THE “RATIONAL IGNORANCE” OF THE TYPICAL CITIZEN*
The typical voter is, accordingly, “rationally ignorant” about what choices would best serve the interest of the electorate or any majority in it. This point is most dramatically evident in national elections. The gain to a voter from studying issues and candidates until it is clear what vote is truly in his or her interests is given by the difference between the value to the individual only (rather than the society) of the “right” and the “wrong” election outcomes, multiplied by the probability that a change in the individual’s vote will alter the outcome of the election. Since the probability that a typical voter will change the outcome of the election is vanishingly small, the typical citizen, whether he or she is a physician or a táxi driver, is usually rationally ignorant about public affairs.
Sometimes information about public affairs is so interesting or entertaining that acquiring it for these reasons alone pays; this situation appears to be the single most important source of exceptions to the generalization that typical citizens are rationally ignorant about public affairs. Similarly, individuals in a few special vocations can receive considerable rewards in private goods if they acquire exceptional knowledge of public goods. Politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and social scientists, for example, may earn more money, power, or prestige from knowledge of public affairs. Occasionally, exceptional knowledge of public policy can generate exceptional profits in stock exchanges or other markets.
The fact that the benefits of individual enlightenment about public goods are usually dispersed throughout a group or nation, rather than concentrated upon the individual who bears the cost of becoming enlightened, explains many phenomena. It explains, for example, the “man bites dog” criterion of what is newsworthy. If the television newscasts were watched or newspapers were read solely to obtain the most important information about public affairs, aberrant events of little public importance would be ignored and the complexities of economic policy and quantitative analyses of public problems would be emphasized. When the news is, by contrast, largely an alternative to other forms of diversion or entertainment for most people, intriguing oddities and human-interest items are in demand. Similarly, events that unfold in a suspenseful way or sex scandals among public figures are fully covered by the media. Public officials, often able to thrive without giving the citizens good value for their taxes, may fall over an exceptional mistake that is simple and striking enough to be newsworthy. Protests and demonstrations that may offend a significant portion of the public make diverting news and therefore call attention to arguments that might otherwise be ignored.
The rational ignorance of electorates – and thus of majorities – means that majorities will often fail to see their true interests. They can be victims of predations that they do not notice. They can be persuaded by superficially plausible arguments that a given policy is in the interest of the majority or of the society as a whole, when it really only serves some special interest. When we consider the incentives facing special-interest groups, we see that this problem is very serious.
*trecho do livro "Power and Prosperity", de Mancur Olson