Public choice theory is well known as a theory that attempts to provide something of a unified approach to behavior in the economic and political realms. The theory famously argues that people who pursue their selfish interest in the economic realm do not somehow become perfect altruists in the political realm. Instead, one must take serious account of the selfish interests of politicians who present themselves as selflessly pursuing the public interest.
While public choice theory does not assume different preferences or personalities for people in the economic and political realms, it does not reject the possibility that people behave differently in these two realms. It just requires an explanation for the difference.
One of the most important results produced by public choice theory is the difference between how voters behave in the political system and how consumers behave in the marketplace. The basic idea is that consumers often engage in significant research about an important consumer product, such as a new car or TV. They talk to their friends and read reviews about the product. They do that because the benefits from this research can be significant. It can mean the difference between purchasing a good or bad product.
By contrast, voters do not have the same incentive to learn about the candidates who are running in the election. While these candidates can have significant effects on government, and government can affect not just one product, but a large portion of a voter’s life, voters still do not have an incentive to learn much about the candidates. The reason is that the citizen’s vote is virtually certain not to influence the election. Whether they make an informed or uniformed choice, their vote will make no difference (unless it breaks a tie, which never happens) and therefore they remain ignorant. This is called rational ignorance.
But there is a question for this public choice theory. While it is true that voters do not have a material incentive to learn about the candidates, most voters who hear about this theory for the first time are surprised by it. If these voters do not know this aspect of the voting experience, then how can it be influencing their behavior?
This is an interesting question, but there appears to be an answer to it. It is not necessary for voters to consciously know the theory for it to have an effect. When consumers buy a car and they fail to research it, they sometimes learn the hard way that it is important to do the research. Other people who have gone through the same experience may also explain it to them and urge them to do the research. Thus, consumers often force themselves to incur the costs of doing some research.
But the same does not occur with respect to voting. A parent does not explain to their child who is voting for the first time that they ought to investigate the candidates, because in the last election, the parent failed to do so and their vote caused the wrong candidate to be elected. Even though they may not realize that their vote does not decide the election, it will not occur to them that the wrong candidate was elected because they did not do the research. Part of the reason for this is that so few voters conclude that they voted for the wrong candidate (because they usually don’t know much about the candidate who was elected and are often so biased about the candidates). But part of the reason is that they would not conclude that their action would have made a difference. They may not recognize the more general point that their vote has no real effect, but it seems unlikely to occur to them that the wrong candidate was elected because they failed to do the research.
Thus, the public choice theory seems to hold, not because people recognize that their vote has no effect, but because they behave as if they knew it even though they do not fully recognize it.