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The Revenge of Rational Ignorance

by Mytheos Holt, published

Only two days after the second pointless special election in California's recent history, and the results are not encouraging for California's political class. What's more, if most sources are to be believed, the turnout was apparently abysmal.

As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, "California voters showed little interest in Tuesday's special election, with most not bothering to cast ballots" - in fact, "roughly 4 million of California's 17.1 million registered voters" went to the polls, which is about 23% of the electorate. Lovely! All hail the new era of 20%+1 in California politics! Oh well, at least they voted intelligently - if by intelligently, one means "precisely the way anybody with a halfway decent knowledge of political history would have predicted the would vote."

Naturally, the election was not a complete failure - just as about one in five voters showed up for it, it's mathematically fitting that only one of the six propositions actually passed. That would be the Legislative Pay Freeze in Proposition 1F. However, the other five went down in flames by brutal margins of 60+ percent of the voters. More deserves to be said about the individual failures of each proposition (and the freak success of the one), but suffice to say that now that we've all found out again that California's people won't support raising taxes, "modernizing" unpredictable sources of income or cutting social programs geared toward the disadvantaged, some people are already trying to pick up the pieces. And they all seem to know that it will not be pleasant.

However, there is an oddity in the coverage of the election itself, which is the veritable avalanche of shock about how low the turnout was, as well as the numerous proposals for how to make it larger. In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, commentator Joe Matthews suggested that the problem with the election itself wasn't the pervasive sense of apathy, but rather that voters were just unused to pulling the lever. "If we want to eliminate special elections with long lists of measures, we need more regularly scheduled elections," Matthews wrote, reasoning that because California's people had voted themselves so much power in politics, they therefore had to take more regular amounts of responsibility in hand for that power.

Matthews's system would make sense, if frequent "elections" by an oligarchic 20 percent +1 were the ideal he was reaching for. However, this is dubious, as there are all sorts of reasons why vesting extraordinary political power with 20 percent of the electorate is not necessarily wise, especially when one doesn't know which 20 percent will actually show up at any given election. As such, not only are more elections the answer, some commentators would argue, but people just need to care about those elections, darnit! One blogger, apparently angry at the necessity of cuts in California's bloated 40 percent-of-the-budget education spending (most of it on teachers' unions), whined that "Lack of a well educated electorate has led people to make the poor financial decisions and poor voting choices that led to the current economic mess. That same lack of education appears to have kept voters from the polls today due to the complexity of the propositions."

Let's leave aside the absurdity of trying to throw money at a massive budgetary entitlement like education. The appeal to voter education and knowledge is not an old one - many commentators have claimed that educating the electorate would make for better voting decisions. However, as the smarter of these acknowledge, there are substantial obstacles to such education, some of them basically human. The most obvious one (and the one which has damaged the California special election most) is detailed at great length in Bryan Caplan's book Myth of the Rational Voter. This phenomenon is referred to as "rational ignorance," a concept which Caplan extends into the more pressing "rational irrationality." The theory goes as follows: Voters know that their individual votes are effectively worthless. Therefore, they have no incentive to care about those votes, and as such, they will make no effort to discover which choice of voting will actually be wisest. This leads to them either staying home or voting arbitrarily.

Without going into too much detail, it's fairly obvious that the majority of California's people stayed home. It's also obvious that the majority of California's people did not vote in anything resembling an educated fashion, as they rejected both the tax increases and the spending cuts as methods of curing fiscal trouble. The Governor and his establishment aides could have pre-empted this reaction by actually displaying halfway decent political horse sense - instead, they threw gobs of money into a campaign which did nothing but scream, "WE'RE IN A CRISIS! GET TO THE CHOPPA!"

What a pity that because of their political insensitivity, we may now all be reduced to living like Conan the Barbarian.

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