Get Out the (Ignorant) Vote

reason contributor David Harsanyi at the Denver Post takes a look at why it might not lead to optimal results encouraging everyone to vote...

[T]he good folks at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently measured the political acumen of more than 3,000 adults and found that we're equally uninformed and both ridiculously ill-equipped to vote.

Participants in this ruthlessly useless poll were asked three relatively simple questions: 1. Name the controlling party of the U.S. House of Representatives. 2. Name the U.S. secretary of state. 3. Name Great Britain's prime minister.

If you answered "the defendants," "that neocon chick" and "J. Gordon Brown" you're a member of an elite 18 percent of Americans who hit it on the nose.

......it is interesting to note that viewers of Fox News' partisan slugfest, Hannity & Colmes, scored only 2 percent below those smarty pants who listen to NPR.

In fact, larger numbers of habitual listeners of Rush Limbaugh than erudite readers of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair were able to explain who is in charge of Congress.

But Harsanyi also celebrates what basic political ignorance might say about Americans as a people--that is, as real human beings, not "civic participants."

...though it's difficult for some choice citizens to believe, not everyone is captivated by government, nor do they stake their existence on its success. This attitude doesn't make them apathetic; it makes them normal.

Last year Bryan Caplan analyzed the economic biases of voters, who choose to be not only rationally ignorant, but rationally irrational, when it comes to politics and economics in this October 2007 reason cover story.

I stand up for non-voting.

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  • emac||

    Let's face it, if you vote, you really have no right to complain. It only encourages the bastards. Discuss!!....

  • ||

    And unless the electoral contest isn't within one vote, your vote doesn't matter.

  • stuartl||

    In fact, larger numbers of habitual listeners of Rush Limbaugh than erudite readers of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair were able to explain who is in charge of Congress.

    Only Pauline Kael (if she were alive) would be surprised by this.

  • ||

    So here we are talking to fellow believers in free markets about not voting. Perfect, so if friends of liberty stop voting the statists will just cancel the elections? Don't be silly.

    This is horrible. Please preach "not voting" to the People Magazine crowd, not the Reason Free Minds Free Markets crowd.

  • Lefiti||

    Harsanyi is an elitist free-market fundamentalist. But to his credit, he demounced Ron Paul once he learned of Paul's blatantly racist newslettters. Beyond that, who gives a fuck what he thinks?

  • ||

    'the defendants'?

    I don't get it.

  • ||

    Gee, I wonder which study will never see the light of day at the The New Yorker or Vanity Fair?

    Hilarious, in a way. The Dems bitch and bitch about the war, yet Congress gives the President every penny he ever asked for to fund it. No wonder the rank and file think they're in the minority.

  • Elemenope||

    And unless the electoral contest isn't within one vote, your vote doesn't matter.

    One primary local race in Rhode Island actually had a fucking tie this year.

    Another one came within single digit votes.

    And the vote totals were not microscopic.

    Someone is kicking themselves for not voting...

  • ||

    Elemen,


    It does happen.

  • ||

    I'm a big proponent of the idea that the only people who have a right to complain are the people who don't vote, but I question just how important it is for voters to know who the Prime Minister of Great Britain is.

    Why does it matter who the Prime Minister of Great Britain is?

  • ||

    Lefiti, I hate feeding trolls, but I have to ask.

    It seems like every comment you make accuses someone of being a myopic market fundamentalist. Is there anyone out there who does not fit that description? Do you troll the threads of those right-wingnuts at Adbusters and the free market fascists at Mother Jones? Is anyone but you a radical laissez faire jihadist?

    In fact, since the you of the past is not fourth-dimensionally identical to the you who is barely comprehending this sentence, does that make past-Lefiti and future-Lefiti capitalist demagogues as well? If so, by all means come back on and denounce yourself as a freedom-loving fascist.

  • Elemenope||

    In fact, since the you of the past is not fourth-dimensionally identical to the you who is barely comprehending this sentence, does that make past-Lefiti and future-Lefiti capitalist demagogues as well? If so, by all means come back on and denounce yourself as a freedom-loving fascist.

    Pwned by a perdurantist.

    I love this blog sometimes.

  • Franklin Harris||

    Lefiti, I hate feeding trolls,...



    Please stop there.

  • Anthony||

    I think it should be the opposite. Once you voted, you should be able to complain if the politician you voted for doesn't do his job. Or if your guy doesn't get picked, you can complain about the winner's politics.
    A non-voter can't complain if the government he didn't care about screws up.

  • ||

    If people generally are too ignorant to cast informed votes, then what's the argument for democracy with universal suffrage?

  • Elemenope||

    If people generally are too ignorant to cast informed votes, then what's the argument for democracy with universal suffrage?

    Countries that have it seem on average no more or less likely to implode than those that don't? Thus the "the stupids will kill us all" meme is silly.

    Beyond that, once everyone participates, you wouldn't have stupid voting registration shenanigans.

  • emac||

    If people generally are too ignorant to cast informed votes, then what's the argument for democracy with universal suffrage?

    Exactly! Now we're getting somewhere!

    I've always found it interesting that the same citizens whom the government deems too stupid or irresponsible to make their own health care choices, have guns, use drugs, save for their own retirement, and generally make any substantive decisions for themselves and their own lives, are suddenly smart enough come election day to elect the best and wisest politicians to run their lives for them.

    This pretty much blows the idea of electoral democracy out of the water for me. Especially how it is practiced in the US, which is only the illusion of democracy as the agenda of big banks, the military-industrial complex, foreign lobbies - and all the other usual suspects - is always carried out by our one-party system, no matter which Republicrat actually wins the election.

  • memphisto||

    "...though it's difficult for some choice citizens to believe, not everyone is captivated by government, nor do they stake their existence on its success."

    Couldn't help but remember Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land- You can ignore politics but don't expect it to ignore you.

    "Why does it matter who the Prime Minister of Great Britain is?"

    It doesn't if you think ignorance is good. And if you don't vote you might as well not complain because you didn't even care enough to participate. How about: if you aren't informed and you don't vote- STFU.

  • Elemenope||

    Voting is not based on the principle of intellect, never has been. In many of the societies where voting was originally implemented, the voting population was mostly illiterate if not educated at all.

    It is based on the principle of self-interest.

    And I've heard here *an interminable number of times* how people (even the stupid ones) are the best judges of their own interests, and even if they aren't we must pretend so because that's how we respect their human freedom, to assume otherwise is hubris, blah blah blah, etc..

    So, were all of you voting poo-poohers full of shit then or full of it now?

  • Brian Doherty||

    To unfairly sum up Caplan's excellent book THE MYTH OF THE RATIONAL VOTER, in which he lays out the case for "rational irrationality" in voting behavior, in a couple of sentences, Elemenope, we generally have both the local knowledge and the economic incentives to make intelligent decisions about our own lives, or at least we have as much as anyone possibly can to make such decisions; we have neither when it comes to making intelligent decisions about politics in an electoral context. This stuff has been hashed over quite a bit here at reason.com in the past year or so...

  • economist||

    LMNOP,
    There's a difference between claiming that people will generally act rationally in conducting their private affairs (a tenuous claim, in some cases, I'll admit) and claiming that they will be informed enough to essentially determine government policy. In the interests of fairness, I'll admit that I probably shouldnt't vote. I don't actually know enough of each candidate's policy prescriptions and personal qualifications to truly make an informed decision. To do so would require months, if not years, of intensive study of the topic. However, I do know (usually) what the problem is if the line breaks down at work, what allowances I should make for late shipments, etc. I know how much I should budget for my various needs and desires this fiscal year. I therefore consider myself perfectly competent to manage my private affairs but woefully underequipped to make a competent decision about the workings of government. All I really have to go on are the general philosophies of the two candidates, but since both are equally disagreeable to me, that is no guide for this election.

  • economist||

    Dammit! I hate it when I accidentally post something that says the same thing as the previous post. In my defense, when I started writing my post, Brian hadn't posted yet.

  • economist||

    To sum up: I voted early for Barr, because even though he's probably a lying opportunist, he also hasn't a chance in hell of winning.

  • sage||

    I think everyone should vote. It can be fun, if you do it right Here's my strategy.

    In the 2004 election my ballot was challenged (probably because of all the write-ins). I had to send in a copy of my ID and stuff. I expect that again this year.

  • Elemenope||

    Doherty, economist --

    According to that rather august standard, there is barely anyone who could vote. Nobody is conversant on *all* governable matters, even in a minimal state.

    Besides, people aren't really choosing palettes of issues, they are choosing pastiches of personality. Very few people actually know where the candidates stand on every issue, and most people (as has been talked about a lot around here) do not believe that a politician will do what he or she says they would do if elected anyway. I think that's always been true, but it's become more obvious lately.

    If that's the case, then really the contest is about whether the voter identifies with the candidate, trusts their temperament, their social acumen (so that they will not be an embarrassment) is confident in their ability to gather and process large amounts of information (though I doubt most think about it in such clinical terms), and can handle stressful situations and adverse climates well.

    Even very stupid people are often decent judges of character, and in any case the information necessary to make such judgments we are readily and repeatedly deluged with.

  • Paul||

    Re: Civic participants

    ...though it's difficult for some choice citizens to believe, not everyone is captivated by government, nor do they stake their existence on its success. This attitude doesn't make them apathetic; it makes them normal.



    The entire reporting staff of NPR is stunned.

  • Paul||

    And if you don't vote you might as well not complain because you didn't even care enough to participate. How about: if you aren't informed and you don't vote- STFU.

    The more I cared, the less I wanted to vote. With the horrid Campaign Finance reform laws, I haven't voted in a number of recent elections. If they ever bring in public financing of elections across the board, I'll never vote again. Ever.

    And it's actually like this. If you vote, you have no right to complain... because you're getting exactly what you asked for.

  • ||

    If you vote, you have no right to complain... because you're getting exactly what you asked for.

    If you vote for the winner...

    I have never ever voted for the winner of an office, and I vote in every election every time.

  • ||

    Elemenope,

    It isn't just that people's voting is so much more poorly informed than their decisions about their own respective lives. It's that people are choosing other people's rulers.

    The situation is frankly offensive on the face of it. The fact that they are making such decisions with so little competence only adds to the absurdity.

  • ||

    I was recently involved at work in a discussion about my "civic duty" to vote. I claimed that I had no such responsibilty, since I paid paid taxes and found every single candidate objectionable and therefore unworthy of my vote. Do I have a civic duty to write in the name of someone I feel is qualified to be president, even though he/she has a zero percent chance of winning? The response I got was, "If you want to be a part of this society, then yes, you do." My answer was, "I've never been given a choice BUT to be a part of this society." That's not a matter of the unfairness of being born -- there are no "government-free" zones where I can go to be free of SOME government's control. So no matter where I go, I am forced to be part of SOME society. Even if I live in the woods and interact with no one, I am still bound by the laws and obligations that government imposes on me by force. So, by insisting that I have an obligation to vote, you're telling me that I HAVE TO particpate in a game that I was never asked if I wanted to play, and WOULDN'T PLAY if I were given the choice. I think I can still have an opinion about the people in power, and voice it, even if I don't think any of the people in power deserves to be there. By not voting, I'm saying that NONE of those bastards is qualified. By voting, I'm legitimizing a power structure I don't agree with. You give me the "right" to vote, and then tell me that I have to exercise that right. So the right becomes an obligation. Does that mean that ALL rights are obligations? I have a right to free speech. Am I violating my civic duty every second I sit at my desk analyzing numbers and doing my job? Or is voting somehow a "special" right, which DOES confer an obligation on my part to exercise it?

    I'm really not trying to be argumentative. I actually plan to vote, because I do care about who our new ruler will be. But I'm only choosing to exercise my right -- I still don't think I have any obligation to do so.

  • ||

    How about this rule?: everyone (voters and nonvoters alike) has the right to complain.

    After all, fucking thing sucks!!!

  • BakedPenguin||

    What Dave2 said.

    I just don't understand non-voting (with the exception of purist anarchists). I do understand not voting for Democrats and Republicans, since they are crap almost by definition.

  • Some Guy||

    75 years from now, some ignorant guy in China will say "Why should I need to know who the President of the United States is?"

    Circle of life...

  • sage||

    What MikeP said at 2:07. Though I must admit I think I may have voted for Clinton in '96 - the only winning horse I voted for. What can I say, I was only 22.

  • VM||

    sage - (nice blog, btw), who else was there in 96?

  • ||

    As far as I'm concerned, when I don't vote, it's the same as wasting a chunk of my day writing "none of the above" a bunch of times on a ballot. Only easier.

    The old, "Don't Vote: it only encourages them" bumper sticker comes to mind.

  • dhex||

    I was recently involved at work in a discussion about my "civic duty" to vote.

    i got that lecture recently as well. punchline: gal in question then asked me when the whole bailout thing started that since her student loans were held by wamu if that meant her student loans were invalidated.

    jimny christmas.

  • sage||

    I can't remember, Moose. I'm sure I had other stuff to do, so I just voted and ran out of the booth.

    I should have kept running.

  • VM||

    I have an idea, then. We could have a contest to see how far that one gal dhex mentions could get crammed up each candidate's colon. the winner would be, well, the win would be listening to her describe the experience.

    sage, that's sage advice. "keep running". BTW: didja know that it was Sulu who captured Mr. Steven Crane?

  • ||

    Woody Allen joke:
    one old lady, "the food here is sooo bad."
    other old lady, "yeah, and the portions are sooo small."

  • ed||

    we're equally uninformed and both ridiculously ill-equipped to vote...

    ...and serve on a jury. Let's keep it our little secret, shall we, lest the whole charade of representative government collapses like an ACORN fundraiser.

  • fresno dan||

    "Nate"
    Right on!!!

  • highnumber||

    ...to his credit, he demounced Ron Paul once he learned of Paul's blatantly racist newslettters. Beyond that, who gives a fuck what he thinks?

    Yes. Who cares what someone else has to say except when they are agreeing with me?

  • VM||

    um, what high#? I wasn't listening...

  • highnumber||

    Neener.

  • VM||

    huh? oh, sorry. I was looking at the lake. my my. it sure is lovely.

  • LarryA||

    I've always found it interesting that the same citizens whom the government deems too stupid or irresponsible to make their own health care choices, have guns, use drugs, save for their own retirement, and generally make any substantive decisions for themselves and their own lives, are suddenly smart enough come election day to elect the best and wisest politicians to run their lives for them.

    It's a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    If those who run the government think people are too stupid to run their own lives, and the people agree, government will step in with rules and laws and regulations and taxes and fees and fines and supports and subsidies and so forth to make the people's choices for them. The people then have no responsibility, and therefore no incentive to learn how to run their own lives. The problem comes full circle about the third generation. When the people are no longer competent to run their own lives there's no one competent to run the government.

    Payback's a bitch.

    And I've heard here *an interminable number of times* how people (even the stupid ones) are the best judges of their own interests,

    They are, for two reasons:
    1. There is simply no way any government much larger than a family can know what is in the individual best interest of each person. The idea that either Obama or McCain has a handle on my individual best interest, or yours, is fantasy. At the very best national politicians, or even the mayor and city council of my town of 25,000 can deal in some sort of average wants and needs based on their philosophy, not mine or yours. Therefore however stupid we are, you and I know better than government what our own individual interests are.
    2. If you or I are stupid enough to screw up, we suffer. Maybe our screwup affects our family, or a few other people. If When Congress screws up, 305,442,051 of us get the shaft.

    There's a difference between claiming that people will generally act rationally in conducting their private affairs (a tenuous claim, in some cases, I'll admit) and claiming that they will be informed enough to essentially determine government policy.

    But I don't have to know about the wide range of government policy. Rationally I should vote for the candidate most likely to serve my individual self-interest. If we all do that, we all get the best result. Add that to the fact that I have basically three choices for president, Obama, McCain, or none of the above, and the process becomes simple. My primary issue is gun rights. McCain is far less likely to pass anti-gun legislation. Problem solved.

  • TallDave||

    In fact, larger numbers of habitual listeners of Rush Limbaugh than erudite readers of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair were able to explain who is in charge of Congress.

    Why would this surprise anyone? Socialism is the art of telling people why they should be allowed to steal their neighbors' money. The better informed they are, the harder this is to do.

  • ||

    Yeah, I'm still in the let's not help 'em build the gallows they're gonna hang us with camp, but I will admit that voting makes more sense when you're dealing with an incumbent.

    I'm sure I've said it here ten times, but the good thing about democracy isn't that we get the leaders we want--it's that we get to vote out the leaders we don't want.

    Nothing says protest vote like being registered LP and voting for the major party candidate running against the incumbent. When there's no incumbent, like now, I'd consider voting if there were a candidate who were against some big libertarian sin of the day...

    So last Presidential election, I was lookin' for a major party candidate who was against the war--had to go none of the above. This time around, I guess I was lookin' for one of the two major candidates to come out against the bailout. So in this election, just like the last one, I guess I'll be stuck with none of the above again. And nothing says "none of the above" like being registered LP and not voting.

    Why don't I just vote for the LP candidate? I have in the past, although I think I regret it. I find the suggestion that we're gonna seize the reigns of power and shove libertarian polices down everybody's throats as silly as the next guy...

    You guys do find that silly, right?

    ...I just find the whole premise a little off. If there is a definition of a real libertarian, I suspect it may have something to do with not thinking that politics and elections are the answer to our problems.

    Someday, maybe, psychologists will treat being preoccupied with political matters as the disorder it is. And fanning the flames of that fascination, a fascination with politics, it just seems counterproductive to me. If what I'm trying to do is persuade people that politics and elections aren't the answer...

  • ||

    If what I'm trying to do is persuade people that politicians and elections aren't the answer...

    ...then why would I also try to persuade them to go out and vote for my candidate?

  • ||

    If 52 million voters wanted to undo the New Deal and legalize meth, there is a 0.00% chance this post ever appears on Reason.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    why it might not lead to optimal results encouraging everyone to vote...

    The only people I've ever heard advocate everyone voting is Democrats. Because they're pretty sure they'll come out on top.

    Democracy sucks.

    So does every other form of government. But democracy sucks.

    I vote "none of the above".

  • economist||

    I'll gladly trade my vote for a robot that can go into battle and kill my enemies for me.

  • economist||

    I rarely vote. When I do vote the victory rate is about 50-50. This also includes the state and local elections/referenda that I vote in.

  • ||

    18% know the PM of Britain? That's pretty good, higher than I would have guessed.

    Not that it matters.

  • Kolohe||

    ll gladly trade my vote for a robot that can go into battle and kill my enemies for me.

    Really? Crushing one's enemies is one of the 3 best things in life. I can't imagine that doing it by proxy would be nearly as satisfying. Although I suppose it does free up more time to hear the lamentation of their women.

  • ||

    I will gladly trade my vote on Tuesday for a cheeseburger today.

  • ||

    kolohe, some guys are into lamentating women,. Me? not so much.

  • ||

    brotherben | October 18, 2008, 11:17pm | #
    kolohe, some guys are into lamentating women,. Me? not so much.


    Cromm likes it a lot I am told.

    But maybe one of the reasons Conan likes it so much, is that it pleases him that the women of others also lament. That way he knows he didn't get such a bad deal with his woman of the hour.

  • ||

    "18% know the PM of Britain? That's pretty good, higher than I would have guessed.

    Not that it matters."


    That's what I said!

    We haven't been a colony for a long time, people! So why are people ignorant relative to what they do or don't know about the politics of our former colonial masters?!

    And, indeed, not that it matters!

    I got this same beef from a Canadian acquaintance not long ago... Why is it that so few Americans know who the prime minister of Canada is? ...it's because it doesn't matter who the prime minister of Canada is--that's why!

  • economist||

    Kolohe,
    It's just that, deep down, I'm a bit of a wuss, and I'd rather have a robot fight for me than do it myself.

  • economist||

    And, of course, robots are hella cool.

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