voting

Economists and Voting

It is the time of year when economists like to remind the unwashed that voting is a waste of time. A classic of the genre appeared seven years ago, in the form of  “Why Vote?,” by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (of Freakonomics fame). Here are some relevant passages:

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim. This was documented by the economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, who analyzed more than 56,000 Congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898. For all the attention paid in the media to close elections, it turns out that they are exceedingly rare. The median margin of victory in the Congressional elections was 22 percent; in the state-legislature elections, it was 25 percent. Even in the closest elections, it is almost never the case that a single vote is pivotal. Of the more than 40,000 elections for state legislator that Mulligan and Hunter analyzed, comprising nearly 1 billion votes, only 7 elections were decided by a single vote, with 2 others tied. Of the more than 16,000 Congressional elections, in which many more people vote, only one election in the past 100 years – a 1910 race in Buffalo – was decided by a single vote….

Still, people do continue to vote, in the millions. Why? Here are three possibilities:

1. Perhaps we are just not very bright and therefore wrongly believe that our votes will affect the outcome.

2. Perhaps we vote in the same spirit in which we buy lottery tickets. After all, your chances of winning a lottery and of affecting an election are pretty similar. From a financial perspective, playing the lottery is a bad investment. But it’s fun and relatively cheap: for the price of a ticket, you buy the right to fantasize how you’d spend the winnings – much as you get to fantasize that your vote will have some impact on policy.

3. Perhaps we have been socialized into the voting-as-civic-duty idea, believing that it’s a good thing for society if people vote, even if it’s not particularly good for the individual. And thus we feel guilty for not voting. [The New York Times Magazine, November 6, 2005]

In true economistic fashion, Dubner and Levitt omit a key reason for voting: It makes a person feel good. Even if one’s vote will not change the outcome of an election, one attains a degree of satisfaction from taking an official (even if secret) stand in favor of or in opposition to a certain candidate, bond issue, or other item on a ballot.

Dubner and Levitt (and their ilk) seem to inhabit a world in which a thing is not worth doing unless the payoff can be measured with some precision and compared with other, similarly quantifiable, uses of one’s time and money. I doubt they govern their own lives accordingly. If they do, they must be missing out on a lot of life’s pleasures: sex and ice cream, to name only two.

Their article continues on a different tack:

But wait a minute, you say. If everyone thought about voting the way economists do, we might have no elections at all. No voter goes to the polls actually believing that her single vote will affect the outcome, does she? And isn’t it cruel to even suggest that her vote is not worth casting?

This is indeed a slippery slope – the seemingly meaningless behavior of an individual, which, in aggregate, becomes quite meaningful. Here’s a similar example in reverse. Imagine that you and your 8-year-old daughter are taking a walk through a botanical garden when she suddenly pulls a bright blossom off a tree.

“You shouldn’t do that,” you find yourself saying.

“Why not?” she asks.

“Well,” you reason, “because if everyone picked one, there wouldn’t be any flowers left at all.”

“Yeah, but everybody isn’t picking them,” she says with a look. “Only me.”

Clever, what? Too clever by half. This argument overlooks the powerful effect of exemplary behavior — where “exemplary,” as used here, does not imply “laudable.” By Dubner and Levitt’s account, allowing a vandal to deface a public building would not encourage other vandals to do the same thing, and would not lead to the widespread defacement of buildings and other anti-social acts. (I refer, of course, to James Q. Wilson’s widely accepted Broken Windows Theory, which Levitt and Dubner tried to cast doubt on in Freakonomics. They wrongly suggested that the onset of legalized abortion was instrumental in the reduction of crime rates.)

Dubner and Levitt’s argument also overlooks the key fact that when economists preach against voting, they are not just preaching to themselves. Dubner and Levitt’s sermon appeared in the pages of one of the country’s most widely read and influential publications. It was not addressed to an individual, but to thousands and thousands of individuals. And I doubt that they would have objected if the article had appeared in every newspaper and magazine in the country. In effect, the Dubner-Levitt argument is not just an argument that the marginal vote makes little difference — it is advice to millions of Americans that they should abstain from voting.

In that respect, Levitt and Dubner are guilty of paternalism as well as economism. Thus the many links to posts about paternalism in the following list of related posts:
The Rationality Fallacy
Libertarian Paternalism
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Back-Door Paternalism
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
Slippery Paternalists
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Externalities and Statism
Extreme Economism
Irrational Rationality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (III) (third item)
Obesity and Statism

Undermining the Free Society

Apropos my earlier post about “Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare,” I note this review by Gerald J. Russello of Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. As he summarizes Minogue, Russello writes:

The push for equality and ever more rights—two of [democracy's] basic principles—requires a ruling class to govern competing claims; thus the rise of the undemocratic judiciary as the arbiter of many aspects of public life, and of bureaucracies that issue rules far removed from the democratic process. Should this trend continue, Minogue foresees widespread servility replacing the tradition of free government.

This new servility will be based not on oppression, but on the conviction that experts have eliminated any need for citizens to develop habits of self-control, self-government, or what used to be called the virtues.

How has democracy led to “servility,” which is really a kind of oppression? Here is my diagnosis.

It is well understood that voters, by and large, vote irrationally, that is, emotionally, on the basis of “buzz” instead of facts, and inconsistently. (See this, this, and this, for example.) Voters are prone to vote against their own long-run interests because they do not understand the consequences of the sound-bite policies advocated by politicians. American democracy, by indiscriminately granting the franchise — as opposed to limiting it to, say, married property owners over the age of 30 who have children — empowers the run-of-the-mill politician who seeks office (for the sake of prestige, power, and perks) by pandering to the standard, irrational voter.

Rationality is the application of sound reasoning and pertinent facts to the pursuit of a realistic objective (one that does not contradict the laws of nature or human nature). I daresay that most voters are guilty of voting irrationally because they believe in such claptrap as peace through diplomacy, “social justice” through high marginal tax rates, or better health care through government regulation.

To be perfectly clear, the irrationality lies not in favoring peace, “social justice” (whatever that is), health care, and the like. The irrationality lies in uninformed beliefs in such contradictions as peace through unpreparedness for war, “social justice” through soak-the-rich schemes, better health care through greater government control of medicine, etc., etc., etc. Voters whose objectives incorporate such beliefs simply haven’t taken the relatively little time it requires to process what they may already know or have experienced about history, human nature, and social and economic realities.

Why is voters’ irrationality important? Does voting really matter? Well, it’s easy to say that an individual’s vote makes very little difference. But individual votes add up. Every vote cast for a winning political candidate enhances his supposed mandate, which usually is (in his mind) some scheme (or a lot of them) to regulated our lives more than they are already regulated.

That is to say, voters (not to mention those who profess to understand voters) overlook the slippery slope effects of voting for those who promise to “deliver” certain benefits. It is true that the benefits, if delivered, would temporarily increase the well-being of certain voters. But if one group of voters reaps benefits, then another group of voters wants to reap benefits as well. Why? Because votes are not won, nor offices held, by placating a particular class of voter; many other classes of them must also be placated.

The “benefits” sought by voters (and delivered by politicians) are regulatory as well as monetary. Many voters (especially wealthy, paternalistic ones) are more interested in controlling others than they are in reaping government handouts (though they don’t object to that either). And if one group of voters reaps certain regulatory benefits, it follows (as night from day) that other groups also will seek (and reap) regulatory benefits. (Must one be a trained economist to understand this? Obviously not, because most trained economists don’t seem to understand it.)

And then there is the “peace-at-any-price-one-worldcrowd, which is hard to distinguish from the crowd that demands (and delivers) monetary and regulatory “benefits.”

So, here we are:

  • Many particular benefits are bestowed and many regulations are imposed, to the detriment of investors, entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors, and people who simply are willing to work hard to advance themselves. And it is they who are responsible for the economic growth that bestows (or would bestow) more jobs and higher incomes on everyone, from the poorest to the richest.
  • A generation from now, the average American will “enjoy” about one-fourth the real output that would be his absent the advent of the regulatory-welfare state about a century ago.

Americans have, since 1932, voted heavily against their own economic and security interests, and the economic and security interests of their progeny. But what else can you expect when — for those same 78 years — voters have been manipulated into voting against their own interests by politicians, media, “educators,” and “intelligentsia”? What else can you expect when the courts have all too often ratified the malfeasance of those same politicians?

If this is democracy, give me monarchy.

Democracy and Liberty

In an update to yesterday’s post, “A Prediction,” I quote Arnold Kling, who quotes Peter Thiel, who says (among other things) that he “no longer believe[s] that democracy and freedom are compatible.”

I have said, for years, that democracy is an enemy of liberty. You could read the ten posts to that effect at my old blog (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). But I will save you the trouble of doing that by restating, here, the core of my argument against democracy. (What would I replace it with? I’ll answer that question in a future post.)

DEMOCRACY FORCES CONSENSUS WHERE INDEPENDENCE IS NEEDED

Where better to begin that with Friedrich Hayek? Fritz Machlup wrote this summary of a 1961 article (in German) by Friedrich Hayek:

[Hayek] asks why it is that personal liberty is in continual jeopardy and why the trend is toward its being increasingly restricted. The cause of liberty, he finds, rests on our awareness that our knowledge is inevitably limited. The purpose of liberty is to afford us an opportunity to obtain something unforeseeable; since it cannot be known what individuals will make of their freedom, it is all the more important to grant freedom to everybody…. Liberty can endure only if it is defended not just when it is recognized to be useful in particular instances but rather continuously as a fundamental principle which may not be breached for the sake of any definite advantages obtainable at the cost of its suspension…. It is not easy to convince the masses that they should sacrifice foreseeable benefits for unforeseeable ones. [From "Hayek's Contribution to Economics," in Essays on Hayek (1976), p. 41.]

James Surowiecki makes a related point in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which is a flawed masterpiece. Surowiecki seems to understand how unregulated markets make people better off, but in the end he succumbs to the notion that we can regulate our way to “the common good” through democracy. Surowiecki nevertheless gets it right when he says this:

[A] group of people…is far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people i the group are independent of each other….

Independence is important to intelligent decision making for two reasons. First, it keeps the mistakes that people make from becoming correlated. Errors in individual judgment won’t wreck the group’s collective judgment as long as those errors aren’t pointing systematically in the same direction….Second, independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is already familiar with. The smartest groups, then, are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other. Independence doesn’t imply rationality or impartiality, though. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you won’t make the group any dumber.

If only Surowiecki had stopped there, on page 41. The point he makes (which he seems to ignore later in the book) is simple but profound: Democracy undoes independence. It imposes on everyone the mistakes and mistaken beliefs of a controlling faction. It defeats learning. It defeats the sublime rationality of markets, which enable independent individuals to benefit each other through the pursuit of self-interest.

What should be private, such as the voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual gain, democracy has made public by insisting (with help from interested parties) on the burdensome regulation of almost every aspect of commerce. Such massive intervention undermines the general good on the pretext of serving the general good.

All would be well if voters were rational when it comes to voting, but they aren’t.

THE TENDENCY TO VOTE IRRATIONALLY

It is well understood that voters, by and large, vote irrationally, that is, emotionally, on the basis of “buzz” instead of facts, and inconsistently. (See this, this, and this, for example.) Voters are prone to vote against their own long-run interests because they do not understand the consequences of the sound-bite policies advocated by politicians (nor do politicians, for that matter). American democracy, by indiscriminately granting the franchise — as opposed to limiting it to, say, married property owners over the age of 30 who have children — empowers the run-of-the-mill politician who seeks office (for the sake of prestige, power, and perks) by pandering to the standard, irrational voter.

Rationality is the application of sound reasoning and pertinent facts to the pursuit of a realistic objective (one that does not contradict the laws of nature or human nature). I daresay that most voters are guilty of voting irrationally because they believe in such claptrap as peace through diplomacy, “social justice” through high marginal tax rates, or better health care through government regulation.

To be perfectly clear, the irrationality lies not in favoring peace, “social justice” (whatever that is), health care, and the like. The irrationality lies in uninformed beliefs in such contradictions as peace through unpreparedness for war, “social justice” through soak-the-rich schemes, better health care through greater government control of medicine, etc., etc., etc. Voters whose objectives incorporate such beliefs simply haven’t taken the relatively little time it requires to process what they may already know or have experienced about history, human nature, and social and economic realities.

Another way to put it is this: Voters too often are rationally irrational. They make their voting decisions “rationally,” in a formal sense (i.e., not “wasting” time in order to make correct judgments). But those decisions are irrational because they are intended to advance perverse objectives (e.g., peace through unpreparedness for war).

Voters of the kind I describe are guilty of suboptimization, which is “optimizing some chosen objective which is an integral part of a broader objective; usually the broad objective and lower-level objective are different.”

I will come back to suboptimal voting. But, first, this about optimization: If you aren’t familiar with the concept, here’s good non-technical definition: “to do things best under the given circumstances.” To optimize, then, is to achieve the best result one can, given a constraint or constraints. On a personal level, for example, a rational person tries to be as happy as he can be, given his present income and prospects for future income. (Note that I do not define happiness as the maximization of wealth.) A person is not rational who allows, say, his alcoholism to destroy his happiness (if not also the income that contributes to it). He is suboptimizing on his addiction instead of optimizing on his happiness.

By the same token, a person who votes irrationally also suboptimizes. A vote may “make sense” at the moment (just as another drink “makes sense” to an alcoholic), but it is an irrational vote if the voter does not (a) vote as if he were willing to live by the consequences if his vote were decisive and/or (b) take the time to understand those consequences.

In some cases, a voter’s irrationality is signaled by the voter’s (inner) reason for voting; for example: to feel smug about having voted, to “protest” or to “send a message” (without being able to explain coherently the purpose of the protest or message), or simply to reinforce unexamined biases by voting for someone who seems to share them. More common (I suspect) are the irrational votes that are cast deliberately for candidates who espouse the kinds of perverse objectives that I cite above (e.g., peace without preparedness for war).

THE HIGH COST OF IRRATIONALITY

Why is voters’ irrationality important? Does voting really matter? Well, it’s easy to say that an individual’s vote makes very little difference. But those individual votes add up. Every vote cast for a winning political candidate enhances his supposed mandate, which usually is (in his mind) some scheme (or a lot of them) to regulated our lives more than they are already regulated.

That is to say, voters (not to mention those who profess to understand voters) overlook the slippery slope effects of voting for those who promise to “deliver” certain benefits. It is true that the benefits, if delivered, would temporarily increase the well-being of certain voters. But if one group of voters reaps benefits, then another group of voters also must reap them. Why? Because votes are not won, nor offices held, by placating a particular class of voter; many other classes of them must be placated as well.

The “benefits” sought by voters (and delivered by politicians) are regulatory as well as monetary. Many voters (especially wealthy, paternalistic ones) are more interested in controlling others than they are in reaping government handouts (though they don’t object to that either). And if one group of voters reaps certain regulatory benefits, it follows (as night from day) that other groups also will seek (and reap) regulatory benefits. (Must one be a trained economist to understand this? Obviously not, because most trained economists don’t seem to understand it.)

And then there is the “peace-at-any-price-one-worldcrowd, which is hard to distinguish from the crowd that demands (and delivers) monetary and regulatory “benefits.”

So, here we are:

  • Many particular benefits are bestowed and many regulations are imposed, to the detriment of investors, entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors, and people who simply are willing to work hard to advance themselves. And it is they who are responsible for the economic growth that bestows (or would bestow) more jobs and higher incomes on everyone, from the poorest to the richest.
  • A generation from now, the average American will “enjoy” about one-fourth the real output that would be his absent the advent of the regulatory-welfare state about a century ago.

CONCLUSION

Americans have, since 1932, voted heavily against their own economic and security interests, and the economic and security interests of their progeny. But what else can you expect when — for those same 77 years — voters have been manipulated into voting against their own interests by politicians, media, “educators,” and “intelligentsia”? What else can you expect when the courts have all too often ratified the malfeasance of those same politicians?

If this is democracy, give me monarchy.