In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Rational Ignorance

Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of gaining and interpreting information outweighs the possible benefits derived from that knowledge. Anthony Downs named the concept in his 1957 book, An Economic Theory of Democracy, applying the idea to politics.

The goal for a well-informed voter in a democracy is clear: government that is sleeker, faster and more competent. These benefits are only realisable if a significantly large amount of the electorate pursue the same objective, as a small grouping of knowledgeable voters may be swamped and overruled by voters acting upon alternate methods, such as random choice, personal biases, voting by the candidate’s physical attractiveness and other simple heuristics. The benefits of political knowledge are individually miniscule and potentially dependent on wide uptake.

Is ministerial "brainwashing" to blame for public ignorance of DWP spending and fraud? (Photo: Independent)

Is ministerial “brainwashing” to blame for public ignorance of DWP spending and fraud? (Photo: Independent)

The cost of being well-informed is time consumption, and the other uses of that time that are foregone. Gaining political knowledge usually involves remaining updated with news and current events, reading manifestos, debating and analysing opinion pieces. Informed voters are conversed with general politics, and politics as enveloped, entwined and elevated with history, economics, sociology and culture. Politics becomes a hobby, and other hobbies may be more appealing, such as learning a language, dancing and socialising.

Rational ignorance helps explain why high numbers of voters do not know political details, such as their elected representative’s name, or the legislature’s largest party. A University of Essex paper noted that one week before the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system, 51% of those surveyed said “they only partially understood AV or did not understand it at all”. Whilst 77% of respondents to a 2010 Pew survey knew the deficit is larger now than in the 1990s, only 46% believed Republicans formed a majority in the House of Representatives, 38% could correctly name the Speaker of the House, and just 14% could estimate the current inflation rate.


A YouGov-TUC survey garnered much press attention, after demonstrating average respondents believed 41% of welfare payments went to unemployed people and the proportion of the Department for Work and Pensions fraudulently claimed was 27%, when the real figures were 3% and 0.7% respectively. Despite the Independent article’s headline booming that voters were “brainwashed” by “Tory welfare myths”, rational ignorance about the DWP budget’s minutiae is plausible. Voters may be aware of basic information, but details are elusive. Perturbation from perfect knowledge is not proof for the existence of ministerial demonism, which should be countered on its own demerits. A ComRes-ITV poll found that only 6% could properly identify that the national debt is increasing by about £600bn over the course of this parliament, given three options, with 31% saying they didn’t know.

The digital revolution now allows for quick searches of specific information, previously buried. Despite the erosion of costs in acquiring these fragments of knowledge, the heavier costs of analysis and debate persist. The Pew Research Centre found technological innovations have not broadly increased public familiarity of American politics. Given finite time and limitless lament of politics, rational ignorance will continue.

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