Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tie Breaker

I've voted in virtually every single election for which I've been eligible to vote. So far, I've never cast the deciding vote. In other words, I could've stayed home for every one of those elections and the outcomes would have been identical. The probability of having one's vote be the tie-breaker in any significant election is, for all practical purposes, zero. Indeed, according to this (in the comments) by Don Boudreaux (economics professor at GMU), even the idea that someone's vote, from his or her perspective, might influence election results is ludicrous:

But just as surely, no one can deny -- or, rather, no one can deny with any intellectual legitimacy -- that in the act of casting a ballot, the outcome of the election from EACH VOTER'S perspective will not turn on how (or whether) he or she votes.

Anyone who insists that each individual vote matters is elevating romantic wishes above palpable reality.

Therefore, it seems irrational, perhaps even delusional, to ever bother voting. And let's take that to its logical conclusion: voters are therefore irrational (by definition). But who wants a bunch of loonies voting and directing government? Therefore, voters shouldn't be allowed to vote. Only non-voters should be allowed to vote, but unfortunately, they're too rational to do so.

But, wait a minute! As a brief interlude, we can prove that voting doesn't necessarily imply irrationality, even if the sole motivation for all voters is to affect the outcome of the election.

For a moment, assume that all potential voters are rational, as am I, and that there is no possible other motivation for voting except to affect the outcome of an election. At first I would decide not to vote since there's essentially no chance of affecting the election (i.e. being the tie-breaker). But then I would conclude that since all of the other rational potential voters would also decide to stay home for the same reason, that no one would vote. But since no one is going to vote, I ought to vote (and be well prepared) since my vote is guaranteed to be the tie-breaker (as the only vote). Of course, everyone else would figure this out as well, so they would also decide to vote after all. But that would make it pointless for me to vote. Everybody else would then realize it's also pointless for them to vote and stay home, making it imperative that I vote. And so on. A rather cute paradox really. On voting day, various segments of the population would be at different points in the thought process regarding this voting paradox, so some of them would vote and some would stay home. Therefore, choosing to vote is not necessarily irrational.

Anyway, back to "palpable reality." If voters are inherently irrational (either because they bother to vote or for any other reason), it would seem that democracy (and other relative forms of government with voters) are inherently bad forms of government.

There is a book that came out recently that seems to claim exactly that (though I haven't actually read it yet): The Myth of the Rational Voter. According to The New York Times Magazine, the author, Bryan Caplan argues that:
“voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Caplan’s complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself.
Well, I suppose democracy is the second worst form of government. What's the worst? All others!

If one objects to the will of the people, then how should government decide what to do? It uses experts, of course! This approach has its own set of problems nicely described by Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy:

For advocates of limited government, the rule of experts is like the vampire that refuses to die no matter how often we drive a stake through its heart. We've been fighting it for 2500 years, but have never quite managed to finish it off. Nevertheless, I'm going to put on my vampire slayer hat, and take a wee little stab at it.

As a solution to the problem of political ignorance, the rule of experts has major shortcomings relative to letting individuals make their own decisions with the help of markets and civil society.

First, it is essential to recognize that individual consumers don't have to rely on government for expertise. They can hire their own experts in the market or rely on more knowledgeable friends and acquiantances. When I get seriously ill, I go to a doctor. When I decide how to invest my money, I rely on the advice of friends who work in venture capital and investment banking. The real question is not whether we are going to rely on experts to help us make decision, but who gets to choose the experts and whether or not the experts will have veto power over the final decision on what to do. [...]

If instead of each individual choosing his or her own experts, there is a single set of specialists chosen in democratic elections, then the quality of the decision is likely to be impaired by political ignorance - the very problem that the rule of experts is supposed to stave off. Voters' choice of experts is just as likely to be compromised by rational ignorance and rational irrationality as any other electoral decision. By contrast, market participants generally have much stronger incentives to pick experts wisely.

Of course the experts could instead be chosen by nondemocratic means and insulated from political pressure. Yet, in the absence of democratic control, it will be difficult to ensure that the experts are actually serving the interests of the people as opposed to their own. By contrast, experts hired in a competitive market have better incentives; they know that if they pursue their own interests at the expense of the consumer's, they are likely to be out of a job. [...]

The second major shortcoming of government-appointed experts relative to those hired in the market is the fact that government coercion deprives the consumer of the right to make the final decision. If I hire an expert in the market, I retain the right to reject his advice and pursuing a different course of action. This is a vitally important option. Although the expert is more knowledgeable than I am about technical issues in his field, I am more knowledgeable than he is about my own values.

I also question the contention that voters are irrational. To be sure, they might have an irrational moment or two, but we're not looking for "perfection" here. "Good enough" will work just fine. The irrationality seems to occur at the margins, and while it has some cost, nothing comes without cost.

It seems to me we've done pretty well on the big picture. We're really pretty free in that we have a lot of choices and fairly little oppression by historical standards. We have a pretty good economic system in that it's pretty flexible and robust and it generates a lot of wealth (more than ever by historical standards). We have a reasonably stable civilization in that the vast majority of the people aren't particularly interested in revolution (or even change for that matter).

All in all, it seems to me that this democracy thing is working well enough. I think we ought to stick with it.


Oroborous said...

"Experts" are also irrational, just learnedly so.

Take the stock market, for example. There were plenty of "experts" who were long on Black Tuesday 1929, Black Monday 1987, and during the crash.

We call the home builders, commercial construction companies, and finance companies "experts" in real estate development, but over 60 finance companies have gone bankrupt already in 2007, all of the major homebuilders are losing money, and commercial properties have been vastly overbuilt.

Why didn't these "experts" exercise more prudence ?

In the fields of science, the now-gospel theory of plate tectonics was first proposed in 1912, and was fiercly resisted by the geological "experts" of the day, until accumulated evidence caused the theory to be widely accepted in the 60s, fifty years later.

So basically, "experts" are people too, and subject to exactly the same failings as everybody else, not least the temptation to self-deal, as touched on by Ilya Somin.

Howard said...

I largely agree with Bret and "O" but the Illya Somin statement really stands against Bryan Caplans' conclusion:

"The second major shortcoming of government-appointed experts relative to those hired in the market is the fact that government coercion deprives the consumer of the right to make the final decision. If I hire an expert in the market, I retain the right to reject his advice and pursuing a different course of action. This is a vitally important option. Although the expert is more knowledgeable than I am about technical issues in his field, I am more knowledgeable than he is about my own values."

Yep, more liberty, less tyranny! Works for me and it simply works better. People with the need to control other people and impose their will don't seem to like this... They also get pissed-off at being denied utopia.

Bret said...

Yeah, I'm surprised that the libertarian contingent is so strongly aligned with Caplan. Do they really think that the experts they think are good are the ones that'll get appointed? Didn't work too well with SCOTUS interpreting the commerce clause to basically mean the Feds can regulate and tax everything, did it?

Howard said...

I think many of the libertarians who would quickly side with Caplan are frustrated by the difficulty of communicating their ideas in an attempt at peaceful persuasion. The frustration might blind them to the trap of rule-by-experts. Just a thought.

Bret said...

Is it that they have difficulty communicating their ideas or that most people just don't like those ideas? What could possibly be simpler than libertarianism?

Howard said...

Some have trouble communicating, some can't overcome a tendency towards elitism...

Bret said...

... and elitism leads to Fatal Conceit, no?

Oroborous said...

It certainly can be difficult to come to grips with the notion that one's most cherished ideas, especially if they seem self-evidently superior, are not appealing to the masses.