The Rational Irrational Voter


Ned Resnikoff

I am a freelance writer, researcher for Media Matters for America, and occasional inactive to Salon. Everything written here is my opinion alone, and not representative of the views of my employer.

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14 Responses

  1. Since I never took PoliSci 101: once you’ve determined that voting is irrational, are you still supposed to do it? It seems like you’ve got three options from here: (1) argue that the irrationality is only apparent, (2) argue that it’s important to do some irrational things, or (3) argue that people shouldn’t vote unless the pleasure of the act of voting outweighs the time spent waiting in line. I’m curious about which of these you would go for, or whether I’ve missed an option.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      @William Brafford,

      I’d tentatively go with your second option. Here’s why.

      It’s sometimes important to do irrational things, like voting, because while voting may be irrational as to the specific decisions I make, voting is supremely rational when viewed from the perspective of my (and your) long-term self-interest — regardless of my choice of candidate.

      Orderly transitions of power are good for everyone. Protracted violent struggles over political power might just be the very worst things in the entire modern world. To avoid them, we should legitimize democracy, even if our choices within democracy are obviously, crudely, and necessarily irrational.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, I agree, but it would help if we were allowed to vote on civil servants, the CIA, our local beat cops, etc.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          @Rufus F.,

          Because we don’t see violent struggles over who gets what civil service job anymore, I’m not inclined to agree. We have at least a sufficient amount of democracy to legitimize the rest, and possibly an excess of democracy, at least if it’s just this one purpose that we’re considering.Report

    • Avatar JosephFM says:

      @William Brafford,
      I’d argue for 3, actually, though “pleasure” is the wrong word…it’s more like a sense of fulfilling a responsibility or moral duty (neither of which are purely rational things) than something that brings happiness.

      About half of all people in the US usually don’t vote. And they’re right not to.Report

  2. Ned, I think this actually goes a long way to explain why it is that so much of what political campaigns turn out is feel-good pablum instead of policies, and nicely advances the discussion E.C. got rolling.

    This analogizes to how I’ve seen people behave when picking professionals for other purposes — doctors, lawyers, accountants. The quality of services that the professional provides are far down in the selection criteria, because laypeople do not know how to determine whether a professional is good at her job or not; even if they had the specialized education necessary to really tell, they lack information about the professional’s past performance to do so. At best, they might have information about the results of a professional’s past work, but that says nothing about the level of challenge that past problems raised. An apparently good record may conceal an experiential background of never confronting anything difficult (a prosecutor is likely to have a near 100% conviction rate if he plea-bargains out all his petty drug dealers and streetwalkers so the conviction rate says nothing meaningful about his skill as a lawyer); an apparently poor record may reflect better-than-predicted success at dealing with intractable issues (oncologists lose lots of patients but that doesn’t make them bad doctors).

    So maybe selecting a legislative representative, or even a President, is like picking an accountant or a stockbroker — you rely on things that seem irrational, like whether they have a good “bedside manner,” are trusted and liked by people you trust, or you go to the person that some larger organization (your insurance company in the case of your doctor, or your preferred political party in the case of your legislator) has referred you.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      @Transplanted Lawyer, I think that’s a good analogy, and thinking about it I do pick politicians more or less the same way I pick other professional services. You want reliability, in the sense of saying what you’re going to do and then doing it and not lying about it afterwards. You want clarity, in the sense of being able to explain technical issues to a reasonably smart person. And you want believability, in that they shouldn’t be promising anything that’s known to be impossible. Unfortunately I don’t know of any politicians who meet these criteria …Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    My preferred take is one of Federalism. Small, local governments that are responsive to the local voters.

    I personally think that my mayor ought to have more of an impact on my life than my governor, and my governor ought to have *MUCH* more of an impact on my life than my president. (Note: This shouldn’t translate to a quantitatively large impact in any case.)

    If my mayor is particularly distasteful, I can show up at a meeting and ask questions. I can run against him. If that’s over the top, I can help campaign for the people running against him. And if it turns out that the majority of my neighbors actually like the guy… I can move without having to move to Somalia. Instead of living in Springfield, I can move to Shelbyville.

    If it turns out that my entire state is corrupt (e.g., Idaho), I can move to a state with a different Governor without having to move to Somalia.

    And the best part is that the people who have the most impact upon my life are the ones most easily petitioned and/or voted out and/or moved away from. This makes research exceptionally easy… and mistakes exceptionally easy to fix.Report

    • @Jaybird, I absolutely agree. The more we can have the system attuned to local, personal knowledge, the lower the error rate will be.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      @Jaybird, I also agree. It bother’s me to no end how much more attention many people seem to pay to federal elections, despite the impact of decisions made at the made at the school board or city council level.

      Land development, community planning, etc. all have a large (I’m hesitant to say larger) impact on people’s day to day lives, and people’s ability to affect change at the level is exponentially more than in statewide/national elections.

      At one time there was a lot of talk about how cable television would allow that many more platforms to explore niche interests, both in terms of news and entertainment. The same thing was said about the internet. It being a much more complicated medium, I’ll try not to make any blanket statements, but it seems like the internet has magnified people’s interest in the “big” stories just as much if not more than it has fostered communication on local ones.

      Local papers are being gobbled up, and the dot com replacements don’t seem to have picked up the slack yet. As a result, whereas you’d think there would be more transparency at the local level, most of the public that pays attention at all spends uber amounts of time watching the MSM dissect nonsense just because it happens at the national level.

      Any one disagree? And what needs to happen in order for the emphasis to be put back on people’s own front yards?Report

  4. I would offer the response of Homer (not the bard) to basically the same question: “Movies are the only escape from the drudgery of work and family. No offense.”Report