Political Ignorance

Anthony Downs, RIP

One of the greatest political economists of the 20th century passed away earlier this month.

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Anthony Downs.

 

I recently learned that Anthony Downs, one of the greatest political economists of the twentieth century,  passed away on October 2. Like my George Mason University colleague Tyler Cowen, I do not understand why this sad news has attracted so little attention. The only obituary I have been able to find is this one posted by the funeral home that is handling Downs' funeral arrangements. Perhaps his passing has been ignored by scholars and political commentators because there is so much else going on in the news. Whatever the reason, Downs deserved better. He was one of the greatest political economists of the 20th century and helped lay the foundations for public choice theory, and much of the modern economic study of voting and democracy.

Downs' most influential work was his 1957 book, An Economic Theory of Democracy, which was a pathbreaking application of economic theory to the study of democratic political systems. In that work, Downs developed the theory of "rational ignorance" to explain why most voters know so little about politics and public policy. The reason for their ignorance, Downs suggested, was not that voters are stupid, but that they have little incentive to devote more than minimal time and effort to seeking out political information, so long as the odds of an individual vote changing the outcome are infinitesimally small (as is true in all but the very smallest elections).

Rational ignorance has been a central component of analyses of voter knowledge every since then, not only by economists, but also by political scientists, philosophers, legal scholars, and others. My own book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, is just one of many later works that owes a great debt to Downs. The same is true, also, of my work on "voting with your feet," such as Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.

Economic Theory of Democracy also includes several other major innovations, including insightful discussion of information shortcuts as a tool for overcoming voter ignorance, crucial advances in the application of the median voter theorem to analyses of electoral competition, and much else. In a single book published before he turned 27, Downs achieved far more than most scholars accomplish in a lifetime.

And he didn't stop there. In later years, Downs turned his attention to housing and urban policy, and published influential analyses of bureaucracy, rent control, housing shortages, and traffic congestion. On the latter issue, Downs was a leading advocate of peak-hour congestion pricing, which (in part thanks to him) most experts now recognize as the most efficient solution to the problem of traffic jams.

For many years, Downs was affiliated with the Brookings Institution, the prominent liberal Washington, DC, think tank. That position  enabled him to combine economic theory with policy-relevant research.

Downs was considerably to the left of me, and I differed with him on some of the implications of rational ignorance. Among other things, I think he was overly optimistic about the extent to which the negative effects of ignorance could be forestalled by information shortcuts of various kinds. I was more in line with many of his policy ideas on housing and transportation.

But, agree or disagree, there is no doubt Downs was one of the greatest contributors to our understanding of the political economy of democracy, and also a major scholar of housing and transportation policy. He will be greatly missed.

In closing, I would like to extend condolences to any of Anthony Downs' family, friends, and colleagues who might read this.

 

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    1. The Public Choice Theory is where elected officials choose to greatly enrich themselves at the expense of the public.

  1. This "rational ignorance" sure sounds plausible and probably to me: the chances are remote that any election will be decided by a single vote, especially for federal or state elections, so voters are rationally ignorant.

    But I have never seen any mention of a different reason for rational ignorance: that the candidates suck, and even if an election in which you voted was decided by a single vote, you still wouldn't get what you wanted. You might like 27% of Alice's platform and 23% of Bob's platform, so why would you actually really care enough about who wins?

    1. If you know that you like 27% of Alice’s platform and 23% of Bob’s platform then your decision to vote is not b/c of rational ignorance.

      I've seen many mentions of rational ignorance in the past so it is indeed a bit odd that the inventor of the idea has only the funeral home's notice of his death, on 10/2, on line. His Wikipedia article has been updated, however.

      1. Of course my decision to vote is not from rational ignorance, and I miswrote that. But my decision to not vote is based on something similar, and I have never seen any discussion of that.

        1. The phrase "rational ignorance" refers to a rational decision to not bother to inform yourself in order to make a decision of insignificant effect on you. A decision to not bother to vote is of a piece with that, I suppose.

    2. This “rational ignorance” sure sounds plausible and probably to me: the chances are remote that any election will be decided by a single vote, especially for federal or state elections, so voters are rationally ignorant.

      I don't get why someone clearly intelligent and educated like Prof. Somin would give any credence to this idea that whether an election is decided by a single vote has any meaning whatsoever. It is absurd to ever bother thinking about such scenarios. If the candidate I voted for wins by one vote, say 1,000,001 to 1,000,000 for his opponent, does it make any sense for me to think that my vote was the deciding factor? What about the other 1,000,000 people that voted for him? Should we all think that our single votes decided the election? Conversely, if he wins 1,000,002 votes to 1,000,000, should all 1,000,002 of us think that our votes weren't important since one vote less would still have led to him winning?

      Elections are decided once all of the votes are counted. And secret ballots ensure that know one can know whether the outcome will come down to a single vote until after all votes are cast and counted, so each voter has the incentive to cast their vote, just in case it is needed. It is like the scene in some westerns where dozens of people in the town have set up a line passing buckets of water from the well to where someone's house is burning. Should only the person at the end throwing the water on the fire think that they are important?

      Perhaps it's an issue of how libertarians think. If any appeal to the need for collective action is a danger to individual freedom, then the inherent collective nature of making decisions in democratic fashion may seem undesirable. Perhaps that leads to motivated reasoning to think that even trying to gather a majority coalition of voters to implement government policy is itself a threat to their ideology of "being left alone" by government in every way.

      If they tell people that their vote is extremely unlikely to matter, then maybe they won't vote and leave decisions to the elite few that will bother to vote. Or, they will manipulate how district lines are drawn to make elections lack competitiveness, make sure that big money donors can essentially hold the real primary where viable candidates are set before anyone ever casts a vote, and otherwise appeal to voters' emotions since they are being told that it isn't rational to bother understanding policy issues based on evidence and logic anyway.

      1. I can't tell what that wall of text is supposed to mean, but the analogy to a bucket line is absurd and inappropriate. E.g., if someone is missing from a bucket line the water will have to be run across the gap and that may affect whether the fire will be contained. But if I don't vote it never affects the result, in my experience.

        1. But if I don’t vote it never affects the result, in my experience.

          It would always affect the result. It would be one less vote for each candidate or proposition that you otherwise would have voted for. You've stepped out of the bucket line, but are assuming that you aren't making enough of a contribution to be missed. You are assuming that there are enough people in the line that they will just all adjust their spacing to eliminate that gap, and they will still be able to pass the buckets along at the same pace.

          Again, this is something that you can't know until all of the other voters have also made their choices. If enough voters with the same preferences as you make the same choice not to vote, different candidates will win. You are thinking only of your individual choice and not the cumulative effect of every voters' choice.

          This whole argument is falsified by the amount of effort put out by each side to get their supporters to go and vote. They wouldn't do that if turnout didn't matter.

          1. I do not greatly mind if antisocial, disaffected, tunnel-visioned, cranky people do not vote. They tend to have strange, unattractive perspectives.

            1. especially since those same people control massive amounts of mail-in ballots.

          2. Not voting is like yelling at the baseball manager at home on TV to change pitchers.

            Voting is like going to the stadium and yelling at the manager to change pitchers.

            Both equally effective. No vote affects the result.

      2. Voter ignorance is a tragedy of the commons situation. There is an arguably better position for society if everyone is more informed about the choices in an election, but there is no plausible effect if one person defects and votes ignorantly. There's also no plausible effect if one person informs themself when almost everyone votes ignorantly. So there's no plausible benefit for anyone to bother based on the expected impact of their vote.

        The hypothesis is not an effect of libertarian thinking; Downs was not notably libertarian.

        From Wikipedia, Downs had at least one other notable contribution:

        In 1962, Downs published his Down's Law of Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion. This Law states that on urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity. Therefore, expanding the expressway network does not help against traffic jams.

        1. "There is an arguably better position for society if everyone is more informed about the choices in an election"

          The complexity of the modern state effectively makes this impossible.

          1. That's one of the arguments for representative rather than direct democracy. Like I said, it's arguable. Or would you say that the complexity of the modern state has made democracy entirely obsolete?

            1. Just let Skynet take over, already.

      3. "If you don't really care about the issues, stay home. Don't pollute the decision making process of those who do care."

        This is not an invalid position.

        Three decades ago, the BBC had a live chess game of a grandmaster vs. the viewers, who could call in for the next move.

        Would the home viewers act like a supercomputer arriving at the best solution? Or would it be, well...

        Exactly like it turned out to be. Le Stupid wins the decision.

        Now throw in motivated hacks blowing smoke and mirrors and "You are a good person for voting for me!" into the mix.

        "Get out the vote" is a feel good meme, but one not motivated by that, but rather by political desires to win by slogan and other superficial BS.

        1. “If you don’t really care about the issues, stay home. Don’t pollute the decision making process of those who do care.”

          This is not an invalid position.

          How much someone "cares" about political issues and government policy is not a good proxy for making high quality decisions based on reason and evidence. If anything, there is some degree of negative correlation between those things in most people. Leaving voting choices to those that "care" the most would likely just further polarize the electorate into camps that completely distrust each other.

          I think that we want more people in the middle voting that don't care so much about politics as to be blinded by their cognitive biases. If politicians have to actually persuade them, then there is a chance that paralyzing and irrational partisanship can be overcome.

      4. so each voter has the incentive to cast their vote, just in case it is needed.

        Um, as the phrase implies, rational ignorance is not about the decision whether to vote. It's about the decision whether (and/or how much) to inform oneself before voting.

        1. Um, as the phrase implies, rational ignorance is not about the decision whether to vote. It’s about the decision whether (and/or how much) to inform oneself before voting.

          Okay, sure. I'll accept that critique. But it doesn't change my dispute. I am taking issue with the premise that they use to arrive at that conclusion, rather than the conclusion itself. Somin summarizes his and Downs' argument for rational ignorance as being based on the statistical idea that "the odds of an individual vote changing the outcome are infinitesimally small (as is true in all but the very smallest elections)." I am saying that this is a bad way to look at elections in the first place. With such a faulty premise, any conclusion drawn from it is highly suspect.

          Gandydancer and Bob from Ohio show that my looking at the decision on whether to vote at all is not far from the thought processes of at least some people reading Somin's article. Considering whether to vote or whether to spend time becoming well informed before voting shouldn't be based on this preposterous appeal to the odds of an election coming down to a 1 vote margin. Anyone that walked into a voting booth hoping that their one vote would determine the outcome by itself is missing the whole point of democracy anyway.

  2. Interestingly, I knew the title of the book but not its author. I ought to give it a read. But from what I have read of it, the book demonstrates the fact that government ought have no involvement in economic issues to the greatest extent possible. If government actions are directed by an uninformed of ill informed electorate then intervention by the government will result in negative consequences. History has proven this to be true.

  3. "My own book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, ... owes a great debt to Downs. The same is true, also, of my work on "voting with your feet,"

    So Downs is responsible for the dozens and dozens of tedious posts by Somin on these subjects.

    May God have mercy on his soul.

  4. "Rational Ignorance" = "I could watch some guy ranting and raving on Internet about the latest outrage, and end up less informed than I was before, or I could watch the Lakers beat the Sixers, woo-hoo!"

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