Voting Part I: I Am Jason, of the Lizard People.

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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  1. Avatar Snarky McSnarkSnark
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    An interesting premise, Jason, but I don’t think we’re quite there.

    It is natural and human for people to identify with their culture, both for better and worse. Voting is an act of cultural participation–not so much for your “tribe”, but for the nation.

    By voting, can can symbolically and ritualistic take part in the revalidation of our cultural norms, even if the chance of their tipping any scale in any direction are vanishingly small. We approve of Democracy, and consider it a cultural “good” to vote in an election.

    Now, maybe, you can explain to me why people buy lottery tickets…Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Snarky McSnarkSnark
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      Can’t it be both?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Snarky McSnarkSnark
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      Now, maybe, you can explain to me why people buy lottery tickets…

      The daydreams about winning the lottery are better and more vivid when you spend a buck on a ticket than when you don’t.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Snarky McSnarkSnark
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      “Irrational” does not mean “bad.” Love is irrational, but generally, it’s a good thing.

      Is it irrational to vote? Of course. Or to gamble (for instance, by playing the lotto)? To be sure. Similarly, it’s irrational to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco or marijuana, it’s irrational to watch pornography or play a video game, it’s irrational to eat a big-ass steak with twice as many calories as you need to make it through the day.

      We do all of these things because they bring us pleasure, often at a cost. Hopefully, we don’t do them too much, or too often, that they cause actual harm.

      Then there’s the factor that this is a forced choice. If I refrain from voting, what else will I do with those three minutes I otherwise would have spent filling out my ballot? If I refrain from eating the big-ass steak and drinking that half-bottle of wine, how else might I derive sustenance, what else might I do with my time that would have been spent at the meal? Yes, I can defer the pleasure or abstain entirely. But to what end, if not the hopes of attaining greater pleasure in the future?

      (Substitute “utility” for “pleasure” if you are so inclined. But “pleasure” is really what this is about, if you ask me.)

      Voting has at least one redeeming quality: when this irrational behavior is aggregated, democracy becomes viable. It’s like buying stuff: individually, it doesn’t matter at all whether I buy a PC or a Mac. Collectively, the number of people who make one choice or the other does have an effect on the market.

      At the individual level, though, I think Jason is right: we vote because doing so is pleasurable, or in the alternative, at least less unpleasurable than not voting. The game of politics, just as in the game of economics, lies in understanding how to engineer those micro-level choices to produce a desired macro-effect.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Burt Likko
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        I’m not sure I buy the way you’re using “irrational”. I play a video game, because I expect to enjoy it (even if doing so has other costs–that’s time I could be reading or going out or whatever). I actually receive the benefit I was expecting (enjoyment of the video game), and pay the expected costs. Where’s the irrationality?

        I agree it’s irrational to expect to make a profit on lotto tickets. But if you enjoy playing, it can’t be said to be irrational.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Dan Miller
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          says:

          I wonder how a preference theorist would answer that worry. {{I’m looking at you, JH. 🙂 }}

          If rationality is the subjectively determined expectation of utility enhancement, then voting is entirely rational if someone believes that their utility will be enhanced by doing so.

          What’s the counter argument. That they’re objectively wrong to think so?Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
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            Stillwater, back after class. Nutshell, Dan’s right. Burt’s using rational in its everyday sense, not its economic sense, whereas Jason is using it in the economic sense.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
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              Cool. But, then it’s not accurate to say that people vote because it will make them happy, right?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
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                It is accurate, if voting in fact makes them happy, as it seems to do. It seems a strange thing to me that it does, but then I also can’t understand why people enjoy casinos. But in each case they do, and I think they specifically enjoy those things to the extent they consciously recognize that it’s not investment behavior, but is enjoyable more or less for its own sake.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
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                But people don’t vote only because it makes them happy. (In my case, it doesn’t make me happy, yet I still vote.) It’s because they want to see they’re beliefs (some of them, anyway) expressed in policy, and voting as a matter of fact does this. And that’s a rational expectation! As one example, look at the voting patterns of social conservatives and the rise of anti-abortion legislation across conservative states.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to James Hanley
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              I did not use the word “irrational,” and I avoided it with great care. For several methodological reasons.

              First, to the extent that I’m an economist, I’m an Austrian, and I agree very strongly that economics should be value-neutral. When considering ultimate ends like happiness, I have no authority to judge. What makes a person happy is for him to decide, not for me.

              In this context: If voting satisfies someone’s need for something, then voting is a proper means to an ultimate end. If voting doesn’t do that, then voting isn’t a proper means — and only then can we say voting is irrational, because it fails the means-ends test set forth. I never reached that step, and I don’t intend to. That’s for others to decide.

              What I did here was to speculate, I think on fairly solid ground, about what the end might be that impels people to choose the means of voting. I could easily be wrong, and the comments give much food for thought here. But even if I were wrong, I did not say that voting was irrational. It might prove to be, for you, on reflection, but I did not and will not pass that judgment.

              Second, I am writing in a way that’s at least somewhat informed by anthropology, which also strives to be a value-neutral social science, and to describe and categorize various human behaviors. Anthropologists consider value judgments to be something you may do within a culture, but when you study another culture, you need to describe it, not judge it, at least while you’re wearing your anthropologist hat.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley
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              Back from class (mostly good kids this term, rambunctious but bright and engaged, hooray).

              I won’t say Burt’s use of irrational is wrong, but it’s not the way an economist would use it. Burt says smoking is irrational. It’s not clear whether he means because smoking is bad for you or because it’s not a decision dictated by cold hard logical necessity. Either way, the economic meaning is different.

              In econo-speak rational refers not to ends, but to means. It cannot be irrational to like something. Preferences are exogenous, they come from outside the system of choice, and are just inputs into that system. Rationality is about whether the choices you make are well-suited to satisfying your preferences.

              So voting as an act is not inherently either rational or irrational–it all depends on whether it’s well-suited to satisfying your preference (achieving the goal you’re trying to achieve). If your goal is to influence the outcome of a 100 million voter election, voting is demonstrably–objectively–not rational. But if you’re voting in a small numbers election, it could be, because those elections have a much greater chance of turning on one vote (I see a case in the news at least once an election cycle). That voting to influence the outcome is what economists call investment voting–you’re investing your effort in the hope of causing an outcome that will be valuable to you.

              But if you’re moderately mathematically literate like me, you know it’s not rational to do investment voting. But you are seeking some benefit that the act itself guarantees, then voting is rational. You like the feeling of participating in democracy. You like to feel smugly superior to others when you have your “I Voted, Did You” sticker on your chest. You like knowing that you can look back in your dotage and say, “yes, I did vote to break the presidential color barrier.” You truly and firmly believe it’s your civic duty and are a dutiful person. In any of these cases, voting is well suited to the end. It would, in fact, be non-rational to not vote in those cases.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
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                But you are seeking some benefit that the act itself guarantees, then voting is rational. You like the feeling of participating in democracy.

                If this argument hinges on the word “guarantee”, then I’ve got no objection. But cultural expectations as reflected by voting are as a matter of fact implemented in policy. I mean, this view really is a zeno paradox: since no single vote matters, then no collection of votes matters, so voting is irrelevant to policy decisions. Yet, policy decisions map onto voting patterns!Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko
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        when this irrational behavior is aggregated, democracy becomes viable. It’s like buying stuff: individually, it doesn’t matter at all whether I buy a PC or a Mac. Collectively, the number of people who make one choice or the other does have an effect on the market.

        +1Report

  2. Avatar Rose
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    says:

    I actually write on something related to this. For example, why it might be difficult to poke the eyes out of a picture of a person you admire.

    I wonder if most people would find it very difficult to write a very sincere post pretending to be the other side. As in, not acknowledging that it is opposite day, but just writing that way.

    That said, voting is not just a means to an end of an election, it is also an assertion of values. Which is why so many people would find it so hard to do what you say.Report

    • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to Rose
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      A couple of year’s ago, one of my colleagues and I decided that, for Hallowe’en, we would dress up as the CEO and President (whom are much loved in the company). We blew up some photos of them, cut out the eyes and used them as masks.

      For a year, we had the masks up in our office. It was kind of creepy… but awesome.Report

  3. Avatar Mike Dwyer
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    says:

    Loved this post Jason. As a independently-inclined conservative who voted for Nader in 2000 and STILL gets grief about it from my tribe, this really resonates with me. And as someone who has been trying to think of the most appropriate write-in candidate for this year’s election I will gladly accept your challenge.Report

  4. Avatar David Ryan
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    From this day forth thy name be Zeno.Report

  5. Avatar bookdragon
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    hmmm… If I bought that premise I’d vote Zaphod Beeblebrox on the premise that the govt runs automatically no matter who is elected, so I might as well vote for candidates most likely to amuse me once they are in office.Report

  6. Avatar James Hanley
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    says:

    I agree that voting is a consumption good. Anyone who sees it as an investment good is wildly irrational. The interesting question, of course, is what is it people are consuming? If, as Snarky suggests, they’re consuming the pleasure of participation in reaffirmation of social norms, they really shouldn’t have trouble voting for someone they see as the greater of two evils. If they’re consuming the pleasure of affirming their own values, voting for the other guy ought to be really difficult.

    Of course there’s no implication that we’re all consuming the same thing.

    Interestingly, prior to this post, I was strongly considering voting randomly. If I vote, what I’ll be consuming is honest avoidance of the “gasp! you didn’t vote!??” response that irritates me so much. But not liking any of the candidates on the Michigan ballot, I’ve been contemplating voting randomly, even though that feels really strange, and even though I am not technically ambivalent between the available candidates. I suspect it might feel weird. I’ll try to remember to tell you what it feels like.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to James Hanley
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      I honestly don’t get when political scientists, libertarians, and economists talk about how voting is irrational.

      The only reason that comes to mind about why this constantly comes up is that they hope enough people will just not vote and then they can enact their preferred policy preferences. There was an episode of NPR’s Planet Money when they talked to 6 economists about policies they agree on. All the econ people described themselves as being on different ends of the ideological spectrum but they all agreed that the various things were the best policy. All of the policies would be wildly unpopular if enacted.

      Though one of the fundamental problems of any society seems to be why there is a vast difference between good policy and good politics.

      Voting is simply the system we have in a democratic republic. I vote the way I vote because one party is closer to my politics and the other party looks like the inmates have taken over the asylum.

      Perhaps my Democratic votes really don’t matter in San Francisco, CA overall. But they matter in primaries. They matter in the proposition system (which I am against but will participate in as long as it exists or I live in California).

      Plus what is hard about understanding yourself to be part of an aggregate here for the poli sci types? My vote doesn’t matter as an individual but it matters in the aggregate towards the group effort.

      As to Jason’s question, voting for Romney would make me feel like I committed an act of betraying my friends, family, party, and Country. Romney has almost no chance of winning the electoral college votes from California but if he did and I voted for him to fulfill this experiment, I would feel horrible.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to NewDealer
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        Maybe I am too deeply invested in partisan politcs to get this post.

        But it strikes me as being one of those conversations that is best conducted in a quiet dorm room, late at night, over a bong with Phish* playing in the background.

        *Or whatever these darn kids are listening to nowadays.Report

        • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Liberty60
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          You have been out of college a long time.

          I am sure plenty of neo-hippies still listen to Phish though. I saw Phish in concert once. It was 1994 and I just finished the 8th grade.

          The truth is that the music scene is so diverse and niche now that there is not one-unified scene. At my very small undergrad, most people probably listened to what is generally described as “indie” rock. In 1998-2002, this included The Magnetic Fields, Superchunk, Belle and Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney, etc. Basically anyone on Merge, Matador, Sub-Pop or Kill Rock Stars. I remember Dr. Octagon was also popular.

          It is probably the same at my underground now but with more indie bands added.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to NewDealer
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        says:

        This right here answers Jason’s question. It is possible to look at this in such a way that makes voting for the right guy into a moral act in itself.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jaybird
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          I disagree that that’s Jason’s point. Jason’s point – it seems to me – is that the event of pulling the lever for X” is irrelevant to the outcome of an election. Which is true. If we’re talking about a bigger culture surrounding voting, then I think the argument fails.

          But I also disagree that NewDealer is saying that voting for the right guy is a moral act in itself. It’s that the beliefs which a person holds that incline them to vote for one guy are sincerely held, and that one way of expressing the commitment to those values is by voting for the guy you’re inclined to believe will further those values via policy. And that’s not irrational. Eg.: conservatives have voted for certain candidates on the premise that electing them will roll back abortion rights. And that’s exactly what’s happened in lots of states.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Stillwater
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            I focused on voting for Romney would make me feel like I committed an act of betraying my friends, family, party, and Country.

            That’s a pretty heavy burden to carry.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jaybird
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              Well, when you say it like that…Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jaybird
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              Would it be helpful if we didn’t phrase it as “voting for the right guy,” which makes “right” appear to be an objective description, but as “voting for the person I honestly believed was the right guy is a moral act in itself”?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James Hanley
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                I may have overstated that. It may not be the case that voting for *MY* candidate is a moral act in and of itself, but voting for another, particular, candidate would make me feel as if I had committed a betrayal against kith/kin.

                On *TOP* of that, there’s another dynamic that I’m sure you’re familiar with where a vote for (third-party dude/dudette) is a vote for (the bad candidate). I had friends tell me that a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush while other friends told me that a vote for Nader was a vote for Gore. I found this *ENDLESSLY* amusing. Seriously, if you’ve got people telling you this and they’re both earnest? It’s awesome.

                However, there are people out there who are inclined to vote a particular way who take the lesson of 1992/2000 to heart and they know, deep down, that a vote for (other) is a vote for (evil).

                I presume that not voting is effectively identical to voting (other).

                So while voting for your guy may not be a moral act in itself, not voting/voting (other)/voting (evil) is an immoral act in itself.

                So it’s immorality avoidance.

                Which, still, seems like a pretty heavy burden to carry.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird
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                I admit that I want the Republicans to lose, for reasons I’ve probably stated here before (women’s issues, gay rights, health care). I don’t like the Democrats, but I’d rather they win than the Republicans. But I’m not going to vote, because I can’t bring myself to vote for a guy who authorizes targeted assassinations and drone strikes of wedding parties.

                I suppose this is sort of the mirror image of what Jason’s talking about: even though my vote won’t matter, I can’t bring myself to pull the lever for a guy, even though I’d rather he win. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it does.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris
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                May I suggest Gary Johnson? While you’re there, you can vote out some judges as well!Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird
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                I’m going to vote. Just not for President.

                If I were going to vote for President, it wouldn’t be Johnson, though. I was thinking about Peta Lindsay, though. She has the added benefit of not being actually eligible for the Presidency. This makes her the ideal person to vote for. But I’ll still probably skip that part of my ballot.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird
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                What did that judge do that you don’t like?

                {Don’t think judicial office should be elective at all.}Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
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                http://www.clearthebenchcolorado.org/evaluations/

                Colorado has a “retain or not” vote. This results in a huge bias towards keeping even bad judges. Now, for the most part, I complain more about the DA than the judges but I’ve read enough cases of judges colluding to prevent certain defenses from being presented or exculpatory evidence makes me have an itchy finger when it comes to voting against them.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to NewDealer
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        The only reason that comes to mind about why this constantly comes up [voting is irrational] is that they hope enough people will just not vote and then they can enact their preferred policy preferences.

        Bearing in mind that I did NOT say that voting is irrational, I’ll freely admit that I implied it might be a waste of time — if and only if people were voting in the hopes of being the marginal voter who decides an election.

        Otherwise, there might be plenty of reason to vote. I gave some of them. If those are a good fit for you, then congratulations. Fitting means to ends is how you do rationality.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          Additionally, if I wanted to enact my own policy preferences, I would think “urge everyone not to vote” is, if anything, slightly less practical than seasteading.Report

          • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            How is it any less practical than “urging everyone to vote in the same way as me” or “urging everyone to share my political opinions”?Report

            • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Dan Miller
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              says:

              Well, for one, I strongly suspect that libertarians are disproportionately receptive to the idea that voting is pointless. And a disproportionate share of Jason’s audience is libertarian. So arguing that voting is pointless would on the be more likely to shift elections away from his preferred outcomes than towards.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to NewDealer
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        @New Dealer,

        The only reason that comes to mind about why this constantly comes up is that they hope enough people will just not vote and then they can enact their preferred policy preferences.

        Wow. I can honestly assure you that this is not the purpose. The purpose is an empirical description of what voting motivations make sense and which don’t. Please see my comments above that lay that out.

        … my Democratic votes … matter in the proposition system
        If you were on your way to the polling place, saw some calamity, and spent the rest of the day helping people out, and ultimately never got to cast your vote…would it matter to the outcome of any of the propositions?

        If on your way to the polling place you suddenly got a flash of insight that changed your mind about one, some, or all of the propositions, so that you cast your votes differently than you had intended to when you set out that day…would it make a difference to any of the outcomes?

        Plus what is hard about understanding yourself to be part of an aggregate here for the poli sci types?

        Actually, it’s because I so fully understand myself as part of an aggregate that I realize how little my vote matters. And I realize that my money and my voice actually matter a lot more–that as part of an aggregate I can have more influence on the outcome through them than through my vote. And I recognize that being able to influence others is every bit as much a part of democracy as the vote itself (Saddam Hussein had elections, but he didn’t let you use your voice).Report

    • Avatar trizzlor in reply to James Hanley
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      If I vote, what I’ll be consuming is honest avoidance of the “gasp! you didn’t vote!??” response that irritates me so much.

      I recently heard an interview on the radio about psychological GOTV experiments, and the speaker claimed that one of the most successful efforts was to canvass a neighborhood with postcards that said “Here are the voting/not-voting counts for you and your neighbors over the past elections (this was apparently publicly available), after the upcoming election we will send out an updated card with your results.” The speaker didn’t explain the specifics, but if that was really the most effective technique then social stigma seems to be just as much an impetus as the joy of voting.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to trizzlor
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        Here’s an article explaining the experiment. You’ve got the basics right, but it’s pretty fascinating reading regardless.

        http://www.apsanet.org/content_51091.cfmReport

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Dan Miller
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          Good link, Dan. And thanks for thinking of that Trizzlor.

          It appears to be quite true, and makes sense given that humans are by nature social animals, hence very subject to social pressure.

          In my case, though, I don’t actually feel any shame or embarrassment about not voting; I just don’t like having to deal with the objectors. I’d willingly pay $100 to shut them all up, and voting costs me less than $100, since I live within just a couple miles of the polling place and can usually get in and out quickly. So it’s rational for me to vote just to shut them up. (Were I mildly more sociopathic, I could avoid the voting and just lie. But lying bothers me, so that’s not a rational choice for me.)Report

  7. Avatar Chris
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    OK, now I’m going to vote for Romney (I wasn’t going to vote at all). I live in Texas. I will win in my state!Report

  8. Avatar Dan Miller
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    Voting also serves as a signaling mechanism. You acknowledge yourself that large groups of people voting can have an actual impact on the world, but it would be difficult to mobilize those large groups if everyone didn’t participate in the ritual. Thus it’s not a pure consumption good (this also explains the “I voted” stickers, Facebook posts about voting, etc etc).Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Dan Miller
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      But it’s a really cheap signal, due to the secret ballot.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
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        I think that’s where I see a mistake in the way Jason is framing the issue. The act of voting is the end result of a lot of other actions that express a set of beliefs. Viewing voting as a mere event, divorced from the embedded context, isn’t the right way to look at the issue.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater
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          Eg., lots of libertarians refrain from voting for national elections. The analysis Jason is viewing things under would be that those people have done nothing – performed no action – by refraining from voting, because they failed to engage in the event of pulling a lever. From those libertarian’s views, refraining from voting is an action, embedded in a larger context of beliefs.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
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          Maybe, but it’s awfully easy to do all those other actions and then not vote. Voting’s highly correlated with those other actions, but I don’t think they’re causal.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to James Hanley
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        Would you vote differently if the ballot were public? What if you lived in a community where a large majority of people held preferences different than your own?Report

        • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Burt Likko
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          Of the people who know me, basically everyone knows how I’m going to vote anyhow, so the secret ballot isn’t really a factor.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko
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          Me? No, but I’m a curmudgeon who takes a certain pleasure in my neighbors’ discomfort. I truthfully have nothing against U. Mich., but get a kick out of the sadness of my friends and neighbors when they lose. But that’s only because U. Mich. fans are numerous and arrogant. Were I in a community where a large majority held preferences different from my own, they’d be numerous and arrogant, so I’d enjoy letting them know how I voted. In fact I’ve noticed over the years that I tend to react to majorities by shifting away from them. Hell, if I hung out with a bunch of libertarians, I’d probably end up as a leftist all over again. I can’t explain it, and it may not even be a good thing, but monolithic voices to me seem to amplify the errors of an argument. And it may not have gone entirely unnoticed here that I like pricking those who sound most self-assured.*

          But I’m not normal, in that sense. Most people are go along to get along types (and let’s be honest, that usually makes more sense than being a prick). They’d be afraid of being pointed out, sneered at, publicly condemned.

          Folks like me don’t need protection. Folks like Blaise P. don’t need protection. Folks like TVD don’t need protection. That’s the commonality between us. There’s lots of folks here at the League like that, but we already know the League is not a random sample of the voting public.
          __________________
          * Oh, yeah, the irony doesn’t escape me.Report

          • Avatar NewDealer in reply to James Hanley
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            If you really want to cause discomfort, you can:

            1. Invite Karen Finley to do a performance on your front lawn, or

            2. Have Richard Serra design a sculpture that bisects your front lawn and is meant to be a permanent installation that causes people to cross your lawn in weird ways to reach the front door.Report

            • Avatar James H. in reply to NewDealer
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              1. I’d totally do that, as long as I could do my own performance art that simultaneously offends her.

              2. I’m not willing to inconvenience myself that much just to irk my neighbors. I could get a stronger reaction at lower cost to myself just by hanging up an Ohio State U. flag.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to NewDealer
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              Lawn art? I helped a guy build this monstrosity in his yard.

              The neighbors are mostly musicians, so they’re cool with it. One of em, inspired by the size I guess, built a beautiful 12 foot tall wooden chair in his yard.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird
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    Here is my fantasy:

    The election is close. Close enough that Colorado’s electoral votes make the difference between winning and losing.

    The election in Colorado is close. Close enough that the third party votes in Colorado make the difference between winning Colorado and losing Colorado (something like 48.5-49 with 2.5% voting for Gary Johnson or some other third party).

    This is one of those things that is juuuuuust on this side of possible… and there is the dinkiest thing that I can do to contribute to it happening the way I daydream about and that is throwing my vote away on Gary Johnson.

    Now, of course, that’s not particularly *LIKELY*… but, hey, I can daydream. And, as I said, the daydreams are better when you proverbially buy the ticket.Report

  10. Avatar North
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    says:

    No thanks Jason, setting aside that Obama (with his sparkles finally sanded off) is preferable to Romneybot I have a very close refferenda here in MN working on enshrining the invalidation of my Husband and I’s marriage in the state constitution. Yeah my vote is only a tiny drop, sorry to let you down, but I think I’ll lend my drop to the river that’s running my way rather and casting it off into the desert of the lizard people.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to North
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      says:

      Do you really think Obama might need your vote in Minnesota? It’s not close up there. 94.7% chance of an Obama win, says Nate Silver.

      As to the referendums, what makes you think your vote will matter there, either? The strength of your feeling about the issue, and the clarity you can muster here (as opposed to, say, the mixed feelings you may have in voting for Obama) will not bring you any closer to being the deciding, marginal voter.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        My vote, my act of voting, my modest financial support of the group working against the amendment (Freedom to Marry), my advocacy to my friends to vote and my volunteered time on the campaign against the amendment all matter (incrementally). Collectively of course the votes and actions of people who agree with me on this issue bear directly on the issue of marriage for gays in Minnesota, nothing really matters more on that subject.

        Do I want to be the marginal one vote that tips it over the edge? Hell no! I want to be the marginal vote that tips the count up to 60% against the amendment; hell I’d like 80%, 90% but that’s just being greedy. I’d like my little marginal vote to be the tiny 95% microscopic cherry on top of a landslide of votes against this amendment.

        But really we both know you understand this in your bones Jason; you’re a libertarian; the quintessential spitting into the wind ideology.Report

  11. Avatar clawback
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    says:

    If you can’t understand why people vote maybe you should think more deeply about the subject rather than assuming they are acting irrationally. That elections are rarely decided by one vote is no more decisive in determining the rationality of voting than would long odds against success of any endeavor. It is arguably rational for me to buy a $1 ticket when the lottery tickets have a 2/1000000 chance of hitting a million as the expected value of the ticket is $2. This is true even though intuitively it might seem I’m simply throwing away my dollar. Voting doesn’t cost anything beyond the voter’s time and other minimal costs, and you don’t really get to judge whether people are valuing those costs correctly, so perhaps you should not be so quick to dismiss its rationality.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback
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      says:

      . That elections are rarely decided by one vote is no more decisive in determining the rationality of voting than would long odds against success of any endeavor.

      No, because voting’s not like a lottery.

      Anyway, you’re not reading him carefully if you think he’s saying voting is irrational. Voting as an investment in the outcome is irrational (if a large group is voting–in a small group, one vote has a reasonable chance to be decisive). Given that, and given that we prefer to assume people are rational, how would we explain voting? Consumption behavior–people get some direct benefit out of voting, regardless of who wins. So it’s rational. I personally don’t understand the consumption benefit of voting, but I also don’t understand the consumption benefit of sauerkrat. But I assume that sauerkrat eaters do in fact get utility from munching on it, just as I assume voters actually do get utility from casting ballots.Report

      • Avatar clawback in reply to James Hanley
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        says:

        No, because voting’s not like a lottery.

        My comment made the argument that voting is, in fact, much like a lottery. You pay a small amount to have a small chance of gaining something that would bring you much satisfaction. Whether the expected benefit exceeds the cost is not something that can be addressed with a single dismissive comment.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback
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          says:

          It’s different because we know in the end that one person, or some small number of persons, are actually going to win that lottery, and then they will get 100% of the benefit of that outcome (the winnings), and no other participant will get anything. In voting (large N election), we know that in the end one person or some small number of persons almost certainly will not be the ones that have “the winning number” (determine the outcome), and even if they did they would not receive 100% of the benefit of that outcome.

          So the expected benefit in a large N election almost certainly cannot exceed the marginal cost. Unless the act of voting isn’t in fact a cost, but is it’s own reward–is itself a benefit. But then your action is its own reward and the expected benefit of influencing the outcome is no more than icing on the cake.Report

          • Avatar clawback in reply to James Hanley
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            says:

            I don’t think this distinction quite holds. The benefit to me, should an election I consider important be determined in my candidate’s favor by one vote, would be quite large; I would experience satisfaction quite similar to winning a lottery. That other voters would experience the same satisfaction has no bearing on my calculation. Nor does the knowledge that someone must win make the lottery different; in both cases each participant has some small probability of success, to be weighed against the small cost.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley
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            says:

            OK, I read on further below. I’ll just add this. The odds of your vote determining the presidential outcome are so miniscule that you would need a phenomenally large potential payoff to make it rational to vote on that basis.

            Nate Silver and colleagues did an estimate of the probability (Link. The probability varies by state, of course (since some states are more likely to be determined by a single vote than other states), but the average, they estimate, is a 1 in 60 million chance.

            So if the cost of voting was $1, I’d need a $60 million payoff to get an expected value of my act that merely made me indifferent to the act of voting. Is the difference between Romney and Obama equal to a $60 million difference? If it was, you’d be willing to invest a lot more in making it happen (how much you invest being determined by how much each incremental dollar increases your odds of affecting the outcome).

            Now let’s say voting is a cost to you. That is, you don’t get so much pleasure out of the very act itself that you would leave home, go to the polls, and stand in line, if you knew absolutely and unequivocally that your chance of affecting the outcome was zero. (If you would vote in those circumstances, we don’t need to worry about expected value of affecting the outcome, because you have a 100% probability of achieving a net gain from the very act itself (minus whatever probability you have of not making it to the polls because of an accident)).

            Let’s say the act of voting, for me, has a net cost of $20. This accounts for my gas, wear and tear on my car, and my time, as well as the small amount of pleasure I get from the act itself. To make this investment act rational, the payoff–to me personally–of my preferred candidate would have to be $1.2 billion.

            We can say with a fair amount of certainty that it’s not worth that much to me, or else I’d have invested a shitload more in that candidate’s campaign–I’d have given more time and more money.

            So you have an uphill road to climb to persuade us that investment voting is rational. On the other hand, if voting costs only $20, or $50…well, people pay that kind of money for all kinds of pleasures, so if they get satisfaction out of the act itself, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that they get that much satisfaction out of it.

            Given that people are voting, and that people mostly aren’t irrational, we have to assume voters are rational. So which model more parsimoniously explains the rationality of voting? Clearly the consumption model has it hands down over the investment model.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
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              says:

              The odds of your vote determining the presidential outcome are so miniscule that you would need a phenomenally large potential payoff to make it rational to vote on that basis.

              Yes, the odds of my single vote determining the outcome of an election are vanishingly small. Let’s just stipulate that my vote won’t be determinative

              Suppose I agree with that rational assessment of my individual vote. Does it follow that I have no rational reason to vote? It seems to me the answer is no, it doesn’t follwo, since I don’t vote because I expect my vote to be determinative of my candidates election, but merely contributory to the likelihood that he will win. Conversely, if I fail to vote, my candidates chances of winning are diminished. It doesn’t matter how fractionally they are diminished, it seems to me, for that mere fact to justify my participation in the voting process.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
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                says:

                Does it follow that I have no rational reason to vote?

                Of course not. You may get personal satisfaction out of voting, for whatever reason it personally satisfies you. (I get more satisfaction out of a thick pair of socks, but I’m me and not someone else.)

                But if we’re sticking to the investment model of voting, it absolutely does matter how fractionally changed your candidate’s odds are. We’re talking math, and the math is pretty determinative.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
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                says:

                But if we’re sticking to the investment model of voting,

                What investment model is that? The one that concludes that my expectation of increasing the likelihood my candidate wins by casting a ballot in his favor is greater than the investment required to cast the vote? I’m a living refudiation of that model.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater
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                says:

                That was jumbled, of course.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
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                says:

                Yes, that investment model. But it actually assumes an objective expectation, because there is an objective reality about how much your vote increases the likelihood of your candidate winning.

                If your subjective expectation of that (technically, your expected value) does not match the objective calculation, then you should know better. You may not be technically irrational, if you’re working off your best knowledge, or you may be rationally ignorant, if figuring out the objectively accurate value requires too much work….there we get into areas where there is disagreement on what to call rational and what not. I’ll just settle for saying it’s a bit astonishing that someone could actually believe that in a large N election their vote could increase the odds for their favored candidate enough to warrant more than a wave in the direction of the polling place as you’re headed to the bar after work. I’m pretty sure it’s a case of willful self-delusion based on a need for our lives and actions to be meaningful.

                And what the hell, if you feel good about doing your civic duty, about participating in this great human invention/convention called democracy, why the hell isn’t that just good enough?! Why the desperate search to define having a teensy weensy almost unmeasurably miniscule effect so you can feel justified in doing something? You don’t justify going to a ballgame by telling yourself, “I think my cheering created some vanishingly small, but real, increase in my team’s chances of winning.” You justify it by saying, “damn I love going to the game and being one of the throng and getting jazzed by all the enthusiasm.”

                Why is anything more than that needed?Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to Stillwater
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                says:

                Let’s just stipulate that my vote won’t be determinative

                But it is determininative, with a certain probability. That this probability is small is just one factor in the cost/benefit calculation.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Maybe we’re saying the same thing. You’re saying that there is a stasitical probability that that vote will actually be determinative. My suggestion is that my vote increases the probability of my candidate winning. The only difference might be the way these thoughts are held in the mind. My motivation for voting isn’t that my vote might be determinative. It’s that failing to vote diminishes the likelihood of him or her winning. And importantly, that accepting that simple fact (and it is a fact!) is sufficient to justify my participation in the electoral process. So yes, I agree with what you said. (I was adopting that line – probably to my own detriment – for the sake of making a different point.)

                I think it might be that from a statistical pov, we’re both approaching the issue from the same angle. That is, in both cases, you and I agree that the contribution of our votes is vanishingly small to the outcome of the election. But where we differ with James and Jason K is that vanishingly small /= irrelevant.

                ANd personally, I just don’t see how a preference theorist can say that acting on the expectation of marginally small gains relative the cost of doing so is objectively irrational. For one thing, there doesn’t appear to be a coherent standard by which to determine whether the cost is too high or too low except people’s behavior, given that the “correct cost” is subjectively determined by the individual.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to Stillwater
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                says:

                Yep, we’re saying the same thing.

                where we differ with James and Jason K is that vanishingly small /= irrelevant.

                Yeah, that’s what Jason K said that was so objectionable. He made no effort to do the math. James made a nice effort at estimating the values, above, and I only quibbled with the numbers.

                I just don’t see how a preference theorist can say that acting on the expectation of marginally small gains relative the cost of doing so is objectively irrational.

                Exactly so. The handwaving that went into the first two paragraphs of this post was disturbing.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Talk about handwaving. You make no attempt to provide actual numbers.

                Unless you can demonstrate that there is an expected value = or > the cost of voting, you’re doing nothing but handwaving. You’re claiming that of course the EV of my effect on the outcome is greater than the cost of voting. But there’s nothing obvious about it, and you don’t even try to do the math.

                Pardon me while I look a little askance when the guy who provides fewer numbers than I do accuses anyone else of handwaving. The reason Jason didn’t spell it out more clearly was that he assumed it was well understood. Not only was he wrong about that, but those who don’t understand the argument are sneering at him.

                Do some fishing math before you continue with your pots and kettles BS.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback
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                says:

                It’s not my post. If I were writing a post, I’d start with the assumption of rationality, then provide evidence if I thought there was a case for the contrary. To start with the assumption of irrationality, based on some vague notion that low probability == zero probability, is indeed handwaving.

                No, I don’t need to provide any more numbers. “low does not equal zero” is the only refutation this post needs.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to clawback
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                says:

                based on some vague notion that low probability == zero probability,

                That’s hanging your hat on a weak hook. The prob is so low that functionally it essentially is zero.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
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                says:

                You make no attempt to provide actual numbers.

                The actual numbers don’t matter. It’d be like saying that the actual numbers of the cost of a toaster don’t support the price you paid.

                The actual numbers might be worth considering from a different pov, but the subjectivist about rationality can’t talk about them.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback
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                says:

                That’s hanging your hat on a weak hook.

                Ok, so here we go, with just order-of-magnitude numbers:

                Let’s say the odds of one vote determining whether we have to live with Romney for four years is one in 100 million. My vote determining that would truly be an awesome experience, one that I’d trade a million dollars for if I had it. So the expected value is a penny.

                Now, I live in Todd Akin’s state, and I’d really really like to see him lose; i.e., the satisfaction would be similar to that of my personally defeating Romney. If there’s (again, order-of-magnitude) a million voters in Missouri, that means the expected value is a dollar on that election.

                Determining my congressional race, with about 100,000 voters, would be great, but less so. Let’s say it would be worth only $10,000 to me. So expected value of a dime.

                You go down the list through the state legislative elections, and the various goofball right-wing initiatives typically put in front of us in this state, and you add the expected values with those above, and maybe you come up with a total expected value of something like a couple of dollars.

                This is a reasonable trade for the ounce or two of extra gas I’d have to burn to stop by the polls. Not sure whether the remainder covers the value of the five minutes I lose by voting, but it’s at least arguable.Report

            • Avatar clawback in reply to James Hanley
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              says:

              I actually don’t find much to argue with here; I’d just quibble with the numbers. For most people, the cost of voting is so small as to be negligible. They stop by the polls on the way home from work, burning … what? a nickle’s worth of extra gas? The time they vote cuts into the time they spend doing whatever they would otherwise be doing that evening. In most cases that five minutes really can’t be valued very highly. So really, I think on average voters place a very small cost on voting.

              Then each election has multiple candidates and various initiatives and so on, and each one of these (well, at least those that matter to the voter) increases the odds of hitting that win-by-one election lottery. Most of these are local, so the odds of success are better.

              So I don’t think the payoff has to be as astronomical as the figure you cited. But I’d agree that some, maybe most, voters also derive some benefit apart from this calculation.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to clawback
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                says:

                For most people, the cost of voting is so small as to be negligible. They stop by the polls on the way home from work, burning … what? a nickle’s worth of extra gas? The time they vote cuts into the time they spend doing whatever they would otherwise be doing that evening. In most cases that five minutes really can’t be valued very highly. So really, I think on average voters place a very small cost on voting.

                This is deeply wrong. First, who are any of us to tell someone their time can’t be valued very highly? The real way to understand cost is as opportunity cost, what else would some do if they didn’t do X. But we can’t judge that for each other. It’s arrogance to assume we can. Second, you conveniently bring it down to only five minutes, forgetting the driving and standing in line time. Use honest numbers, please. Third, if voting is so low cost, why don’t We have higher turnout, and why do liberals advocate reducing the cost even further, through early voting, more polling places, and moving to weekend voting like many other democracies? (I agree with liberals on those things, for the record.)

                Voting’s pretty easy where I live, but it takes me ten minutes to drive to the polling place, ten minutes back, and at least 5 minutes there. So make that 25 minutes minimum. Now, how much is my time worth? You can’t answer that, just as I can’t tell you what your time is worth. But let’s say my time is worth only $1. A 1 in 60 million chance is a probability of .000000017. Let’s say a positive outcome is worth $1 million to me. That probability times a million equals less than five cents (1.7 if I punched the numbers in right).

                Let’s take your (confusing) “increasing the odds approach” and says it doubles the chances that your vote has a meaningful effect. Now we’re still under a nickel in expected value.

                This is why I’m not persuaded.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to James H.
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                says:

                But we can’t judge that for each other. It’s arrogance to assume we can.

                Heh. Yeah. That’s why we start with the assumption they can make rational decisions about whether to vote. And especially why we don’t devise condescending pop-psychology explanations for their actions. It’s arrogance. If your model doesn’t explain what you see, there’s probably a problem with the model.

                Anyway, as I detailed above, it’s not hard to come up with a model of voting having an expected value of a couple bucks. It’s not zero. No, I’m not going to tell anyone they’re irrational if they make that choice. And I’ve already acknowledged people might have multiple reasons for voting.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Look clawback, you seem to keep saying the model can’t describe why people vote. Since we’ve explained multiple times how it does explain that, it appears you are determined to not actually read what we’re saying.

                Alo, no one said the value of voting was was zero. You’re misrepresenting the argument, and that kind of game-playing doesn’t garner respect.

                Ok, you say it’s not hard to come up with a model of voting having an expected value of a couple bucks. But you don’t specify whether you’re talking about an investment model or a consumption model. If you’re not going to specify which voting model you’re talking about, we can’t have a coherent discussion.

                With a consumption model you won’t find me disagreeing with you that voting is rational. I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling you keepnoverlooking that. With an investment model, if it’s so easy let’s see you do a real one, not the vague non-numerical one that avoids dealing with meaningful numbers.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to James H.
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                says:

                Hold on, I see I missed your comment above. I’ll check it out.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to James H.
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                says:

                Ok, no, you’re still fudging numbers. You say you’d trade a million dollars for that vote if you had it. But you don’t, so you can’t, so that can’t be part of the calculation. Sorry, that’s not my rules, that’s the rules of cost-benefit analysis.

                There’s an old joke about two economists walking past a Ferrari dealership. One looks at the car in the window and says, “I want that.”. The other one replies, “obviously not.”

                Second, you’re still claiming voting’s a five minute task, ignoring driving time. In these analyses you don’t get to discard inconvenient values.

                Then you just make unspecified assumptions that everything else surely must add up to enough to offset the cost. That, my friend, is the Platonic ideal of hand waving.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James H.
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                says:

                I have to be fair, though. Clawback does have a good point that we shouldn’t focus just on one item on the ballot, but would have to include all of them in the calculation. That probably isn’t considered often enough.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to James H.
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                says:

                No, it’s legitimate, and for the same reason the economists’ joke is silly: I can want something I cannot afford. A valid way to judge the value is to weigh the utility of the benefit against that of some dollar value. In my example, I guessed I would derive the same pleasure from personally sending Romney away as I would from getting a million dollars. Interestingly this is the same number you came up with independently.

                Voting for me is, at most, a five minute task; my polling place is right along my normal running route, and there’s never a line. I’d say the last time I voted it set my run back no more than three minutes. Not sure why you’re quibbling on every detail.

                Then you just make unspecified assumptions that everything else surely must add up to enough to offset the cost.

                I have no idea what this is about. Please re-read my comment. I don’t know in full detail everything that will be on my ballot in November. Do you expect me to know every candidate and issue right now, and account for each one in excruciating detail for your benefit?Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to James H.
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                says:

                The joke about the economist isn’t stupid, you just don’t quite get it. You are making what is essentially an economic argument without thinking that you need to understand the economic basics. One if those basics is that if something is beyond your budget you don’t get to include it in your decision making. You would not pay a million dollars for that vote because you could not pay a million dollars for it. So you don’t get to count that million dollars in your budget. Doing so skews the values in your favor. It’s convenient, but it’s improper and unrealistic. Things are only worth what you actually will sacrifice for them, not what you might sacrifice if you were in different circumstances.

                Look, you can study this stuff. It’s no arcane mystery, although it is a but technical. But if you’re not willing to study it, don’t pretend you can just make it up. I find that kind of thing really irritating, because it’s essentially people claiming knowledge, study, expertise don’t matter, we can just totally wing the technical stuff.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to James H.
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                says:

                A congruent joke runs as follows. Maybe it will help.

                Robert A. Heinlein once made one of his characters declare, “I never do anything I don’t want to do. Nor does anyone else. But in my case, I know it.”

                Now, as to the numbers. Let’s say I buy all of clawback’s methodologically dodgy cost-benefit analysis, just for the sake of argument. I don’t buy it, but if I did I would still think the second half of my post provides a better explanation for why people vote: People vote so that they can be in solidarity with other people who are voting, not because they expect to influence the outcome.

                Here’s why. How much is your social solidarity with, say, the Democratic Party really worth to you? If it’s more than a dollar, then my explanation is more influential on your behavior by at least couple of orders of magnitude.

                That’s the whole point of my request that people vote against their preferences — it totally wrecks their solidarity, while all but certainly doing absolutely nothing else. Asking them to do it puts their focus entirely on this sense of fellow-feeling, which they will then note by its absence.

                The election’s outcome, meanwhile, remains in the hands of the people at large, not in yours, but then, it never really was in your hands anyway.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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      says:

      I never claimed that people are acting irrationally when they vote.

      Please reread and criticize the post I wrote, not the one you would like me to have written.Report

      • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        The post you wrote tells us that voting never makes a difference, then goes on to tell us that it might make us happy for reasons other than making a difference. This meets most common understandings of the term “irrational”.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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          says:

          It doesn’t meet any definition of “irrational.”

          On my view, voting is an instance of one important type of rationality, because it is judged a fit means to the end that people appear to be seeking.

          The end is to feel solidarity with an entity larger than themselves (in my view, that entity is the political party, though I can’t rule out Snarky’s claim that it’s also the nation as a whole, at least in some cases).

          If voting does that for you, then you have found something that is a fit means to the end. And that’s rationality. If anything is irrational, it is only the belief that your vote will be the marginal one. Which most people have the good sense not to believe.Report

          • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            says:

            Feel free to quibble over terms rather than defend the post on its merits. Meanwhile I await a persuasive argument that voting cannot be justified on the basis of expected value alone. Handwaving and insults about lacking “good sense” won’t persuade.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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              says:

              I stand by every word of the post.

              Voting is a consumption good. Consumption goods are judged by whether they make you happy. Does voting make you happy? Good. Enjoy it. There is nothing wrong or irrational or immoral about being happy.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                You need to establish, based on actually weighing the costs against the expected benefits, that voting cannot be justified on that basis alone. You haven’t done so, nor have you made any effort to do so beyond handwaving and insults and appeals to your version of common sense.

                Once you’ve done so (which you haven’t) you can then move on to amateur psychologizing. Until then there’s no point.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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                says:

                You need to establish, based on actually weighing the costs against the expected benefits, that voting cannot be justified on that basis alone.

                No, I don’t. I’m describing a reason for voting that seems very plausible to me. I’m not saying it is the only possible reason, just that it seems a very strong one, very likely to be found in the real world. The comments seem to bear this out.

                You’re always welcome to come up with alternate explanations. Several people have already done so (Snarky’s is the best so far, I think).

                It’s your turn, if you like. After you propose, I’ll consider it on the merits. But asking me (or anyone) to rule out all other possible reasons is asking for an infinite amount of work. That’s hardly fair.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                I’m not asking you to rule out all other possible reasons. The most parsimonious explanation for people voting is that the voting actually matters; i.e., the expected benefit in terms of election results justifies the cost. You implicitly agree that this is the most obvious explanation, as you spend the first two paragraphs presenting and dismissing it.

                My point is simply that you tried, but failed, to dismiss it. But yeah, certainly you’re under no obligation to defend what you wrote.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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                says:

                The most parsimonious explanation for people voting is that the voting actually matters;

                That would be true, if the individual act of voting mattered.

                We have already established that, for purposes of the election’s outcome, it does not.

                In what other ways might voting matter? I’ve given what I think is plausible. You may disagree, or not, but I’m certainly not walking anything back. I’m sure you would enjoy it, but (like your individual vote mattering to the outcome) — wishful thinking doesn’t make it true.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to clawback
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                says:

                That would be true, if the individual act of voting mattered.

                Rephrase: “it would be true, if the individual act of voting is perceived by the voter to matter.”

                And I think it is actually a reasonably plausible explanation that for a number of voters, it is in fact perceived by them to matter. Whether it does or not.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Let’s try it this way: We’ve only established that a single vote is not determinative. We haven’t established that it isn’t contributory to a desired outcome. A person can hold the belief that by voting for increasing the likelihood that their candidate will win consistently with believing that their single vote won’t be decisive.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback
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                says:

                The most parsimonious explanation for people voting is that the voting actually matters; i.e., the expected benefit in terms of election results justifies the cost

                That’s not the most parsimonious explanation, as I not-too-eloquently explain above.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
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                says:

                James, let’s focus on the premise of your argument for a minute. I don’t want to go thru the thread for citations, but you’ve accepted as your premise the following: a single vote isn’t determinative of an elections outcome. ANd from that you conclude that participation in electoral politics can only be justified in non-electoral terms. My suggestion at the bottom of the thread and right up there is that people don’t vote on the premise that their single vote will be determinative, but merely contributory.

                I’m interested in whether your analysis will provide the same general conclusions given *that* as a rational justification for participation in the electoral process.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to clawback
                Ignored
                says:

                Stillwater,

                Unless you can specify some meaningful values for contributory we can’t make a statement about whether it’s rational. I haven’t been abke to follow your argument about it. It seems convenientlly unspecifiable to me.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
                Ignored
                says:

                Unless you can specify some meaningful values for contributory we can’t make a statement about whether it’s rational.

                The only value of “contributory” that matters for the sake of this argument (it seems to me) is that failing to vote for my preferred candidate contributes to the likelihood that he loses the election. In my mind, that’s just a statement of fact. And enough to justify my participation.

                So I’m not sure what more I can say about it. Statistics and probabilities and all that don’t really matter too much, it seems to me. Especially for a view where rationality is defined as the subjectively determined expectation of utility enhancement as revealed by actions.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
                Ignored
                says:

                Which isn’t to say that other people vote for their candidates for other reasons, I suppose. Personally, I think people vote because failing to do so increases the likelihood that the enemy takes control of the camp.

                Or, more cautiously stated, that the person who better reflects their views fails to win.Report

              • Avatar James H. in reply to clawback
                Ignored
                says:

                Stillwater,

                I don’t understand your claim about increasing the odds my candidate will win. How does my vote do that? Assuming a tied election results in a coin flip, my candidate has to be down by no more than one for my vote to have any chance of changing the outcome. If my candidate is down by two or more votes, my vote does not actually improve his chances of winning.

                To improve odds, you have to be doing something that’s statistical/probablistic. Putting the ball in Jordan’s hands near the end of the game instead of mine increases your odds of winning because statistically he’s more likely to score. But with voting we’re not dealing with the same kind of probabilistic events. You vote or you don’t, you contribute one to your team’s score or you don’t. There’s no “give it Stillwater, he’s got more chance of casting a ballot that counts than Hanley does.”

                I think shifting it to talking about in increasing your candidate’s odds intuitively sounds good, but I don’t think mathematically it actually makes sense. Even if it does, you still have to have some certain amount of increased probability to make it worthwhile, and that still has to be compared to cost. Say you have a 1 in a quintillion chance of winning a hundred dollars, and for only a dime you can increase your odds to 1 in a quadrillion–you’d be a fool to fish that dime out of your pocket. (Unless you just got a kick out of it and found the fun of playing worth the dime; but certainly not because it was a good price for the improved odds.)Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
                Ignored
                says:

                Assuming a tied election results in a coin flip, my candidate has to be down by no more than one for my vote to have any chance of changing the outcome. If my candidate is down by two or more votes, my vote does not actually improve his chances of winning.

                This is the right part, and the wrong part, and the wrong part of your account.

                It’s right, because after the election is over and the results are in, and assuming my candidate has lost, it could be said that my vote neither contributed to his winning, nor contributed to his chance of winning (since he lost). So my individual act of voting was irrelevant to determining the outcome.

                It’s wrong because even in the way the scenario is constructed by focusing exclusively on my contribution to the actual outcome of the election, there is a counterfactual situation in which my single vote is determinative of the outcome. Finding out the likelihood of that counterfactual situation being the actual situation determines the probability of my vote being determinative of the outcome. That answer will be non-zero.

                Finally, it’s wrong because the probability of my candidate winning in advance of the election is determined by the likelihood of my candidate receiving more votes than his opponent. In advance of the election, no one knows how it will turn out. So every vote my candidate gets that he otherwise might not have receivedon election day reduces the likelihood that he will win.

                Think of it this way: if my candidate were to receive N votes with me voting, he has probability P of winning the election (usually this is accomplished by factoring in all sorts of relevant statistics and data and whatnot, but how that probability is determined is irrelevant). If he receives N-1 because I failed to vote for him, his probability of winning is less than P. So refraining from voting for him reduces the likelihood that he will win.

                I mean, if you want to stick the thesis that my individual act of voting doesn’t matter, then you’ve argued for a paradox (or I think an inconsistency): if no individual act of voting matters, then no collection of individual acts of voting matter, so no collection of votes that otherwise might have/might not have been cast won’t determine the outcome of the election.

                But that seems to me to be clearly false.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki
                Ignored
                says:

                Voting is a verb. You’ve confused what’s being obtained and how it’s obtained. Were it the case that voting made me happy, who I voted for wouldn’t matter.

                There’s no solidarity with anyone else in the voting booth. I decide how I vote. The parties and the candidates have gone to great trouble and expense to convince me, the voter, to choose them over the Other Guys.Report

  12. Avatar Jonathan McLeod
    Ignored
    says:

    “Any competent political scientist — or anyone with a working knowledge of arithmetic — can tell you that individual votes are almost never decisive to the outcome of an election.”

    Tell that to Robot Nixon.Report

  13. Avatar BlaiseP
    Ignored
    says:

    We get the lizard government we deserve, however much we dislike the lizards. But all this malarkey about how we should vote for the Wrong Guy only ensures we get the Wrong Lizards. We know what’s gone wrong with our democratic process: political donations buy access to politicians. Lot Lizards, the truckers call them, the crackhead prostitutes who come knocking on truck doors. The truck stops try to run them off, if they can, but they buy food and coffee and cigarettes from the same truck stops with their trick money.

    The Libertarians I’ve known have backed movements to abolish the laws against prostitution and hard drugs. It’s awfully hard to argue against their logic about victimless crimes. But when it comes to a Government of Prostitutes, they’re all outraged.

    If we got the money out of politics, if political donations didn’t buy such powerful access to government, if it didn’t result in big government contracts and ambassadorial appointments, if government were the meritocracy it was supposed to be — then we could make more informed choices. Until that happy day arrives, we should attempt to peer through the smoky pall of lies and marketing surrounding the Lizards we elect and choose the one more likely to benefit from doing things which might benefit the most people, Lizards who would view their own success and failure in our terms. Hobbes said we’ll never get corruption out of the system: that was his chief argument for monarchy: fewer people to bribe.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP
      Ignored
      says:

      But all this malarkey about how we should vote for the Wrong Guy only ensures we get the Wrong Lizards.

      No. It doesn’t. It doesn’t do anything to vote for the wrong guy, just once. Except to cause people distress at the very thought (which seems to interfere with their reading comprehension — note the many people claiming that I wrote that voting is irrational, including people who typically agree with me). It makes people’s brains go haywire to do this, which I find fascinating.

      But still, even if every reader of this post did vote for the “wrong” guy, they’d still mostly just cancel each other out, and they’d still be a tiny drop in the bucket.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        which seems to interfere with their reading comprehension

        Any discussion of how an individual vote doesn’t matter to the outcome of a large N election fishes up people’s reading comprehension. It targets one of their most sacred beliefs, and we all know how thoughtfully people tend to react to that kind of activity.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley
          Ignored
          says:

          Popular suffrage is obviously no way to conduct a democracy, eh? You stick to whatever it is you do. An N election means N individual people actually voted. For those of us with a little mathematics and a lot less ideology in our view of the world, elections have consequences.Report

          • Avatar James H. in reply to BlaiseP
            Ignored
            says:

            Blaise, you missed the point as usual. You have a great knack for critiquing an argument no one made. You’re a he’ll of a brave man, killing all those strawmen.

            And don’t try to pull the better mathematician line on me. I grant without reservation you’re better. But I provided number and you didn’t, nor did you refute mine, so it’s a hollow boast, and of course I didn’t make this stuff up but am drawing from other people who are skilled mathematically.Report

  14. Avatar Shazbot2
    Ignored
    says:

    “individual votes are almost never decisive to the outcome of an election.”

    No, individual votes always decide elections.

    Okay, I get your point. My vote doesn’t matter because the following claim is always highly likely true: “If I don’t vote, the outcome of the election will be the same as if I did vote.”

    But David Ryan is right that this leads to a weird “Zeno-like” problem. Suppose it is true of me, and you, and Hanley, and Kazzy, and so on that “If I don’t vote, the outcome of the election will be the same as if I did vote.” If that claim is true of each person, then it true of them all, and so the following claim should also be true: “If everyone doesn’t vote, the outcome of the election will be the same as if everyone did vote.”

    This of course is false. If no one voted in 2008, there would have been a 0-0 tie instead of an Obama win. Thus, the claim “If I vote, then the outcome of the election will be the same as if I did vote” cannot be true of each person.

    The best solution, I think, to this little puzzle is to believe that the claim “If I don’t vote, the outcome of the election will be the same as if I did vote” is only true for me because it is not true for some undefined (and unknowable) set of others. That is to say, my vote’s not mattering is parasitic on the fact that the votes of others do matter. But to someone else contemplating whether their vote matters, I am one of the people in the set of “others” whose votes matter, so my vote does matter in determining the outcome of the election in another sense. The weird implication of my solution is that whether your vote matters is relative to whether the votes of others matter, but so be it.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Shazbot2
      Ignored
      says:

      I’m not sure I 100% grok this comment, but I like it. Well done.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Shazbot2
      Ignored
      says:

      Hmmm… this is what I was thinking, only my thinking involved a lot more caveman talk. Well done, sir.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Shazbot2
      Ignored
      says:

      The right mental tool here isn’t Zeno’s paradox, I don’t think. It’s the economic concept of marginalism.

      It’s a given — as in, not plausibly open to doubt — that millions of Americans are going to vote in exactly the way that they have already decided. That’s the backdrop to the suggestion I’m making, and it can’t be ignored.

      If it weren’t a given, I would have to rethink the suggestion. In an election that would otherwise be a 0-0 (0-0-0-0…. to include the third parties) tie, then any voter would always be the marginal voter, the one who decides the election.

      In most U.S. elections, the marginal voter is the voter who supplies the winning side with one vote beyond the total of the losing side. The fact that you could stay home and the winning side still would win is proof that you aren’t that voter.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        “the marginal voter is the voter who supplies the winning side with one vote beyond the total of the losing side.”

        Who was that person, the person denoted by “the marginal voter” in the 2008 presidential election? Which one person decided the election? Which state did they vote in, or does each state have it’s own marginal voter? Of course, we don’t know.

        Suppose the marginal voter is Kazzy (or any person X in the domain of voters in the 2008 election.) Note that the following claim is still true: “If Kazzy hadn’t voted in 2008, Obama still would have won.” More generally the following is true: ” For any X, if X is the marginal voter in the 2008 election, if X didn’t vote for Obama, Obama would still win the election.” But by definition, “the marginal voter” is “the voter who supplies the winning vote.” So, by the definition of “marginal voter” there can be no marginal voter.
        i
        I conclude that the phrase “the marginal voter” is an empty expression that does not denote (though it has a Fregean sense or an intensional content) like “the general will” or “the highest interger” or “the end of an infinite series.”

        Thus, if you wish to state a problem about voting, you should not do it using the phrase “the marginal voter.”

        This is why I stated the problem the way I did, amongst other reasons.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        It’s also the economic problem of aggregation. Lots of debate about that in the last few years since the crisis in the finance industry about how to move from micro foundations — an individual — to useful macro results. We can call it the paradox of aggregation, I suppose. If one person takes action A, it’s worthless. If a million people all take action A, it can be very valuable indeed.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        Also, I think you mean the “Sorites paradox” or the paradox of the heap, which is a Zeno-like paradox, even if it isn’t technically Zeno’s. (Though some think Eubilides’ paradoxes were invented by Zeno, but the textual evidence is thin, IMO.) But people disagree about how to formulate The Sorites paradox, too, so whatever.

        Compare the two analagous sets of inconsistent sentences:

        1. The votes of each voter (you, me, Hanley, Chris, Blaise etc.) don’t determine the election’s outcome.
        2. The votes of the electorate do determine the election’s outcome (by definition).
        3. The electorate is identical to the votes of each voter.

        Sentences 1-3 are logically inconsistent, so one must be false. (I argue that sentence 1 is false.)

        4. Every grain of sand over there is not a heap of sand.
        5. A heap of sand is a heap of sand. (by definition)
        6. A heap of sand is identical to every grain of sand over there.

        These sentences are inconsistent too and this is, sort of, the Sorites paradox. (Which is why David said what he said and why I said what I said, I think.)

        More precisely, Sorites is worried about “the marginal grain of sand.” If we can’t identify which grain of sand puts the set of grains over the top and makes them a heap, then maybe there isn’t a grain that finally makes the set of grains a heap, and if there isn’t such a grain, then it isn’t a heap. But it is a heap!

        I think a decent solution to the heap paradox we’re discussing is to admit that no single grain determines that this set of grains is a heap. And no single vote determines that Obama won the election. If you think there is a single grain that makes the set of grains a heap, you are lead to paradox, because no single grain performs that role. The same thing is true with your claim that our votes don’t matter because they are not -or are not likely to be- the marginal votes.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Shazbot2
      Ignored
      says:

      If no one had voted in 2008… wouldn’t the task of appointing Presidential electors have fallen to the several then-incumbent state legislatures?

      How you get a new state legislature in 2009 would have been a different question, but at least we’d have had a President.Report

  15. Avatar Russell Saunders
    Ignored
    says:

    There’s something off with this that I can’t define. I’m not nearly strong enough on math to make a cogent argument about what, exactly, but it’s seems to be there to me.

    Part of it seems to be conflating the notion that a single vote will be “decisive” and that it will have been “worthwhile” to cast it. Will it be decisive? Almost certainly not. But this post seems to imply that because it will not make the final difference that it served no purpose other than making the voter feel good.

    But there are a great many individual actions that, on an event-by-event basis, make little difference in the grand scheme of things, but in aggregate make the scheme what it is. Am I single-handedly creating a resistant strain of bacteria by lazily scribbling out a script for an illness I’m sure is viral? No. But if all of my colleagues do the same thing, over time the resistant bacteria will emerge. Will that lovely New England beach be destroyed if I ignore the sign and take a souvenir pebble home? No. But it will be if everyone does. And so forth.

    There are innumerable acts that, viewed individually, seem to make no difference, but in sufficient numbers make a very big difference indeed. Again, I am far too weak on math to know the right terms or calculations to make this case cogently. But I still think voting matters for reasons other than that it makes me feel good to do so.Report

  16. Avatar Shazbot2
    Ignored
    says:

    “Which raises an interesting question: Why does anyone vote? Ultimately, I think it’s because voting makes them happy.”

    I doubt this too. I mean, we’re just guessing at motivations, but I think people see themselves as having a dutyy to vote. That duty follows from some (almost Kantian) notion that even though their ndividual vote doesn’t matter, if you universalize the maxim “I will not vote this year.” you get a system in which voting does not exist which conflicts with the maxim. (Not sure this is good Kantian reasoning, but ai think some sort of duty resting on doing your part in the way you expect others to do their part is the motivation behind voting.)

    Interesting post, BTW.Report

  17. Avatar Kazzy
    Ignored
    says:

    One reason to vote? Legitimacy. Legitimacy of the election.

    If we woke up the day after Election Day and found out that Candidate X between Candidate Y because the former received 2 votes and the latter receive 1, few would accept the results as legitimate. The more robust the “sample size” of the electorate, the more legitimate the results.

    For the record, I don’t know what mechanisms there are in place to avoid a scenario such as this. If one person voted in each state and one candidate got his 270 electoral votes, would there be anything to prevent the results from becoming official?Report

  18. Avatar Shazbot2
    Ignored
    says:

    “My guess is that almost no one will even want to think about voting “wrong”.”

    Voting wro is clearly, cleary not universalizable. If you think Kant is even partially right, you’ll recognize there is smething morally wrong with voting “wrong.”Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Shazbot2
      Ignored
      says:

      Russell is a doctor. Could he will that everyone else be a doctor? No, because we’d all starve to death. But this isn’t what Kant meant. Not at all.

      For a Kantian, a lot depends on how you formulate the maxim. Universal maxims shouldn’t get caught up in particulars like that.

      Here, if I were to will the maxim “Vote for the candidate you hate the most,” that would be terrible. But if I were to will the maxim “Conduct occasional experiments to determine how you relate to the polity, and think carefully about the results of them, discussing and seeking knowledge with other members of the polity,” — that’s a lot better, and I could definitely will that it be universalized.

      Or, as Kant himself put it: sapere aude. Dare to know.Report

      • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        No, because we’d all starve to death.

        We could all take turns billing the insurance companies.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Jason Kuznicki
        Ignored
        says:

        Sure, I get that the Kantian case for there being a duty to vote depends upon how you specify the maxim. (This is always a weird problem for Kant.)

        Forget about the details of Kant’s moral theory. Suppose X can get away with cehating on an exam or not paying his bus fare. We all know the best case for why X should still not cheat or pay his fare is something like this: I sure don’t want everyone to do what I’m gonna do, e.g. if everyone cheated or if everyone didn’t pay their bus fare.

        The reasons for why you should vote and why you should vote for your preferred candidate are going to look similar to the (non-prudential) reasons for paying your fare or not cheating, and those reasons have something to do with the golden rule, akant’s universalization, etc.

        I think you need to address that point in depth if you want to persuade people of your conclusions.Report

  19. Avatar Citizen
    Ignored
    says:

    I still think the lizard lottery is the way to go.Report

  20. Avatar trizzlor
    Ignored
    says:

    Here’s an interesting twist: You vote for my guy and I’ll make a contribution of X dollars to your guy’s campaign. Now we have direct impact (money makes a difference regardless of how close your state is) and we can assign some kind of value to the pleasure one gets from pulling their preferred lever.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to trizzlor
      Ignored
      says:

      My vote will not matter. I live in Maryland, one of the states that Nate Silver rates as a 100% certainty. No matter what I do, Maryland’s electoral votes go to Obama.

      I could always give Obama another vote, I suppose (assuming Obama is your guy). Then you could make a donation to (it actually turns out to be complicated, and I’ll explain that in a future post).

      After that, it’s just a question of how much I think I can reasonably set for X. And a question of some serious felony vote-buying, depending.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to trizzlor
      Ignored
      says:

      This would actually be -real- fun in primaries. People there seem to think they’re all on the same team.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to trizzlor
      Ignored
      says:

      4 years ago I offered–seriously–to sell my vote. Nobody would take me up on it. The damned secret ballot, my lack of ability to gain people’s trust, and the long odds against my vote mattering meant the high bid was .02 cents (iirc). Since I couldn’t cash a check for that amount, I declined the offer and voted my lack of conscience.Report

  21. Avatar Kimmi
    Ignored
    says:

    It’s not so much about tribalism for me. I vote for the “better man” by my own definition.
    Often this means “crossing parties”. So I lack the understanding, I think, of what you mean when I should vote for the Lizard Person.

    I can tell you about heartwrenching votes — where the bad guy wins, no matter who I choose, and I just get to choose which bad guy wins. But that’s not quite what you’re asking.

    I can tell you about when I voted for someone from the other party. But he wasn’t the Lizard Person — he was the best guy.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Kimmi
      Ignored
      says:

      Do you distinguish between the “better man” and the better outcome? (honestly curious)Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Dan Miller
        Ignored
        says:

        Yes, and often. Sometimes one votes for the guy who you want to be blamed for the upcoming mess. (takes a bit of balls in your own predictions to do that of course).

        I’ve said it a couple of times: i can’t vote for Republicans in executive or legislative positions (outside of truly local stuff), because the bad people win (bad people like AccuWeather).

        A good man, like Lamont or Webb, doesn’t make personal promises to his donors. Doesnt’ even talk with them. A bit of a firewall, if you will.

        There are few good men in politics.Report

  22. Avatar David Ryan
    Ignored
    says:

    In his book “Fooled by Randomness” Nassim Taleb explains how if you agree with a friend to flip a coin for who while pay for lunch, you have agreed to pay for 50% of lunch. This is also why every vote counts.

    I don’t expect Jason to understand this, because, as he said, he is an economist.Report

  23. Avatar Tod Kelly
    Ignored
    says:

    Ok, I’m going to read this post, because it’s Jason’s and all… But I have to say I’m tempted to not read it, because I think this is my favorite post title ever and I’m pretty content to walk away having only read that.Report

  24. Avatar sonmi451
    Ignored
    says:

    yep, voting is sooooo not important. What were those people fighting for voting rights thinking?? Much more fun to write snarky fun post about how your vote means nothing.Report

  25. Avatar Fnord
    Ignored
    says:

    Voting out to influence policy out of pure self-interest is almost certainly irrational. But it doesn’t follow that voting to influence policy altruistically is irrational. One voter is unlikely to influence the presidential election because a lot of people vote in the presidential election. Not coincidentally, a lot of people are affected by whoever holds the office.

    Avert another Iraq war, and you save over four thousand American lives and probably over one hundred thousand Iraqi lives. Change the US GDP by 0.1%, and you’ve created or destroyed $15 billion/year in value.

    I don’t think that makes it a slam-dunk to vote, to be sure. But it’s certainly possible for voting to be a rational investment towards fulfilling a altruistic preference in policy.Report

  26. Avatar Tom Van Dyke
    Ignored
    says:

    Could this post relate to littering America’s roadsides? IIRC, Lady Bird Johnson started this anti-littering thing in the ’60s. Looking out the back window as Dad drove us to I remember America’s roadsides looking looking like total hell when I was very young. Just litter everydamnwhere.

    Yes, the fake crying Indian, all that.

    But iirc, it worked, and fairly quickly. Since then, today, not bad, everybody Pitching In, if I remember the slogan.

    [Although, Jason, I must say that Atheists United is the cleanup sponsor of my local stretch of interstate. Frankly it looks like shit.]

    ;-}Report

  27. Avatar Ramblin' Rod
    Ignored
    says:

    Reading over all the posts above (took a while!), I agree that voting is a consumption good rather than an investment good (usually anyway). Out here in red, red, Kansas I vote to remind the Republicans that dissent does in fact exist within their neck of the woods. This means I vote for the Dem when I can. If the choice is between a Rep and a Lib (always a couple of those on every ballot) I vote for the Lib. If it’s a Rep running uncontested I skip that one. I also vote against retention for every judge on the ballot on the assumption that they’re Republicans since everyone else around here is even though they’re officially non-partisan. Why? It makes me happy. Or at least a bit happier.

    But not a lot happier. Voting is kind of a pain for me. Unless I go to great lengths it is rare that I’ll be in town on election day and even early voting isn’t an option here since I’m usually only home on alternate weekends. I voted in 2008 for Obama and that made me happy in a psycho-historical way, but I missed 2010 because of the PITA factor and didn’t worry a lot about it.

    I’d say I get about as much utility out of voting as eating a bag of Cheetos, but I’d honestly have a hard time taking you up on your offer because doing so would be like eating that boiled spinach they used to foist off on us in grade school. Yuchhh!Report

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