Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rational ignorance

Since the election is coming up in two weeks or so, I feel like writing about the incentives that underlie the election process.

The basic idea of the democratic process is that voters want politicians to do good things (maximize the general interest) and politicians want votes. Therefore, we vote for the candidate who will maximize the general interest of our community. If you think this through, it assumes that politicians are rational, but voters are not.

Individuals will take the time to obtain information about a candidate (or anything else in the world) as long as the benefit from that information exceeds the cost to obtain it. The cost of learning about how policies will impact the general interest is often high. The cost of learning where a politician stands on a particular issue can be high. Some people really like politics, so the cost for them to learn about candidates is not a high because they have fun doing it. Most people aren’t like this. If the cost of learning about what the best policies are and where a candidate stands on that policy are high, it is rational for you to be ignorant. This is why most people like to drill down to one or two issues: John McCain wants to take away a woman’s right to choose, or Barrack Obama has very little experience.

Also, your vote is probably not going to sway the election (although it was close for a handful of voters when Bush “defeated” Gore in Florida), which makes your vote almost worthless. This is why there are a fair number of people who stay home on election day for the price of transportation to the polls. Given these constraints, it is not surprising that most people spend very little time learning about the candidates and the issues. This also explains the rise of political parties that people can identify with. Vote for your team.

You can even test this. Ask a random Howard County voter who their council person is. Ask them who their state senator is or state delegates are. Ask them who their federal level representatives are. Ask them to name a single third party candidate. Unless you are asking someone who has an above average interest in the slimy game of politics (as most readers of this blog probably do) you will not get correct answers. I once told an intelligent person who has lived in this County for 50+ years that I saw Jim Robey at Clyde’s and I hardly recognized him because he lost so much weight. “Who is Jim Robey?” was their reply. I also talked to fairly informed Columbia resident who thought that Ken Ulman stopped the construction of the Plaza Tower.

If I get some time this week, I’ll ramble about special interests, unions, religious groups, etc. and how the ideal transfer of wealth from a politician’s point of view is one that is obvious to those that benefit and virtually undetectable to the victims of the transfer.


PZGURU said...

I for one wish the whole notion of have party affiliations would be done away with. Too many voters simply vote for whoever has the same letter (R or D) affiliation as they do. There is little incentive to learn a candidate's positions, past and proposed, and it has totally deminished third party candidates who could actually be the best candidate.

FM - I enjoyed your post until you inserted that part about Gore being "defeated". Let's not revisit that. Those on Gore's side claim the election was stolen. IN fact, it was Gore that was trying to discount legitimate military ballots to tilt the numbers his way. It was Gore that was trying to steal the election.

With the all the crap about Acorn going on, I am very concerned that this election is going to end up in the courts also.

Freemarket said...

If it is any consolation to you, I think of Gore and Bush as equally moronic.

Here is something that is really interesting, speaking of this election winding up in the court: McCain was born in the canal region of Panama, and it is at best sketchy if that disqualifies him from being president, although I am sure the Republican party got a favorable legal opinion in it before they nominated him (you can even check that out on snopes).

Also, and this is even more sketchy, but there are "rumors" that Obama's mother actually had him in Kenya and flew to Hawaii to get his birth certificate a few days after he was born. That sounds like a bunch of crap to me, but wouldn't it be funny if it were true?

pzguru said...

I'm with you on the Bush/Gore statement.

The one thing I like the most about your posts is that you are one of the few bloggers who can legitimately claim to dish out criticism equally to R's and D's. I don't always necessarily agree with the criticism, but most of the time I can still understand your point of view.

I have heard about both of their citizenship status being in question. What if both of them got disqualified and then Hillary and Romney can step in and duke it out?

In all seriousness though, the whole notion of having voter fraud, which is nothing new, is to me the most serious crime against democracy. When I see people like the Ohio Secretary of State not following the laws and making up new policies, I cringe.

I don't even agree with early voting - at all. People can use absentee ballots if they can't vote on election day. And, the down side to early voting is what if something monumental happened in the last week of the campaigns? If you already voted, you can't change it. Not smart.

Anonymous said...

Freemarkets impression of Democracy - just stay home and don't vote, it doesn't count anyway! Wow and I thought I lived in the greatest nation in the world, one of the reasons why is my right to vote! Most voters do research candidates and issues and I think this particular post is just plan absurd, thank God Freemarket doesn't teach social studies in one of our Schools!

Freemarket said...

Actually, I never said to stay home and don’t vote. My attitude is that if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t bitch. But it is in the best interest of each individual voter not to waste their time learning about candidates or bothering to vote. If you think that if everyone did that then democracy would not work, you’d be right.

Looking at national figures shows that about half of the voting age public does not bother to vote. And as far as Howard County goes, I would be seriously surprised if most voters could even name their Councilperson.

And by the way, how did you know that I teach social studies in a public school? :-)