Every vote counts, or does it?

An explanation on Anthony Downs’ theory of the paradox of voting

Rational ignorance is the tendency seen among voters in an electoral democracy to deliberately remain ignorant of political matters. For example, most voters in a democracy choose not to acquire sufficient knowledge about the policies of various candidates and their likely consequences. American economist Anthony Downs popularized the idea in his 1957 book “An Economic Theory of Democracy” and the idea is often employed by economists of the public choice school to explain why politics works the way it does in the real world. The concept of rational ignorance was proposed in order to overturn the popular idea that voters in a democracy make rational decisions when it comes to choosing their political leaders.

So why do voters in a democracy tend to be ignorant of politics? The theory of rational ignorance suggests that voters have very little incentive to invest the time and the effort required to understand politics since they have miniscule impact on electoral politics anyway. For instance, the chance of an individual’s vote changing the outcome of an election is essential zero. As American economist Gordon Tullock once noted, “it’s more likely that you’ll get killed driving to the polling booth, than it is that your vote will change the outcome of the election.” So, voters possess very little reason to invest in gaining all the relevant knowledge that is essential to make informed decisions and simply choose to remain ignorant of matters related to politics. For instance, voters are unlikely to put in the effort required to learn even basic economics before forming an opinion on the economic policies of candidates.

Even if voters wanted to make informed decisions, the nature of electoral democracy can still make them choose candidates who are far from perfect. Typically, elections are fought based on a whole host of issues. That is, voters don’t get to vote against or in favor of a candidate based on individual issues. Instead, they are forced to choose candidates based on the overall package that they offer. So even unworthy candidates can still win elections just by being more agreeable than others on certain core issues. This is in contrast to how people make decisions in other spheres of life. In the marketplace, for instance, people can decide to buy or not to buy any number of separate items ranging from cars to toothpaste. They also need to pay a price for anything that they decide to buy, and hence they possess significant incentive to invest time and effort to gather all necessary information. It should be noted that people who vote do not receive any direct personal benefits from voting for the right candidate even though it might offer benefits to the group as a whole in the long run. In other words, voters do not invest time and effort in gaining relevant information before they cast their votes since the cost of acquiring such information often outweighs the personal benefits that they could possibly gain from such information as individuals. This is known as the Downs’ paradox or the paradox of voting.

There are negative consequences to this tendency among voters to remain ignorant of politics. For one, electoral outcomes are likely to be influenced by a few trivial issues while other issues that may be more important are brushed under the carpet. When voters invest very little to understand what issues really matter, it is also easier for politicians to mislead and exploit them.

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