## May 6, 2008

### The Problem with Voting, Part II

More friends privately emailed me about my last blog post (The Problem with Voting) than any post before it, although no blog comments. :(

A few people made a counter argument along the following lines:
One vote doesn't count, but people who think about voting the same way as me likely would think similarly to me on other issues, such as choosing the next president. If lots of people like me decide not to vote the same way I've done, that would be very bad for my interests. If instead we all voted, it would be very good for my interests.

This is a true statement, but it doesn't change the outcome. My voting or not voting has no affect on those other people out there. In statistical terms, each person's decision to vote or not is an independent decision. In economic terms, we see the tragedy of the commons.

The extension is a stronger argument: perhaps my decision is independent, but telling other people my decision and the logic behind it could affect their decision as well. This is certainly possible. If my comments reached alot of people it would have a real effect. You could do even the math: estimate how many people you could reach by discussing my decision, estimate how many might change their mind, and then do the math in my previous post using a larger range of values for the binomial probability density function.

For me, on a very good day, my blog gets about 75 visits. Only about 10% hit my front page, so I may have a 5-person/day reach or so for this post. Between now and November, maybe I'll hit 500 people. Even if all of those people were already going to vote the same way as I would have, and even if I caused them all not to vote, the probability of affecting the election is still tiny. Without doing the full calculation, I could grossly overestimate the probability at 0.000013% x 500 = .0065%, the actual number being much much smaller. If I were a talk show host or a sports star, my chance of having an effect might be more likely, but I'm making very generous assumptions anyway.

The Important Part:

I should have elaborated more on my conclusions before. Voting is participatory, symbolic, and has alot of personal meaning. In the same way that me driving a Prius won't make a dent in climate change, it means something to me to do my little bit. Prius vs. voting isn't that great of a comparison - one vote will have zero affect on the election, one prius will have a tiny but non-zero affect on climate change. I may indeed vote when it comes down to it, but if I end up voting it won't be because I expect to change the outcome, but rather because I want to "feel" that I'm part of the process.

My biggest gripe though is that this is where many people stop (I'm not referring to anyone who emailed me). They vote, and only once every 4 years. They feel that making change is someone else's job, yet they have strong opinions on what that change should be. The real truth is that voting is a pretty ineffective way for anyone to affect change, but there are other very effective ways out there. Not that I couldn't do more myself - I'm certainly black as the kettle, but many kettles are pretending they aren't not black by making *only* symbolic efforts.

My parents are role models in this regard. In 1976, they got involved in the Sierra club in South Carolina, wrote letters and organized and were able to keep Congaree Swamp from being logged, declaring it a National Monument. Later, it became America's 57th National Park. Imagine if all they did was vote for their favorite president and stick a Sierra Club bumper sticker on their car. Things would have been different.

Dan said...

Voting is a threshold commons shared by you and everyone else who supports the same candidate. Threshold commons are especially susceptible to the free-rider effect, because any one participant's chance of making a difference is low.

Climate change may also be a threshold commons, though it's less of a stark threshold than voting. (Note that voting isn't a perfect binary threshold, either; the "mandate" granted by the margin does matter, if only a tiny bit.)

You could ask two questions: Should you vote, or in general do your bit in threshold commons situations? Why do people vote, given that dereliction is the normal state of commons?

The "should" question cuts to the root of ethics, and may even be axiomatic. I feel the answer is yes, but I can't defend it on logical grounds alone.

The "why" question seems likely to be rooted in basic human behavior. Our ability to organize as societies and achieve collective aims depends first of all on collective decisionmaking (of the sort practiced by an angry mob with pitchforks, if nothing else). That's so vital to the functioning of society that it's easy to see why we would evolve an instinct to participate, even when it's not otherwise in our direct interest.

Greg said...

I'm going to call you out on this one. You start off by arguing that voting is a "threshold commons" and then talk about the properties of a "threshold commons" such as the "free-rider effect".

Dropping a term like "threshold commons" leads the reader to believe you have credibility because the reader isn't familiar with the term. The problem is, I think you are making up the term:

There are 7 references to the phrase in google, and none of them seem to be related to the context in which you use the term. I'm open to being wrong here, but you'll need to prove it.

I can't argue with you about the "why", but I'm also not interested in that question. As far as the question on "should", your entire comment boils down to "I feel the answer is yes, but I can't defend it on logical grounds alone.". Fair enough.

Dan said...

Oh, I totally made the term up! I was hoping its meaning was clear from context. I didn't mean to imply otherwise and I certainly hope nobody feels like I have any credibility, because I have absolutely no credentials whatsoever! Sorry to have confused you about that.

I imagine economists have some real term for what I'm calling a "threshold commons"; I've heard the idea discussed as a sort of prototypical thought experiment. If you take it to the point of absurdity, you end up with the "paradox" of the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, which goes like this:

A patient is dying, and needs surgery.

The surgeon doesn't show up, instead he goes golfing.

Neither does the anesthesiologist, instead he goes to the beach.

The patient dies.

Later, people ask the surgeon how he could possibly have left a man to die. He says "oh, I knew the anesthesiologist was going to go to the beach, and without anesthesia I can't operate, so there was no point in me coming in".

So they ask the anesthesiologist how he could have gone to the beach instead of saving a man's life, and he said "oh, I knew the surgeon was going to go golfing, and without a surgeon there's no point in me coming in".

This is reduced to the absurd level of N=2 (as opposed to N=100M or whatever), but in some ways it's still the same kind of situation.

Where the analogy breaks down is that the surgeon should have called up the anesthesiologist and said "hey dude, let's go save this guy". With N=2, organizing collective action is very possible. With N=100M, less so -- as you point out, even if you and everyone who reads this blog changed their vote, it still wouldn't have much impact.

So global warming is probably a better equivalent, and you bring that up yourself. The question is how "threshold-y" global warming really is, and I think it's still a subject of some debate among climate scientists exactly what the outcome is for different levels of greenhouse gas contributions. But if you took as a thought experiment that it was a threshold situation -- that above some level, we would suffer horrible greenhouse warming, and below that level, everything would stay basically OK -- then I think it would be very comparable to voting.

I think I would say not only that I can't really argue logically for participation in that sort of scenario, but that I'm not sure anyone can. It feels like whether or not you buy "if everyone acted this way, things would be good/bad" as a basis for morality is a sort of axiomatic question. I know philosophers have debated that question ad nauseum, and they probably even have real words for the positions and arguments...

So I guess what I'm really saying is that I think we can reduce one conundrum to another that's been very well studied.

The Snowcoholic said...

I think the underlying philosophical problem to this debate boils down to some variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma or perhaps the Tragedy of the Commons. But it's a pretty elaborate, non-linear variant due to the thresholds.

I'd guess that if you consider a vote to be (a) an inconvenience and (b) adding a tiny bit to the weight for the best government society could select, then the most rational behavior of a society might be to select the best possible government with as few votes as possible, like just one lonely voter who picks candidate X while the others play on the beach. However, not everyone will agree on what the best government looks like - so the others will want to participate to have their opinion reflected. Anyways, if you come up with some costs / rewards for voting / not voting, I think you can argue that (i) it's rational for the individual to not vote (convenience, small impact) (ii) it's rational for society as a whole to vote (having the opinion of what's the perfect government best approximated in the actual choice). The overall voter turnout should then be determined by the equilibrium of these opposing forces. Cost adjustments, e.g., making it easier to register, or reflecting the popular vote accurately, should affect voter turnout.