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Rational Ignorance No More

February 14, 2010

Oh, there’s still plenty of ignorance, of course; it’s just decreasingly defensible as rational.

Political ignorance is arguably inherent to political democracy, largely because “rational ignorance” (i.e., the calculated or implicit choice that the costs of learning enough facts required of participation in a political system are greater than the benefits) is a hallmark of freedom. Under that view, it almost makes sense that Americans love proving how freely ignorant we are relative to the rest of the world. We can afford to be that dumb, we implicitly say.

Such a theory might explain why, when asked about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, 79 percent of Democrats said they support permitting “gay men and lesbians” to serve openly, but only 43 percent said they were in favor of allowing “homosexuals” to serve openly. This harks back to my previously stated belief that semantics cause people to perceive the number “nine-hundred sixty seven million, eight-hundred thousand” to be much larger than the number “two point one billion,” and emotionally (and therefore politically) react to the impact of hearing such a number accordingly.

Our “rational” ignorance might also explain why Sarah Palin remains in the news on a weekly basis: she is sharp enough to realize that the mainstream media will “devour every provocative remark she utters,” and she knows how to exploit this media weakness “to guarantee herself exposure far out of proportion to her influence in American politics.” The average voter thinks that Palin’s drama evinces relevance, which therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, even though “only a quarter of those polled said Palin was qualified to be president — and 71 percent said she was not.” The question is whether or not the mainstream will break off into eddies and babbling brooks in assembling and disseminating relevant facts of individual journalists who will have to stand by their own integrity and accountability rather than behind the faceless institutions and corporations employing them.

Examples that I need not continue to parade abound. The only observation I would make is that, with government spending having inflated past 40 percent of our GDP in the last couple of years, can we really say that such political ignorance remains “rational?”

With bailouts and stimulus spending, corporations have wised up and taken the approach that used political participation (read: lobbying) to gain increasingly valuable and supra-competitive returns on investment, now totally legally, thanks to the Supreme Court. And yet, as I’ve pointed out before, not only has the American electorate failed to take any action to interdict efforts to raid the public coffers, we collectively smile and nod along with the manufactured “necessity” of turning out our pockets (and our children’s pockets, for that matter) in order to “save” various industries from collapse, even when someone is shouting at us that we’re getting robbed blind. Instead, it seems as though labor was the industry that has collapsed; the problem is that lobbying has difficulty returning its typical concentrated benefits to such a dispersed class of recipients who aren’t doing much to grapple with the issue.

Maybe the ignorance isn’t actually rational according to any actual or explicit calculus–certainly less and less so as the stakes continue to escalate–maybe people are just comforted by being told their natural predilection toward laziness and disengagement is justified.

P.S.: Though I seem to be developing a bit of a virulent crusade against the ignorance here, another convenient self-fulfilling prophecy is that nobody reading this blog should be offended.


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