The Joy of Being a Rational Ignoramus

Email Print

spring. The time of year when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts
of love . . . and rational ignorance.

it is actually summer and, having recently attained 32 years, I'm
not exactly a lad anymore. But back in May I met a winsome lady
and things between us have been progressing in a most pleasant fashion
ever since.

much for the love part, you say, but what are you talking about,
rational ignorance?

it transpires that my lady friend (whom we will call Babette to
protect the innocent) admitted to not knowing, until relatively
recently, who Dick Cheney was.

But it wasn't Babette's admission that surprised me so much as her
attitude toward her knowledge deficit. She didn't see any reason
why she should have known who Dick Cheney was. Sure, he's
the vice president of the United States, she said, but why should
she care about that?

exchange put me in mind of the economic concept of "rational
ignorance." Simply stated, this concept tells us that an individual's
decision to become informed about something is influenced by the
cost – measured in terms of time and effort, not just dollars – of becoming
informed. It is an especially useful concept when one is discussing
politics and, particularly, elections.

ignorance explains why various special interests wield so much influence
over government officials. Economist Walter Williams uses the example
of the sugar industry, where Congress maintains high tariffs on
imported sugar so that domestic producers can sell their product
to Americans at higher prices. It's worth it to the relatively few
producers to spend their time, money, and energy lobbying Congress
for the tariffs because it means millions of dollars in artificially
increased profits and wages for them. For the much greater mass
of American sugar consumers, however, the tariffs mean around $2
billion more a year in sugar costs, which translates into a couple
bucks more for the average person – hardly worth bothering about on
an individual level.

other words, it makes sense for the ordinary American to remain
rationally ignorant about the issue of sugar tariffs because it's
far less of a hassle to pay $5 more a year for sugar than it is
brush up on the relevant legislation and jump a plane to Washington
to personally lobby Congress for lower (or no) sugar tariffs.

various reasons, it's not even worth writing a letter or making
a phone call about it. Your Congressman is only one of 435 (535
when you add the Senate) and is most likely not in any position
to do much about the tariffs by himself. And, as Williams points
out, who is he going to listen to, you or the organized sugar lobby,
which is ready, willing, and able to use various carrot-and-stick
pressure tactics, including campaign donations or the withdrawal
thereof, should it become displeased with Rep. Rapscallion's voting
behavior? The answer is obvious.

course, the cost of sugar tariffs can be measured in more than just
those few extra dollars out of your wallet. For example, I still
mourn the loss of the Coca-Cola I used to enjoy as a boy, when it
was sweetened with real sugar instead of the cheaper but awful-tasting
corn syrup used today. For a more dramatic example, hundreds of
employees at a Michigan plant that makes LifeSavers candies are
losing their jobs this summer as production moves to Canada, which
imports sugar at the much lower, freely traded world price.)

ignorance lies at the heart of the government racket. Politicians
exploit it to curry favor with a whole host of special interest
groups by voting to give them concentrated financial benefits – while
distributing the costs of those benefits widely over the general
population. Thus is the average American nickel and dimed out of
nearly half of his paycheck by the parasites posturing as our worthy
and true public servants.

she realized it or not, my lady friend Babette was displaying the
profound wisdom born of common sense and centuries of human experience
when she defended her ignorance of Dick Cheney's identity. She has
probably never heard the term "rational ignorance" before.
But 19th-century author Ambrose Bierce probably didn't
either when he wrote that "an election is nothing more than
an advance auction of stolen goods."

for me, since I can't stand to drink Coke anymore, I'll pour myself
a beer – and talk with the charming Babette about matters more interesting
than politics.

16, 2003

writer David Bardallis [send
him e-mail
] maintains
a web site at


Email Print