Theresa O’Connor

Election 2006: Rationality, Voting, and Political Change

In which I indirectly rant about the rationality of voting by simply quoting other people’s blog posts on the same subject, without adding much commentary of my own.

(I think this is a side-effect of waiting until after the polls had closed — all the good voting rants had already been written!)

First off, a very happy birthday to my father, who first cast a vote on his 21st birthday — for JFK. Now, on to the fun!

Irrational voting

Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter is worth reading in its entirety. He doesn’t just believe, as many economists do, that voters are rationally ignorant — he believes they’re straight-up irrational (emphasis mine):

How can the public keep making costly policy mistakes, year after year, century after century?

Public choice economists are used to blaming what they call “rational ignorance.” In elections with millions of voters, the personal benefits of learning more about policy are negligible, because one vote is so unlikely to change the outcome. So why bother learning?

In my book, however, I argue that rational ignorance has been oversold. Rational ignorance cannot explain why people gravitate toward false beliefs, rather than simply being agnostic. Neither can it explain why people who have barely scratched the surface of a subject are so confident in their judgments — and even get angry when you contradict them. …

My view is that these are symptoms not of ignorance, but of irrationality. In politics as in religion, some beliefs are more emotionally appealing than others… This creates a temptation to relax normal intellectual standards and insulate cherished beliefs from criticism — in short, to be irrational.

But why are there some areas — like politics and religion — where irrationality seems especially pronounced? My answer is that irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.

In a sense, then, there is a method to the average voter’s madness. Even when his views are completely wrong, he gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price. No wonder he buys in bulk. …

So what remedies for voter irrationality would I propose? Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets.… Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better. The relevant question is whether the kind of regulation that appeals to the majority would be better.

I’m eagerly awating Bryan’s a book on voter irrationality, due out early next year.

So just how irrational is the voting public? Louis Menand wrote a great article in the New Yorker on voter ignorance (emphasis mine):

Skepticism about the competence of the masses to govern themselves is as old as mass self-government. Even so, when that competence began to be measured statistically, around the end of the Second World War, the numbers startled almost everyone. …

Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system… [Others] may use terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible “issue content” whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.

When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one. … But, after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless — off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.

Rational nonvoting

Here’s Greg Mankiw on rational nonvoting:

Feddersen and Pesendorfer suggest that nonvoting has to be understood together with a related phenomenon—the decision of voters to skip some items listed on the ballot. This behavior, which political scientists call roll off, is common. …

Anyone who has ever entered a polling booth can easily see why roll off occurs. You come ready to vote for your favorite candidate in some race you’ve been following closely, but then you face a whole list of races and ballot questions, most of which you know little or nothing about. What do you do? You could quickly make a decision based on your scant knowledge. But what if the contest is very close? Do you really want the outcome based on your almost random vote?

So you choose another course: You skip the item. In practice, this means that you are relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice. But this can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.

Jeff Croft made substantially the same point as Mankiw (emphasis his):

William E. Simon once said, “Bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote.” Maybe. But I assert that bad politicians are probably also sent to Washington by uneducated people who do vote.

So, on this election day in the States, I suggest you think about whether you’re really qualified to be voicing your thoughts on a given issue or candidate. Do you have an opinion one way or the other? Can you articulate why you hold said opinion? Does your opinion stem from real insight and thought you’ve given to the matter, rather than simple party affiliation? If you’re answering no to any of these questions, maybe you shouldn’t be voting. I know I won’t be.

Please, please don’t check something off simply for completeness' sake — only vote on those ballot items with which you’re actually sufficiently familiar.

Political change

Just to be clear, I’m all for trying to affect real political change. I just think there are many much more effective ways than voting to do that. Let me try to not end on such a down note by echoing Peter’s sentiment (emphasis mine):

Voting is pretty far down the list of sacred values [of a free society], since it is in many ways derivative — it’s everything else about a free society that gives voting what meaning it has. Especially in the modern world of gerrymandering, safe seats, two-party politics, and artificially restricted alternatives at the ballot.

Furthermore, voting happens only once a year. There are plenty of ways to be involved every other day of the year, such as writing letters to your representatives or to the editor of your local newspaper, participating in your neighborhood association (I run the website for mine), even blogging your ideas for making our society a freer and better place.

We need to think outside the (ballot) box if we’re going to debug the bloatware that is our modern American democracy.