Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The dangers of overdoing rational ignorance

In "The logic of willful ignorance" (July 7), columnist David Sirota tries to explain widespread ignorance about our history, Constitution and current affairs. The grounds upon which he tries to justify "willful ignorance," however, are incorrect and, if widely believed, would make things worse.

Sirota argues that ignorance doesn't mean people are stupid. Rather, they have "logically concluded that the information no longer matters." This, he opines, is because "elections are bought and paid for by huge money, ... presidents of both parties ignore the basic tenets of the Constitution, ... the lifetime-appointed judiciary spends much of its time helping Big Business tilt the law against the population, and ... the major parties resemble each other on most policies."

Sirota concludes: "Many Americans so accurately perceive the fraud being perpetrated on them that they have decided to simply tune out."

But public ignorance can be explained on general principles, without relying on any of Sirota's dubious explanations.

At some point, the costs of seeking further knowledge may outweigh its benefits, and at this point, it becomes rational to stop seeking extra knowledge. It is not paradoxical to speak of a "principle of rational ignorance."

This principle has special applicability to politics. Each voter is one among thousands or millions, and can often be outvoted. As a consumer, this same person is one of two parties to every transaction, and because private transactions require mutual consent of both parties, the consumer actually has a veto over every transaction. Knowledge gained about matters subject to private decision -- what car to buy, whom to marry, which church to join, which doctor to go to -- is therefore worth more to the individual than political information costing equal time and effort to acquire. Although many people overdo "rational ignorance" about politics, it is easy to see why the quality of public opinion is not very high.

Sirota lambastes "huge money" but ignores evidence that elections are often won by the lower-spending candidate and that we have had no presidents named Rockefeller or Perot. He ignores the fact that candidates often raise more money precisely because they are expected to win. He cites no examples of presidents ignoring "basic tenets" of the Constitution.

Sirota's complaint about the parties resembling each other suggests that he doesn't understand the logic of competitive elections. Of course they do, precisely because both must appeal to voters whose views cluster around the middle of the road. When a party nominates people too far from the middle (examples: Goldwater, McGovern), they lose big.

When I was a student at Willamette University, a group of us met with Gov. Mark Hatfield. I still remember his comment when asked about the belief that politicians are all crooks: If people believe that, said Hatfield, the honest won't seek office and only crooks will do so. To the extent readers fall for Sirota's cynical analysis, which suggests we are fools if we don't tune out, it will render us even less able to vote intelligently in our own interests than we are now.

Paul F. deLespinasse, who lives in Corvallis, is professor emeritus of political science at Adrian College in Michigan. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics," which attempts to teach students how (not what!) to think about politics, is available online for free reading at www.deLespinasse.org . He can be reached via this same website.

This piece has appeared in the (Portland) Oregonian.

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