The Revenge of Rational Ignorance

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.