I was recently in an interesting online argument on the subject of rational ignorance. My claim was that rational voters, knowing that their vote had a negligible probability of altering the outcome of an election, had no incentive to pay the substantial cost of learning enough about political alternatives to have a well informed opinion as to which candidate was better.
The friend I was arguing with raised the obvious counterargument—if I was right, why do people bother to vote at all? I made my usual response. People enjoy the pleasure of partisanship, as demonstrated at football games. Every four years a game is played out across the nation with the future of the world at stake. For the cost of an hour or so of your time, you can not only cheer for your team, you can even, in at least a token sense, play on it. Who could resist?
Unfortunately, enjoying the pleasure of partisanship does not require the partisan to have a well informed opinion of which side he should be a partisan for. Acquiring such an opinion might even make cheering less fun, since in some cases, on some issues, you would have to face the fact that you were cheering for the bad guys. Better, more fun if less realistic, to believe that your people are all basically good, their opponents bad.
His response, at least as I interpreted it, was that he rejected the rational ignorance argument because he saw it as a tactic of the bad guys, a way of undercutting support for democracy—our exchange had grown out of a disagreement on the relative merits of government vs private production of things such as health care. The problem with that response is that, until you know if the rational ignorance argument is correct, you do not know who the bad guys are. If democracy really works as badly as the argument predicts, that is a reason, on some political issues, to switch sides, which changes which side you approve of arguments in favor of.
I concluded (and said) that he was offering evidence for my view of democracy, picking what to believe not on the basis of arguments or evidence but on the basis of partisanship. My argument undercut the position of his team. His conclusion was not that he should reconsider which side he supported but that he should reject the argument.
Which started me thinking about to what degree my own views are based on reason, and to what degree something else.
I think I can fairly claim to be more familiar with the arguments for and against my political positions than most people are with the arguments for and against theirs; to that extent my position is based on reason. I think I have some evidence from my past behavior that when I am faced with a strong argument against my views to which I can find no plausible rebuttal, I eventually change the views.
On the other hand, there is a significant range of political positions that are defensible, positions I disagree with but cannot claim to have adequate arguments to refute. At the very least it covers the range from my father's limited government views to my anarchism, and arguably quite a lot more than that. Why, within that range, do I believe what I do?
I think at least part of the answer is wishful thinking.
I would like to believe in a world where people are primarily rational and benevolent, a world where political conflict ultimately comes down to trying to figure out what is true, not to which side can force the other to give in. Looking at the same question on a smaller scale, I cannot ever remember a conversation with any of my children that came down, on either side, to "I don't care what the arguments are, I want ... ." If I participated in such a conversation I would find it upsetting, on a small scale the same problem that makes me see the biggest risk of having children as the risk of having children who don't like you—something that I am very glad never happened to me.
The same attitude shows up in my fiction. One common criticism of my Salamander
is that the characters are implausibly rational and reasonable. My response is that some people are like that.
Those are the people I prefer to interact with and, by extension, to imagine and write about.
Which gets me back to my political beliefs. I prefer to believe that people are fundamentally rational and benevolent, where by the latter I mean that they would, on the whole, prefer that good things rather than bad things happen to other people. I think it is clear that some people are like that and reasonably clear that practically everyone is to some degree like that. But it is not a full description of human beings, and I have no good basis to estimate how good a description it is, how many people to what degree fit my preferred pattern. My political beliefs come in part from modeling the world on the assumption that rationality and benevolence are the norm, the signal, everything else something more like random noise.
Which is to say that they come in part from wishful thinking.
My suspicion is that the same is true of other people, probably including the friend I was having the argument with, although I have no good guess about what particular features of the world he prefers to believe in.