Thursday, April 11, 2024

#102 / "Rational Ignorance" And Our Voting Power

Writing in the Sunday, April 7, 2024, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, Joe Mathews, a political commentator, describes "rational ignorance" this way: 

Californians vote on many ballot measures, but we rarely participate in significant public discussions about their content and impact. 
This isn’t simply a result of apathy or poor civic education. Rather, it’s an example of “rational ignorance,” a term coined by economist Anthony Downs in his 1957 book, “An Economic Theory of Democracy,” that defines this democratic reality: Since you have just one vote out of millions, your vote doesn’t much matter. So, it’s rational to not devote precious time to reaching well-considered decisions about how you vote (emphasis added).

You can click right here if you'd like to read the entirety of Mathews' column on this topic, though be aware that The Chronicle's paywall might frustrate your efforts. It could be that you will not be able to read what Mathews has to say unless you are a subscriber.

Ironically, on the very same day that Mathews' column appeared in The Chronicle, telling readers that "your vote doesn't much matter," the headline on a front page story in the San Jose Mercury News read this way: "Lesson learned: Yes, every vote really does matter." 

That headline, just quoted, is the "hard copy" version of the headline, and documents the fact that in an election held to determine who will succeed Anna Eschoo, in the United States Congress (District 16), two different candidates tied for second place - Joe Simitian and Evan Low - meaning that the election in November is likely to be a runoff with three, not two, candidates on the ballot. 

As a result of this second place tie vote, it is quite possible that the candidate who wins in November will not have to receive a majority of the votes cast in that runoff election. One of the three candidates will be able to claim the post with the votes of only 33 ⅓%, plus one. A column by Daniel Borenstein, which ran on April 7th in The Mercury's "Opinion" section, denounced the fact of this "three-way" runoff, claiming that "the state Legislature has completely failed in its duty to protect the integrity of results in extremely close elections." 

There is some merit, I think, in what Bornstein argues, but I would like to focus in this blog posting on Mathews' claim that it is "rational" for you to pay little, in any, attention to your voting choices. He makes this claim, of course, on the grounds that your individual vote "doesn't much matter," which is certainly not the way that Immanuel Kant would like you think about whether or not you should get involved with voting. 

Kant, as you may remember, is the philosopher who explained the importance of the "categorical imperative." Wikipedia gives this shorthand summary of what Kant claimed was a preeminent ethical principle:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

In other words, in the voting context, if you don't think you should waste your "precious time" paying attention to voting, you are really arguing for a system based on the idea that no one should vote at all. Is that really the kind of world in which you'd like to live? What do you think about that, Mr. Mathews? Is that really what you're shooting for? That would be pretty undemocratic!

I strongly urge anyone reading this blog posting to get involved in voting, as the November 2024 election rolls around. I'd argue that figuring out who and what to vote for, in all of the various elections that will be on the November ballot, is one of the best ways to use our "precious time" as Election Day draws near. Sure, watching Netflix movies, and posting TikTok videos, and taking walks in the woods, and other activities (studying for exams, if you are a college student) are all good ways that your "precious time" can be spent. But let's not give short shrift to "democracy." Democracy is pretty precious, too. 

As a final note. While I'm telling you that you should get involved in "voting," I do want to make clear that what I call "self-government" demands more of us than merely casting a vote. If we want to be "governing," not simply "governed," then we need to get personally and directly engaged in the political process. We can't have "self-government" if we are not willing to get involved in every aspect of government ourselves.

That said - lest anyone think that "voting" alone is sufficient - if the question is whether or not you should vote, and whether or not you should inform yourself on why, and when, and where to vote, then I have an answer to Joe Mathews, and to anyone else who might be enamored of the "rational ignorance" theory of our relationship to government. The correct answer is: YES! VOTE! 

Voting is a very good use of our "precious time." 

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