultimate power but that they have some type of representatives operating within some type of constitution. As with many political terms, definitions and theories vary. And there is considerable confusion in practice. For instance, some so-called ‘constitutional monarchies’ are, in effect, crowned republics, while some self-styled ‘republics’ are more like monarchies.

From a libertarian viewpoint, is any kind of republic superior to any kind of monarchy or any kind of alleged democracy? The first thing to say is that none of them is libertarian and so all of them ought to be abolished. After that, the only really useful thing to observe is that these are mainly empirical and contingent matters. But there appears to be no good reason to press for any of them in preference to the others, particularly as that distracts from the more libertarian task of directly arguing for rolling back whatever state powers whichever of them happens to have.


‘Monarchy’ is literally, a single ruler; usually—but not necessarily—by inherited title to that position. Monarchs are almost entirely figureheads in the Western world. If we were to abolish any remaining powers and income to them from taxation, and return or equitably disperse any wealth founded on expropriations, then they would be completely depoliticised and there is no reason that they could not remain purely as traditional figureheads for those who wish to regard them as such. Any titles they might confer, or sell, would not proactively impose on anyone; nor would any money they might earn from tourism, which would surely be a source of profit for others as well. Nevertheless, while politics exists, a figurehead monarch as a head of state can offer a very useful check to the status and power of the government of the day.

Although a literal monarchy might well do less damage than a so-called democracy, and much less damage than a real democracy, it seems perverse to argue for one, as some paleolibertarians have done, rather than for full libertarian anarchy.

So what exactly are the real political systems in the UK and the USA?

UK political system

Officially, the United Kingdom is a ‘constitutional monarchy’, with a ‘democratic’ constitution. But the monarch’s power is little more than nominal compared to that of the elected oligarchs’ (though this power might revive if the monarch were ever to challenge an unpopular regime: all state military swear loyalty to the monarch, not the government). And so it might be more accurate to say that the UK is a ‘constitutional, elected oligarchy with a hereditary, figurehead monarchy’.

USA political system

Originally the United States of America saw itself as a federal constitutional republic. But the president is practically an elected monarch, albeit that he is constrained by the elected oligarchs. He is somewhat like a feudal king with powerful barons that need to be appeased. The president is far more powerful than most so-called monarchs in the modern world, who have next to no power by comparison. So the US is more like a constitutional, elected monarchy plus elected oligarchy, with appointed Supreme Court.

So where does the ordinary subject fit into these systems?


Voting in voluntary organizations or associations is a legitimate way of making decisions if that is what the participants agree to do; although there is no moral principle that makes voting the right way to make decisions. Political voting is a different matter. One thereby helps to legitimise the state, which is why the state allows and encourages voting. As the state is a criminal organization, it is prima facie immoral to vote in its elections (which makes a fair political voting system in principle impossible). But one might sometimes overcome that immorality by voting for the most libertarian candidate.

However, considered individually, political voting generally is a complete waste of time at best. The statistical chances of one’s vote making any difference at all to how the oligarchs ‘run the country’ are fantastically smaller than one’s chance of being both struck by lightning and winning the lottery while on the way to the polling station. And even if one personally had the final say on the winning political party, parties treat their own rag-bag manifesti as entirely non-binding general intentions or promises. It does count for something, though, that the oligarchs can be collectively removed if they appear too bad. That at least avoids the sort of violent conflict we have recently seen in Syria, Egypt, and Libya.

Such electoral reforms as proportional representation would hardly make any difference to this. And proportional representation may well undermine even the little stability and direction in rule that the first-past-the-post electoral system achieves. However, any electoral reforms might still be desirable if they could somehow curtail enormous tax-extortion being transferred from some areas of the country to others.

Why do people vote? It seems to be some combination of poor mathematics, a misplaced sense of duty, and the equivalent of cheering on one’s preferred team at a sports event. Attaining an individual political vote is objectively worthless; the idea that something so useless can be ‘wasted’ is absurd. And so apathy would seem to be entirely rational (i.e., prudent).


Politicians often complain about apathy among the public as regards politics, and say that ‘democracy’ needs people to take more interest. As a result, they sometimes suggest that voting ought to be made compulsory; which would be another small loss of liberty for people. The politicians’ complaint about apathy is not made because they want the public to control things democratically, but because they know that their own legitimacy and status as elected oligarchs rests on this very feeble sort of political participation. That so many of the public cannot even be bothered to vote shows just how far away they are from wanting any serious political participation—but that is not what the oligarchs are seeking. Nevertheless, the politicians are strictly right when they cite public apathy as a problem with politics. For what is required of the public to improve matters is active antipathy. Only antipathy can hope to restrict political power and thereby increase human liberty and welfare. However, antipathy will not work well if it is based on mere cynicism. The public have to realise that liberty is moral and productive while politics is immoral and destructive. And this brings us to the alternative to politics of any kind.


Both etymologically and in political theory, anarchy means ‘no rule’ in the sense of no proactively imposed control by a state in any form; and it is to be contrasted with the various forms of state rule—oligarchy, monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, etc. Anarchy does not mean no rules, or no law (that is anomy, or anomie), or no order (that is chaos). Libertarian anarchists are fully in favour of anarchic rules, law, and order instead of the state’s versions of these (the gross inefficiencies of which do cause them to approach chaos to varying degrees).

Statists confuse themselves if they use ‘anarchy’ to mean chaos or the absence of rules, order, and law, and then think that these are reasons to reject what libertarian anarchists are advocating. However, even if these matters can be clarified—for the ideas of ‘anarchic order’ and ‘anarchic law’ appear too oxymoronic for many statists to consider seriously—the strong prejudice remains that ‘someone must run the country’.

Where it has had any press at all, anarchy has had a bad one. Apart from the confusions just mentioned, in recent years this is largely due to activities of so-called anarchists—who are really very confused anti-capitalists—that have been occupying, stealing, and rioting against inequality, big business, and high finance. Only private-property anarchy is practical anarchy. There is no way that any kind of socialist anarchy could exist on a large scale, rather than in small communes, because voluntary market transactions and capital accumulation are needed for advanced production and will always occur unless forcibly suppressed (which in practice requires a state and so is not anarchic; not that such a state could last long as complete economic breakdown would quickly ensue). All that libertarian anarchy requires is that the state be rolled back until there is no state left.

Should libertarian anarchists abandon the word ‘anarchy’ because of the pejorative confusions? No: they really are anarchists and will eventually be revealed as such if they try to pretend otherwise. And the confusions are even a useful and interesting excuse to explain libertarian anarchy. Is it not obvious that libertarian anarchists have no influence at all in the real world? No: that the world is not yet fully anarchic anywhere does not show that libertarian anarchists are without good influence any more than that the world is not ever going to be Marxian socialist anywhere shows that Marxists have no bad influence. And ‘extremists’ can cause the perceived middle ground to move—indefinitely far, with time.

More-or-less anarchist societies have most famously included, for hundreds of years, ancient Iceland and Ireland. States eventually grew in these by combinations of error and conquest rather than any inherent instability or weakness with anarchy. Somalia is a recent, if more contentious and less impressive, example: better off than when it had a functioning government and even still improving relative to other African countries under state rule. But that Somalia has a continuing political ‘civil war’ means that it is far from fully anarchist. As there has never been a world government, anarchy has always existed, and without war in most places, among all the states of the world. Therefore, anarchy is extremely robust and far from inevitably bellicose even while these dangerous criminal organizations (states) do exist. Anarchy might also be said to exist in every area of life in which the state does not intervene: in the interstices of state commands. So what of anarchic law?

Anarchic Law

Any system of enforceable rules would seem to be a kind of ‘law’ as the word is normally used. It is not necessary that these rules be just, otherwise we would have to accept the implausible view that an ‘unjust law’ is a contradiction in terms. So it would be perverse to deny that state law is a form of law. However, 1) the state did not originate law, 2) the state does not maintain law, and 3) the state’s fundamental purpose for its law is not the protection of persons and their property from aggressive invasion. I shall elaborate a little on these three points.

1) Like language, money, and markets, law originates and evolves anarchically to form a spontaneous order. All societies require enforceable rules and they will find ways to implement these, both in stateless primitive societies and in stateless advanced ones; such as historical Ireland and Iceland. The state has rarely, if ever, imposed law on previously lawless societies. It has, rather, politicized any existing legal system for its own purposes. 2) The state has merely to depoliticise the legal system for a society to revert to full anarchic law. Even as it is, much law in the form of enforceable arbitrations already exists outside the state. 3) The anarchic function of law as a service is specifically to protect persons and their property from aggression. The purpose of state law is specifically to subvert this protective purpose in order to allow the state to proactively impose in the interests of itself and its supporters. A ‘state’ that merely protected persons and their property would not be a state. It would be a private protection agency: a business like any other.

Thus we see that accepting state law means accepting the command theory of law, sometimes known as the ‘big stick’ theory: you will do what I say because I have a big stick and will hit you if you don’t. So it’s easy to see why many libertarians view state legislation as a perversion of real law, just as state currency is a perversion of real money.

Criticisms of Anarchic Law

The main criticisms of the idea that there could be efficient private law include the following three: 1) the rich would simply buy the rules that suited them to oppress the rest of the population, and thereby become a state; 2) private protection agencies would use aggressive force on behalf of their clients, or simply compete in the market, until only one is dominant, which then becomes a state; or 3) all private protection agencies must agree to a common higher agency to adjudicate disputes, which higher agency then becomes a state.

Outlines of answers to these criticisms include the following three points. 1) The rich collectively do not have enough money to outbid the rest of the population. Further, given a libertarian culture, any rogue agency would simply be regarded as criminal and dealt with as such by all the other agencies. 2) Aggressive force is much too expensive and risky for a business to engage in. And there is no more reason to think that competition will result in a monopoly protection agency than that it would result in a monopoly bank. Even if it were to do so, an agency that genuinely protected persons and their property for a voluntary payment would not itself be a state any more than any other monopoly business would be. 3) In order to avoid costly conflict, it is entirely likely that competing agencies would agree on an agency to adjudicate disputes. However, these only need to be bilateral agreements, for the most part, and so there can be any number of such agencies. And, again, even in the unlikely event that a single one would be chosen by all, it would not itself be a state or engage in any aspect of aggression.

Strategy Conclusion

I conclude, then, that it is not good long-term libertarian propaganda to argue for various alternative systems of politics, or incremental political changes, on the basis that they are somewhat better than what we have now and they are more easily achievable than radical libertarianism. For such a strategy can only waste endless time in endless compromise, while failing to explain properly the libertarian alternative and thereby making converts. It is far better to argue immediately and always for the radical libertarian option.


Jan is the author of Escape from Leviathan and Arguments for Liberty.

Democracies, Republics, and Other Unnecessary Evils

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson

August’s drinks event at the Rose and Crown co-incides with the 236th anniversary of the signing of US Declaration of Independence on August 2nd 1776. This lesser known date trailed its publication by almost a month but was a key ritualistic step in the creation of the world’s first nation founded upon an idea. The Republic born on that day is a pre-eminent example of the value of liberty, and the dangers it suffers. Two hundred years later and that nation is on it’s last legs, it’s core ideas have been dismissed and disregarded by misinformed mobs so many times that only an intellectual revolution will save it.

Some have argued that democracy can be tweaked, and the franchise restricted in order to preserve the balance of incentives in favour of liberty. Jan Clifford Lester, a scholar and author with a 30 year record of defending and promoting liberty, has another solution and will join us at the Rose and Crown to share part of his research for his forthcoming Dictionary of Anti-Politics in which this solution is to be found.

The event will begin with drinks at 7pm and the talk beginning shortly after 8. on August 2nd.

You want the Rose and Crown, Colombo Street, Southwark. A map and options to RSVP can be found on