Rational ignorance

I consider myself to be rationally ignorant when it comes to politics and voting, which can lead to accusations of it being a “moral duty to vote”, “people died so that you could vote”, etc.

The rational voter has little incentive to gain more knowledge about politics because his or her vote is unlikely to affect the outcome. Since gaining more knowledge offers few benefits and substantial costs, the average citizen remains ignorant, though rationally so

This article on the Ethics of Voting is good. An excerpt:

Voting is not like choosing what to eat off a restaurant’s menu. If a person makes bad choices at a restaurant, at least only she bears the consequences … when voters make bad choices at the polls, everyone suffers. Irresponsible voting can harm innocent people.

Electoral decisions are imposed upon all … voters impose externalities upon others.

We would never say to everyone, “Who cares if you know anything about surgery or medicine? The important thing is that you make your cut.” Yet for some reason, we do say, “It doesn’t matter if you know much about politics. The important thing is to vote.”

Commonsense morality tells us to treat the two cases differently. Commonsense morality is wrong. I argue that citizens have no standing moral obligation to vote. Voting is just one of many ways one can pay a debt to society, serve other citizens … Participating in politics is nothing special, morally speaking. Citizens who are unwilling or unable to put in the hard work of becoming good voters should not vote at all. They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes


One Response to Rational ignorance

  1. I agree that just because obtaining the vote was a struggle isn’t a valid reason to declare everyone should vote.

    However, the idea that “bad” votes “pollute” the outcome can be challenged by the wisdom of crowds as proposed by James Surowiecki in a different context, if everyone votes according to their own beliefs and knowledge, then the outcome should be the optimal one and any “guessing” (if it’s random) will cancel out.

    The danger of letting only the people who are well informed vote is they may choose to vote in a way that suits them, rather than achieve the outcome that’s best for everyone.

    Of course, this leads you back to a situation where everyone needs to vote, I suppose, but with postal voting, it’s hardly a massive time commitment.

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