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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.