Aspects of decision-making

1. Public affairs and rational ignorance.

The argument: It is rarely rational for anybody to vote or engage in some other political activities because the chance of influencing the outcome is so infinitesimal that it does not merit the slightest effort.

Reply. That is one consideration, but it is not only a false picture of the thinking of most people, but not the only rational consideration. Many, I think most, voters also recognise two other dimensions to their role as voters.

One is that they see voting as an expressive act and feel it is important to them to express themselves in this way. That is why opposition voters still turn out to vote in what is a safe seat for the incumbent party. Moreover, voters are concerned that in expressing their support for a candidate or a party they are ding something that reflects credit on them. So they are concerned to exercise what influence they can on that candidate or party to adopt policies that they find admirable.

Another reason why the selfish approach is not rational is that people quite rightly do not take an entirely selfish attitude to public goods. Their identity as members of a particular community is closely bound up with the quality of the public goods in which they can share as members of the community. So they do have an interest in the quality of the community’s educational institutions, even though they do not expect any particular pay-off to them from those institutions. Moreover, they are usually well aware that the sort of cost-benefit analyses that reduce benefits to measurable benefits to individuals leads to a penny-pinching approach to funding policy decisions that is often destructive and counterproductive in its effects. It is not rational.

That is not to say that it is improper in choosing to support one rather than another of competing proposals about, say, an educational program, to do so because it suits one’s own interests better. Practical decisions are rarely one-dimensional. They involve diverse, often competing, considerations in varying degrees in different contexts.
Continue reading