Rational Choice and Political Irrationality in the New Millennium

CRITICAL REVIEW (2015). ADVANCED ONLINE PUBLICATION. DOI:10.1080/08913811.2015.1111679

Abstract:  Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance uses a by-now familiar rational-choice lens with which to explain and analyze Americans’ widespread political ignorance. Unlike some scholars who tout rational choice on purely predictive or heuristic grounds, Somin claims that it also offers a more accurate description of reality, in this case better explaining the findings of empirical public-opinion research. In this essay, I compare Somin’s central concept of rational ignorance and the related concept of “rational irrationality” with the earlier explanatory approach taken by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his classic study, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. While Schumpeter developed his description of the mass democratic citizenry over 70 years ago—prior to any of the significant empirical studies of American public opinion—its broad approach remains at least as persuasive as Somin’s.