Rational Ignorance

There is a startling trend in civilized society to view ignorance as being synonymous with a lack of intelligence or stupidity. The truth is that ignorance simply describes a situation where you happen to be uninformed on a particular topic. However, simple logic uncovers the fact that all people are informed on some topics and ignorant on others. Furthermore, it is ‘rational’ for most people to remain ignorant on certain topics.

The reason why ignorance can be rational is because acquiring information involves cost. Sometimes this cost is paid in terms of time and other times it is paid in terms of money, but in all cases, it is not zero. This means that many situations will emerge where it is completely rational for normal people to avoid spending the effort to become informed on a particular subject.

The most frequent instance of rational ignorance occurs in regards to electoral voting. Regardless of what romantic notions people hold about the democratic process, it remains a fact that no single vote has every swayed an election of consequence. (Elections for the office ‘party planning committee’ notwithstanding) This is not an exhortation to stop voting… voting is a very important part of civic responsibility, but that does not change the plain fact that my vote in and of itself is inconsequential.

When votes aggregate into ‘groups’ or ‘blocks’ they can become very consequential, but this is where it becomes rational to be ignorant. Since the vote of an individual is not of any consequence and the costs of acquiring knowledge are not zero, it makes sense for most rational people to do something else besides study politics and civics. A person may decide to read to their children or build a neighborhood playground instead of following the political trends of the day. In both of these cases, there would probably be a greater net benefit to the world at large than if you had been glued to CNN or Fox News for the entire day.

The implicit danger comes when elections do roll around and most people who vote do so from a (rationally) ignorant basis. The most common permutation of this phenomenon is a propensity for voters to believe what politicians tell you they are going to do. This systematically tilts favor toward political candidates who make outlandish claims of entitlement and prosperity. The pesky details of how those promises will be fulfilled can always wait until later (when the cameras stop rolling) or be abandoned and replaced with a new platform of outlandish promises.

As the promises get larger and larger over time, it is becoming more difficult to finance them. The current national debt in excess of $12 Trillion dollars should be reasonable evidence of that fact. However, the focus of elected politicians is still squarely locked on creating more entitlements. Any rational analysis inevitably highlights the fact that the government will soon find itself unable to meet the obligations it has already made, and that the new entitlement promises are not likely to unfold as they were presented. Unfortunately, this makes little difference in the sphere of politics since the average voter is rationally ignorant of the economic consequences that are likely to follow all of the aggregated programs and entitlements over the last century.

Those who wish to create a life of wealth and happiness for themselves must ultimately come to the realization that government is not going to help them along the way. Those in power know that the way to keep power is by turning the many against the few. Since there have always been more who produce little than those who produce much, it is rational to expect continued pressure on producers to pay an increased tax burden. Each individual must develop their own plan for financial independence. It is the only ‘rational’ thing to do for those who aspire to wealth and prosperity.

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