Thursday, May 02, 2013

Why I Believe Things

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.


At 3:10 PM, May 02, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

I think what you call wishful thinking is very similar to moral intuition. Antonin Scalia wrote somewhere that he trusts his moral intuition until he can prove it wrong. There is a strong case to made for this, and it is at least more honest than what many people claim as reasons for believing what they do.

At 3:36 PM, May 02, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the local level even five votes that are reliably cast can make a big difference. Local politicians know this. A guy who walks around with a clipboard asking his neighbors to vote for a City Councilman gets remembered. A guy who asks his Congressman's office for a favor and votes in the next primary gets remembered.
Individual votes are like individual bank accounts: not world domination, just some power. Beliefs accompany passions and interests: Show me where your treasure is and I know what your heart desires.


At 4:27 PM, May 02, 2013, Anonymous RKN said...

I wasn't privy to the debate, but isn't an alternative explanation of his view that the rational ignorance argument is bad because following it to its logical conclusion would undermine participatory democracy, something he believes is good, and not that the argument is wrong merely because he associates it with people he assumes are bad?

Of course, it is also not true that every political alternative requires grand investments in learning for a voter to decide, reasonably, which one is better for her. And even there, many people say they don't vote their own self interest, but rather for what is "better" for the country, the environment, the children, etc.. Yet others say they vote out of patriotic duty, in Australia to avoid being fined.

At 5:45 PM, May 02, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


A possible view is that the argument is correct but ought not to be made--some things might be true but dangerous. But that's no reason for him not to evaluate it objectively, and modify his political views accordingly.

And his believe that democracy is good in part depends on his rejection of the argument.

Whether one votes one's self interest or the public interest isn't central to the argument, since in either case the chance that your vote will affect the outcome in a large polity is tiny. If anything, the argument is stronger in the case of the public interest, since the voter might be altruistic enough to regard a benefit for hundreds of millions of people as worth enough so that even one chance in a million of producing it is valuable.

At 6:53 PM, May 02, 2013, Blogger Shailesh Saraf said...


I am an anarchist and agree with the limitations of democracy (including rational ignorance).

However, American libertarians criticize democracy too much because they mistake America to be a true democracy. It isn't. Infact, America's electoral system (Presidential, first past the post, direct elections for Senate) are, in some ways, closer to dictatorship than to democracy.

In other words, if America had a westminster style parliament with proportional representation system at all levels of government, then it would be LESS rational to be ignorant.

At 7:24 PM, May 02, 2013, Anonymous Norm said...

Seems to me there is a category of activity in which no one person can possibly have a noticable effect, but collectively a large group behaving a certain way have an important effect. Courtesy to strangers in daily life is an example. Holding a door open , pleasant greetings, gentle tone of voice etc. done by one person mean virtually nothing, but if commonly done they become the expectation and make daily life much more pleasant.
I recently drove in Palermo Sicily; the expectation in an uncontrolled intersection is for everyone to push forward taking any space in front of them inch by inch. It is insanely inefficient but anyone who tried to take turns would never cross the intersection and make no effect on efficiency. In most parts of the USA drivers will take turns and this expectation, set by hundreds of individuals who could easily "cheat" but don't, establishes a different more pleasant and efficient custom.
Voting is like this. No one vote is measurably important, but collectively we decide who governs.
Is there a name for this category of behavior?

At 10:42 PM, May 02, 2013, Blogger Kevin said...

I've repeated your rational ignorance re: voters example to others since I first read it in your price theory book, but now I'm having second thoughts about it. Do voters really think their opinions are so uninformed? My friends don't say: "I don't really know all the issues, but I come from a blue state so I vote Democrat. Go Dems!" Rather, they might say: "I vote Democrat because Republicans are all Bible-thumping, gay-bashing, racist, greedy social darwinists."

In other words, I think people feel they have enough information to make the right decision because they think the choice is really very easy. They don't know what they don't know. If that's the case, are they really choosing ignorance?

I think it's true that people would make the rational choice not to seek out the necessary information if they thought that it was necessary to make an informed decision. It doesn't seem plausible though that people would choose to vote based on ignorance with the same attitude that they choose a sports team. Suns fans don't think Lakers fans are wrong, per se. We all realize deep down that which team we support is kind of arbitrary. With voting, on the other hand, I think most good people would abstain from voting if they thought they truly didn't know enough to make a good decision. (By a decision, I mean which party to back. People who realize they don't know the individual candidates or issues may still feel well-informed enough to vote along party lines.) Anyway, I might be thinking about it the wrong way.

At 1:00 AM, May 03, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just as with economics, it's not that everyone is rational, it's that most people tend to BEHAVE rationally (by copying).

We have a folk sense of politics whereby we unquestioningly think that the small-scale importance of voting locally, where a lot of our knowledge of the candidates is either tacit (we know the fellow) or local enough to understand without much research, scales up.

It's not yet percolated through society that that local situation doesn't scale up.

At 4:19 AM, May 03, 2013, Blogger RJM said...

Hello David,

I remember asking myself the same question: Am I more rational than others and thus correct about certain controversial issues (contrary to people around me)?

The funny thing is, I asked the question at a time when my views differed to greatest extent to my current views. This is, I was christian and strong supporter of the german "social democracy". I remember how I comforted myself by that time with the fact that I had been able to change my mind in the past.

Now I think the desire to be sure about the rational origin of ones own convictions cannot be fulfilled in any sort of inner monologue.
Your "Wishful thinking"-conclusion absolutely makes sense to me.

I don't offer any alternative here - instead I can live quite well with the fact that some of my views might be wrong and might be based on deeply irrational thoughts.

I can observe, however, how my social relations got better in spite of my views becoming more radical (anarcho-capitalism).
This means, the quality of my discussions improved. People open up to my views and I can be open to there views without betraying my convictions.
As I said, this is no proof for my rationality. Instead the original question ("are my beliefs rational") becomes less important.

At 5:18 AM, May 03, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...


Could I ask you what your father's objections agaisnst anarchism were? That is what you consider his strongest agruments against it. I guess the military would be one - this is something I have doubs about myself and while I like to believe a stateless society could defend itself as well as a statist society, I think this is mostly based on wishful thinking - as you say. I heard a few arguments about "national" defence in anarchism both from you and some other libertarians, some of them I find plausible, but non of them I think are decisive. And actually I have to give you credit for acknowledging that they are not (unlike a lot of other libertarians who basically dismiss it as an "easy" problem by saying basically "the market will find a way").

Another issue that people raise when I discuss stateless market societies with them is - what if someone won't be able to afford any protection agency. For example people with serious disabilities who however end up without support from relatives for various reasons. My response is usually "I don't think there would be a lot of people like that and I think there is a good evidence from the past that people are generous enough to cover these special cases by charity service" and it is actually what I think. Still, it seems to me to be again close to wishful thinking and less strong than some other I would like to know how you would (or do) respond to such a question.

And a third argument against anarchy I think is quite good is the fact that if it is economically effective to have 2 or 3 protection agencies over the "ungoverned" territory, the chances of them getting together and creating a dictatorship is quite high. It is very little, if the number is 50 or so and it depends of course on the spatial distribution of their customers as wel...I find this one the easiest of the stronger arguments to deal with, because it only requires to estimate if the assumption (few are effective) is true or not, which doesn't seem to be that difficult to me. What do you think?

Thank you.

At 8:20 AM, May 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


I usually summarize the situation as my thinking that A-C might not work but probably would, my father thinking it might work but probably wouldn't, and neither of us having anything like a proof of his view.

I think my father's concerns are reflected in various things I have written and said about potential problems. The most serious is probably the stability problem you mention--the risk of an enforcement cartel to reestablish government, possibly a less attractive government than you started with.

One point that I missed in MoF and will cover in the third edition is that enforcement agencies are really producing two products—rights enforcement, and the ability to threaten each other in order to get more favorable terms in their bilateral monopoly bargaining over rules. This comes out of Jim Buchanan's point in his review of MoF that I was covering the allocational side of the market but not the distributional side--which agency has to pay which to get its preferred rules or, to put it differently, what the default rule is if neither pays the other.

The worry is that economies of scale in the second function might lead to larger agencies than in the first. You can find discussions of this in some of my talks, recordings of which are on my web site.

At 9:05 AM, May 03, 2013, Blogger jimbino said...

As a fellow atheist, I think you would be well-advised not to use the words "belief" and "believe."

When you write "I believe...," I think you mean "my best analysis of the evidence resulting from my life's experience leads to the conclusion that ...," which is quite different from what Believers mean when they say "I believe ...."

To me, science, atheism and agnosticism represent the rejection of "belief" altogether. Your use of "belief," at best, will lead Believers to regard science as just an alternative belief system, no more valid than Religion.

At 9:37 AM, May 03, 2013, Anonymous RKN said...


Regardless which of our interpretations of his view is correct, I agree with you, people like you -- me in this case -- would like that others evaluate, objectively, the arguments we take seriously. Having personally argued online for years I know you can't always get the engagement you want.

It may be that in the end he doesn't think your argument is an important enough challenge to his view to make it worth his time to refute it.

Also, not every point made in a argument need be central to it to be relevant. That people have a variety of weak reasons for voting that you don't think can stand up to your rational ignorance argument doesn't mean the reasons are irrational or indefensible.

I've frequently made a similar argument with my friends that you have about voting, that a single vote cast or withheld, especially in a national election, is pointless to the outcome, except I don't conclude they ought to become rationally ignorant about political alternatives.

At 12:05 PM, May 03, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Gurugeorge- 'It has not yet percolated through society that the local situation doesn't scale up'.

Who cares if it scales up? I live in the local situation. Think of people only in terms of those you know. Live quietly. Own nothing you can't leave out in the rain.


At 2:44 PM, May 03, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David: Thanks. And what about the people-uncapable-of-paying-for-protection argument? Would your response to it be somewhere close to mine or have you got a better argument?

At 3:42 PM, May 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


My response would be some combination of yours plus the observation that with government, some people end up effectively unprotected. Indeed, some end up spending a long time imprisoned by the government for doing things that violated nobody's rights.

One doesn't have to argue that nothing bad would happen under A-C, merely that it is better than the alternatives.

At 9:14 PM, May 03, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I appreciate your honesty, but why anyone would hold and promote a world view based on wishful thinking is beyond me. You need to read more Madison. "If men were angels...."

At 4:43 AM, May 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David: Yeah, that's right. A lot of people who advocate anarchocapitalism try to do it exactly that way - paint it pink like it would be a paradise for everyone no matter what. It's easy to get caught up in such a thinking if you promote something. But world is not going to be perfect in any system, it's more of a question of which of the alternatives is the best (or a pesimist would say which one is the least bad ).

about the many/few agencies issue:
I'm thinking people would probably prefer local agencies to "foreign" ones (as long as they are not significantly better for them). They do in other things - people often say something like "buy czech products, support the local people!" and my impression is that something like that is going on in the US and other countries as well. This some of clan mentality or patriotism if you will would probably survive the state. It might be both a good and a bad thing. Good - because it would create a tendency towards more local agencies as opposed to few global (or just very big), since people would only consider the latter option if the local agencies were doing a really bad or expensive job...and of course small companies are more flexible and can adapt better to local environment in general...and a bad thing since if those clan feelings were too strong, it could lead to people effectively seeing their agencies as their states...eventually slowly getting back to where they were.

At 9:51 AM, May 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


You might want to read the sf novel Oath of Fealty by Niven and Pournelle. Part of the point of it is that a private firm which is substituting for the state in its central functions will become the focus of the sort of emotions currently focused on the state, such as nationalism.

I discuss it a bit in the first talk I have webbed at:

At 12:58 PM, May 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

David: Yes, I have already listened to it (so that is kind of where I got that "might be bad" idea from). And wrote a list of books to read. I don't usually read sci-fi, but the settings of all those books seems really interesting. Maybe I've only read bad sci-fi so far :)

At 4:25 AM, May 05, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous/Bruce wrote:-

"Who cares if it [democracy] scales up? I live in the local situation. Think of people only in terms of those you know. Live quietly. Own nothing you can't leave out in the rain."

That's fine, and possible in a civilized society. It's also possible in a society that's been going like that for years and has a lot of tacit knowledge tied up with autarky. If everyone were happy to live at a lower level of technology, etc., that would be fine.

But I don't think most people would be happy with such a limited situation - it is, after all, the history of civilization to have departed from autarky, just as a natural result of people wanting to improve their situation. Improvement requires division of labour, comparative advantage - a society of relative strangers interacting through the price system and through politics.

The price system works fine - what doesn't seem to work fine is politics. And that's because to a large extent people still think of politics in a localized, folk sense, and try to scale it up. Again, with democracy, it's fine in a local situation where you know everyone's ass. But as soon as you have several layers, moving to a national democracy, it's less and less apt to be able to do things well, more and more prone to capture (by moneyed interests, by demagogues, etc.).

It's still the least-worst political system extant, but there's a lot of room for improvement for politics to match up with the efficiency of the price system as a method whereby large numbers of relative strangers can interact peacefully.

At 10:40 AM, May 05, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>'with democracy, it's fine in a local situation where you know everyone's ass. But as soon as you have several layers, it's less and less apt to be able to do things well, more and more prone to capture (by moneyed interests, by demagogues, etc.)'

GuruGeorge. I think we agree on more important stuff than we disagree on. We agree: High tech is good: Politics is profoundly flawed.

What I was trying to say: Don't give up the vote. Don't give up the local situation. Individual votes are like looking at your bank account once a month: Won't make you Bill Gates: Won't make you rich: Still gotta.

And maybe I've read too much American journalism, but I think you may be conjuring a more-and-more story from 'more and more prone to capture (by moneyed interests, by demagogues, etc.) Unless you live somewhere money and blowhards don't screw things up, locally.


At 1:40 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Bruce: Well, your vote in national elections has a probability to change something in millionths (less in smaller countries). Also, you don't choose ideas - you choose people. Even if there is a de jure majority, only about 60-70% people vote and even then the elections usually come up something like 45% to 55%. That is about 38% of the eligible population who usually win - that is "their" candidate wins. And I think most of them didn't even support most of his ideas, they just didn't like the other guy(s) even more.

Democracy seems to be working quite well in Switzerland - but they have some special elements present - first, it is a small country (8 million people), second it is divided into 26 cantons that are very pretty independent on the central government, maybe even more than american states. Those cantons are small and close to each other, so it is relatively cheap to "vote" with your feet if one is run badly. Which introduces some elements of competition and that keeps the government efficient and taxes rather low (in most cantons). They have a lot of referendums there, anyone can really come up with a new law or try to abolish some, however they have also a very strong constitution that is almost impossible to change (they need a double majority of I think 2 thirds - that is two thirds of cantons have to cast two thirds of votes in order to change it).

But I think the competition element is much more important than the direct democracy element. One way or another, Swiss, unlike other European countries or the US seem to have been able to maintain a relatively small government for a long period of time.

At 6:00 PM, May 05, 2013, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

It's interesting that most of the comments are on the rational ignorance part of the post, which I considered less interesting. Maybe it's just that I know the idea already. What I liked was the introspection. We should all do that, looking for our blind spots (which is not as silly as it sounds).
I think I too overestimate people's intelligence and thinking (it isn't irrationality so much as stupidity and use of rules of thumb). I don't think it's wishful thinking, tho, so much as that we think other people are like ourselves. It's hard for us to understand how some people get stuck in credit card debt, but that's not because of our wishful thinking. But we thinkers *ought* to be in a good position to puzzle out how non-thinkers behave.

At 4:14 AM, May 06, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Eric: Well, of course people are not 100% rational. Maybe not even 70%...but show me a good theory about the irrational parts. If we cannot say anything about that, we still are better of making an aproximation of behaviour with assuming rationality and hoping for irrationality to average out...and then possibly when some irrationality (and it is usually really hard to say what exactly is irrational as long as you don't include some of your morals or beliefs of what people "should want" in your definition of rationality) does not average out, you can look at that and try to figure out what that trend means and why it happens. I like the idea of our brains being completely rational...but only in an environment of 20 000 years ago.

One thing I've been thinking about for a long time is that people choose what to read and learn. Mostly in order to reinforce their current views. People tend (I think this applies to virtually everyone) to accept something that supports their views much more easily than something that goes against that. In the ideal case, they at least consider the latter argument and are only more critical to it. But often they just dismiss it without learning about it properly. That I think is why ideas very far from mainstream - like libertarian anarchism - are mostly not even seriously considered. They are immediatelly dismissed as something "that wouldn't work". But a lot of libertarians do the same - when they hear the word "state" they turn on the defensive mode and dismiss anything that would support the position of a state.

I take it that the least we can do is to allow free speech as much as possible, so that the ideas circulate a bit. Internet is a good thing - everyone can be heard...but it can also work the other way around - you choose your news on the internet and you can choose the ones that again fit your views. I try to read arguments against libertarianism too so that I don't end up in my own "bubble". Of course I definitely read with a bias, hopefully only in a way that pay more attention to details and am more critical to it. And I encourage smart people who disagree with me to read what I do agree with - because they will be similarly critical to it and might be able to point out problems I haven't noticed.

At 12:29 PM, May 06, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


The closest I have seen to a good theory of irrationality is Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman. I discussed it in an old post here.

At 3:06 PM, May 08, 2013, Blogger Mark said...

Being that this post is nearly 1 week old, I fear my question will be posted to a dead comment thread. But hear goes anyway.

I find myself to be a strange mix of rational and irrational. I like to think of myself as behaving rationally in an argument. But I frequently find myself behaving very irrationally. I think that on the whole, I am more often rational than irrational. But I still find myself saying "because I said so" to my kids. I even have a rationalization for saying that.

This tendency seems pretty normal to me. But I'd like to reduce my own irrational behavior. You report that you've overcome this tendency. How did you do it?


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