'Rational Ignorance' vs. Division of Intellectual Labor

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Commenting on some interesting poll results about people who oppose GMO foods, Ilya Somin says the following:

Image by Javier Allegue Barros, via Unsplash, license.
Some of this is simply the result of what scholars call "rational ignorance": Most people have little incentive to spend much time learning about government, public policy, and policy-relevant science, because the chance that their votes will make a different to policy outcomes is infinitesimally small. Many people don't have time to study the science of GMOs. Thus, they simply do not know that GMO foods are no more dangerous than "organic" ones, and that most organic foods are themselves the result of centuries of genetic manipulation by humans. [links removed, bold added]
Ages ago, I encountered the concept of rational ignorance, within the context of the impossibility of voters being able to make informed choices about the numerous things the government (improperly) does.

I reached a decent conclusion then, to the effect that this problem would go away if the government were brought back to its proper scope, of exclusively protecting individual rights.

But the issue of GMOs brings up an aspect of the problem I hadn't considered then: Some of the things government does, as a sort of unwanted outboard brain-substitute -- like assess the safety of GMOs -- are issues that concern us.

What if the government didn't regulate those things?

I've answered this before, but without reference to "rational ignorance:"
If it is "unreasonable" to point out that watchdog groups, standards bodies, professional organizations, and the like can subsume the legitimate aspects of what the government package-deals with its central planning; I plead guilty as charged.
In other words, no, we would not all have to attempt to become polymaths any more than we now learn the ins and outs of any number of physical types of labor. (Oh, and do note that government meddling already has this discussion on the wrong track: On important matters that aren't properly related to government, How do I vote? should be of zero concern. Conversely, there is an objective, non-political reason for not attempting to know everything: There simply isn't time to do so.)

There is such a thing as a division of intellectual labor, and the more the government runs everything, the less apparent that becomes. We stop imagining private individuals doing these things, and throw our hands up in the air because of all the impossible decisions we find ourselves having to make at the ballot box.

And when the government screws something up, as it had to during a pandemic of a novel disease? Or worse, when government officials use expertise as an excuse for tyranny? We end up even farther removed from the idea, because even expertise ends up getting the same bad rap capitalism was getting before

We have moved from suspicion of private enterprise, leading to government agencies as "watchdogs" -- to a government with its fingers in so many pies people can't vote about "the issues" they shouldn't be worried about in the first place, leading to a feeling of overwhelm -- all the way to an understandable but wrong suspicion of people claiming to know more than we do, with an implied corollary that they can tell us what to do.

The pandemic was bad enough on its own. This progression, whether the pandemic accelerated it or made it more apparent, is much worse.

-- CAV

No comments: