It’s well-known that voting is irrational, if one defines the motivation as increasing the probability that the candidate one favors will win. The problem, of course, is that the value of a favorable outcome, multiplied by the percentage increase in the likelihood of that outcome that will result from one’s voting, is indistinguishable from zero. Hence, no one with a positive valuation of his or her time would be expected to bother to vote, under this model.
The “irrationality” of voting, under this model, is even starker if one assumes that voters act on the basis of narrowly economic self-interest. Even if Candidate A, if elected, would cut my taxes by $10,000 relative to Candidate B, my bothering to vote for A can’t possibly make sense economically under this framework. Assuming narrowly economic self-interest heightens the irrationality by placing a ceiling on my potential valuation of alternative outcomes – especially when we keep in mind that a given candidate generally can’t enact his or her entire platform even if elected – there are broader political constraints. (Brendan Nyhan, for example, notes that, at the recent Democratic candidates’ presidential debate, “one issue received little attention: their theory of political change. How exactly would Hillary Rodham Clinton or her rivals pass the programs and proposals they advocate?”)
Under this calculus, by the way, it is not clear that even, say, the Koch brothers are being “rational” in narrowly economic terms. True, unlike we mere voters they can perhaps buy a statistically significant impact on the expected outcome. But would the narrowly financial benefit to them of having their candidates win elections and change policies in their favor, discounted by the probabilistic effect that all their spending actually has on the outcomes, come out positive if one ignored all of the other personal and psychological, but not so narrowly economic, reasons why they spend so much money? I suspect not. But, of course, it’s true that when you have so many billions there’s the problem that other valuable things money actually can buy start to run out – you can’t, for example, buy eternal youth or perfect happiness. If you could but it cost many billions of dollars, the Koches and all other billionaires who were potentially within reach of having the requisite amounts would have reason to be far more stingy with their money than in the actual state of the world, where good things available for cash start at some point to run out. But I digress.
Obviously, the well-known answer to the “paradox” of voting is that people do it for emotional, expressive, social, and participatory reasons. Once voting is viewed as an expressive or consumer act, the metric changes. There is still, presumably, an implicit calculus of cost versus benefit. This is why the Republicans hope to gain from making it hard for Democratic voters to get to the polls – although in 2012 this apparently backfired to a degree, by increasing, for many such voters, the expressive value of making damn sure they voted anyway, even if this meant waiting for hours on a line.
The continued relevance of cost versus benefit also explains why voter fraud is so close to nonexistent unless it can be centrally organized without detection – there’s simply too little payoff to the individual act. But voting as a consumer act destroys the basic paradox, because it saves from absurdity the premise that a given voter will view the benefit as outweighing the cost. (I for one have certainly wasted more time in my life watching bad movies than voting.)
I nonetheless view the paradox of voting as central to how toxically dysfunctional our political system has become. Once you are voting as a consumer act, all rational choice regarding whom to favor is potentially out the window. It’s almost a mystery that people ever bother to vote in favor of their economic or other interests. (Although the “what’s the matter with Kansas?” view posits, entirely plausibly, that often they don’t.) To the extent that people do vote in favor of their own economic and other interests, this presumably reflects expressive, group-solidarity type perspectives, rather than the economic calculus. A candidate who, relative to the other candidates, wants to direct net economic benefits to the likes of me is saying: “I like and favor people of your type.” But there are many different ways to make such a statement.
A key reason the disconnect matters is that it can eliminate any incentive whatsoever to think coherently about whether a given candidate actually would, if elected, tend towards making the world a better place, however one defines this. If I am thinking of buying a car, it is possible that I will be swayed by silly advertising, or by a car dealer who is expert on psychologically exploiting people like me, into making a bad choice. But at least I am the one who decides what car I should buy. I’m not going to fail to take the decision seriously on the basis that I can’t measurably affect what car I will end up owning. With voting as one member of a mass electorate, this is entirely changed. Given that the effect I will have on whom I will end up with is statistically indistinguishable from zero, a huge collective action problem discourages everyone from taking the decision seriously, other than as a consumer act.
One possible outcome, as we’ve been observing lately, is crazy candidates, or those who might not actually be crazy but act as if they are.
I think it also bleeds over into political irrationality by people in office who have incentives to get it right. Take the Iraq war as a case in point. Even if we posit that invading Iraq was enjoyable enough, to the key Bush Administration players, to be worth doing even if it was likely to turn out as badly as it actually did, there still are mysteries such as why, for example, they made no effort to ascertain seriously how the occupation could best be organized. Pro-war forces within the Administration actively suppressed efforts at a realistic assessment (which they not only disparaged but apparently genuinely viewed as mere weak-kneedness), even though the Administration paid the price when things started to go so badly. But when the entire realm of public policy debate is being systematically cheapened and distorted by the fact that individual actors, until they have great power, have almost no direct motivation actually to care about true cause and effect relationships – and when they are performing before audiences composed of individuals who each effectively have no reason to care – rationality gets drowned or shouted out. And of course all the issues are complicated, requiring knowledge and a sense of context. So it’s potentially much too late once a given politician, even if well-motivated (which is hardly a given), gets into a position where he or she can actually exercise significant influence on outcomes.
At the end of the day, “When do you get good political leaders?” becomes a cultural question akin to, “When do you get the Beatles instead of Justin Bieber?” [Not to hate too much on Bieber here, however – I needed to put someone there, and surely he’s much better as a pop star than Ben Carson would be as president.] Not exactly grounds for long-term confidence in our political system or others around the world.