Monday, June 18, 2007

"Information and calculation about a collective good is often itself a collective good. Consider a typical member of a large organisation who is deciding how much time to devote to studying the policies or leadership of the organization. The more time the member devotes to this matter, the greater the likelihood that his or her voting and advocacy will favor effective policies and leadership for the organization. This typical member will, however, get only a small share of the gain from the more effective policies and leadership: in the aggregate, the other members will get almost all the gains, so that the individual member does not have an incentive to devote nearly as much time to fact-finding and thinking about the organization as would be in the group interest. Each of the members of the group would be better off if they all could be coerced into spending more time finding out how to vote to make the organisation best further their interest. This is dramatically evident in the case of the typical voter in a national election in a large country. The gain to such a voter from studying issues and candidates until it is clear what vote is truly in his or her interest is given by the difference in the value to the individual of the "right" election outcome as compared with the "wrong" outcome, multiplied by the probability 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 is usually "rationally ignorant" about public affairs. Often, information about public affairs is so interesting or entertaining that it pays to acquire it for there reasons alone - this appears to be the single most important source of exceptions to the generalization that typical citizens are rationally ignorant about public affairs.

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 this or that public business. Occasionally, exceptional knowledge of public policy can generate exceptional profits in stock exchanges or other markets. Withal, the typical citizen will find that his or her income and life chances will not be improved by zealous study of public affairs, or even of any single collective good." Marcur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations, Chapter 2

Rational Ignorance

In Border I wrote, "you try to convince a world that doesn't care that your story has a point to it." In Thailand and Turkey, I explained the importance of education in a democracy, and the role of media in providing that information. But I know that these things are important to me because I invested in them, and I do expect a private benefit from them. It's unrealistic and naive of me to expect others to get excited about what I care.

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