Monday, 12 November 2012

Against Democracy: My quick intro to rational ignorance and rational irrationality

A few days ago I wrote up a quick intro to two important ideas from public choice theory for the benefit of a group of Facebook friends involved in such projects as thinkbynumbers.org and quantimodo.com. Public choice theory is relevant to such projects insofar as they are intended to eventually affect public policy, or to provide effective methods of rational truth-finding and decision-making.

I repost that same text here, sans some of the major typos:

A QUICK INTRO TO RATIONAL IGNORANCE AND RATIONAL IRRATIONALITY

1. This stuff pertains to public choice theory, which is defined by Wikipedia as: "the use of modern economic tools to study problems that traditionally are in the province of political science. From the perspective of political science, it is the subset of positive political theory that models voters, politicians, and bureaucrats as mainly self-interested."

2. An important point for much of the theory of public choice in democracies is the fact that the probability that any individual's vote will affect the outcome of the election is generally negligible. For example, in U.S. presidential elections, the probability that your vote will affect the election's outcome is comparable to that of winning the lottery seventy seven times in a row. This is because your vote only makes a difference if all the other votes happen to be exactly tied, so that your vote turns out to be the deciding vote - or perhaps if your vote happens to be the one leading to an exact tie!

3. RATIONAL IGNORANCE: According to Wikipedia, "The term was coined by Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy". Wiki sez: "Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide." Applied to democracy, voters are to be expected to be rationally ignorant about the issues they vote on. This is because, since their vote almost certainly won't change policy, they have nothing to gain from making an informed vote rather than an uninformed one. On the other hand, the cost of informing themselves is considerable. Some people enjoy informing themselves about such issues, but they are a small minority.

4. Empirically, voters really are very ignorant about politics and economics. They are least ignorant about the aspects of politics that are the most entertaining.

5. Donald Wittman, in The Myth of Democratic Failure, has defended democracy against many of the usual criticisms from public choice theorists. One argument he makes in the book is that, because of the miracle of aggregation, rational ignorance is not actually a problem: provided that people are merely ignorant and not systematically biased, their mistakes should cancel out. Also, if you assume that 5% of the electorate is well-informed on the relevant issues, you could argue that those 5% effectively decide the outcome of the election, whereas the votes of the other 95%, which are randomly distributed, cancel each other out.

6. Bryan Caplan, who credits Donald Wittman with "waking [him] from [his] dogmatic slumbers in political economy" (echoing Kant re: Hume), has compiled empirical evidence that voters are, in fact, systematically biased, thus concluding that Wittman's argument is valid but not sound. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan identifies four main widespread biases about economics: "Make-work bias", "Anti-foreign bias", "Pessimistic bias", "Anti-market bias".

7. The term RATIONAL IRRATIONALITY, coined by Bryan Caplan, sounds all kinds of oxymoronic, but the two occurrences of "rational" in the phrase refer to two different kinds of rationality:

a. Epistemic rationality: "forming beliefs in truth-conducive ways"

b. Instrumental rationality: "choosing effective means to attain one's goals, given one's beliefs"

8. So while the idea of rational ignorance is that it is *instrumentally* rational to be ignorant, the idea of rational irrationality is that it is *instrumentally* rational to be *epistemically* irrational.

9. The costs of overcoming ignorance are generally high because studying the relevant issues takes time and effort. The costs of overcoming epistemic irrationality are generally high whenever people simply *enjoy* being epistemically irrational. Bryan Caplan argues that people have "preferences over beliefs": there are beliefs that people just like to hold whether they are true or not, and giving them up would be emotionally costly to them - often extremely costly. So if the expected rewards from giving them up aren't high enough, they won't.

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