Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election Proves Voting Is Irrational

Even though the Democrats technically won enough races to gain control of the House and probably the Senate, the margins in most of these races were so close that they can't claim a mandate. In fact, as Adam Nagourney pointed out in the New York Times expectations were so high that anything short of winning all 435 House seats and all 33 Senate seats in contention really has to be seen as a setback for the Democrats.

After all the hype, in the end Democrats inflicted merely a flesh wound on Republicans. The Democrats can't be happy that the candidate they most wanted to defeat, Joe Lieberman, won, and they were so unprepared for George Allen's brilliantly counterintuitive campaign that he might just eke out a victory in Virginia. Democrats will no doubt cite a number of factors for their disappointing victory such as John Kerry's failed strategy to fire up the party's anti-military base or the way the release of the Mark Foley emails backfired against the Democrats. But I think both Democrats and Republicans can agree that the biggest problem with elections in this country is voters.

Can voters really be trusted? There is quite a bit of evidence that they don't really know what they're doing. And not just in the United States. In Nicaragua yesterday, Daniel Ortega returned to power after we had worked so hard to get rid of him the first time around. Elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, Venezuela and Bolivia have all gone to the wrong candidates. Although this country has many safeguards to protect against voter error, such as the Electoral College, the Supreme Court and self-correcting voting machines, some people are beginning to wonder if voters have too much power.

In his forthcoming book The Myth of the Rational Voter, economist Bryan Caplan makes the argument that voters are not very smart. He believes that we need "correctives" to the "mistakes" voters make. Not surprisingly, he believes economists deserve more power and so he proposes that the Council of Economic Advisors should be able to invalidate laws that are not economically sound. He also suggests that the Supreme Court could go back to the Lochner Era, when it protected the marketplace by invalidating laws that were passed to protect workers. Or we could do what Great Britain did before 1949 and give college graduates an extra vote.

I agree that we have too many voters and we should what we can to limit the number of people who vote. Like Ann Coulter I think that we should bring back poll taxes and literacy tests to help cull voters who are not smart enough to follow simple procedures and vote properly.

Why is there so much irrational voting going on? Probably because the act of voting itself is irrational, according to many economists. "A rational individual should abstain from voting," says economist Patricia Funk, saying what many economists believe. Steven Landsburg, the brilliant economist who once argued that a hospital did the right thing when it unplugged a poor woman from a ventilator because she couldn't pay her medical bills, believes that "it makes more sense to play the lottery" than to vote. "Your individual vote will never matter unless the election in your state is within one vote of a dead-even tie," he writes. "Then the probability you'll break a tie is equal to the probability that exactly 3 million out of 6 million tosses will turn up heads. That's about 1 in 3,100 -- roughly the same as the probability you'll be murdered by your mother…. Even for the most passionate partisan, it's hard to argue that voting is a good use of your time."

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, claim that the only reason people vote is because of social pressure and fear of others' negative responses to their not voting. They point out that voting actually declined when Switzerland adopted a system of voting by mail, a system the new leader of the Democrats, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, wants to adopt here. While most people are afraid of the social stigma of staying home during an election, most economists are embarrassed to be seen voting. "I don't know a single economist who bothers to vote, so worthless do they consider the act," says Dubner. "Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at the voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost -- in time, effort, lost productivity -- with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your 'civic duty.'"

Unfortunately, the liberal media will probably hype this election as a big victory for Democrats, which could have the unfortunate effect of encouraging even more people to vote. Hopefully, the Bush Administration has enough safeguards in place to resist any changes the Democrats want to impose which should put a damper on voter overexuberance. Perhaps by the next election many potential voters will agree that voting is as pointless as many economists believe.

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Anonymous said...

Of course voters can't be trusted...that's why the founding fathers in their wisdom came up with the Electoral College and limited the vote to white guys who owned land. Those were the days...

I would like to nominate Adam Nagouney to the Grima Wormtongue Chair at the NYT.

Anonymous said...

First time reader. As you agree with Ann Coulter, so I agree with you. Possibly Mr. Swift's modest proposal could be applied to both the house and the senate. This would take care of both term limits and some domestic hunger problems. Although, given the general desire of members of the congress and senate to be physically fit, the hunger amelioration would be minor. "Plump them up and fatten them up and when they are six eat them." On the other hand, this would require more voting. It would, however, not require more voters. It would also reduce significantly the number of candidates. I would rather have the well meaning and stupid in congress, even for a short time, than the venal and clever.

benmerc said...

Ahhh... Finally get some rest at night, Adult supervision has arrived.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Once again, Jon, I cannot argue with your analysis, and I believe that events will show that you are correct in anticipating that the Bush Administration's policies will deviate very little from their resolute course. And why should they? As our national anthem points out:

"Then conquer we must,
As our cause it is just,
And this be our motto -
In God Is Our Trust."

Anonymous said...

he believes economists deserve more power and so he proposes that the Council of Economic Advisors should be able to invalidate laws that are not economically sound.

At first I thought you might have been satirizing here (but I know you would never do that!), but that really what that Caplan guy says. Capital idea! Let's have some libertarian, public choice dorks decide whether it's "economical" to have national parks, school lunches, and veteran's benefits.

Anonymous said...

"For Adam Nagourney, A Successful Shit May Feel Like Rectal Cancer"

Anonymous said...

The funny thing about the economists' comments to the effect that voters, and the act of voting, are irrational:

The basic premise on which the entire science of economics is based is the notion that individuals always act in their own best interests, that is, they make rational decisions. This is, of course, completely at odds with everything learned by psychology, sociology, and political scientists over the last century.

Nice. When it comes to politics, they can recognize the truth: that people often, indeed usually, are NOT rational when they make important decisions and they often, or usually, make decisions that are against their own best interest. But when it comes to purchasing stuff, we're all perfectly rational little number-crunchers, always choosing wisely.

Anonymous said...

"Advisors should be able to invalidate laws that are not economically sound"

I'd like to comment on this line, as well as the idea that voting is silly becuase the chances of any one person's vote making a difference is so small.

Have you thought about what other implications this type of thinking has?

Take littering. If I throw all my garbage on the sidewalk or out my car window, it's not going to make any significant difference, either. I'm only one person. My garbage will cover a smaller percentage of the earth than even my vote will count. Same with the pollution of any *one* factory? But isn't it clear what can happen when this becomes the general trend? If you think about it, you could probably come up with dozens of examples of things that don't matter when one person does it, but that we don't allow because of the difference that can be made when many people do it (like voting!)

Heck, you could even extend this reasoning to excuse stealing or murder. If I skim money off a big corporation's profits, or even kill someone, the argument could be made that in the long run this really doesn't make a very big difference in the scheme of things, and there are likely times where--economically speaking--it's not cost effective to prosecute me. Economically, if I kill some loner who no one knows or cares about, and I won't do it again, it wouldn't make any sense to spend all the money needed to put me on trial and then keep me in jail.

Luckily, there's way to think of things other than economically.


Alexander Wolfe said...

I have to say, mentioning Kos as the new leader of the Democrats got a considerable chuckle out of me.

harrogate said...

rick writes:
"Of course voters can't be trusted...that's why the founding fathers in their wisdom came up with the Electoral College and limited the vote to white guys who owned land. Those were the days..."

So true, so true! But you know, if you were to say something like that in one of our communist university classrooms the Professoriat would have you taken behind the building and flogged. Thank God for David Horowitz, and let's get back to the days Rick pines for!

One way to suppress voting would be to go the Neil Boortz way, which gives higher income people more votes. Why not? CEOs and Media moguls contribute far more to the society than the rest of us, why shouldn't, say, Rupert Murdoch get 75 votes to the line cook's 1?

Party of ideas, baby.

Anonymous said...


There isn't anything wrong with tossing some litter out of the car. It used to be a part of daily life until the liberals made it some sort of evil thing (thanks Lady Bird).

And while we cant go ignoring murderers (and we absolutely cannot let people pilfer from corporations), if a few folks die along the way, it should actually make someone like you that thinks voting matters feel good, you have now actually gotten rid of two people. The murderer is in jail and the murderee is dead, so you have that much more power.

Of course if you are in one of those states that lets criminals vote, you only get the proportional increase of having the dead guy to no longer compete with (if he actually bothered to vote), so in liberal states like that, it's not as satisfying, but you really have to take what you can get.

But I think it proves out the economic case for this.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, we definitely need more of those "self-correcting" voting machines. If we had those installed in Iraq a few years back we wouldn't have had to go to all the trouble of putting so much effort into making sure that the right people got elected, we could have had our machines fix that for us, and as it wouldn't have been so visible maybe the poor ungrateful-for-the-freedom-we-have-brought population wouldn't be so irritated with us.

Jaesoreal said...

Perhaps we should have potential voters arm wrestle. That way we ensure that the physically superior citizens are leading our country. We need strong decisiions in this age of terrorism.

Dumping trash out of windows would be crazy! It would get all over the landscape. That's why I always get out and neatly place my trash on the sidewalk or side of the road to minimize space.

If voters can't be rational, I am glad we at least have clear-headed rational leadership who can lead us into wars for rational reasons. Otherwise thousands could be killed over nonsense...

Anonymous said...

"Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at the voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost -- in time, effort, lost productivity -- with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your 'civic duty.'"

I think the same can be said of blogging.:)

Anonymous said...

why did diebold turn off its vote-stealing software?

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