06 October, 2008

Okay, okay, vote...but first, consider the arguments against voting!

The typical economists' argument against voting is that no individual's vote will ever flip an election. The number of elections that have been decided by one vote is miniscule--and certainly no important national elections have been decided by one vote. Even the 2000 election in Florida was ultimately decided by around five hundred votes. If one of those people had decided to stay home, it would not have made any difference. Since there's no chance of affecting the election, a rational person should not vote--even the small the cost of voting will outweigh the benefit of zero.

There are many objections to this argument. It's fun to vote and you avoid the stigma of not voting--those should be elements of a rational calculation. Also, it's often an expression of identity, which can have some utility. I find two other objections more persuasive.

First, the premise that voting has a zero probability of affecting the election may be wrong. It's true that almost no elections are decided by one vote. Why? Because when important elections are very close, other parties step in. In Florida, the election was actually decided by the Supreme Court, not the voters. So if the vote total falls within some range, other parties will step in. And it may be the case that one vote pushes the total into or out of that critical range.

Second, it may be the case that we have a moral duty to vote in a Kantian sense. If no one votes, our political system will collapse and everyone will be much worse off. But it's not worthwhile for any one person to vote--their vote changes nothing. And if I know that everyone else is going to vote, I can free ride on their efforts to maintain a stable political system. Arguably, this is immoral. So in some sense we all have a duty or imperative to vote to keep the system functioning.

Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Brown, flips this argument around. His argument starts with the premise that voting is a very cheap way of getting some self-satisfaction and concludes that too many people vote. Many (most?) people make bad decisions with justifications that would not stand up to even minimal standards of epistemic scrutiny.

There are a few parts to this. One, studies show that people vote for candidates listed higher on the ballot more often than those listed lower, regardless of who the candidates are. Two, many people vote on irrelevant characteristics, like attractiveness, rather than issues. Three, and most importantly, many people are wrong about what the best policies are for achieving what they think our political goals should be. (How many people were convinced that we should go to war with Iraq because Saddam was connected to al-Qaeda?)

Normally, we don't worry when people make bad decisions, but in the case of voting, those bad decisions affect all of us. But Brennan argues it's rational for people who know they make bad decisions to keep voting! No one makes enough difference in the political process for it to be worth it to abstain from voting. Any individual can say "Oh, I'm not informed, but since my vote doesn't make a difference, I'll go ahead and vote anyway." But the combined result of all those bad votes is that the democratic process reaches worse outcomes. So Brennan thinks that we have a moral duty (exactly analogous to that argued for above) to abstain from voting if we do not have a high level of confidence in our beliefs. The irony is, of course, that those with crazy, unjustifiable beliefs usually are absolutely convinced that they're right.

Below I've posted a Bloggingheads with Brennan, where he sets out his view and debates it with Will Wilkinson.

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