Rational Ignorance and the Tragedy of the Commons
Bill Quick

George Will: The price of political ignorance – The Washington Post

It was naughty of Winston Churchill to say, if he really did, that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Nevertheless, many voters’ paucity of information about politics and government, although arguably rational, raises awkward questions about concepts central to democratic theory, including consent, representation, public opinion, electoral mandates and officials’ accountability.

In “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter” (Stanford University Press), Ilya Somin of George Mason University law school argues that an individual’s ignorance of public affairs is rational because the likelihood of his or her vote being decisive in an election is vanishingly small. The small incentives to become informed include reducing one’s susceptibility to deceptions, misinformation and propaganda. And if remaining ignorant is rational individual behavior, it has likely destructive collective outcomes.

I like Ilya, but his hackneyed apologia for individual rational ignorance when it comes to politics is pretty easy to shoot down, and Will obligingly does so above.  You see, dead is dead, and dead doesn’t care whether it comes from an individual or a collective decision.

Nor does the dead individual care, either.  Dead comes only on an individual basis, whether the terminal stroke is delivered by a single fist, or a nuclear explosion.  What this means is that if you decide that it’s okay to remain an ignorant dumbass because your one single vote isn’t likely to decide anything, you may think you’ve offered a perfectly rational, unshakeable argument for doing so.  But your ignorant dumbassery is painfully exposed when  the collective decisions from which you have deliberately excluded yourself squashes the individual you like a bug.

It’s the same thing with the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons:  It may seem perfectly rational for the individual to misuse the common field for his own benefit – until that field is destroyed and he dies because of his suicidal fecklessness.

The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory by Garrett Hardin, according to which the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, act contrary to the group’s long-term best interests by depleting the common resource.

In fact, the problem of rational political ignorance is merely the political version of the economic problem of the Tragedy of the Commons.

America and liberty don’t need religion to survive and thrive.  They don’t need great leadership.  They don’t need passion.

But they do need intelligent, educated, rational participation in the actions of the body politic by the citizenry.

Without that, we end up with…well…Barack Obama.

And worse.

Bottom line: If your individual actions lead to your own destruction, it doesn’t matter whether the destructive outcome arrives on an individual or collective basis.  There is no way such suicidal actions can be rational as a general proposition.


This entry was posted in Rational Ignoramuses, Rationality, Suicidal Idiots by Bill Quick. Bookmark the permalink.
Bill Quick

About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.


Rational Ignorance and the Tragedy of the Commons — 1 Comment

  1. The commons is a construction of government. Without government, someone or some small group would fence off the commons, own it, protect it, and put it to productive use.

    But, the government takes the commons and fails to protect it, supposedly as a gift to the people. The people get the blame when the commons is ruined. This is a small price to pay for the next policy: The government will take everything not nailed down and keep it off limits “for the good of all”.

Return to main page →
At this post →