Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why Do People Vote (Or Not)? Part 2: Short Answer Portion

Well, it seems by the lack of comments and visits (thanks, stalking tools) that the idea of rational/irrational voters and the desire to vote was not as interesting to all of you as it is to me.

In that cause, I will make my statements short and provide you with links if you want to do some digging yourself.

Your Vote Does Not Matter: Strike One For Voting
It is a simple exercise in mathematics, which was done here by the very entertaining economist Steve Landsburg. He concludes, after comparing the odds in the lottery to those of your vote deciding the election, that (to give one example) you would have a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than casting the deciding vote in the state of New York.

Pretty dismal, no?

So, if people are voting because they think their individual vote will decide the election, they either don't understand probability or choose to ignore it. So why do they go on?

Rational Ignorance: Strike Two For Voting
O.K., so you understand that your vote might not decide the election and, because of secret ballots, you wouldn't know that it was your vote anyway.

Are there any other reasons that arise from the long odds that should keep you away from the polls?

Yes, and that is where rational ingnorance comes into play. Read here for a more complete definition, but basically it boils down to the idea that because your odds are so long and becoming informed about the candidates and issues is costly in terms of time, effort and money, it is not worth it for you to be informed or care at all.

What personal benefit do you get from voting for one candidate over another? It is plain to see that one of the benefits is not the great chance that your vote will be decisive. There is a benefit that I can see one gaining by voting, but I think we'll close on that point.

Strike Three For Voting: Idiots In Large Groups
So, you understand that it is the best choice for you to remain ingorant on the issues, candidates and spend the time you would have invested in the election in doing something else...or do you?

Will, you ask, what if everyone thought like you and didn't vote? Wouldn't democracy collapse? No, because of the simple reason that most people don't think like me and still vote in the millions.

This raises the issues of group decision making and public choice theory. A detailed discussion of these ideas may be beyond the scope of this post, but a few remarks are in order. According to theories like Kenneth Arrow's "impossibility theorem," it is impossible in any system short of dictatorship to translate the choices of individuals into group preferences that meet even basic criteria for fairness. This, as mentioned above, relates to the larger field of public choice theory, wherein scholars have debated how this translation of personal choices into group decisions is to be structured to best reflect an overall preference. Most have said, however, that this is somewhere between difficult and virtually impossible.

Irrational Voters: Why Democracy Often Fails?
Allright, so, maybe, just maybe, people aren't voting for rational reasons. They are not seeking to maximize their payoffs and minimize their costs at all times and there are other reasons for voting. This has to be it, right?

Well, maybe. The work of Bryan Caplan, mainly in his new book, argues that rational ignorance does not give the whole picture. He asserts that voters are irrational rather than ignorant. He does this on the notion that while mistaken notions about some things in life (health, for example) are high cost, mistaken notions about economic and political issues are rather small in comparison. If I underestimate the high cost of juggling chainsaws, I will end up dead. If I understimate the cost of, say, immigration reform, what happens to me? Caplan argues (and fairly convincingly) that the same thing would probably happen if I knew nothing or if I understood the whole issue.

Which brings me to my final point...

Voting's Last Stand?
I had to think of something to say in favor of voting, if for no other reason than it seems that people are not going to stop doing it anytime soon.

This is an idea that has occured to me in the past, and it seems I'm not alone. Hey, if a really smart guy like Steve Levitt and I came up with similar ideas, well, perhaps I am not as big a moron as I sometimes claim.

The reason that I (and more eloquently Levitt) think people vote relates to seeking a benefit, but not the sort as described above. People vote simply so that others in their neighborhoods can see them voting and be seen themselves. It seems to be an issue of one's social image locally and a low-cost way to show one's dedication to the system that is supported by the act of voting. People, in other words, vote not approve or disapprove of a candidate or issue - they do it to seek approval for their behavior from their peers.

Now, I realize that there are critiques of voting from other standpoints, critiques that I think are quite interesting. Many of them come down to the point that voting is an act of acquiescence to a system that is in profound need of change. By not voting, one expresses their displeasure with the system and their desire to change it. This, for me, does not alter the fact that voting is a way of showing your personal preferences. It simply argues that your preference is for a different system alltogether.

In closing, I realize that there are a lot of open issues above, and a discussion of them could go in many different directions. I love talking about this stuff (as has become painfully obvious in this "short" post. Just let me know and we'll walk that rhetorical road together.

If not, well, I guess you have made your preferences clear to me on ONE score...


Dad said...

Well, this may be big mistake ( challenging my erudite son with a basic premise) I vote because I'm able to. My citizenship gives me the right and I choose to exercise it. I never really thought about why (until now). I suspect I'd be pissed, based on my upbringing, if all of a sudden I wasn't allowed to vote. Are my votes informed ?? not totally.... anyone who says they are totally informed is probably a lying or trying to impress you. I have several key issues and I measure candidates by evaluating their positions on my on "hot buttons". Do my votes make a difference ?? To me they do. They give me the additional right to complain about results I don't agree with. Yep, I'm one of those "oldtimers" who says " if you don't vote, you can't bitch"....So, I'm a civic minded, partially informed baby boomer who will continue to vote as long as I am able. I must admit though... I avoid primary elections. I don't need voting practice.... my 2 cents

Will Shannon said...

First off, Dad, it is not a mistake to disagree with me. That's what I want people to do.

First off, I hope that I didn't give the impression that I want a system where people don't have a choice. Far from it. Ideally, I would like a system where people's choices were taken more into account than the one we have.

Your point on people and the information they have is an excellent one. While theorists who deal with these things argue over incomplete information problems (think John Nash here), the fact remains that people make decisions that are not perfectly informed. This presents, in my opinion, a challenge to the rational choice theory.

People are not perfect calculating machines. I remember reading somewhere that of all of the groups in society that have been tested on their rational decision making, the only two groups that consistently pick the optimal strategy are economists and the mentally insane.

Ultimately, though, I agree with the notion that voting is a low-cost way to show your preferences (like cheering for your favorite sports teams). I also think there is something to be said for being seen at the polling place. For people who strive to be respected (especially in small communities) this is a sort of "make-or-break" thing.

I'm civic minded as well, but what that "civic" entails I believe should be radically different than it is now.

Thanks for the comment, Dad.

Anonymous said...

I think you both hit the nail on the head with two different hammers. Personally, I am aware that voting is mathematically irrelevant; and yet I vote and inform myself to the best of my ability about the issues and the candidates. Why? Because, as your father seemed to agree, it is firstly an exercise in citizenship; but also, as you said, because it displays your preferences to others.

All things do not boil down to a purely cost-benefit result in life. Take honor, for example. Biologically, it makes sense to be dishonorable. To strike from the shadows, flee from combat leaving friends for dead, and kill those weaker than you and take their resources. Yet some have a concept of honor and many choose to die rather than betray it. It is a social currency, and voting is another part of that.

One more thing. There is another benefit to being politically active. It increases critical thinking, education, and to a lesser degree intelligence itself. That is a very real benefit in all aspects of life, especially considering that similar uses of time could be spent learning other things which don't have nearly the same amount of benefit from a purely rational point of view. Building models isn't going to have many practical applications in 'real life.'

Nice blog, Will.