Why vote?

I’m a great fan of Kindred Winecoff, especially when I disagree with him, which is often. Today Winecoff joins forces with Phil Arena expressing disdain for the notion that there might be any virtue or utility to voting other than whatever consumption value voters enjoy for pre-rational, subjective reasons. There are lots of interesting arguments in the two pieces, but the core case is simple:

  1. The probability that any voter will cast the “decisive vote” is negligible, effectively zero;
  2. Even if a voter does cast the “decisive vote”, the net social gain associated with that act is roughly zero because different people have stakes in opposing outcomes. Once you subtract the costs to people on the losing side from the gains to winners, you find that there is little net benefit to either side prevailing over the other.

The first point is a commonplace among economists, who frequently puzzle over why people bother to vote, given that it is a significant hassle with no apparent upside. The second point is a bit more conjectural — there is no universally defensible way of netting gains and losses across people, so economists try to pretend that they don’t have to, resorting whenever possible to fictions like “Pareto improvement”. But the point is nevertheless well-taken. In terms of subjective well-being, whoever wins, at the resolution of a close election a lot of people will be heartbroken and bitter while another lot of people will be moderately elated, and the world will continue to turn on its axis. Over a longer horizon, elections may have big consequences for net welfare: perhaps one guy would trigger nuclear armageddon, while the other guy would not. But in evaluating the consequences of casting a vote, the conjectural net benefit of voting for the right guy has to be discounted for the uncertainty at the time of the election surrounding who is the right guy. After all, if armageddon is at stake, what if you actually do cast the “decisive vote”, but you choose poorly? It must be very unclear, who one should vote for, if victory by one of the candidates would yield widely shared net benefit (rather than partisan spoils), yet the contest is close enough for your vote to matter.

All of these arguments are right but wrongheaded. We don’t vote for the same reason we buy toothpaste, satisfying some personal want when the benefit outweighs the cost of doing so. Nor, as Winecoff and Arena effectively argue, can we claim that our choice to vote for one side and against another is altruistic, unless we have a very paternalistic certitude in our own evaluation of which side is best for everyone. Nevertheless, voting is rational behavior and it can, under some circumstances, be a moral virtue.

Let’s tackle rationality first. Suppose you have been born into a certain clan, which constitutes roughly half of the population of the hinterland. Everyone else belongs to the other clan, which competes with your clan for status and wealth. Every four years, the hinterland elects an Esteemed Megalomaniac, who necessarily belongs to one of the two clans. If the E.M. is from your clan, you can look forward to a quadrennium in which all of your material and erotic desires will be fulfilled by members of the other clan under the iron fist of Dear Leader. Of course, if a member of the other clan becomes Dear Leader, you may find yourself licking furiously in rather unappetizing places. It is fair to say that even the most narrow-minded Homo economicus has a stake in the outcome of this election.

Still, isn’t it irrational for any individual, of either clan, to vote? Let’s stipulate that the population of the hinterland is many millions and that polling stations are at the top of large mountains. The cost of voting is fatigue and often injury, while the likelihood of your casting “the decisive vote” is pretty much zero. So you should just stay home, right? It would be irrational for you to vote.

The situation described is simply a Prisoners’ Dilemma. If everyone in your clan is what we’ll call “narrowly rational”, and so abstains from voting, the predictable outcome will be bad. But it is not rational, for individuals within a group that will foreseeably face a Prisoners’ Dilemma, to shrug and say “that sucks” and wait for everything to go to hell. Instead, people work to find means of reshaping their confederates’ behavior to prevent narrowly rational but collectively destructive choices. Unless one can plausibly take oneself as some kind of ubermensch apart, reshaping your confederates’ behavior probably implies allowing your own behavior to be reshaped as well, even though it would be narrowly in your interest to remain immune. In our example, this implies that rational individuals would craft inducements for others in their clan to vote, and would subject themselves to those same inducements. These inducements might range from intellectual exhortations to norms enforced by social sanctions to threats of physical violence for failing to vote. If we suppose that in the hinterland, as in our own society, physical violence is ruled out, rational individuals would work to establish pro-voting norms and intellectual scaffolding that helps reinforce those norms, which might include claims that are almost-surely false in a statistical sense, like “Your vote counts!”

A smarty-pants might come along and point out the weak foundations of the pro-voting ideology, declaring that he is only being rational and his compatriots are clearly mistaken. But it is our smarty-pants who is being irrational. Suppose he makes the “decisive argument” (which one is much more likely to make than to cast the decisive vote, since the influence of well crafted words need not be proportionate to 1/n). By telling “the truth” to his kinsmen, he is very directly reducing his own utility, not to mention the cost he bears if his preferences include within-group altruism. In order to be rational, we must profess to others and behave as though we ourselves believe things which are from a very reductive perspective false, even when those behaviors are costly. That is to say, in order to behave rationally, our relationship to claims like “your vote counts!” must be empirically indistinguishable from belief, whether or not we understand the sense in which the claim is false.

Of course, it would be perfectly rational for a smarty-pants to make his wrongheaded but compelling argument about the irrationality of voting to members of the other clan. But it would be irrational for members of either group to take such arguments seriously, by whomever they are made and despite the sense in which they are true.

So, when elections have strong intergroup distributional consequences, not only is voting rational, misleading others about the importance of each vote is also rational, as is allowing oneself to be misled (unless you are sure you are an ubermensch apart, and the conditions of your immunity don’t imply that others will also be immune).

But is voting virtuous? I think we need to subdivide that question into at least two different perspectives on virtue, a within-group perspective and a detached, universal perspective. Within the clans of our hinterland, voting would almost certainly be understood as a virtue, a sacred obligation even, and to not vote would be to violate a taboo and be shunned or shamed, if physical violence is ruled out. Perhaps by definition, the social norms that most profoundly affect behavior are those endowed with moral significance, and a clan that did not define voting as a moral obligation would be at a severe competitive disadvantage. Further, at a gut level, people seem to have an easy time perceiving actions that are helpful to people within their own social tribe as virtuous, especially when it counters harmful (to us) actions of other tribes. From the perspective of almost everyone in our hypothetical hinterland, voting would be a virtue, for themselves and members of their own clan.

However, observing from outside the hinterland and from a less partisan point-of-view, voting does not seem especially virtuous. Whoever wins, half the population will be treated abhorrently. Since getting to voting booths involves climbing steep rock faces, as external observers we’d probably say that the whole process is harmful, and that it’d be better if the Hinterlonians found some less miserable means of basically flipping a coin to decide who rules, or better yet if they’d reform their society so that half its members weren’t quadrennially enslaved by a coin-flip. Even from outside, we’d probably recognize not voting as a sort of sin in its anthropological context, just as we’d condemn shirking by a baseball player even when we don’t care which team wins. But we’d consider the whole exercise distasteful. It’d be like the moral obligation of a slave to claim responsibility for an action by her child, so that the whipping comes to her. We’d simultaneously recognize the virtue and wish for its disappearance.

But lets leave the hinterland, and consider a polity in which there is a general interest as well as distributional interests. After an election, the losing clan might be disadvantaged relative to the winning clan, sure, but the skew of outcomes is much smaller than in the hinterland, and “good leadership” — whatever that means — can improve everyone’s circumstances so much (or bad leadership can harm everyone so dramatically) that often members of a clan would be better off accepting relative disadvantage and helping a leader from the other clan win. Now there are two potential virtues of voting, the uncomfortable within-clan virtue of the hinterland, but also, potentially, a general virtue.

Let’s consider some circumstances that would make voting a general virtue. Suppose that citizens can in fact perceive the relative quality of candidates, but imperfectly. In economist-speak, each citizen receives an independent estimate, or “signal”, of candidate quality. Any individual estimate may be badly distorted, as idiosyncratic experiences lead people to over- or underestimates of candidate quality, but those sorts of distortions affect all candidates similarly. Individuals cannot reliably perceive how accurate or distorted their own signals are. Some individuals mistakenly believe that candidate A is better than candidate B, and would vote for A. But since candidate B is in fact superior, distortions that create a preference for A would be rarer than those leave B’s lead in place. In this kind of world, voting is an unconflicted general virtue. There is a candidate whose victory would make the polity as a whole better off, despite whatever distributional skew she might impose. If only a few people vote, however, there is a significant possibility that voters with a mistaken ranking of quality will be overrepresented, and the low quality candidate will be chosen. The probability of error shrinks to zero only as the number of voters becomes very large. The expected quality of the election victor is monotonically increasing in the number of voters. Every vote improves the expected welfare of the polity, however marginally, and so every vote does count.

Even in worlds where voter participation is a clear public good, the Prisoners’ Dilemma described above still obtains. In very narrow terms, it’s unlikely that the personal benefit associated with a tiny improvement in expected general welfare exceeds the hassle of schlepping to the polls to cast a vote. Yet the cost of low voter participation, in aggregate and to each individual, can be very high, if it allows a terrible candidate to get elected. So, what do rational, forward-looking agents do? They don’t fatalistically intone about free-rider problems and not vote. As in the hinterland, they establish institutions intended to reshape individual behavior towards the collective rationality from which they will individually benefit. A polity might make voting compulsory, and some do. Short of that, it might establish strong social norms in favor of voting, try to enshrine a moral obligation to vote, and promote ideologies that attach higher values to voting than would be implied by individual effects on outcomes. As before, in this kind of world, it is those who make smarty-pants arguments about how voting is irrational who are behaving irrationally. Rationality is not a suicide pact.

In both of the sort of worlds I’ve described, we’d expect voting to be considered a virtue within competing clans or parties, as we pretty clearly observe in reality. We’d only expect voting to be considered a general virtue, one in which you exhorted others to vote regardless of their affiliations, in a world where people believed in a general interest to which citizens of every group have imperfect access. I think it’s interesting, and depressing, to observe growing cynicism about universal voting in the United States. Political operatives have always sought advantage from differential participation, but it was once the unconsidered opinion of patriotic Americans that everyone who could should vote. Maybe I’m just a grumpy old man, but now it seems that even “civically active” do-gooders focus on getting-out-the-vote on one side and openly hope for low participation on the other. To me, this suggests a polity that increasingly perceives distributional advantage as overwhelming any potential for widely-shared improvement. That can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Winecoff dislikes Pascal’s Wager, so lets use an idea from finance, optionality, instead. Suppose that there is no general welfare correlated to election outcomes, and apparent signals thereof are just noise. Then, if people falsely believe in “national leadership” and vote based on a combination of that and more partisan interests, we’d have, on average, the same distributional contest we’d have if people didn’t falsely believe. At worst we’d have a differently skewed distributional contest as one side manipulates perceptions of general interest more adroitly than the other. But suppose that there is a general interest meaningfully correlated to election outcomes, in addition to distributional concerns. Then “idealism” about the national interest, manifest as citizens working to perceive the relationship between electoral outcomes and the general welfare, voting according to those perceptions, and encouraging others to do the same, could lead to significant improvements for all. There’s little downside and a lot of upside to the elementary-school-civics take on elections. With this kind of gamma and so low a price (polling stations are not stuck atop mountains!), even hedge fund managers and political scientists ought to be long electoral idealism.


Note: I’m overseas and I don’t live in a swing state. I won’t be voting on Tuesday, by absentee ballot or otherwise. I deserve your disapproval, although not so very much of it. Social norms are contingent and supple. (Pace Winecoff and Arena, whether one lives in swing state should condition norms about voting. Why is left as an exercise to the reader. Hint: Consider the phrase “marginal change in expected welfare” — whether applied to members of an in-group or the polity as a whole — and the fact that cumulative distribution functions are typically S-shaped.)

 
 

42 Responses to “Why vote?”

  1. vbounded writes:

    interfluidity: But suppose that there is a general interest meaningfully correlated to election outcomes, in addition to distributional concerns. Then “idealism” about the national interest, manifest as citizens working to perceive the relationship between electoral outcomes and the general welfare, voting according to those perceptions, and encouraging others to do the same, could lead to significant improvements for all. There’s little downside and a lot of upside to the elementary-school-civics take on elections. With this kind of gamma and so low a price (polling stations are not stuck atop mountains!), even hedge fund managers and political scientists ought to be long electoral idealism.

    ——————————————————————————–

    There’s lots of downside in betting on opium dreams.

  2. Also:
    1. In your first scenario, if members of each tribe can defect to the other and the number of members of each tribe is unknown at time of voting, then utilitarianism suggests that each person should, regardless of their own selfish interests, want the largest tribe to win. To ensure this, you should vote with the precise probability of the expected turnout proportion of the whole population. As this in turn is unknowable in advance, you should observe your closest peers and vote with the same probability as the turnout amongst them. If you live in a community of rich intellectuals who all vote, vote. If you live in a group of disaffected punks who don’t vote, then don’t.

    2. You forgot to point out that this comment:

    it would be perfectly rational for a smarty-pants to make his wrongheaded but compelling argument about the irrationality of voting to members of the other clan. But it would be irrational for members of either group to take such arguments seriously

    is aimed squarely at @ModeledBehavior, who wrote a post this week endorsing not voting. Of course MB comprises at least two people of uncertain political allegiance each of whom regularly makes arguments construable to support either of the two large US political parties. Being, therefore, one of the few writers for whom this strategy may be fully rational.

  3. Oh yes, and an orthogonal but I think valid argument. It may be that regardless of the immediate outcome of a vote on election day, the real public good is society’s collective discussion of the issues. As the range of possible policies is so large, and the potential for cumulative bias so great if any part of society is left out of the conversation, each act of speech probably matters more than each vote.

    And psychologically, it’s very plausible that the anticipated necessity of making a clear decision on election day increases the motivation and quality of the speech acts of each individual.

    So _planning_ to vote may be rational regardless of whether you do.

  4. Phil writes:

    You raise some very good points. I agree more than I disagree, but I do have some quibbles.

    You are absolutely right that we should expect groups to try to overcome the free-rider problem, and that one way they will do so is by establishing a norm of “civic duty”. This is exactly what we observe, and there’s a lot of evidence that it’s quite effective. I don’t dispute this at all.

    The claim that it’s irrational to be a smartypants who points out how feeble the basis for this norm is, however, I find less persuasive. Personally, I don’t find it usefully to label any behavior as “rational” or “irrational”. The more interesting question is what preferences and constraints would make someone adopt a certain behavior. If it was true that writing blog posts such as the one I have written would erode the norm in favor of voting, or that it would weaken that norm disproportionately among a group of individuals who are likely to vote the way I would vote if I were likely to vote, then yes, my behavior would be counterproductive. But although you are undoubtedly right that the probability of offering the pivotal argument is greater than the probability of being pivotal in a presidential election, I’ve been making similar arguments for more than a decade, and if more than 5 people have stopped voting in that time as a result of my words, it would shock me. I couldn’t have known 12 years ago that I’d be so ineffective, and so perhaps it was wrongheaded of me to point out the many weaknesses in the case for voting back then, but by this time I’ve got a pretty good sense of how strong this norm is.

    So why do I do it then?

    There is more benefit, in my mind, to reinforcing my reputation for being the type of blogger who offers provocative, contrarian arguments than there is in changing people’s behavior. I don’t care if other’s vote. I also don’t care if they choose not to vote, and since I see very little difference between the parties, I’m not at all worried about whether I demobilize members of one party more than members of the other (assuming I demobilize more than a few people anyway). I care about whether people think my blog is worth reading, and writing posts that get people thinking, that perhaps even provoke them to write thoughtful responses, provides all the payoff I need.

    With respect to the virtue of voting, I think we need to be clearer about how we judge virtues. The argument you lay out is a nuanced version of “what if everyone thought that way?” — the single most common reaction to arguments such as mine. If we judge virtue the way Kant would, then that’s perfectly valid. Maybe this means I’m such a crude consequentialist that people should shun me, but I just can’t take such arguments seriously. If the only impact of an action in isolation is so tiny as to be negligible, I don’t see that action as having any real moral content. If it helps to hear me say that the moral content of voting, however tiny, is likely positive, then I’ll grant that. But no one seems to be taking about voting in that way. I know non-voters who think it shameful that I don’t vote, because they share the norm so strongly that even though they don’t vote, they find it reprehensible that I don’t profess guilt over sharing their sin. That’s utter nonsense, even if it’s true that my vote could reduce the ratio of noise by some very very very very small amount.

  5. marks writes:

    Just an observation from another perspective.

    I live in Australia, where it is compulsory to attend to vote (since the ballot is secret, they can’t make anyone actually fill in the paper). However, the cost of not voting is a) small ($150) and b) the Electoral Commission will accept almost any reasonable excuse.

    Yet we have a big turnout, even though the cost of not voting is pretty low.

    It would seem that even a small cost of not turning out is enough to tip the balance.

    So, I wonder what the cost of the Australian system (where one can effectively opt out for a small or maybe nil cost) is, compared to the US situation where tens of thousands of volunteers and maybe millions of dollars of incidental advertising costs are spent getting people to vote?

  6. Matthew writes:

    The first point that the impact of benefits of voting are negligible because of the 1/n problem is certainly valid, but I don’t really understand the second point. It appears to be a statement of the Arrow Impossibility theorem–it is impossible to define a social welfare function without declaring a dictator–but this has no bearing on individuals, who inevitably believe that their individual preferences should be adopted as the social welfare function.

    There are, I think, a couple points missing from this analysis. First, even if, from a social welfare perspective, the choice between the two clans is just arbitrary, voting still plays an important role in preventing third-party clans from taking power–that is, no one will ever vote for their least favorite candidate, so even where Arrow’s theorem bites, voting plays a critical role in restricting the election to moderates with broad support.

    Second, there is a well established psychological literature showing that while people are pretty good with probabilities in the 90% to 10% range, they are very bad with extreme probabilities outside that range. For example, even though the probability of harm is effectively zero, no one ever golfs during lightning storm–they act as if the probability of being struck is near certain. So with voting, it may well be that people simply dramatically overestimate their vote’s impact on the outcome.

    Third, bear in mind that people vote in multiple elections at once, so the impact on the presidential race is not the only benefit to voting. The value of their vote on local issues in candidates is much higher than on presidential races, and not necessarily less consequential (for example, local zoning laws probably affect people more than anything the president can do). The total value of going to vote is the sum of all these local, state, and federal issues, but the cost is the same no matter how many issues there are.

    Finally, I want to point out that none of the arguments about why people vote suggest that they are “irrational” in the economic sense of completeness and transitivity. The fact is that people are pretty consistent in their choice on whether or not to vote, and any consistent choice structure satisfies the economic definition of rationality. So this post is really about debating which rational choice structure characterizes the reason people vote. The positive approach would be to simply gather some data and find out what utility function is most predictive of the propensity to vote, without caring about “why” they vote.

  7. [...] Why vote? – interfluidity [...]

  8. [...] Link: interfluidity.com/v2/3570.html If everyone in your clan is what we’ll call “narrowly rational”, and so abstains from voting, the predictable outcome will be bad. But it is not rational, for individuals within a group that will foreseeably face a Prisoners’ Dilemma, to shrug and say “that sucks” and wait for everything to go to hell. Instead, people work to find means of reshaping their confederates’ behavior to prevent narrowly rational but collectively destructive choices. [...]

  9. Greg Taylor writes:

    After the elimination of the military draft in the U.S., voting is one of the few acts that binds us a community – especially at the national and state levels. Voting is a statement that one cares to belong. Leaders elected by votes of a small minority of the group understand that they may have minimal support for their actions and govern accordingly.

    John Lennon asks us to “imagine” a world without nations, religion or any reason to fight and die. Could such a world have any groups or even families? I suspect not. It would quickly die out.

    Establishing and maintaining a moral social order typically involves acts that puzzle rationalists – belief systems for religions, hazing/indoctrination rituals for fraternity/sororities, sports, etc. The trick is finding healthy ways to bind groups without accepting bullying authoritarianism within the group and without demonizing other groups. Voting is one way.

  10. Ryan writes:

    I really enjoyed this post, but I would like to add that these arguments for creating institutional arrangements to overcome the free-rider problem also chip away at the low probability argument mentioned at the beginning. In deciding to cast your ballot, your support of the voting norm inevitably has some spillover effects on others probabilities of voting. Considering that people self-select into peers whose ideologies match their own, this means that you affirming the act of voting as a good thing for members of your group means other group members will be more likely to vote. This is not to say that one vote makes all the difference, but the externalities associated with establishing the importance of voting in your group can be large. Considering it has been shown how equilibrium of norms can switch quickly, say from low-crime to high-crime acceptance, not affirming the right to vote has the potential to lead to much larger repercussions in the long run.

  11. Joe Smith writes:

    Personally, I believe that the hyper rational libertarians should be true to their beliefs and stay home on Tuesday. :-) Also the die hard Republicans should be rational and stay home.

    Since the left are not economically rational, everyone who wants to see Obama become President should get out and vote no matter which State they live in. (As you note the reasons for voting in a non-swing state are different from a swing state but reasons still exist to want to your vote recorded in the popular vote.)

  12. ZHD writes:

    The most prevalent theory of voter behavior is The Rational Ignorance model. It offers a utility function that makes a lot more sense than a net social benefit of zero.

    You can find a paper giving an overview of voting behavior here http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=916963

  13. [...] – Then moving on to philosophy of voting. [...]

  14. This will not endear me to anyone, but I will be blunt. Thank you, gracious host Interfluidity, for enabling the gamut of markup tags, thus allowing me the freedom and means with which to fully express myself.

    Has any among you ever served as an election worker? I have! I have served in California, Manhattan, and South Florida. In my home county in post-2000 era Florida, I was the precinct worker responsible for the electronic voting machines: Set-up, monitoring and at the end of the day, aggregation and delivery of the votes. For the curious and ornery: We do cross-check the vote counts. The final act before I shuttered the polling place for the night was to post a printout with stratified tallies on the outer lintel of the door, for all to see, and as required by law. The reason I mention this is because of the dismally small voter turnout’s that I saw. Turnout decreased steadily, as a percentage of those eligible. I think it is acceptable, even here, in the domain of rationality, to posit that it is depressing when only 20% of registered voters choose to vote, especially in communities with many retired people, who don’t have jobs or children to tend. Nor where there hordes of (any?) wanna-be voters turned away.

    Comment 1. is ill-tempered.
    Comment 2 by friendly Leigh Caldwell is hilarious, especially in light of the callow guest post on MB 1’s (or was it MB 2’s?) watch, featured last week. I haven’t read the anti-voting post yet. That will be my next on my agenda.
    Comment 3 by friendly Leigh Caldwell is slightly less droll, but rather astute, I think. I should preface that by saying that I do believe that voting is a virtuous public act. It promotes engagement with one’s community, with many beneficial secondary effects. That concept is developed far better by Ryan, in Comment 10. Let’s finish with Leigh. I agree, that it might not be the act of voting, but rather, preparation for the act of voting, over the proceeding weeks or months, which is of greatest value. Skipping along, slightly, brings me to…
    Comment 12. The SSRN abstract kindly posted by ZHD made feel less certain. Fortunately, I only read the abstract, so I can cling to hope, that the findings were not indicative of a willfully and irrationally ignorant electorate.

    Wrapping things up, Phil’s Comment 4 starts well, but lost my advocacy by the end.
    Comment 5, about the exotic customs of distant Australia, requires further thought.
    Comment 6 by Matthew esd more concise and more interesting to me than the original post.
    Comment 9 by Greg Taylor was much to my liking, even moved me emotionally, which isn’t looked upon too favorably, I suspect…
    Comment 11, by Joe Smith was fun, and giggle-worthy, and confirmed my sentiments (despite lack of factual validation) that using swing-state status for deciding whether or not to vote is something that should only be done if time and circumstances are restricted. Who knows what will be swing, and even if we do know, Comments 3, 9 and 10 still apply.

  15. A H writes:

    It seems strange that economists would think that voting has no value since it is literally possible to buy votes and it is reasonable to believe if the market for votes were “deregulated“, votes would definitely have a non-zero price.

    There is also a a fair amount of finance research done into the value of a voting rights per share in corporate takeovers, and in if the shares are widely distributed, like normal votes are, all the value doesn’t go to the marginal voter, like Winecoff and Arena imply it should.

  16. JW Mason writes:

    This is absolutely right, as far as it goes. And for a lot of purposes it goes far enough.

    But from a more radical perspective, one might want to acknowledge that the societies we live in are not composed of interchangeable individuals, but rather a small group who control the process of social production (represented as wealth or capital) and have a relatively easy time solving their coordination problem, and a much larger number of us without a good solutions to our coordination problems, and therefore whose social power is ultimately rooted in noncompliance — strikes, riots, crime, more passive forms of disruption. In this sense, elections are not about who will govern, but about what degree and what kind of concessions those who always govern will make to the rest of us. it’s a way of taking the temperature of the population to get a sense if more material concessions are needed *before* the point of riot is reached, and also to see what kind of symbolic concessions might substitute for them.

    But again, that’s getting beyond the scope of the post. Within the liberal frame of civic equality, I think you hit the decisive point.

  17. JW Mason writes:

    The value of their vote on local issues in candidates is much higher than on presidential races, and not necessarily less consequential

    So Matthew, can you tell me — without looking it up — the name of your representatives in the state legislature?

  18. [...] Why voting is a general virtue.  (Interfluidity) [...]

  19. [...] An interesting post from Steve Randy Waldman on whether it makes sense to vote (and whether it is virtuous to do so). He invokes in an interesting analogy and moves on from there: All of these arguments are right but wrongheaded. We don’t vote for the same reason we buy toothpaste, satisfying some personal want when the benefit outweighs the cost of doing so. Nor, as Winecoff and Arena effectively argue, can we claim that our choice to vote for one side and against another is altruistic, unless we have a very paternalistic certitude in our own evaluation of which side is best for everyone. Nevertheless, voting is rational behavior and it can, under some circumstances, be a moral virtue. [...]

  20. Wonks Anonymous writes:

    What if we don’t think that higher turnout improves the expected outcome, but rather that marginal voters are more ignorant than average?

  21. [...] Wonks An extremely detailed explanation of the theoretical basis for actually voting tomorrow – Steve Waldman [...]

  22. [...] Waldman at Interfluidity has a rationalist take on “Why Vote” that motivated this [...]

  23. [...] convinced voting is worthwhile? Interfluidity explains why, despite claims by economists to the contrary, “voting is rational behavior and [...]

  24. [...] – Why vote? (Steve Randy Waldman) [...]

  25. Graham Cox writes:

    You could hone some arguments by considering the decision of an elderly person.

    Also please do not talk of ‘economists’in this way as if all economists are Chicago robots who think all people are self-orientated calculating machines 100% of the time.

    Even putting religion aside, rationality can include altruism and indeed some cultures are built on altruism even if the altruism is deeply based on instinct from evolution connected with group survival.

  26. [...] la blogosphère américaine, Chris Dillow, Rajiv Sethi et Randy Waldman apportent chacun des éléments  intéressants. Dillow suggère une explication que j’avais [...]

  27. David writes:

    You guys are great. Just when I had accepted the notion that the information available to me in cyberbrain has greater value than the cost of the disinformstion that poisons other pluggers-in to cyberbrain I come across this discussion by some very evolved creatures to make me realise that I know nothing, Mr Fawlty, I know nothing. Wow.I thought the financial services industry was a world of useless smart guys.

  28. [...] economy  (FT Alphaville) see also USA Recession Odds: 100%? (Pragmatic Capitalism) • Why vote? (Interfluidity) • Electoral-Vote Cartograph (Big Picture) • Pundit accountability: The official 2012 election [...]

  29. Mo06 writes:

    Well, when both main candidates support the status quo, in which members of foreign clans are systematically targeted with lethal technology from the skies, controlled by people far awy sitting at computer screens, and this is carried out without any legal process, and despite the fact that sometimes the victims actually belong to the killers’ own clan, well yes, one can righly ask – why vote ………?

  30. [...] Why vote? – via http://www.interfluidity.com – I’m a great fan of Kindred Winecoff, especially when I disagree with him, which is often. Today Winecoff joins forces with Phil Arena expressing disdain for the notion that there might be any virtue or utility to voting other than whatever consumption value voters enjoy for pre-rational, subjective reasons. There are lots of interesting arguments in the two pieces, but the core case is simple: The probability that any voter will cast the “decisive vote” is negligible, effectively zero; Even if a voter does cast the “decisive vote”, the net social gain associated with that act is roughly zero because different people have stakes in opposing outcomes. Once you subtract the costs to people on the losing side from the gains to winners, you find that there is little net benefit to either side prevailing over the other. [...]

  31. Will writes:

    +1 to the Australian compulsory voting idea.

    Voting has two positive externalities:
    It helps to prevents political capture by powerful interest groups.
    It strengthens the form of government (democracy) against less desirable alternatives (dictatorship).

    So why not increase the cost of not voting (fines) and/or decrease the cost of voting (pre-voting, quicker voting, etc)??

    US voter turnout averages between 50% – 60%. Australian turnout is consistently 95% ish

  32. Bilsybub writes:

    This is a solid aanalysis. What I think is missing is the notion that there exist potential voters who do not identify as members of relevant decision making parties. To take the hinterlands example, imagine there exists a third clan, whose members are partially affected by the decisions of the Dear Leader, but whose numbrs don’t convert into a voting bloc sizable enough to push the outcome of the vote much. Effectively, this third clan is at the mercy of the two main clans, regardless of who wins. Occassionally things work out for them, because of a decision of whichever Dear Leader is in charge…but then sometimes it all goes south.

    For this third clan, there exists a huge incentive to vote WITH THEIR clan: they may be able to influence the rboader election such that the least annoying Dear Leader is chosen. The clan benefits by having its members vote, despite not exerting influence on decisions made post-election.

    However, imagine a fourth group of people who belong to no clan, who have wildly varying ideas about which Dear Leader will help them the most. Since they are not part of a polity pushing its influence, how much impact will they have? Their votes constitute (effectively) noise. The only case people in this non-Clan can have an impact is if a small, but significantly sized group of them begins to vote AS A BLOC. That effectively adjusts the weighting of the coin, and has an outsized effect, even compared to Clan 3 (potentially).

    Then I have an EXCEPTIONALLY strong pressure to vote: because I am part of a group, and my accession to the demands of the group – i.e. voting – confers an advantage to the group and, by proxy, me.

    Based on this (really rough) thought experiment, I conclude that voting as a rational individual, making judgements purely alone, is effectively noise. However, voting as a member of a group, to which my future well-being is very directly conjoined, voting has real value and significant impact. A political blocs power relies directly upon the political will of its participants; if I desire it succeeds, I must activelty participate in demonstrating political power. In this case, I’m not voting for myself, as a citizen of a very, very large polity; I’m voting as a dedicated member of a much smaller group that is directly oriented with my own utility.

  33. [...] Why vote at [...]

  34. [...] Why vote at [...]

  35. [...] Why vote? – interfluidity [...]

  36. [...] Why vote? – interfluidity [...]

  37. [...] see a defense of voting in these formal terms, as a “rational” act, I would recommend this cogent response from Steve Randy Waldman, whose blog I recommended here a while back. He considers voting as a [...]

  38. George writes:

    Great post! Here are some more arguments about why voting can still be in an individual’s narrow interest even if his vote is unlikely to be decisive. Why you should always vote

  39. [...] issues including the various discussions mentioned on this blog in past weeks, from Sergey Brin to Steve Randy Waldman. And while the latter’s rational choice explanation for belief in voting is one I’m willing to [...]

  40. Harald Korneliussen writes:

    Will (#31) writes:

    It helps to prevents political capture by powerful interest groups.

    Does it, now? Especially if you just herd people to the polls against their will, with mandatory voting? If you don’t give a hoot who wins, aren’t you even more easily swayed by some social-network savvy attitude manipulation?

    It strengthens the form of government (democracy) against less desirable alternatives (dictatorship)

    Does it? What if it just lends a cloak of sham democracy to let dictatorship cover itself with?

    I don’t think SRW’s mutually oppressive tribesmen metaphor tells us much interesting. If a tribesman refuses to vote, because he refuses to endorse the enslaving that will take place if “his” side wins, isn’t he really a quite nicer fellow than voters on either side?

    I also see a lot of potential downside to “idealism” of national interest, or civics class patriotism, or what it should be called.

  41. marks writes:

    @40

    About the so-called ‘compulsory’ vote in Australia. First of all, the fine for not turning up is ridiculously small, and taken over a three year term is piffling. Second, the Electoral Commission accepts almost any excuse, so effectively it is the cost of an email. So, ‘herding’ is not really an accurate term to use. The so-called ‘compulsory’ voting legislation is really a National Statement that participation in the democratic process is an important civic duty. It is stretching a very long bow to say that a few dollars a year (if that) cost to someone who does not want to vote is ‘compulsion’.

    So it really depends on the national view of whether or not participation in a democracy is important. If the US has a different view of this compared to Australia, then obviously there will be different outcomes.

    There are a number of practical issues though. First, since 95% of people turn out to vote in Australia, we do not have people or robots ringing us up every day, people door knocking, and posters on lawns telling us to get out to vote. Simply put, Australians have much less cr*p to put up with before polling day. The politicians, of course spend a lot more time on policy, because they don’t have to spend that time persuading Australians to actually vote.

    I would be willing to bet that the costs of so-called ‘compulsory voting’ are far less than those involved in armies of volunteers and paid staff, office space, advertising etc etc that characterise non-compulsory systems. Certainly much less intrusive. For those who like their privacy and freedom, the freedom to not be pestered by telephone and door knockers is not to be discounted. So, there is an economic dimension to compulsory voting as well, since it eliminates the ‘get out the vote’ component of election expenses.

    It seems to me that the freedom one gains by non-compulsory voting, is balanced by the freedom one loses by having to put up with the telephone calls, door knockers, advertising etc etc. If one is truly worried about manipulation by “some social-network savvy attitude manipulation” then banning the use of telephone, internet and doorknocking canvassers would be a good way to go. Compulsory voting actually achieves this nicely.

    As for lending a cloak of sham democracy to let dictatorship cover itself with? Oh please! Dictators will get you out, or not as their whim decides. As a cloak, it is not worth the effort.

  42. Unsettled Worker writes:

    I definitely challenge the perception of voting as an act that reassures us we care about our community. I think this is the principal step to admitting we are indoctrinated. Principally, the main problem I have with casting my vote is that I don´t believe in electoral promises, and the acts of the previous period also discourage me to vote. My behavior corresponds to the negative perception of the experienced governments. It is the same as behaving in the slowing Canadian housing market, where everyone pretends it is OK while everyone knows it is really really bad.

    By voting, you accept and legitimize the ruling elite. It legitimizes Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, Obama, it also legitimizes drone attacks, Wall street etc.

    And one of the gravest consequences of compulsory voting are in Brasil. If you don´t cast your vote, you can´t receive any government payments, work in the public office, etc.