The Shotgun Blog
Monday, September 15, 2008
Lemieux: Election packaging
In this week's column, Pierre Lemieux diagnoses democracy. As I understand his assessment, the problem with democracy is that voters disconnect their opinions from their interests. They tend to favor candidates for reasons that have nothing to do with what will make them better off.
Instead, they support the candidate boxed in the shiniest package, virtually ignoring the probable consequences of that candidate's policies.
If voters behave this way, doesn't that make them kind of stupid? Not so, Lemieux correctly observes. Drawing on the insights of economics, he argues that individual voters can behave quite rationally when they ignore policy and vote for whichever politician has the best suit, sharpest haircut, or who gives the most entertaining speech.
George Mason economist Bryan Caplan wrote a book on this subject entitled "The Myth of the Rational Voter."
Here's the argument: suppose there are two candidates running for election in your riding, X and Y. You know that if X is elected, he'll lower your taxes by $1,000. Y won't lower your taxes at all. To keep things simple, we'll assume you only care about money, but the argument doesn't require that assumption in order to work.
You think to yourself: If X is elected, that's an extra $1,000 in my pocket each year. Wow, that sounds pretty good! If Y gets elected, you get nothing (or, at least, you won't be any worse off than you are now.)
An extra thousand bucks sounds like a pretty good deal. It would be ludicrous not to vote for X, right?
Wrong. As Lemieux argues:
An individual voter is virtually certain not to influence the election outcome, which he could do only in the case of a tie, an event with an infinitesimally small probability. Thus, he has no incentive to vote according to his interests, for his ballot cannot further them.
Is he right about this? For what it's worth, I think he is.
Go back to the previous example. You think a little more: either X will be elected tomorrow, or Y will be. But no matter who gets elected, it's highly unlikely that your vote will make the difference between X and Y. Odds are, X will get elected whether you vote or not -- or Y will get elected whether you vote or not.
You can kick back with a good movie on election night and be almost absolutely certain that election outcome that occurs (X or Y) will be the same one that would have occurred had you actually gone out and cast a vote.
True, you can't be absolutely certain your vote will be irrelevant. So we'll assign a number to the miniscule chance that your vote would have decided the election between X and Y; let's be charitable and say the chances are something like 0.001%.
So bring in a trusty principle of rational choice to determine your "expected payoff", should you vote. Easy enough: expected payoff of an action is the total payoff of the action multiplied by the probability that the payoff will result from your action. When faced with two options, a rational person does the one that has the highest expected payoff. That's the principle.
(Thus, if there was a 50% chance your vote would make the difference, expected payoff would be $1,000 x 50%, or $500.)
$1,000 x 0.001% = 1 cent or so, if my math is right. Expected payoff from voting in this election is a penny. On the other hand, the expected payoff from watching even a fairly awful movie is probably worth more to you than that.
Thus, if you're rational, and all you really care about is money, you should stay home and not vote.
Of course, this example is somewhat stylized. Typically, candidates X and Y would have both pluses and minuses; and, also, most people do not see their interests bound so exclusively to money. Yet it is easy enough to adjust the example to accommodate those complications. The point is that, whatever you desire, as an individual your vote is a nearly useless means of achieving it -- sort of like a gun that once in every 10,000 shots actually hits what you're aiming for.
But to the extent this analysis holds, it also implies that it's rational for voters to not bother getting over their ignorance. Why bother casting a well-informed vote when it's just as unlikely to actually further your interests as an ignorant one? Why not just ignore the plans of politicians and focus on the gossip about them and other trivialities?
At least those things have the potential to be entertaining.
Individually, voters are being rational when they ignore the real world implications of policy and focus on who can give the best speech.
One objection to this view that Lemieux doesn't deal with is the assertion that not voting and reveling in ignorance can't be rational because if everyone did those things we'd all be much worse off. Even assuming that's true (and who knows if it is!), it doesn't change the argument. We would all be worse off if every male decided to become a devout Roman Catholic priest and every female a nun. However, that doesn't mean it's necessarily irrational for any one of us to become a priest or a nun, depending on the circumstances.
Here are a few more excerpts from Lemieux's column:
Since nothing better or worse will happen to the voter whether he votes red, blue, or green (or doesn’t vote at all), he has no incentive to spend the required time and resources getting informed about the different platforms and their consequences. To see this, ask yourself if an individual would try and obtain more or less information on automobiles if the make of car he drives were decided by a referendum. The typical voter votes blind.
In the presence of rationally ignorant voters who are not actually buying anything but are just expressing opinions or enjoying themselves, it is no wonder that the packaging of the leader is so important. GM and Toyota seldom market their cars by pushing the personalities of their CEOs. But in politics, the packaging is the message and the show is all-important.
Posted by Terrence Watson on September 15, 2008 | Permalink
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The argument that it is rational for an individual voter not to vote is right, but only if the non-voter does so because he believes his vote won't decide who wins. If someone does not vote because they think all the parties are the same and so it does not make a difference who wins, he is wrong and thus his non-voting for that reason is not rational.
The argument that because not voting is rational, it rational not to find out what the candidates stand for is wrong. I might not be able to influence in any significant way who wins, but that does not mean that the country will not be substantially different no matter who wins. So if the Conservatives win, it might be prudent for me to make different decisions about my personal finances (among other things) than if the Liberals win. In provinces where three different parties could win an election, the difference between a PC, Liberal, or NDP government could be quite significant for me. So while learning about the candidates is not rational qua voter, it *IS* rational qua citizen who will be subject to decisions the government makes.
Another flaw with Lemieux's argument is this: If he were right that it is not rational to vote and thus rational to pay attention only to the most entertaining parts of the campaign, it still would be rational not to vote. So people who only pay attention to the entertaining stuff and then go to the polls to vote are not being rational. They are only being rational if they stay home (or spend the time watching a good movie instead).
Also, if he is right then paying attention to the election for entertainment value is only rational if there is no more entertaining option. Most voters seem to derive a lot of frustration and annoyance at a lot of the so-called "entertaining" parts of the campaign, so they would be better entertained if they watched Corner Gas or Survivor than political speechs/debates/advertisements. (Although I must admit, sometimes I feel like I only follow politics so I will get the jokes when I watch The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Mercer Report.)
Finally, if he is right that it is rational not to vote but pay attention to the entertaining parts of the campaign, voters who do this are only rational decision makers insofar as they identify these as the reasons they make these choices. So the rational actor is the one who says "Voting is a waste of time, but I *love* watching those folksy Harper ads", not the one who actually votes and thinks that voting matters and also thinks they will get relevent information from the pretty speeches and folksy Harper ads. There is a difference between doing the thing a rational person would do and acting rationally.
Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-09-15 2:06:48 PM
Hey FC. I was hoping you'd respond to this one.
"Another flaw with Lemieux's argument is this: If he were right that it is not rational to vote and thus rational to pay attention only to the most entertaining parts of the campaign, it still would be rational not to vote. So people who only pay attention to the entertaining stuff and then go to the polls to vote are not being rational. They are only being rational if they stay home (or spend the time watching a good movie instead)."
I agree with this, almost completely. I think _maybe_ voting could be seen as a component of the spectacle, the way cheering for your favorite team might be part of watching football (even if you're watching it on TV by yourself.) Cheering adds to the entertainment value in some way I can't exactly explain. It's an expressive activity, and voting might be an expressive activity in a similar way.
You're right that it can be hard to see politics as entertaining, because it's so frustrating sometimes. However, from what I've heard, the audience of right-wing talk radio is not exclusively drawn from the right-wing: far from it. Maybe some people just get off on getting frustrated (it would explain some of my behavior, that's for sure: why the heck else do I mess around with Linux all the time?)
Your last point is perfectly correct and I probably should have been clearer in my post. What makes a person rational is not his behavior, but the set of reasons driving his behavior.
Very, very nice analysis.. sorry it took me a while to get back to it.
Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-09-17 11:33:15 AM
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