About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Are There Good Reasons Not to Vote?

By Michael De Dora
I told several people over the past couple of days that I did not intend to vote in the 2010 New York State midterm elections, which were held yesterday. Because of this, I was called wrong, hypocritical, and a disappointment. You might think similarly. How could someone like me not vote? There's no reason not to vote. Let me be clear: as it turns out, I did in fact vote yesterday. I reviewed my reasons and found them wanting. I do not consider it a good thing that I considered not voting, in the sense that it is probably desirable to have people voting. But I did see somewhat compelling reasons to consciously decide not to vote.
Before discussing these reasons, we need to understand what voting is, and, thus, what it entails. Voting, at least today, is the act of casting your support for a candidate (and thus, not casting for some opponent/s). It includes picking one among several candidates from different parties and perhaps also voting yes or no on referendums and propositions. In the broader framework of our democratic government, voting is perhaps the most direct way in which citizens can exert their power over governance – by electing officials to represent them in the halls of power, and voting out lawmakers who do not.
Given this definition, it seems inherent to voting that the voter has good information about the person for whom he or she is voting. This is the first reason why I leaned toward not voting, and why many others do not vote: I just haven’t been paying much attention. I read the news everyday and know where I generally stand. But I simply have not spent time reading about the candidates and their specific proposals and positions, so I considered abstaining. This is not presented as a noble reason. Rather, it is a recognition that my focus was on my own lack of knowledge, which made me uncomfortable about voting in the first place. Only after spending a good portion of the last two days researching candidates did I feel that I had a sufficient level of baseline knowledge to vote. I still didn't feel entirely comfortable voting, but I felt informed enough.
Ron Lindsay recently wrote about this very issue on his blog:
“Any idiot can run for office. Some might argue that is one of the weaknesses of our democracy. But it’s only a weakness if the idiots win the election. That’s where you come in. If you have not done so already, please vote tomorrow.”
The sentiment is agreeable, but the problem is that the idiots are in the voting booths, too. Just as lawmakers ought to be informed, so should voters. Do we really want to encourage people to vote even if they are not informed? This reminds me of the Glenn Beck quote, “Believe in something! Even if it’s wrong!” This is not to say the information isn’t out there, or that we should value not absorbing it. In an ideal world, we would all learn as much as we can, and have the ability to judge the information at hand. But that is not the real world.
(I should add that before I spent the necessary time reading up on the election, some friends argued that I should just go and vote along party line, in this case Democrats. But it seems outlandish to think, given that I knew all of their positions, that I would support Democrats over every other candidate.)
Another reason I considered not voting is that many of the big races were already decided. Notice that this reason is less about the person not voting and more about the system. Why vote when it won’t make a difference? Consider the governor’s race between Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino: Cuomo was up 63 to 26. Both Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand were leading comfortably in the polls.
But then again, many races are not yet decided, which is why I abandoned this reason as well. For instance, Democrat Eric Schneiderman and Republican Dan Donovan were neck-and-neck in the attorney general race; and the same goes for Democrat incumbent Thomas DiNapolo and Republican challenger Harry Wilson in the battle for the state comptroller seat. And then there are Congressional and local elections, which are perhaps more important – at least more influential – to day-to-day living. Nor have I mentioned a referendum on whether to allow corporations to secretly donate to campaigns (roundup of early NY election results here). So it would be incomplete to look at just the one or two big races and forget the other races and issues (now, if all the races were decided, I might still have a reason to stay at home).
The last reason I considered for not voting is that I do not like the candidates – a common claim from many others. If one does not feel an official would represent their interests sufficiently, why vote for said official? Why should someone care enough to support someone who he or she doesn’t like? Notice again this reason is less about the person and more about the system, which is supposedly not offering the voter a choice of enough high quality candidates.
So long as the race is close, however, I think we ought to consider voting for someone whom we don’t think is great, in order to keep out of office a candidate we like even less. You might not like Barack Obama, but how do you feel about Sarah Palin? You might not like Harry Reid, but how about Sharron Angle?
But a tougher question is this: what is one to do when races are decided and one does not like the candidates? Consider again the race for New York governor. Friends tell me they will vote for a third-party candidate like Howie Hawkins, running for governor under the Green Party. This would ensure the Green Party stays on the ballot next election instead of having to collect signatures. This seems admirable, at least supporting the presence of a more diverse political landscape when faced with a choice between two major party candidates who you do not support. But these candidates don’t exist in all races; and my friends also must think Hawkins aligns with their positions in some significant way or they couldn't vote for him in good conscience. They wouldn’t vote for a far right wing third-party candidate for the sake of diversity.

The problem is left unsolved -- I side with weighing in -- but the point is that many people find voting of the utmost importance not necessarily for good reasons. I think some people are so automatically opposed to not voting because voting is the quintessential example of civic engagement. While I appreciate the importance of voting, voting should not be the sole or even main marker of one’s political activism. Our civic duty is not just to vote, but also to be informed as we vote. And more broadly, it is to be informed and active in our polity, which requires more than just showing up to the polls every couple of years. I think our concept of civic engagement should take into account many other things: one’s career choices, charitable giving, volunteering, level of engagement in learning about the issues, and life commitments. The entirety of one’s character and efforts ought to be examined before coming to any conclusions about his or her degree of civil engagement.
So the next time your friend says he or she is not voting, perhaps you ought to listen to their reasons before dismissing them out of hand. You might actually find they have decent reasons to not want to participate. And maybe this essay will help you convince them otherwise.


  1. I believe most of us have had feelings like that at some point or another. I sure have. The truth is though that alot of what you said is just a rationalization of your uncertainty. That doesnt make your statements false of course but seeing as they re a little post hoc i view them with a little suspicion(the same applies to myself obviously since i ve felt it too).

    Wouldnt it be nice though if voters were asked to take some sort of test on their knowledge of some factual claims pertaining to the candidates and/or their policies and commitments ?I believe the basis of democracy should be that the voters make INFORMED decisions. You scored badly ? Your vote weighs .7 or .5 compared to someone who got a perfect score. I know how crazy this sounds but given different circumstances some form of this could be implemented in a democratic voting system

  2. I think another problem, along the lines of your argument, is that people proclaim that we have a civic duty to vote, period. However, it is foolhardy to engage in anything half-cocked and uninformed; in particular, with the widespread bombardment of misleading and somewhat propagandist information, can you be sure you're casting your vote and not someone else's?

    In that sense, we have not only a duty but a _responsibility_ to vote. The latter term is of the utmost importance as it demands that one's duty isn't merely to blindly perform some action, compelled by some vague notion of civic duty, but to engage fully in disseminating fact from fiction through research, formulating opinions through debate and discussion, and getting others to be responsible about their choices. Indeed, anything otherwise is doing the individual and the nation a disservice; we need active engagement, not puppetry, deciding our representatives.

  3. I didn't vote yesterday. My rationale is basically that no election is ever going to come down to a single vote difference, so my vote is never actually going to make an impact on the outcome of an election. Essentially there's no real benefit to voting (for an individual. I always point out that I think the right to vote is important, but the individual act of doing so is not). And there are things I had to do that were important to me. I had a test to study for, and while my vote is never going to have a measurable impact on my life, not studying very well could.

  4. Graham, I never understood that sort of reasoning. Use a reductio ad absurdum and you have demonstrated that no vote ever counts, which is, well, absurd.

    And as far as studying for a test, take it from me: better not to cram things at the last minute and take your time to study. That way you may have enough left to wander to the poll and vote.

  5. Graham is exactly right. I didn't vote because voting is instrumentally irrational. An individual vote does not appreciably affect election outcomes or even margins of victory (although it's questionable whether a margin of victory is itself an instrumentally rational thing to care about). Michael, when you say voting enables citizens to exert power over government, that statement is true only when you take "citizens" to mean the group of them – not individual citizens.

    Massimo, it's an equilibrium problem; an individual vote doesn't matter in expectation because there are people who vote regardless of the instrumental irrationality of their action. Those votes mean it is incredibly unlikely an individual vote would determine the outcome. If I expected nobody else to vote, then I would vote (but that expectation would require me to believe other people did not have such an expectation, since there are other instrumentally rational people in the population and they too would vote if they had such an expectation).

    One of bounded rationality's great challenges to rational-choice modeling is why anyone votes, incidentally. It's an issue the BR people love to talk about. RC's only explanation is that people who vote genuinely have a preference to vote as an end in itself (since voting is instrumentally irrational otherwise) – but nobody gives such a reason as an explanation when you ask them.

  6. Two things:

    For anyone who wants to make a Game Theory rationale for why they don't vote: do what I did and get an absentee ballot (even if you'll be home during voting)! You're sent a ballot to your house, and you can casually drop it in the mail any time before November 2nd. It really takes no time at all.

    Secondly, if a big race has already been determined before people vote (as was the case with Cuomo), and there is no good 3rd party candidate in your opinion: write in a candidate (Thomas Jefferson, Yakov Smirnoff, Extraterrestrial Jesus -- whatever floats your boat). This shows whomever's running next cycle that you "took the time out to go vote," but were not compelled by anyone on the ballot, and that they will have to try something different to get your vote next time.

    I think this can also be used by people who think they are too uninformed to vote: you don't really influence to results of the race, but you do get to send the message that no one was interesting enough to get your attention.

  7. I don't see anything wrong with Graham's reasoning - it makes perfect sense from the point of view of a rational self-interested voter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_voting). Sure it's a problem if applied to the whole voting population, but that's not the point he's arguing from.

  8. I am not familiar with the American voting system, but I suppose you are not forced to vote for all the races or propositions in the ballot, right? So just vote for the races where you have an opinion and skip the other ones. But just skipping an entire election does not make sense to me.

  9. Cian,

    first of all, I always found much wanting in so-called rational self-interest theories. Second, let's assume you are a brick contributing to the structure of a bridge. You figure, well, I'm not really *the* brick that is holding the bridge together. I don't make any difference, because there are many other bricks, and frankly I could be spending my time better at brick-bar picking up brick-chicks. Now suppose you convince enough other bricks of this self-interested enlightenment. That's what happened during the 2000 elections, and why we are in two unwinnable wars. It's also what happens every time Democrats (or Republicans) fail to turn out their apparently too self-interested base and lose an election.

  10. I wouldn't argue that my vote wouldn't/doesn't count but given the choices on a ballot, it may be in the best interest not to participate at all.

    I think it was Eugene Debbs who said its best to vote for someone you honestly support and lose than to vote for someone you honestly couldn't support and win.

    If voting simply means, say, keep a republican or democrat out of power, in spite of however you may really feel for the candidate you're supporting, than the vote in question is already a farce - even if you've participated or not. People may be satisfied with this kind of strategic, political nonsense, but I'm not. To me this simply says people are willing to settle for less. They shouldn't.

    This of course is all in spite of fact that we have an electoral process hijacked by money, but, in short, act in good conscience - which could also mean not voting.

  11. No individual vote does "count", in the sense of changing the outcome of an election. Making an argument of "what if everyone did this" isn't a great point, because realistically, that'll never happen. My choice to not vote doesn't effect other peoples decision to do so.

    Also I wasn't cramming, the test is still 2 days away. :D

  12. Massimo, your argument says that the one brick's decision will bring with it a bunch of bricks, but that isn't the actual decision an individual voter faces when deciding whether to vote. Your argument is simply one that criticizes trying to persuade others not to vote - it doesn't criticize an individual's decision not to vote.

    It might help to think about it like this: your reductio ad absurdum argument above doesn't hold because it implicitly assumes that the probability a single vote will determine the election is constant regardless how many voters stop voting. But that's clearly incorrect; if I knew there would only be e.g. three people voting, then my vote would have a high chance of mattering, unlike situations with thousands or millions of voters.

  13. Graham, good for you for leaving two whole days before the test! ;-)

    Timothy, my argument is aimed at showing what would happen *if* a large number of people adopted your reasoning, regardless of whether you are trying to convince them or not. It's a version of the tragedy of the commons.

    And no, I'm not assuming that the the probability of a single vote to determine an election is constant, it obviously isn't. I am simply saying that there is no such thing as a single vote determining elections, ever. All votes jointly determine elections, just like all bricks jointly hold up the bridge.

  14. @Tom,

    Thanks for the reminder about absentee ballots.

    However, I wonder whether "whomever's running next cycle" will really pay attention to write-in votes (if Cuomo is running against a joke next time around, will he need to?). Also, it's going to be tough to convince someone who does not care for any of the candidates to fill out a ballot merely to write in a candidate who has no chance at winning.

  15. I don't think it follows from "no election will come down to a one-vote difference" (though it could) that "therefore, I should not vote."

  16. Hum, somehow my concerns are entirely not addressed... Hence my 2 (euro)cent: the main reason I haven't voted for 10 years (until Sarkozy...) is because elections are (most of the time) not about choices, they are about legitimation.

    Democracy is not only elections, it's the whole system that lead up to them, and that make choices for us, like deciding that only republican and democrat can be elected, ever, even if if people where to do blind election, there are many candidate program they would actually prefer. The same system that, somehow, make the program of electable candidates only marginally different. (but that also somehow mostly delegimitize extremist before they reach the ballot...)

    (so a Chomsky's 'manufacturing consent' kind of position, maybe)

    So it not that my vote do not count, its that that votes in general are the tip of the iceberg of deeper societal current (as in Sarkozy was indeed elected...). Whether I choose to be part of it or not is irrelevant (or only because, by voting, even against him, I took part in legitimizing Sarkozy's power)

  17. Massimo, I'm sorry, I don't see what you're argument is then. When you say, "I am simply saying that there is no such thing as a single vote determining elections, ever," that argument is exactly the argument that my individual vote is a waste of time.

    When you say, "All votes jointly determine elections, just like all bricks jointly hold up the bridge," I don't see how that claim (even assuming it's true) supports a conclusion that it is instrumentally rational to vote as an individual. (And besides, it's false. If, say, 100 voters turn out, and the winning candidate wins 53-47, then none of the losing voters' votes determined the election, and similarly no individual vote for the winner determined the election either. So not all the votes jointly determined the election; at most, 51 did. Regarding your bridge metaphor, all the winner needs is one more vote than the loser - whereas a brick bridge needs a large set of bricks.)

    I'm sorry, sometimes I feel I belabor points too much (not just here), but it's really surprising to see this mistake here. If someone votes not to affect the election outcome, but because it satisfies some emotional need or something along those lines, then it makes sense - but it doesn't make sense to vote because you think your vote matters to the election.

  18. I see two issues: (1) instrumental rationality of voting, assuming you know what you want; (2) desirability of uninformed people voting.

    I'm with Michael on (2). I think the uninformed ought NOT to be voting, for obvious reasons.

    As to (1), it's a different story. Consider two situations:
    -Candidate A wins by margin greater than 1 vote.
    Response: "My vote made no difference, it was not the deciding vote."
    -Candidate A wins by one vote.
    Response: "All N votes for Candidate A were simultaneously the deciding vote."

    Are we to seriously to believe that voting has nonzero expected utility ONLY if the difference is 1 vote, in which case it has maximal utility? Sounds like pretty bad decision theory, right there.

    When it comes to the ethics of voting, the relevant concept is acausal means-ends connections (see "Good and Real" by Gary Drescher). The idea is that one acts the way one would wish other similarly placed beings to act, regardless of the expected utility on this single particular occasion. This avoids the sort of catastrophic mass-defections plain old consequentialism is prone to; e.g., prisoner's dilemma, tragedy of the commons...

  19. Timothy, I really don't think there is any error here, just a disagreement about how to think of voting. All examples that allegedly show that X numbers of votes didn't make a difference are after the fact, that is once you know the outcome of the election. But in deciding whether to vote or not you do not know that outcome, and at that point in time every vote counts just as much as any other.

    All of this, of course, outside of the fact that I think it an ethical duty in a democratic society to vote, instrumental reason be damned.

  20. Not voting just because you don't think your individual vote counts seems like an exercise of poor citizenship. Being a citizen of a country doesn't (or shouldn't, at least) just convey rights and privileges, but also duties and responsibilities as well.

    That being said, there are already too many people brainwashed to vote, vote, vote, opinion be damned, and end up casting an interested party's vote and not their own. I think we need more informed and rational people casting educated votes to help balance out the idiots who are casting someone else's. Of course, if the educated decision is not to vote, then I have no qualms with that.

  21. Personally, I feel I have a duty to persuade the more ignorant among us not to vote.
    Which might well include those of you who are arguing your vote will make no difference in the end.

  22. I offered an ex post illustration since I took your bridge example to be an ex post argument directing us to look at the bad consequence of the bridge falling down. I don't see how your earlier argument was ex ante?

    Ex ante, the expected benefit of a vote is minimal since the probability of affecting the outcome is so negligible, whereas the cost is high. (The reason people don't offer ex ante illustrations is that they would be cumbersome. So if you take the 100 voters example, you would have to show every arrangement of those 100 votes and its utility to the decision-maker, and then similarly for 99, 98, etc.)

    Ian: "Are we to seriously to believe that voting has nonzero expected utility ONLY if the difference is 1 vote, in which case it has maximal utility? Sounds like pretty bad decision theory, right there."

    The utility payoff function is piecemeal (discontinuous), but that's nothing unusual. You seem to be defining two expected utility functions, one in a world in which the margin of victory is one vote, and another where it isn't, but the EU function an individual vote needs to consider is one that considers the relative likelihood of those two events, and incorporates them both.

    Ian: "The idea is that one acts the way one would wish other similarly placed beings to act, regardless of the expected utility on this single particular occasion."

    I am not a Kantian =)

  23. Timothy, perhaps the problem here is that people define "utility" a bit too narrowly. Other than the fact that the totality of votes obviously determine elections, so that voting is useful, there are more imponderable quantities (yeah, an oxymoron, I know), such as the damage to the social fabric when people don't take seriously their contribution to democratic decision making. Again, it is a version of the tragedy of the commons, and this country has gone through several such tragedies in the past few decades precisely because people think too much about narrow-sense utility.

  24. I actually agree it's like a tragedy of the commons (and to boot, it's just as real as the tragedy of the commons), but my individual participation couldn't solve - or even appreciably help improve - the tragedy. I would support laws requiring or at least incentivizing voting, the way most countries have, since such an approach would deal with entire groups of people, rather than a single one (as with an individual decision whether to participate).

  25. Timothy, okay, but isn't the tragedy of the common a failure of thinking rationally, favoring short-term gain over long-term benefits?

  26. Michael,

    No matter where you live, not every single race on a ballot has a predetermined winner. This is especially true for local races which are smaller, have more of an impact on your life, and are impacted greater by your vote and campaigning (as you already know). Most people should be drawn to the polls just for these reasons, but even if they aren't, the amount of time it takes to send out an absentee ballot is negligible. Even if Cuomo runs again next year and has no need for the 5% who didn't vote for him or Paladino next cycle -- it's no skin off my back. I'd much rather have my voice heard for the bigger races (I don't particularly care for what either mainstream candidate offered / here's what you can do next time if you want my vote), empower 3rd parties (because Hawkins got >50,000 votes, the Green party now has instant ballot access / more people are aware of his agenda), and influence the smaller / tighter races where my vote "really" counts.

    To reiterate many of these points for your hypothetical non-voter: the time it takes to vote is negligible, they should at the very least vote for the smaller races, and since they are already there they can make a statement that has the potential to change things in the future. If Cuomo doesn't need to court people outside his Democratic base next time, I lost the time it took to fill out my ballot and put it in the mail. If he does and I didn't vote, I lost my chance to voice my opinion.

  27. This reminds me: George Carlin didn't vote: http://bit.ly/cCqQHA

  28. Massimo: "Timothy, okay, but isn't the tragedy of the common a failure of thinking rationally, favoring short-term gain over long-term benefits?"

    I'm not sure what exactly you're saying. If you expect everyone else to draw excess amounts from the commons, how would it be disfavoring long-term benefits to take from the commons while they still exist? Similarly it is possible to construct commons hypos where there is a short-term/long-term tradeoff from one person's actions, but the standard hypos have everyone deviating or at least large minorities deviating.

    The basic point though is that you can't solve collective-action problems by acting alone.

  29. To add to what Tom said, people should not discount the local races on their ballot. While it's easier to make the argument that your vote doesn't count when it comes to national elections, it's a lot harder at the local level. It is much more likely that your vote would matter since there are a lot fewer voters in the local race. Also, the outcome has a much greater chance of personally affecting you.

    While it may not matter to me much whether I'm represented by Boxer or Fiorina, getting better schools and better roads is pretty important to my family.

    I would further argue that it is at the local level where democracy itself has the greatest value, as it has historically been much easier to be informed about what's happening around you than what's happening elsewhere.

  30. "Our civic duty is not just to vote, but also to be informed as we vote."

    How is there a difference in kind between "a sufficient level of baseline knowledge to vote" and just party affiliation or endorsements?

    If literally all the information I have about "proposition 17839506832" is that my friend with whom I agree on 51% of things and disagree on 49% of things is for it, I will seek more information but still vote for the proposition rather than fail to vote citing insufficient information. What I'm asking is how would that information not be sufficient?

  31. I'd also agree that for a race where you really don't support any candidate, it's better to write something in than to simply not vote.

    Unless you live in a country where low turnout can invalidate an election (and unless the current election has such a low turnout), the actual turnout of voters is not going to matter one iota to the winners. At least by voting for someone else, you allow the results to show an actual metric of how many people don't like the victor.

    This is one of the reasons I've never understood the opposition candidate in an election threatening to "boycott" the election. All you're doing in that case is making it much easier for the incumbent to stay in power, and justify his policies with a result showing a huge majority of support.

    You don't challenge the legitimacy of an election by not voting. You challenge the legitimacy of an election by throwing a revolution.

  32. This discussion reminds of an editorial I read in a German magazine some time ago: The individual car driver curses about all those other cars causing a traffic jam. But he never realizes that he isn't in a traffic jam, he is the jam.

    The same applies here. You can only get away with this "my vote does not make a difference" rationalization if you have a mental construct of yourself being special, individual, as opposed to the faceless mass of voters that decides no matter what you do. Does not work like that - this mass consists of individual people exactly like yourself.

    Sure, if you are a lone dissenter, you do not have a big chance of changing things, no surprise. But we should always remember that, as the saying goes, people in a democracy have the government they deserve. No longer will you be shot, jailed or deported merely for suggesting a different economic or foreign policy. Nothing stops you from speaking out, founding a party, and campaigning for change. If you do not succeed after trying, it seems as if the majority of your compatriots disagree with you.

    And THAT is the really depressing realization: not that you are only one of millions (well, tough luck). But that the state your country is in is not simply the result of one tyrant being incompetent or one robber baron being selfish, but of the vast majority of people still being content enough with the situation to not want to change anything. Tough luck, again. Sigh.

  33. Timothy:

    >...the EU function an individual vote needs to consider is one that considers the relative likelihood of those two events, and incorporates them both.

    I see your point, but wouldn't that calculation be recursive, depending as it does on the similar calculations of other (by hypothesis rational (in the economists' sense)) decision-makers? f(x)=f(f(x))=f(f(f(x))))....

    >I am not a Kantian =)

    Nor am I, but neither do I want to call "rational" a decision theory that
    - loses at Prisoner's dilemma;
    - loses at Newcomblike problems;
    - can't even account for tipping at a restaurant you'll never return to.

    I don't have the One True Ethics yet, but when I do you can bet that it won't endorse the individual choices out of which commons tragedies arise.

  34. If all registered Democrats had voted Democratic the influence of the Tea Potty would have virtually evaporated--at least for the next two years.

  35. My reason(s) for not voting are more personal than most non-voters, I would imagine; or perhaps "more idiosyncratic" is a better way to put it.

    Epicureanism has had a strong influence on my outlook on life, as has Cynicism; as a result, I honestly am not civically engaged in any way. I haven't voted since '04, and I don't ever plan on voting anywhere ever again. Politics is so irrational, so vicious, so tribal, that I cannot stomach it except to mock it; it only takes me farther away from ataraxia.

  36. Shoot. I meant to end my comment with a quote from Mencken: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/H._L._Mencken#Sourced)

  37. I don't vote. I'm an anarchist (though, of course, I use some sort of euphemism in polite conversation--anarchism is often more convincing to my interlocutor when I don't refer to it as such). I do not support representative democracy. Work us toward internet-based digital democracy, then I will vote.

    My exception, then, is referendums, but they don't have those where I live.

  38. One of your reasons -"that there are only idiots to vote for in a certain election" is a true and troublesome problem to myself. As the left may talk of civic duty, the right has actually done something about this problem. Perhaps someday the left will get around to civic duty and form their own tea party, for now, your just talking about it. Don't like any of the candidates? Do something about it! Thankfully for my own views, i doubt it will happen. You'll have the choice supporting 30 year incumbents like Barney Frank, and well keep growing ours from the most effective grass roots movement seen in our lifetime.
    While your option will be to try and learn a little about your candidate in the 2 days leading up to election, ours will be a candidate we asked personally to please put your career off for a bit and help us return to our constitution.

    Reading these posts I see despair instead of determination. I will credit Massimo for trying to talk some sense into indifference. We are in crisis! The two sides are responding completely differently to that crisis. Good luck with your method!

  39. Wrote this early before all the previous comments, so I will post it as it mostly is.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up. Although I do think people should vote, and I usually do, there are some issues worthy of consideration.

    As for myself, I was negligent about updating my registration after moving, and spaced the deadline. I wish I had been on top of things and voted, however I am in Arizona and showing up to vote for the Democrat cands. would have amounted to nothing.

    I often am quite put off by the rhetoric that I owe the Democratic Party my vote, just because they aren't Republicans, when they so often fail to stand up for what I believe is right.

    I count myself as one those people that is deeply disatisfied with the two party system and the lack of a true progressive party in the country. I often show up and either vote by default against the Republican, and therefore Democrat, OR I vote for a 3rd party candidate on the left (never Libertarian). I think it worthwhile to vote based on either of these strategies.

    Just recently I was discussing voting with a co-worker who is not tuned into politics and current events. She claims at this point in her life she doesn't have time to inform herself. I pointed out that she is a biologist concerned about the environment, and she works for a government public lands agency. I argued that even if she didn't have time to inform herself about all the candidates and issues, generally Democrats are going to be more favorable to her own economic interests, plus broader concerns for the environment. So she should just vote Democrat based on that. Even though she isn't as informed as she should be.

  40. On the concept of one vote won't determine a race. I have seen a local ballot measure lose by 17 votes. This means that if 18 people who decided not to vote because one vote never counts had voted this ballot issue would have passed. Why is this important-the ballot issue was for building a new library. A library that would have helped people in this recession in a variety of ways such as offering courses in resume preparation and developing job seeking skills, providing computers to submit job applications, and hosting job fairs.The library could have provided programs to educate people on the ballot issues and provided space to host civic discussions. Plus they would have fulfilled their more traditional role of providing information resources from books to downloadable audio. Society as a whole lost out because 18 people decided to not go to the polls. (Please don't post that this doesn't matter because libraries are obsolete because everything is on the internet and for free. This is just a myth. Try reading a recent book on Google Books.)

  41. Ian: "I see your point, but wouldn't that calculation be recursive, depending as it does on the similar calculations of other (by hypothesis rational (in the economists' sense)) decision-makers?"

    You need to solve the mixed-strategy equilibrium out. The trick is that if a player is mixing strategies then it's because the expected value of each strategy, given the likelihood the player takes the strategy, is the same (which provides more information than you'd have if you just thought of the players' strategies like a system of equations). You can see it intuitively because if one strategy had a higher payoff than the others, the player would make that strategy more likely.

    Ian: "Nor am I, but neither do I want to call "rational" a decision theory that - loses at Prisoner's dilemma; [...] I don't have the One True Ethics yet, but when I do you can bet that it won't endorse the individual choices out of which commons tragedies arise."

    I think it's better to separate out instrumental rationality from egoism. An instrumentally rational altruist would play cooperatively in the Prisoner's Dilemma despite the risk to her- or himself, for example (assuming the added benefit to the other player offset that personal sacrifice). But in voting, a vote that doesn't affect the outcome doesn’t benefit anyone (especially since it costs to make the vote, and then costs to process and tally the vote).

  42. Of course, the smaller the scale (e.g. in the US: federal => state => local), the more significant one's vote. For example, where I live, we are facing single-to-double-digit differences in some local races. By the same token, these local offices are not nearly as powerful/influential as those at the state and federal levels. So, it's a trade-off between vote significance and political influence.

    On a related note, I largely share Sheldon's view & practice (i.e. showing up and voting "by default against the Republican, and therefore Democrat, OR I vote for a 3rd party candidate on the left (never Libertarian)"). As with all informed guidelines/rules-of-thumb, there may be exceptions (e.g. "mavericks"), but not usually or inconsistently.

    Unfortunately, our "winner-takes-all" voting system means that we risk throwing away our votes or, worse, spoiling the election in favor of an undesirable candidate (who, in this case, is usually Republican) when we vote for our first-choice candidate. It would be nice if we had a better voting system; i.e. one that allows us to rank our preferences, but until then, it's: hold-your-nose and do the best you can to protect your values and interests.

  43. Hey Jim Fisher, what really happened is that you Tea Party folks got scammed. See Frank Rich's latest NYT column, or now the previous weeks column for why.

    Nothing is going to change because your analysis of the problem was all wrong.

    Like this nonsense:

    "....help us return to our constitution."

    What specifically are you talking about here?

    Although I do agree that the left needs an insurgent movement either inside or outside the Democratic party, kind of like the Tea Party, but based on reality.

  44. Timothy,

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. I'm afraid, however, that they are convincing me more and more that instrumental rationality has (or should not have) anything to do with ethics.

  45. @Tim,

    "But in voting, a vote that doesn't affect the outcome doesn’t benefit anyone (especially since it costs to make the vote, and then costs to process and tally the vote)."

    But which votes do not affect the outcome?

  46. @Camus,

    "Epicureanism has had a strong influence on my outlook on life, as has Cynicism; as a result, I honestly am not civically engaged in any way. I haven't voted since '04, and I don't ever plan on voting anywhere ever again. Politics is so irrational, so vicious, so tribal, that I cannot stomach it except to mock it; it only takes me farther away from ataraxia."

    How do you handle the fact that the political affairs you ignore heavily influence your life?

  47. @Brian,

    "How is there a difference in kind between "a sufficient level of baseline knowledge to vote" and just party affiliation or endorsements?"

    One person seeks out information and uses that to decide whether or not a candidate or policy is the correct one. The other uses party affiliation to decide whether or not the candidate or policy is correct. Does that answer your question?

  48. I'm sorry to hear that, Massimo. I think it's so critical to ethics. Instrumental rationality is why, e.g., I donate to Oxfam rather than the NY Ballet - I'm maximizing the altruistic bang for my buck.

  49. Timothy,

    Ah, again, good reasoning, but this is one of my problems with consequentialist reasoning. From that perspective, and given the scarsity of resources, we really should all support only causes that are particularly dire. But that would mean that the quality of life in this country would drop, and that humanity at large would lose in areas that are not directly concerned with survival. That would be a shame, no?

  50. An analogy: imagine you're an antibody. As such, you are part of the body's immune system, but does one antibody matter? No, but if your failure to attack a bacteria or virus influences other antibodies to not neutralize harmful disease causing agents, then the non-action of one antibody does matter.

    By not voting you, at the very least, allow the narrative that argues that it doesn't matter - to become slightly stronger. In the worst case scenario, you actually influence someone else to not vote as well. Either way, you indirectly become responsible for various bacteria or virus being elected by not voting. When the body politic is as sick as our is (see latest election results), we need every antibody we can get.

  51. But Massimo - you're arguing against consequentialism based on consequences. I think it's debatable what specifics consequentialism would entail if everyone were a consequentialist, but whatever it would be it would be the best consequence available.

  52. Timothy,

    Careful my friend, you are now perilously close to sophistry ;-) I am not arguing from a consequentialist perspective, but rather from a point of view closer to virtue ethics. The fact that all points of view have consequences is a truism that does not validate consequentialism.

  53. "One person seeks out information and uses that to decide whether or not a candidate or policy is the correct one. The other uses party affiliation to decide whether or not the candidate or policy is correct. Does that answer your question?"

    No, because I am talking about the same person (or two people with identical priorities and methods of information seeking) with either of two different amounts of information. I am also not talking about deciding what is "correct" but whether voting is better than not voting.

    So your response to my hypothetical is to change its rules rather than respond on its terms. That is not the type of answer that is usually satisfactory for a hypothetical question.

    The person who only knows endorsements is unsure which candidate is absolutely correct, but knows his vote has a better chance of advancing what is correct than what is incorrect.

    The person who has extensively researched the candidates is unsure which candidate is absolutely correct, but knows his vote has a better chance of advancing what is correct than what is incorrect.

    Therefore, I don't see a difference in kind between those amounts of information. Both are less than absolute, and more than enough to elevate a vote above being random noise.

  54. In the terminology of evolutionary biology, "non-voters" might be referred to as cheaters.

    As some have written,"cheaters may prosper in the short term, but over time they seem doomed to fail, at least in the microscopic world of amoebas where natural selection favors the noble."
    And those amoebas are nothing if not consequentialist.

  55. Ignore my last comment (which hasn't posted yet) - I see what you're saying now. You're saying it'd be shame of an outcome despite it being the best consequence to human welfare (the consequentialist "best" outcome) - at least if I'm now understanding you correctly. Well, I don't think so because it would be so temporary - if we had a world in which perfect-consequentialists ("perfect" b/c they had no human failings like a weakness for self-indulgence, like I do) worked simply to help everyone, there would be no equity-efficiency tradeoff as there is in this world. I'd expect poverty to end fairly quickly, and then people could begin pursuing art, etc., to a much greater extent than we see now.

  56. Sheldon,
    So us Tea Partiers got scammed did we. I am writing this on my I Phone so it's a bit uncomfortable reading news, but I will check out the undoubtedly accurate column in the Times tomorrow on my laptop. What do I mean about returning to the Constitution? Health Care Bill, Social Security, Any of these types of program s at the federal level is unconstitutional. If your going to quote the "General Welfare" clause as your rebuttal please take the time to read the Federalist papers written by Jefferson before you do. The founders were very clear about what can be done at the federal in the constitution and were very clear as to why the general welfare clause was included. If you would like me to quote it for you from the papers I would be glad. So yes, we have strayed a long way from what the constitution allows. Your probably better off with the typical Liberal argument that the constitution is just too old and outdated to be a constraint of today's federal government.
    I will comment again after I read your article telling me how I was scammed. (what happened, racism and fear mongering not sticking well enough to the tea party?)

  57. Timothy,

    Maybe that's because it's late, but now I'm confused about your point. All I was saying is that I don't think a strictly consequentialist approach is either doable or necessarily something we should pursue. But my beef is mostly with the concept of instrumental rationality, since I don't buy some of the basic assumptions that go into it, particularly the idea that it is not rational or good to do something unless the agent benefits from it.

  58. I'm sorry for the confusion. It's been crazy for me this week and I've been quick with these posts. When I said to ignore my last comment, I was referring to a comment that I thought just hadn't passed the moderator but I guess now I failed to hit "post comment." All it said basically was that I hadn't understood your argument.

    I disagree with your understanding of instrumental rationality. It's important to separate out instrumental rationality - tailoring your acts to maximally advance your goal (it's what's instrumental to the goal - optimization math) - from egoism/economic self-interest. People can't perfectly optimize in most situations, but it's still helpful to think of things as an optimization problem given the cognitive constraints.

  59. Jim,
    Let me save you the trouble of finding referenced article.

    I would love to hear your more explicit reasoning as to why all these things are unconstitutional, as well as what you say about "the General Welfare" reference in the constitution. If this is to off topic for our hosts you can email me at sheldonbkr@gmail.com

    I am wondering if you righties have ever considered that maybe one of the pluses of this constitution is that it is broad, ambiguous, and/or amenable enough to allow for changing circumstances. And that the growth or evolution of various govt. institutions is a result of them being needed for the management of a much more complex society, than the agricultural and much less complex society of the 1700s.

    I imagine that you all might argue that the EPA is unconstitutional, but would you seriously want to live in a society without it? An industrial society without enviro. regulation?

  60. Timothy,

    yes, if one is talking about instrumental rationality as simply a method to find strategies to achieve whatever end one has in mind - not as a way to pursue one and only one particular end - then we actually agree. It's a tool. But our disagreement began, I think, because I was rejecting the particular thing you were trying to maximize, arguing that voting isn't about having the person's opinion count as much as possible, it's about being part of a polity where everyone counts equally and contributes willingly.

  61. Jim,
    And another thing about the Tea Parties' rhetoric about "restoring the constitution", even if your analysis was correct on these things, (which I don't think is). I find this constitutional fundamentalism rather foolish, this idea that the Founding Fathers had these intentions that were knowable, and infallible for all time.

    And the idea that we should be constrained from creating new institutions that may be needed today.

    Yes, the constitution sets out some basic rights, checks and balances, and limits on govt.

    But the constitution also has a built in process for making these laws you speak of, and a process to amend the original document itself.

    According to this article, to restore the constitution according to what you righties envision would mean rolling back key reforms that would in the end wreak havoc!


  62. Oh, I'm sorry; I thought we had been disagreeing about one vote's ex ante impact on the election outcome, and then shifted the discussion. We do disagree on the area you mention. I've always felt democracy exists to provide good governance and does not exist as an end in itself.

  63. Sheldon,

    And another thing about the Tea Parties' rhetoric about "restoring the constitution", even if your analysis was correct on these things, (which I don't think is). I find this constitutional fundamentalism rather foolish, this idea that the Founding Fathers had these intentions that were knowable, and infallible for all time.

    Yes I am correct, they are unconstitutional (all you have to do is read it and you have your proof). I nor the Founders think that the constitution is infallible for all time. Thats why it includes an amendment process. Here is the problem Sheldon. It wasnt amended to allow for it. Why, becasue to do so the states would have to agree to relinquish power to the federal government (look up the amendment process), which they would never do (and for good reason).

    To your point on the EPA. Its a fallicy to think that because the constitution does prevent the EPA that there would not be any environmental protection. It would just happen at the state level. I am sure you will argue that the laws protecting the enviroment must apply to the entire country, but there are many arguements that can be made that state level environmental protection would be much more effective and absolutly more efficient, but that is getting a bit off topic of the Tea Party and voting. (I would like to continue this through e mail and will e mail you). There are far greater dangers vs. benefits of having EPA at the federal level instead of state. For example, Obama now has the power to accomplish cap and trade (that neither congress nor the people want) through the EPA. This is exactly why the Founders didnt want these things at the federal level. And no, it wont be called Cap and Trade, but watch what obama does with the EPA before he gets voted out in 2 years.

    Sheldon, pick an arguement, either the constitution is important and should be used (and amended if needed) or we just dont need it because todays society is just too complex (the usual liberal arguemnt). If you pick the latter, keep in mind, you need to define why things like social security and food stamps were not important in the 1700's but are today and how our complex society requires these things more than our Founders generation did. Its just garbage to me and a pretty lame arguement. It is IMPOSSIBLE to have massive central government without massive corruption not to mention the part it plays in decreasing our standard of living. There is a direct correlation between size of government and corruption and prosperity. No matter how complex our society is, that wont change. The more complex a society gets, the better the arguement can be made for governing at the local level.

  64. Sheldon,

    As far as your article, I am not sure what the fact that the GOP establishment is pretty corrupt and progressive has to do with the Tea party getting scammed?

    The tea Party was not formed for this mid term election. We are at the beginning of a great awakening and this will take years and a few election cycles to become effective. It is effective becuase we have rallied around 3 very simple ideas that make sense to many many people, despite the differences in beliefs from person to person.

    The left will never have a Tea Party because there is no one idea for you to rally around. What would that be? Social Justice? You wouldnt even get people to agree on what that means. I am curious what it is that the left would bring forth as their tea party idea? Progressivism? Social Democracy? Communism? That is why we racist, gun grabbing, redneck, fear mongering righties will win. Our defined goal is obtainable and something most Americans believe in. Not to mention it is the reason for our (America's)success. There is a direct correlation between personal freedom and prosperity.

    I just realized I am posting under my daughters name, she must have been playing on my laptop!

  65. I'm coming a bit late to this conversation but I wanted to follow up on the comments above about the mixed-strategy equilibrium problem presented here. ianpollock's comment about the recursive nature of the problem echoed my thoughts, and your response, Timothy, didn't fully clarify things for me. How exactly would one work out the mixed-strategy equilibrium for the n-player voting game?

    Among other things, doesn't a mixed-strategy equilibrium essentially call for everyone (or perhaps some sufficiently large population?) to adopt the same strategy (i.e. vote 25% of the time, randomly)? But that's unlikely to hold in this case.

    Still I imagine that some kind of game-theoretical analysis of the situation would be informative...

  66. @Michael: No doubt there are ways that politics affect my life, but I'm not aware of any, truthfully. My life has basically been the same no matter who's been President or which party controlled either House, for pretty much all of my life (I'm 28). The only thing I can really think of is interest rates on my student loans, but I doubt my voting would ever have had an effect on those.

  67. Camus,
    That is the most absurd thing I have heard. The nation is at almost 10 percent unemployment and you don't think it effects your life. Unless you come from money (therefor your standard of living has remained somewhat unchanged if you have enough where your dollars value can drop significantly and you wouldn't really notice any change). But politics has probably effected your life in many Many ways, you just haven't put it all together. For instance, if the unemployment rate is high and there is an overabundance of people looking for work, the living wage drops. You just didn't think of it in your last job offer negotiation. If overestimation prevented new businesses from opening so you had to drive further and pay more for a certain product, you just didn't associate any purchase with politics. Next year when you tax rate rises and a little more comes out of your check, you just won't associate that change with politics. The fact that 42 cents of each tax dollars goes to social security and Medicare has never crossed your mind.
    That attitude you have is one that no matter what happens we just can't fail is truly absurd. It sounds like you have had other people responsible for your well being and haven't to worry much in your life. Most American are not in that situation. I live paycheck to paycheck and politics effects my life a great deal. It's just a matter of time (as we are in the process of economic collapse) before it effects your life. You'll change your mind then. Or the people that know how much it effects your life will fix it in the mean time and you can go on living obliviously unaware.

  68. Camus- I realize your saying you know there is some effect, but all you really notice is the interest rate on your student loans. My point is that it is in every transaction you make far more significantly than you realize.

  69. I meant over regulation in my post above. My I phone spell check strikes again

  70. Jim,
    Limited on time so I can't respond to all of your points.

    But regarding your point about the EPA, think again, rivers and other bodies of water, and air, are not limited to the state level, so why should environmental regulation be? If it was this would be grossly inefficient and ineffective. Do I have to spell out why? For instance, pollution dumped in the Mississippi in a state up river being carried down stream to another state.

    What can the Tea Party accomplish besides electing Republicans that are further to the right? Well I am skeptical of much at all. We will see. Most will be co-opted which was the point of the Rich column.

    And this dovetails partly with the original topic. Is voting within the current system sufficient to accomplish the goals of social movements?

  71. Sheldon,

    I am not naive enough tho think that there will not be candidates that get co-opted by the GOP. But i will not accept that as defeat to what we are trying to accoplish here. The idea is that we will eventually co-opt the Republican Party. I know some of our candidates will eventually side with the progressive Republicans, but they will not be re-elected in 2 or 6 years. The Tea Party will grow. As it is, 4 of 10 votes came from the Tea Party. The Republicans will cause grid lock over the next 2 years and in the mean time the deficit will grow even worse (or be monitized and hence inflation will grow out of control) and continue to wake up the public that is still asleep. We had some mild success with this election, but far greater has yet to come. Meanwhile there will be the Rand Pauls that will hold their ground and encourage others to do the same. We are not your GOP establishment Republicans (were perhaps worse in your eyes). In fact most of us would have rather gone with a Constitutional party or Libertarian party, but we know the only way to be successful is to take over the Republican party due to the difficulties of 3rd party politics. So we will return the GOP to a Jeffersonian Republican party.
    To your point on the EPA, there is a means for handling cross boundary enviromental issues through the Judicial branch (states can sue each other etc...)There are other means as well. I am not willing to give the executive branch unlimited power so that we can have blanket environmental protection and relieve the states of their power. The end result would be just as effective (more). What if California waited for the EPA to catch up and handle its environmental protection policy?
    What you call Tea party as right wing, I say is wanting to stop deficit spending, return to constitutional government and smaller over all government. Which one of those three points do you disagree with ?
    My guess is you would not directly disagree with the government being fiscally irresponsible, but would not be willing to give up health care, social security or any other entitlement programs. What is the plan on the left? Tax the rich? (which doesnt actually raise revenue), what exactly does the left want? I see a total lack of common sense where the intellectuals are supposed to be?


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