Political Ignorance: How what we don’t know can hurt us.

In brief:

The theory of Political Ignorance (along with Public Choice and Complexity Theory) charts the limits to how much we can hope to accomplish through large, centralized organizations like most modern governments. Because of the complexity of politics, much of what occurs in political systems is ‘irrational’ (see below). Complex political systems lead people to rely on oversimplified worldviews based on ideology. These ideologies stand in the way of social progress by dividing people into ‘parties’ or ‘camps’ and ignoring important aspects of the world. Transcending them with results-based projects and good social theory is the job of radical social entrepreneurs.

What is it?

One thread unifying all of these theories for radical social entrepreneurs is that human society is marvelously complex. Politics is no exception. But while people are not expected to understand sophisticated arguments from physics or biology to navigate the natural world, politics – especially democracy – demands that people make informed decisions in the social world.

As it turns out, evidence continues to mount that many people are surprisingly uninformed about the basic workings of government.

For instance, George W. Bush’s prescription-drug Medicare plan was the largest government program enacted in the last 40 years, yet surveys indicated that over 70% of the public did not know it even existed after its creation. A 2006 Zogby poll found that only 42% of Americans could even name the three branches of the Federal government. Other surveys show that people fail to understand basic differences between rival political parties (Conservatives vs. Liberals) and often confuse the policy positions of the two.

(See how you fare on a civic literacy quiz!)

This is not a simple indictment of people’s intelligence. The workings of a modern nation-state are complicated and beyond the understanding of any individual. Even experts in government and politics cannot be aware of the thousands of pages of new laws and the particular duties of every member of every cabinet and bureau.

Some scholars have tried to explain this by using the idea of “rational ignorance.” This sounds like a contradiction, but isn’t. For instance, you’re probably rather ignorant of the details of astrophysics or skyscraper-building (unless you’re a physicist or engineer of course). To go about your daily life, you don’t need this knowledge. Most people have little incentive to do the hard work necessary to master these disciplines, so it’s rational for them to remain ignorant.

An analogy can be drawn to modern democracy, although not without some controversy. In a large nation like America, an individual vote has a vanishingly small probability of affecting an election outcome. The numbers are so large that it matters little to the outcome whether any given individual casts their ballot. Therefore the value of voting, and especially of taking the time and effort to cast a well-informed vote, is also vanishingly small.

If your one vote won’t change the outcome, why bother voting in the first place? Certainly, why bother voting well? Voters therefore, are said to be ‘rationally ignorant.’

But there’s an easy counterargument to “rational ignorance.” People do vote, and in large numbers. Moreover, they believe that their individual vote matters and that casting it is an important civil duty. This has led other social scientists to argue against “rational ignorance” with an idea just as confusingly-named: “rational irrationality.”

The logic follows that of “rational ignorance” above, except that instead of remaining ignorant and not voting, people indulge their irrationality with their vote. Since their vote matters little in the overall political outcome, people cast votes to satisfy various emotions.

These could include the desire to be ‘part of something large than themselves,’ or to signal to their friends and neighbors that they are a member of a particular party or socially-conscious group. Instead of expressing ‘reasoned public opinion’ individual votes are being ‘consumed’ by voters to fulfill emotional needs.

But this explanation has still left many unsatisfied. However ‘irrational’ the probability of voting may seem, people are serious about their vote. Indeed, politics certainly doesn’t always seem like the electorate frivolously ‘consuming irrationality.’ People of rival ideologies fight mercilessly in politics, and people’s political views are often deeply personal.

We’ve discussed three major phenomena to describe the political process:
1) The ‘irrationality’ of voting and widespread voter ignorance.
2) The popularity of voting despite the ‘irrationality’ of it.
3) The seeming unawareness of the electorate of the ‘irrationality’ of voting. Voting is taken seriously.

Some argue that Political Ignorance can explain these three traits better than ‘rational irrationality’ or ‘rational ignorance.’

This brings us back to our first and most important point – the world is extremely complex. Even the most brilliant among us are largely ignorant of the workings of the world. Advancing our knowledge – whether scientific, practical, or social – is the great challenge we face.

People use various rules and social norms to structure their lives. Many of these – manners for instance – are cultural. People learn from those around them, and emulate behaviors which seem to work well or meet social approval.

Political ideologies also serve as a useful ‘rule’. For instance, ideologies simplify the world and help people make sense of complex politics. Ideologies offer (often deceptively) simple arguments for how politics works. The world becomes easier to understand, and an ideology becomes integrated into a person’s identity. This is an attractive way to deal with complexity.

Since the logic of these ideological arguments seems rigorous, a person’s ideology can seem irrefutably true to themselves. A person’s ideological identity is difficult to challenge. Those who disagree can easily be painted as evil, or as ‘conspirators’ in a malevolent rival group – rather than as people who are merely looking at different aspects of the same complex phenomenon. This argument suggests that we should see high levels of anger and emotional attacks on opponents from rival ideologies, as we do.

It’s worth noting that Political Ignorance is in part a critique of Public Choice theory. While Public Choice uses traditional economics to model voters, Senators, bureaucrats and everyone in-between as self-interested (and extremely rational!), Political Ignorance considers the ideology, culture, complicated motives, and, of course, ignorance of political actors. This does not mean that Public Choice does not offer anything to those trying to understand political life, but it does mean that other areas must also be considered.

What does Political Ignorance mean for radical social entrepreneurs?

We are all Politically Ignorant to some extent. Radical social entrepreneurs must be aware of the toxic effect of rigid mindsets. Constructive ideas may never even be entertained because they are seen as ‘tainted’ by another ideology.

But a good idea is a good idea, and entrepreneurs are well-situated to overcome these problems plaguing politics. A project either achieves its social goals or it doesn’t. Instead of arguing in theory, where ideologies reach irreconcilable differences, radical social entrepreneurs can put ideas into action.

Political Ignorance also suggests that structural changes in politics can help people become less ideological and spur social progress at the same time. Smaller, more decentralized polities operating in the Polycentric Law paradigm and through projects like Free Cities put radical social entrepreneurs on the frontlines of fighting Political Ignorance. More transparent systems can be combined with new initiatives for civic engagement. Smaller polities also mean votes and individual voices matter more. The increased power of Voice combines with the ultimate power of Exit to build responsible (and responsive!) governance.