“Rational Irrationality” vs. “Rational Ignorance”

In my recent op-ed, P. Diddy as the Rational Voter, I made a mistake.

I haven’t read Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. I have seen a presentation by Caplan on the book, read numerous blog posts by him and have heard his argument restated by other libertarians. In my op-ed, I was going on my recollection of these secondary sources.

I recall Caplan making an argument about people having too much information. Particularly when it comes to decisions about voting. The rational thing to do in such a case is to simply aim for some sort of basic understanding. In other words, it makes rational sense to be, relatively speaking, ignorant.

But Caplan’s argument is slightly different from that argument. His argument is that voters don’t have to face the costs or consequences of their choices due to the low probability of influencing public policy. Thus, they are rationally irrational about their voting decisions. This, according to Caplan, leads to situations where politicians sometimes want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, in this scenario the right thing isn’t popular due to rational irrationality.

On the other hand, rational ignorance comes from the public choice theory school of thought. This economic-based school of thought discusses things like rent-seeking that affect how public policy is made. While Caplan lays the blame on the populace for the failures of democracy, public choice theorists often claim that rent-seeking and special interests tend to affect it more.

Both of these theories are not only similarly titled but are also often brought up in discussions of democracy and voting. Caplan himself discussed public choice theory somewhat recently, which is likely where my confusion stemmed from. It doesn’t help that he also specializes in public choice.

Regardless, for the sake of intellectual honesty, I wanted my mistake to be clear. And hopefully we can all learn a little something from it too. I have since edited my article to better reflect my renewed understanding of these concepts and hope that they are sufficient.

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