Saturday 9 October 2010

Conscientious non-voting

Though I'm obviously rather interested in politics, I have not voted in any election since 1997.

I won't say that my reasons are particularly good ones, or all that consistent and defensible. But I'm not sure they're worse than most folks' reasons for voting either.

First, on a straight utilitarian calculus, voting is nonsense. The probability of decisiveness in any reasonably sized electorate makes voting less rational than buying lotto tickets if the point of voting is to get a better bundle of policies than you'd otherwise get. And I don't buy lotto tickets. Yes, we're all part of the equilibrium, and if I abstain, then the median shifts ever so slightly away from my ideal point. But it can't be by enough to induce me to vote at current turnout rates. The great strength of the median voter theorem is that it's robust to weirdo extreme preferences. But if I have weirdo extreme preferences, my abstention makes little difference to outcomes.

But even if turnout numbers were low enough that my vote were expectationally beneficial, on a straight utilitarian calculus, I'd still be really uncomfortable with it. Why? I'm too much of a contractarian at heart, and I don't like that politics has essentially unrestricted domain. There are large sections of my life, and of your life, that I don't believe should be subject to democratic decision-making. Regardless of what a majority wants, I think you should have the right to marry whomever you wish, to ingest what you like, to engage in whatever voluntary exchanges you like that don't infringe on others' property - in short, to pursue what you view as the good life so long as your enjoyment does not unduly infringe on the equal rights of others. And far too much of politics seeks to impose the majority's view of the good life on others.

I've a reasonable contractarian foundation. If I agree to a process, then I'm bound to accept the outcome of that process. And voting outside of a context where baseline rights are protected against majoritarianism means I give assent to the process that strips others of their rights, even if I voted against that outcome. It's not Sophie's choice, but it's not a good one.

I often hear arguments of the form "Well, if you don't vote, you can't complain." A contractarian of my stripe would reverse things: if you agreed to the rules of a poker game, you can't whine afterwards that you lost your shirt. If you don't like the game, you shouldn't play it at all: abstention is not unreasonable. If I vote, I give my assent to the idea that it's right that a majority should be empowered to deny a gay couple the right to full marriage, a cancer sufferer the right to pain relief through marijuana, a landlord to the right to his house should it be seized subsequent to a tenant's use of it for drug trafficking. It isn't just that I object to that those policies are the existing status quo but even more that they're inside the domain of politics at all - that it's considered right and proper that majorities should be able to decide these things.

Where do I think voting is right and proper? Let's start with easy cases. You join a club, which has limited purposes, with easy exit, and the club has to decide on something within the club's remit. I've voted in the various clubs to which I've belonged at one time or another.

I joined the economics department here at Canterbury 7 years ago. I vote on stuff in departmental meetings and at Faculty when it doesn't just pass by assent. The decisions are on matters that are within the proper remit of the club - I agreed as much when I joined the club - and I can always find another employer should the club's rules move too far away from what I'd signed on for.

Consider then the next step up: voting in a body corporate (condo association) in an apartment building. Their range of powers is typically limited, and you choose a body corporate based on the kinds of decisions it's empowered to make. That's pretty reasonable. If I were in a condo, I'd not be opposed to voting. I'd choose one where the body corporate's domain weren't too broad, and I'd vote.

Local body politics are the next step up. Non-voting in these elections is far more a function of expected low decisiveness than of philosophical objection. There's lots of stuff that city councils do that I don't like - the officiousness of swimming pool inspectors being high on the list - but they're typically restricted in domain not just by legislation but also by Tiebout competition. If I don't like Christchurch's policies, I can move to Rolleston or Kaipoi or Oxford. The restrictions that Councils tend to impose just can't infringe too much on heterogeneous visions of the good life. The majority of the decisions that City Councils make are properly the kind of things that ought to be decided democratically.

But I would get strong disutility of voting where the representative body has powers over domains that ought never be in the democratic realm. My voting then gives legitimacy to that those domains are subject to political rather than personal choice.

I'm sure that there's at least something, for each of you, that you'd consider absolutely to be in the realm of the personal rather than the political. Suppose you woke up tomorrow and found that elected representatives now decided who you would be required to marry. Some bureau would run matching algorithms and allocate partners. Would you be anti-democratic for thinking it abhorrent that we use democratic processes to allocate spouses? Suppose the two main candidates offered competing variants of the matching algorithm, and you knew one would yield a marginally better match for you. If you voted, you might be able to get a change in policy to improve the matching algorithm. If you got really really lucky, some third party candidate might get the policy liberalized to allow individual choice. But you'd have conceded that the dimension ought to be in the domain of democratic choice.

Suppose Kodos offers a bundle of policies that is very slightly more appealing on economic grounds than Kang and Kang offers a bundle of policies that is very slightly more appealing on civil liberties. Both promise to eat no more than a hundred tasty humans: Kodos will eat no more than a hundred drug users; Kang will eat no more than a hundred landlords. Voting for either, or for some no-hope third party candidate, kinda says you're OK with a system that winds up letting Kodos or Kang eat people so long as enough people vote for them. I don't think whether Kodos or Kang ought to be able to eat people should depend on how many people vote for them; I think rather it ought to depend on the preferences of those who would be eaten. Don't blame me: I didn't vote.

Bottom line: for national elections where I'm unlikely to affect the outcome but certain to experience strong disutility from voting at all, I abstain. If I expected that my vote had a really good chance of changing the outcome substantially - not just flipping things from National to Labour (or vice versa) but rather say in a binding referendum on a sharp civil liberties issue (neither Kodos nor Kang to eat more than 50 people instead of 100) where iPredict said it was a 50/50 proposition - I'd probably get out and vote. But I'd still need to have a shower afterwards.

This all was prompted by @LewStoddart pestering me about why I don't vote. I don't claim these reasons to be particularly convincing for anybody whose preferences are around the median - they couldn't be, because the median voter is by definition comfortable with that the kinds of things that are decided by politics are decided by politics. But they're convincing enough for me.


  1. Thanks Eric, this is almost as depressing as Brian Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter interview on EconTalk. This leaves us little choice - what about a strategy of voting for gridlock where possible?

    Stossel just did a show on voting, heavily influenced by GMU. Argued strongly against voting as a 'duty' - especially when the potential voters are uninformed.

    It is NOT a popular argument!


  2. Thanks Eric. You make a good argument, but I find it a bit hollow: a lot of fancy reasoning which boils down to 'I just don't like any of the options'. Also, you didn't address what I thought was the more interesting aspect of the discussion: the signalling role of votes in a democracy.

    It's abhorrent to you to sanction a system which won't (can't) result in a government which shares your view that much of what you (and I) do is none of their business. But what if there were such a candidate (and by some perverse miracle she stood a decent chance of being elected)? By this reasoning, you would simply refuse to vote. This presents a chicken-egg problem: since candidates (generally speaking) don't commit sufficient resources to meaningfully contest an election without at least some baseline of support to begin with, if you and all those who agree with you don't signal your support for the least-bad options, it's very likely that your ideal candidate simply wouldn't be arsed standing, thinking (right or wrong) that she had no support. There's also an iterative effect where the persistent lack of support for heterodox candidates means a race to the centre, which is your ultimate abhorrent outcome.

    Interested to hear more of your thoughts on the other signalling topic of our conversation, too -- my argument that a 'protest' vote for a joke candidate is a stronger signal of dissatisfaction with the candidates and/or the system than abstention (because abstention is muddied confounding variables like missing ballots, and doesn't strictly indicate antipathy, or even apathy, toward the voting process. But maybe we dealt with that one on twitter?


  3. It's more than not liking the options; it's not liking the stakes of the game.

    The signalling stories don't really work for me because of the utter probabilistic uselessness of a single vote. Whatever signal I could possibly be sending by voting would have only such imperceptibly tiny effect that it's hardly worth agonizing over.

    I think I'd said at the end of the post that if some candidate came up with sufficiently plausible chance of winning and that were sufficiently likely, on winning, substantially to improve policy, I'd hold my nose and vote. But are there better than lotto odds that if I went out and voted for whatever party or candidate seemed closest to my policy preferences, that would be the critical vote that started a snowball effect in favour of those policies? I'd reckon substantially worse odds than lotto.

    On what's the most effective way of registering a protest signal...all potential signals will be muddied. Abstention more likely signals apathy; spoiling the ballot more likely signals general antisociality, youthful pranks, or crankishness; voting for a protest party can signal dissatisfaction with the system or that you put trivial weight on political questions. But really, spending a lot of time and effort on figuring out which is optimal would be like running a ton of regressions on powerball results to see if any bias in the machine lets you pick numbers moving you from bugger all chance to bugger all plus epsilon.

  4. I didn't agonize to vote for Bill and Ben in 2008 together with another 13,015 dissatisfied souls. However, I did forget to vote in this chronicle of a death foretold election for city council.

    I did remember very well voting in this plebiscite though. I guess that you would have participated in this one too.

  5. Two notes from a progressive voter in the U.S.:

    1) Gridlock is not a solution to anything, unless you're one of those irrational loons who truly thinks it's better if the government doesn't do anything. This includes having fully-staffed courts and providing veterans' benefits.

    2) You can rationalize it all you want, but the reality is that the system in place is the one that affects your life. By refusing to participate, to even hold your nose and add your little nudge to the outcome, you're not protesting. You're simply handing the system over to people who disagree with you. This is how the Republican Party comes to power: American progressives have a similar highly-principled, well-considered fit and decide to take their ball and go home, while the lizard-brain reactionaries go hell for leather to vote. The world has seen the results, I think (not that Americans are thoughtful enough to keep it from happening twice).

    Unless you're a particularly powerful and vocal public figure (I wouldn't know from here), no one notices that you don't vote, and you have to live under the resulting regime in any case.

  6. @Chris: Not necessarily disagreeing, but I still can't see how anything changes based on whether I vote.

    I know I have to live under whatever regime is chosen. I just don't want to give it my consent.

  7. I agree with you Eric.

    It is somewhat depressing to think that as individuals we are powerless to acquire control of our own choices - unless we first obtain power over the choices of others. As that course of action seems very wrong to me, I have sometimes voted. The utility of my vote being the psychological need to avoid an excessively negative outlook. I vote to keep alive in me the thought that my own ideas about our society might be wrong.

    Dave Christian

  8. I vote in central and local government elections. Not because I think my vote is likely to influence th outcome, although I guess there is always a very small chance of that being the case, but more because I enjoy the experience. I get a bit of a buzz out of being involved in the electoral process, no matter how minor my role is. And then of course there is always the entertainment factor of folk like Mr Hansen :)

    I will say, though, that if everyone had the attitude that there was no point voting, and hence chose not to, it would actually make it far more likely that an individuals vote would effect the outcome. That ought to cause a rise in votes, as people see some value in doing so. Then individual votes become less meaningful again, and so the cycle repeats. It is a bit like the predator/prey relationship in population biology, as prey numbers increase so do predators, until predation adversely effects prey numbers, which then start to decline, etc. The two curves are offset slightly, with a slight delay in the population curve of the predator relative to the prey curve, otherwise the system would reach a state of equilibrium.

    In a similar way one would expect voter turnout to at least partially be determined by the likely impact of an individual's vote. Of course other factors are at play for voters, such as importance of certain issues to individuals, and other irrational decision-making factors such as mine above. Interesting stuff though.

  9. @Lats: I think of it less as predator/prey and more as a mixed strategy equilibrium. Everyone having a 5% chance of voting (just roll d%!) would be an equilibrium.

  10. Another point... even if an election were close, the 'noise' of measurement uncertainty when counting ballots would be far greater than the 'signal' (that is, the true, slight, difference in vote totals for each candidate). Here in the US, the Gore/Bush 2000 vote totals in Florida could've been recounted 100 times and probably produced a different tally each time. So even if an election is close enough for a vote to matter, the result will not depend on any single vote so much as on sheer luck (and, perhaps, a judicial ruling).

    IMO, participation in elections gives implicit validation of the farce that voting has become. It shows that your vote can be 'bought' with the appropriate posturing on particular issues (the vast majority of which I find to be superficial). Once that's a given, there is no incentive for any candidate to attempt to deal with issues outside the scope of the status quo.

    Perhaps all conscientious abstainers should collectively declare that they withhold their votes until certain conditions are met? There would probably be multiple communities depending on philosophical views, but if enough people sign up (if there are enough progressives out there, for example) then it could provide a compelling motivation for novel issues to be introduced to the political forum, and for other issues to be discarded. Pie-in-the-sky, probably, but something worth striving for?

    Finally, I find that many voters are entirely apathetic in their decision-making process. Their voting decisions often appear to be based on media articles written at a 4th grade reading level, 30 second TV spots featuring prominent use of ad hom attacks, and debates that end up being nothing more than illustrations of fallacious argumentative techniques and misuses of statistics. Campaigns try to produce emotional resonance with citizens, not robust arguments examining or defending their position on an issue. There is no real debate, no meaningful dialog; there is merely venom and fury. That, above all else, is the greatest failing I find with politics. How can we expect our representatives to be reasonable and constructive when the public is neither?

    In any case, I wish all people were encouraged to critically consider whether voting is worthwhile or not... and I wish a quick death to the passive-aggressive peer-pressure 'get out the vote' campaigns that use the same propaganda techniques as the political ads that turn many people off from the process to begin with.

  11. I just don't want to give it my consent.

    I fail to see why not voting - in a country where you hold citizenship, pay taxes, and receive the many benefits of the society - including your income - in any way fails to give that society your consent.

    You can, after all, always move elsewhere.

    Of course, as little as twenty years ago, there was a tradition of academics, civil servants, military officers, and ranking police officers abstaining on principle - to remain nonpartisan - but that no longer holds, and is not in any way about "consent".

  12. @Anon: I moved to what I view as the most free country in the world for the bundle of freedoms about which I care most. There is nowhere else to go. Until Patri's seasteads are up and running, I suppose. I do not have citizenship, only permanent residence. That gives me the right to vote; I do not exercise that right.

    I'm happy to agree that failure to move when better options seem to exist gives some sign of preference. I've argued as much many many times. But once you're at the corner...