Voting, cheering, and exploitation

In his little book ‘Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction‘ Ken Binmore writes:

Real people seldom think rational thoughts about whether to vote or not. Even if they did, they might feel that going to the polling booth is a pleasure rather than a pain. But…the pundits who denounce the large minority of people who fail to vote in presidential elections as irrational are talking through their hats. If we want more people to vote, we need to move to a more decentralized system in which every vote really does count enough to outweigh the lack of enthusiasm for voting which so many people obviously feel. If we can’t persuade such folk that they like to vote and we don’t want to change our political system, we will just have to put up with their staying at home on election night. Simply repeating the slogan that ‘every vote counts’ isn’t ever going to work, because it isn’t true.

Later in the book Binmore returns to this topic when he discusses the “myth of the wasted vote”:

If a wasted vote is one that doesn’t affect the outcome of an election, then the only time that your vote can count is when only one vote separates the winner and the runner-up. If they are separated by two or more votes, then a change in your vote would make no difference at all to who is elected. However, an election for a seat in a national assembly is almost never settled by a margin of only one vote….Naive folk imagine that to accept this argument is to precipitate the downfall of democracy. We are therefore told that you are wrong to count only the effect of your vote alone – you should instead count the total number of votes cast by all those people who think and feel as you think and feel, and hence will vote as you vote…This argument is faulty for the same reason that the twins fallacy fails in the Prisoner’s Dilemma . There may be large numbers of people who think and feel like you, but their decisions on whether to go out and vote won’t change if you stay home and watch the television.

Faced with the criticism that game theorists who openly disseminate such observations lack “public spirit” he responds by drawing an analogy between voting and cheering at a football game.

“No single voice can make an appreciable difference to how much noise is being made when a crowd of people is cheering. But nobody cheers at a football game because they want to increase the general noise level. They shout words of wisdom  and advice at their team even when they are at home in front of a television set. The same goes for voting. You are kidding yourself if you vote because your vote has a significant chance of being pivotal. But it makes perfectly good sense to vote for the same reason that football fans yell advice at their teams.”

Whether this analogy is accurate or not, it is doubtful that such explanations of voting can salvage the idea that participation in an election is a meaningful public activity, let alone a civic duty. A recent Reason article, Your Vote Doesn’t Count,’ is a good survey of this topic and the desperate attempts to rehabilitate the case for voting. With the exception of economist Gordon Tullock, few scholars are known for publicly admitting to the futility of voting, let alone admitting to not voting themselves.

One explanation why people vote is that many do not explicitly recognize that they are no longer deciding an issue in a small hunter gatherer tribe. The fact that the scale of our decision making has changed substantially throughout the history of mankind is increasingly being discussed though. For example,  one presentation at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium reads as follows:

Richard Nikoley, B.S. – Paleo Epistemology and Sociology

Primitive peoples evolved to account for the values and actions of a relatively small tribe of family and close acquaintances comprising of 30-60 members whereby, every individual had a critical role and opportunity to influence the behavior and actions of the group or tribe as a whole. This is far removed from the unhealthy social trends in modern society where individuals are fooled into believing that they have real power at the voting booth and other activism when in reality, their influence is insignificant and pales in comparison to the social power a primitive hunter-gatherer would have wielded.

A more sophisticated argument about conditions under which which it would be rational to vote was recently expressed by the social philosopher Anthony de Jasay in a 2011 interview:

It is in fact widely held that because millions vote, no voter can rationally expect to influence the result. Millions nevertheless keep on voting, which looks a bit strange. Many parapsychological stories have been written to explain why they do so. I am not sure that we need them. In a well-oiled democracy, the perfect election result yields a wafer-thin majority because that outcome maximizes the size of the losing coalition ready to be exploited and minimizes the size of the winning coalition whose members share the spoils. This idea, of course, is the well-known median voter theorem. When the majority is literally wafer thin, the displacement of a single vote turns the majority into a minority, and vice versa. Thus, the perfectly oiled democratic mechanism produces outcomes with a majority of one vote; a single vote is decisive; and, hence, the voter is quite rational to cast it. In a less perfectly oiled democracy, where the majority is thicker than a wafer, the probability of a single vote’s being decisive is less than unity (the median voter theorem does not quite hold), but it need not be negligible. Because voting is not very costly, to affirm that it is irrational to vote is much too strong a claim.

Jasay’s explanation why people vote, or under which conditions it would be rational to vote, deserves closer scrutiny because it aims to do more than coming up with a “feel-good” story about voting. What Jasay is saying here is that in elections that are purely distributive in nature, it can be rational to vote. Real-world elections, however, do not take place in such “well-oiled” democracies and virtually all large elections are decided by majorities much thicker than a wafer.

The problem with Jasay’s argument about the rationality of voting is not just that it has little relevance for actual existing democracies but it also raises questions about whether such a cynical form of democracy could be viable at all. Although most people recognize the redistributive component in politics, it is doubtful that a democracy in which politicians operate without any illusion about serving the general interest could persist. Just like it is doubtful whether voting would survive widespread recognition that it is just another form of cheering (or signalling), it is also doubtful that a democracy that would function in the way that Jasay describes it would be able to secure stable compliance, especially from its victims.

Public choice scholars often praise themselves as doing politics without romance by stripping the political process of all its lofty rhetoric and just analyzing it in terms of interest. But if people would actually recognize public institutions solely as vehicles to form coalitions to exploit others, the resulting governments would have little resemblance to the Western governments scholars and philosophers currently analyze. In other words, it may be a mistake to assume a distinctly different view of human nature and social interaction but keep political institutions unchanged.

While economists sometimes recognize the futility of voting in technical works, Bryan Caplan has been one of the few scholars who has developed this fact (and its implications for public policy) into a general theory about the microfoundations of political failure. In two excellent blog entries for EconLog he further reflects on the illusion of choice in American elections and how politics discourages self-correction (as opposed to markets).

Voting anarchists

One of the longest ongoing debates in anarchism concerns the morality of voting. Thomas Woods has weighed in and not only believes that it is not immoral to vote, but that there are good reasons to vote for a candidate such as Ron Paul. He writes:

If you were stuck in a prison camp, and the guards let you vote on whether you were to have gruel or prime rib for dinner, would you be “consenting to the system” to vote for prime rib, or would you simply be doing the best you could under the circumstances to improve your material condition?

It is not clear in Woods’ example if anyone else is voting so it does not address the most obvious reason why many people in mass democracies do not vote; the recognition that there is an extremely small probability that your vote will decide the outcome, and therefore is quite a futile exercise.

Austrian economists define rationality as purposive behavior. This makes it harder to adapt the framework in which it can be hypothesized that it is irrational to vote. As a consequence, Austrians are not able to launch a research program to investigate the implications and consequences of this phenomenon for public policy. In contrast, classical economists like Bryan Caplan, who are not burdened by such a vacuous definition of rationality, have made useful contributions to the microfoundations of political failure.

One implication of the statement that not voting for Ron Paul “hurts the cause of the free society” is that it posits a “free society” as a goal that should be pursued by rational individuals. This approach reinforces the politicization of individual decision making and implies that a free society is the product instead of the absence of politics.

Much of what we call political behavior is most likely a remnant of our ancestral past where one person’s opinion and behavior mattered a lot more and the relationship between people could be characterized as a zero-sum game.

As Patri Friedman has observed at Overcoming Bias:

In the ancestral environment, pulling together to help the tribe in a time of crisis was the best way for an individual to survive.  In our modern environment, however, we are often led to identify with an entire nation as our “tribe”, and it turns out that this is an inefficiently large group for most types of collective action.  We evaluate the prospect of unity with ancient mental modules optimized for Dunbarian tribes, and that sphexishness leads us into disastrous collective ventures…Anytime you get excited about collective actions in supra-Dunbarian groups, you should be suspicious that you may be in monkey-mode… anytime you are arguing about politics as if you can do anything about them, then unless you are very wealthy or powerful, you are probably in monkey-mode.

In contemporary society the ancestral mindset still dominates, but it is hard to see how the cause for a “free society” will be strengthened by reinforcing it.

In August 2011, Stefan Molyneux (for this views on voting, listen to this) released a video aimed at addressing arguments by libertarian economist Walter Block about libertarian anarchists such as Wendy McElroy and Molyneux himself who do not support Ron Paul’s political campaign. Stefan objects to Ron Paul’s incoherent “constitutionalism,” discusses the costs and benefits of political action, presents anarchism as a multi-generational effort, and also gives a Burkean perspective on what might happen if a libertarian President would attempt to roll back the state in a country where libertarianism is a minority outlook (social unrest and violence).

If you think of a libertarian society as an emergent outcome that arises from evolving social interaction between rational individuals instead of an “ideology” that requires people to conform to categorical imperatives like the non-aggression principle, a lot of the debate about the morality of voting is not useful. Stefan’s treatment of Block’s arguments is not confined to such a moralist perspective; he also discusses what Wendy McElroy calls”non-ideological objections to electoral politics,” such as the effectiveness of changing things that are within individual control versus participating in collective action. He seems to recognize that one of the consequences of advocating people to vote and campaign for Ron Paul is to induce them to adopt a rigid and politicized framework for thinking about personal liberty.

Anarchist economists routinely contrast the operation of a free market with collective choice but many of them do not recognize that the postulates about individual decision making and value in their economic theories present major challenges for traditional thinking about morality, collective action, and (electoral) politics. In an older post on this topic Wendy McElroy quotes Sunni Maravillosa to contrast her individualist perspective with that of the voting anarchists:”What happened to the understanding that liberty is, first and foremost, an individualistic idea and pursuit? How did it happen that to achieve liberty we must all unite and act as one, pulling the great lever for The One Man Fit to Rule Us All.

Darwinian Politics

Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom is a fine introduction to the sociobiology of politics. Rubin is a self-identified libertarian but he makes a serious attempt to avoid dogmatism and consider evidence that points in the opposite direction. For example, on the issue of personal freedom his research forced him to qualify his views about government regulation of personal behavior. In most other aspects, he believes that knowledge of evolutionary psychology can help us in recognizing irrational and wealth-destroying ancestral thinking and conduct. To what extent such recognition can alter our behavior is not a topic he discusses in much detail. In some cases, he seems to be of the opinion that there are general human traits that are so “hardwired” that it would be futile for politicians to go against them, but in other cases he seems to lament the persistence of other hardwired human traits in our modern society. I suspect that, ultimately, where one locates oneself in such debates is itself influenced by ideology, which presents some non-trivial challenges in drawing normative conclusions from sociobiology.

The main thesis of the book is that humans have spent most of their existence in small groups of hunter gatherers and our thinking and conduct concerning economical and political matters is greatly shaped (and constrained) by this.  Most of the chapters are aimed at working out the implications of this for various issues, ranging from conflicts between groups to the politics of envy.

Rubin is not a friend of social contract / state of nature theorizing. He not only believes that contractarianism provides little guidance about the State and politics in the real world, but that the social contract metaphor itself is harmful because it suggests that humans have more freedom in choosing the rules and institutions of their society than they actually have (and can have). He draws an interesting analogy to this view and the Standard Social Science Model (and its political offspring, Marxism) in which human psychology is basically a blank slate. He writes, “if real policies are based on false constructions, then real suffering may ensue.”

One of the strongest sections in the book is where Rubin explains why evolution is not incompatible with individual or group differences. His argument draws upon evolutionary game theory in demonstrating why we would expect individuals who employ different “strategies” to be present in varying proportions in the population, including a small proportion of sociopaths. It would be reasonable to conclude from this that different character traits give rise to different kinds of political beliefs, and that we should expect a permanent “war” between these various types of people. Rubin, however, does not pursue this line of thought and focuses on how general evolved human traits may conflict with rational decision making and welfare maximization.

He devotes a whole chapter to group conflict and this chapter is by far the least exciting because he rather uncritically adopts the outlook of progressive economists.  Rubin puts a lot of emphasis on the observation that individuals can be part of, and can identify with, all kinds of groups. There is little discussion, however, of the degree to which this behavior persists in decision making about personal and political matters. The author is correct that prejudiced consumers and producers decrease the economic gains available to them but he does not discuss cases where “discrimination” can contribute to economic welfare or safety. He also seems to treat the Western economy as a given and does not consider the possibility that (rapid) demographic changes can alter the popularity and functioning of a free market itself. This individualist position should be well known to libertarians (especially of the Objectivist variety) but the question of how a society of (secular) individualists should deal with internal and external threats of more collectivist groups of people is ignored in this context. He is a staunch opponent of affirmative action, however, because it strengthens ethnic identity politics and is extremely dangerous.

In the chapter on altruism, cooperation, and sharing I feel that the evolutionary perspective runs into limits. To some people, evolutionary psychology is just a bunch of just-so stories that allows for the (permanent) co-existence of competing theories and normative conclusions. Rubin thinks that a roughly utilitarian position is implied by human evolution, as opposed to Rawlsian income distribution or Marxism because the latter positions embrace views of human justice that are not compatible with human evolution. He counters the criticism that utilitarianism leads to undesirable implications if carried to its logical extremes by pointing out that such preferences would not have been fitness maximizing, which is an interesting evolutionary take on “rationalist” academic philosophy. This chapter is perhaps the most interesting for his exposition of the debate about the existence of altruism and whether it can be explained without resorting to group selection.

Rubin discusses the existence of envy in some detail and this is the topic where our evolved psychology seems to be highly incompatible with the characteristics of free market economies, in which economic transactions benefit both parties and the gains of the rich do not come at the expense of the poor. It should not be surprising, however, that most humans (including intellectuals) cannot distinguish between, what he calls, dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. As a consequence, people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that the wealthy people do not exercise power. In his discussion of political power, he returns to this topic when he notes that this failure to distinguish between economic success and political power leads many people to believe that government can be a countervailing power instead of a substitution of coercion for mutual benefit.

The author attributes the existence of religion to a form of enlightened anthropomorphism that also allows humans to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemma situations. He attributes the popularity of religions like Christianity and Islam to their universal non-ethnic nature. Unfortunately, the author does not treat the topic of how rising secularism in the Western world will affect such conventions about cooperation and altruism in much detail. In the same chapter, he also discusses a form of competition called “handicap competition,” in which humans engage in self-harming behavior to signal their superior fitness. The author does not draw this link but it is intriguing to think that a lot of the obligatory self-loathing that progressive intellectuals display in discussions about multiculturalism is actually a means to signal their superiority instead of an actual attempt to reduce their own power.

The chapter about how humans make political decisions is quite interesting for libertarians, and those of the anti-political variety in particular, because it documents in some detail how our inherited political conduct is mostly irrelevant and ineffective in today’s world. In particular, we vastly overestimate the importance of our own political views and behavior. As the author notes, “given the vanishingly small probability that a single vote will influence the outcome of an election, there is no reason for people to vote at all.” One important consequence of this is that individuals have a much greater incentive to make rational decisions as consumers than as voters. In politics, ancient zero-sum views on economic issues and envy persist. As such, Rubin provides an evolutionary explanation for the economic populism and political failure that the economist Bryan Caplan identified in his groundbreaking book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. In a sense, this indictment of mass politics as such is more radical than the political anti-statism that informs contemporary rights-based libertarianism.

One of the most interesting and far-reaching discussions in the book concerns the contrast between the study of rationality by behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists on the one hand, and evolutionary psychologists on the other. It has become quite trendy to document and highlight all kinds of cognitive biases, but Rubin contrasts this field with the work of Gerd Gigerenzer, who has shown that if problems are presented in a way that tracks our evolved abilities, respondents are much more likely to give the right answer. Rubin then gives a number of examples of cognitive bias and explores their evolutionary basis. Sadly, it seems that no matter how one defines rationality, it looks like most political activity remains irrational, wasteful, and divisive in today’s world.

The book ends with some analytic and policy implications of the materials presented in the preceding chapters. He basically restates his preference for limited government, against confiscatory income redistribution, and for more liberal immigration policies. Aside from the fact that the author seems to take the orthodox rationale for government as the preferred provider of public goods for granted (at least in this book), one would expect an evolutionary utilitarian such as Rubin to end on a more critical note about democracy, universal suffrage, and its effects on welfare. Otherwise, Darwinian Politics is an important book that warrants careful study and contains a lot of interesting ideas and references.

Is politics neutral?

One assumption that has greatly contributed to the growth of government is the belief that the practice of politics as such is ideologically neutral. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the most abstract level politics concerns the making of non-unanimous collective decisions. To endorse and participate in this practice undermines a strict interpretation of liberalism. Similarly, political democracy is not compatible with liberalism either. Is is therefore not surprising that the objective of classical liberalism/libertarianism is increasingly being recognized as the depoliticization of society.

At a more practical level politics is far from ideologically neutral either. The low probability of affecting the outcome encourages rational individuals to abstain from voting. After being elected to office, politicians are routinely accused of selling out and becoming part of the system. Considering the incentives elected politicians face this should not be surprising, but this aspect of politics is not neutral in terms of ideology either. When a limited government politician sells out, the result is invariably more government. But when a “liberal” politician sells out the result is  generally not less government  but  more opportunism, corporatism, and political calculation.  There are few examples of elected politicians reinventing themselves during office to pursue a less interventionist agenda but there are many examples of elected politicians betraying their small government rhetoric.  The typical conservative response is “this time is different.” There is little recognition among most conservatives and many libertarians that the practice of politics itself is biased towards undermining their goals.

Faced with a system that encourages  irrational behavior and that is biased towards the growth of government the only remaining  response for an advocate of strict liberalism is to sell his vote. Unfortunately, the selling of votes is not permitted. Such an obvious feature of democracy becomes a little more mysterious if one considers that  politicians routinely buy votes by promising certain segments of the population redistribution of taxable income. As Randall Holcombe writes:

While at first one might be uneasy about selling votes, it happens in Congress all the time.  Senators and Representatives will agree to support a bill only if it has some specific special interest benefit added to it, and often special interests pay for that support through campaign contributions or other payments to the legislator.  People take this for granted, as the way politics works.  If it is OK for elected officials to trade or sell their votes, it is not immediately apparent that ordinary citizens should be prevented from selling theirs.

Not voting is not much of a political “strategy.” From an individual perspective not voting is just as ineffective as voting. But there are not many “activities” that convey the core message of classical liberalism as clearly as not endorsing, or participating in, the political process.  When attempts are made to overcome the addiction to politics, more fruitful means to restore individual liberty can be explored.

Further reading:

The calculus of voting
The addiction to politics

Beyond politics

Beyond politics

In the introduction to his collection of writings, Socratic Puzzles, Robert Nozick writes that  he never responded to the sizable literature on Anarchy, State and Utopia. His natural inclination would be to defend his views. As Nozick notes, “How could I learn that my views were mistaken if I thought about them always with defensive juices flowing.” Nozick’s confession raises a more general question for an individual as he thinks about society and his place in it. How can one pursue reason and virtue when “defensive juices” are continuously being triggered by politics and ideology?

The prospect of a de-politicized society seems remote. When individuals frame their interests as a function of collective choice, perpetual strife and division is born with it. The habit to look at society as a set of problems to be solved (whether through “piecemeal engineering” and tinkering or fanatical pursuit of grandiose ideas) instead of seeing it as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” (as John Rawls phrased it), cultivates and reinforces the political consequentialism that permeates contemporary opinion.  Far from being the defining element of modern liberalism, this teleological perspective on society unites most modern political thinking as expressed in appeals to “Fairness,” “Growth,” “Freedom” as values that should guide public policy.

It seems counterintuitive for (classical) liberal thought not to propose the pursuit of liberty as a goal for society. But as Anthony de Jasay points out in Before Resorting to Politics,

The question of whether freedom is valuable or a free society is good ought not to enter at all into a properly thought-out political doctrine, liberal or other. It should be resolutely ignored. Whichever way the question were answered would, it seems to me, inevitably steer us in a teleological direction, and undermine the foundations on which the society that we could consider free might stand and survive.

In his book Natural Rights and History, the philosopher Leo Strauss identified Thomas Hobbes as a thinker within the Epicurean tradition that perceived man as an a-political animal. But according to Strauss, Hobbes

…gives that a-political view a political meaning. He tries to instill the spirit of political idealism into the hedonistic tradition. He thus became the creator of political hedonism, a doctrine which has revolutionized human life everywhere on a scale never yet approached by any other teaching.

But instead of following Strauss in his rejection of Hobbes’ mechanistic worldview, we only reject his “political hedonism” and restore Hobbes to its a-political Epicurean tradition by rejecting his identification of individual choice with collective choice.

The German philosopher of science Regard Radnitzky notes that “there is a striking analogy between (a) the dilemma of contractarianism in political philosophy and (b) the “justificationist” dilemma in German epistemology.” Whereas the traditional Hobbesian argument for the state does not come off the ground because of the lack of an enforcer to enforce the contract to create Leviathan, the quest for certainty leads to descriptive statements without ground or an infinite regress of arguments. If rational choice does not require political choice and the search for objective values to inform public policy will be recognized as an occult endeavor, the Aristotelian image of man as a political animal will collapse and Epicurean withdrawal from politics may take its place.

At the 2005 Austrian Scholars Conference, Martin Masse spoke favorably of Epicurus as a forerunner of libertarian philosophy:

Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, were all statists to various degrees, glorified political involvement, and devised political programs for their audiences of rich and well-connected aristocrats. Epicurus focused on the individual search for happiness, counseled not to get involved in politics because of the personal trouble it brings, and thought that politics was irrelevant….He had no political program to offer and one can find no concept of collective virtues or order or justice in his teachings….

The Epicurean wise man will keep the covenant and not harm others not because he wishes to comply with some moral injunction being imposed from above, but simply because that’s the best way to pursue his happiness and keep his tranquility of mind.

Epicurus believed that tranquility of mind could not be found in political involvement, that we can choose life without fearing death, and rejected superstition in favor of empiricism. His contractarian theory of justice anticipated a philosophical tradition that looks for the source of morals in agreement (”neither to harm nor be harmed”), but that treats politics with skepticism.

The 20th century witnessed a progressive decomposition of liberal thought and the celebration of a politicized society. No person, or according to some people, no atom, should be exempt from the special plans that are being made for this world. Although the 2008 financial meltdown could have given pause to those that see society as a means to an end, the emerging wisdom is that the current problems were caused by a lack of control instead of a lack of restraint.

During the final years of his life the reactionary thinker Julius Evola had to face the question of how a  radical traditionalist was to act in a world that had evolved into the opposite of what he stood for. Evola recommended a detached life, or as the wisdom goes, “to be in the world, but not of it.” He advocated  apolitea, the withdrawal from contemporary politics and abandonment of political activism.  Instead of fighting the current age he recommended to “ride the tiger” until the tiger is exhausted.  One does not have to follow Evola in his obscurantist philosophies to appreciate this perspective.

This is part 3 in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 1: The calculus of voting
Part 2: The addiction to politics

The addiction to politics

“As the leader of a think tank dedicated to public policy, I would love it if Americans were as obsessed with policy as I am.”
(Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute)

Can politics become an addiction? A more realistic question is to ask why politics is an addiction for so many people. The most straightforward answer would be that a compulsive interest in politics just reflects a natural preoccupation with advancing one’s interest (or that of others). But as was discussed in the previous installment, The Calculus of Voting, as general rule, politics is not a very effective means to advance one’s interests. Could it be that the identification of advancing one’s interests and engagement with politics reflects tribal instincts? As Hal Finney writes on the blog Overcoming Bias:

We have this instinct that choosing our Leader is as important to our lives as it was when we were a tribe of two dozen, and that we have similar influence over the result. Following elections and participating in politics activates these vestigial tribal instincts in much the same was as sports, with similarly futile results.

Such an explanation helps in reconciling the mysterious discrepancy between the empowerment voters  experience when engaging in politics and the actual power it confers to them. If during most of mankind’s existence there was a strong relationship between participation in small-scale decision making and individual consequences, it should not be surprising that we have evolved to be “political animals” and that such instincts are even triggered in elections where millions of people vote and where most individual goals can be more easily gained by non-political individual acts.

It is interesting to note that the changed scale in human interaction does not produce similar effects in markets. Being a consumer of a product or service does not become more futile when more people consume  the good. A company can grow to serve millions of individuals in different nations and supply and demand generally ensures that one gets what one chooses. In his book Social Contract, Free Ride:A Study of the Public Goods Problem, Anthony de Jasay even argues that the absolute size of a group is not directly relevant to the rationality of voluntary contribution to public goods.

Although much ink has been spilled over political bias in the media, one rarely encounters the opinion that the media devotes too much attention to politics as such. Most people who shape public opinion and write for a living seem to share the Aristotelian vision of political participation as salvation. As William C. Mitchell and Randy T. Simmons write in their book Beyond Politics:

Participating in the political process is seen as a way of lifting oneself above the crass self-interest many believe characterize market transactions. In this essentially Aristotelian vision people are not able to reach their highest potential unless they participate in the political process. In fact, such participation is deemed necessary for human moral development.

But as public choice scholars have pointed out, the nature of man does not change as soon as he enters the political arena or takes office. Perhaps it even brings out his worst traits or selects for the people that have them. The short-term and divisive nature of everyday politics seems to be a very fertile ground for fanaticism and biased reasoning.

The desire to engage in political battle and to see one party as the enemy is so strong that, as Bryan Caplan speculates, people tend to ignore the absence of any real differences in public policy between the major parties for the  sake  of enjoying the illusion of a partisan rift:

So what is the “key difference” between the parties? Rhetoric. When Republicans advocate a small contraction of the welfare state, Democrats claim that Republicans totally oppose the welfare state. And many Republicans oblige them by standing up for “liberty” and “responsibility.” Similarly, when Democrats advocate a small expansion in the welfare state, Republican claim that Democrats oppose free markets. And many Democrats oblige them by saying things like “markets only benefit the rich.”

This rhetorical illusion is so powerful that when a Democrat like Clinton adopts many pro-market reforms, Republicans still hate him as a 60s radical. And when Bush II sharply expands the welfare state, Democrats still hate him as a billionaire’s lackey.

The observation that people can get so excited  about rhetoric despite minor differences in public policy does not bode well for the view of politics as salvation or as a source for wisdom or personal growth.

Although one would expect the views and temperament of people who advocate a de-politicized society to steer them away from a strong engagement with practical politics, a surprising number seem obsessed with everything political. It appears that the tribal instinct to engage in politics and strife does not necessarily exclude people who claim that society would be better off without it.

Some of the most remarkable examples of such libertarian obsession with electoral politics were displayed during the Ron Paul campaign. For example, self-identified libertarian anarchists were observed to continuously monitor the primary elections results and blog the latest results online. But when Ron Paul failed to win the primaries, many of his advocates returned to advocating non-voting instead.

Although campaigning to vote for a  politician on one occasion and advocating non-voting on another may reflect just pragmatic political strategy, such a mixed message risks leaving people profoundly confused. In some respects it is also incoherent. The orthodox economic argument that in large democracies  an individual vote has a very low probability of deciding the outcome does not change when Ron Paul runs for office.

But perhaps the most persuasive argument against resorting to politics is one of opportunity costs. All the time that has been spent in vain to political campaigning and producing handbooks to persuade politicians to  refrain from being politicians could have been spent on the creation of private alternatives for government, education of the general public, and legal assistance to people who are faced with government interference instead. One does not have to subscribe to the view that voting is an immoral act to agree that “if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”

Further reading: Carl Watner (ed.) & Wendy McElroy (ed.): Dissenting Electorate: Those Who Refuse to Vote and the Legitimacy of Their Opposition

This is part 2 in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 1: The calculus of voting
Part 3: Beyond politics

The calculus of voting

Is it rational to vote? For most people the question may seem absurd but quite a few economists and political scientists have made the claim that it is not. The reasoning is that in large elections the probability that your individual vote will decide the outcome is so small that voting is a futile exercise. A classic statement of the orthodox economic view of voting can be found in David Friedman’s Price Theory: An Intermediate Text:

“…consider someone making two decisions–what car to buy and what politician to vote for. In either case, the person can improve his decision (make it more likely that he acts in his own interest) by investing time and effort in studying the alternatives. In the case of the car, his decision determines with certainty which car he gets. In the case of the politician, his decision (whom to vote for) changes by one ten-millionth the probability that the candidate he votes for will win. If the candidate would be elected without his vote, he is wasting his time; if the candidate would lose even with his vote, he is also wasting his time.”

If the probability of affecting the outcome is negligible, there is no strong incentive to inform oneself of the  positions of the candidates. Contrary to respectable opinion, being ignorant about politics  can be rational. This  stands in stark contrast to the situation of a consumer in the marketplace who is going to get what  he chooses. Leaving aside the complicating issue of “public goods,” it might be argued that there is no tension between rationality and choice in the marketplace but there is a serious tension between rationality and participation in (large scale) democratic elections.

Strictly speaking, the negligible probability that one’s vote will decide the outcome of an election itself does not render voting irrational. A voter may place an extremely high value on a particular outcome of  the election. So even if the probability of deciding the outcome is very low,  a voter may still be motivated to vote. To use an interesting example, if one believes that the probability of resuscitation of cryonics patients is very low, one can still justify the decision to make cryonics arrangements because of the high value placed on being alive. But a contrary position is possible as well. If one does not care about the outcome of an election, the low probability of affecting that outcome will even further undermine the reason to go out and vote.

In his 1971 book for new voters, Why Vote?, the author William C. Mitchell is making this very point.  He believes that people who do not care about the value of the outcome in an election where the probability of influencing it is perceived to be very low is a good reason to abstain from voting. In all other scenarios, he recommends voting.  He also mentions another reason to vote; voting may be intrinsically rewarding and can be seen as an expression of values, such as the support for democracy. But in 1994, the same William C. Mitchell co-authored a book with Randy T. Simmons called Beyond Politics: Markets, Welfare, and the Failure of Bureaucracy, an introduction to public choice (the economic study of politics) that displays a far more negative vision on government and politics as evidenced by sections such as “In Dispraise of Politics—Some Public Choices,” “The Anatomy of Public Failure,” “In Praise of Property, Profits, and Markets.” The authors revisit the issue of voting as follows:

Voting is a painfully limited way to express one’s values and preferences. It accomplishes its results only indirectly; the vote does not immediately call forth that which is voted for. In fact, if we vote for something but are in the minority we do not get it at all, if we vote against something and are in the minority, we get it and are compelled to pay for the unwanted goods or services.

The authors also address the issue that as more voters participate in an election the individual power of  a vote decreases. In light of this, it is hard to make something of campaigns to “get out the vote” that appeal to the power conferred by  voting. The more people are persuaded by such a message, the less their votes matter.  Perhaps the value of a vote would increase if voters would be able to sell it. But there is a great taboo on  selling votes. But this taboo may not be consistent if one considers the fact it only applies to one part of the electoral process. Politicians routinely “buy” votes by promising entitlements to specific groups.

The value one assigns to different election outcomes is informed by one’s views on the relationship between a specific candidate winning and the effects on policy. For example, if one believes that in terms of public policy (not just rhetoric), there is not enough difference between the parties, the value one attaches to a specific outcome will lessen. If one further believes that contemporary democratic politics will generate an endless cycle between slightly different policies (for example, mixed economies with a bias on markets versus mixed economies with a bias on government), and substantial deviations from this generate their own incentive for  substantial reversals, the combination of a low chance of affecting the outcome and a decreased interest in a specific outcome of the election, will tip the scales in favor of abstaining from voting again.

The only argument that does not appear to be so vulnerable to considerations about the expected benefits from voting is that which claims that by voting one is expressing support for political democracy and ensures a non-violent transition of power. But there is an important flip-side to this argument because it can also explain why people may decide not to vote. By not voting people can “signal” to others their disapproval of a system that allows one person (or group) to gain at the expense of another. Historically such a perspective has been rare because of the conviction that the existence of government is necessary to solve public goods and coordination problems. But economic and political arguments for the necessity of government have been subjected to increased (technical) scrutiny by  some economists and political philosophers, culminating in a school of thought that seeks to substitute markets and private institutions for government.

It may be true that voting is not just about self-interest but about expressing oneself, but so is not voting.

Further reading: Doug Casey – None of the Above

This is part I in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 2: The addiction to politics
Part 3: Beyond politics