Thursday, 9 June 2011

Expressive voting

Hamlin and Jennings survey the expressive voting literature. It's a nice piece, and I like how they've brought Kuran's preference falsification arguments. I'll quibble on two points, mostly because I like the word quibble and need excuses to use it. They write:
Caplan is careful to distinguish between [rational irrationality and expressive voting]: 'In expressive voting theory, voters know that feel-good policies are ineffective. Expressive voters do not embrace dubious or absurd beliefs about the world ... In contrast, rationally irrational voters believe that feel-good policies work.'

Therefore, a further condition would need to be fulfilled in order to judge a vote to be expressive of true preferences rather than rationally irrational ones; we would need to check how well informed the voter is. One suspects that this issue may be similar to social pressure. If voting is both expressive and 'rationally irrational', making information available might be expected to result in a rapid and significant shift in the political equilibrium. If, by contrast, voting is an expression of truly-held expressive preferences, the political equilibrium will be much more stable.
I doubt that Caplan would argue that rationally irrational voters need only be provided more information in order to improve outcomes. If information provision were the sole problem, voters wouldn't be openly hostile to the provision of information with which they disagree. And the rise of the Econoblogosphere would have quickly led to substantially better economic policy.

Here would be a rather better test of Caplan's rational irrationality model. I've not seen it conducted, but more experimental economics applications have been melding voting and markets. Here goes. Set up an experimental double-auction environment framed in a salient way - buyers and sellers of labour, for example. Run a few rounds of the experiment as baseline. Then, let folks vote on whether they'd like to make a change to the trading environment: policy changes that either improve or reduce overall efficiency. A price floor, for instance - a minimum wage. Set treatment groups that vary in individual expected decisiveness: the odds that any player's vote will determine the trading structure for the next round, with the sum of all player odds being less than or much less than one. Then run a few rounds with the (potentially) changed trading environment before offering other votes - some which augment and some which attenuate efficiency, with varying expressive framing. If traders make better choices when more decisive, that would be consistent with rational irrationality. It wouldn't distinguish between expressive voting and rational irrationality, but I'm more interested in testing the broader concept anyway.

Hamlin and Jennings later discuss the implications of expressive voting for constitutional choice. Brennan and Hamlin worried that constitutionalism exacerbates expressive voting problems and suggested that constitutional questions be left to small but statistically representative groups in order to avoid the Veil of Insignificance. They write:
Perhaps these proposals should be decided by small (but representative) groups, which might be more likely to take an all-things-considered view. Crampton and Farrant make explicit the potential problem that such a small group might design institutions that enrich themselves if they are not fully representative in a relevant sense. Therefore, a trade-off may exist between the problem of expressiveness, on the one hand, and allowing too much room for the narrow self-interest of unrepresentative groups, on the other.
It's probably semantics (a lot can be packed into "in a relevant sense"), but our main worry (ungated) was that the perfectly statistically representative group would have, by virtue of being the constitutional committee, a newly granted interest in enriching the members of the committee. If the group is small enough to overcome expressiveness problems, it may also be small enough to solve internal collective action problems and set itself up as effective dictator post the constitutional phase. The only way of breaking past the Veil of Insignificance is by reintroducing the problem that constitutional political economy in the Buchanan sense was meant to solve: separating individuals at the constitutional level from their particular interests in order that the constitution foster the general interest. Absent the Veil of Insignificance, the constitution serves the general interest of those writing the constitution.

Paper gated permalink below:
Expressive Political Behaviour: Foundations, Scope and Implications

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