Wednesday 3 November 2010

Onanistic voting

Wilkinson argues the case for voting's rationality over at The Economist.
Unlike some benighted economists, I don't think voting is irrational. Individual participation in collective activities are perfectly rational when one has a taste for participation. Voting is a bit like clapping at the end of a performance or doing the wave at a baseball game. It affects the outcome not a whit whether or not you clap at the symphony or throw your arms in the air when the wave rolls around to the cheap seats. But most of us like to go along and we do. Nothing irrational about that!
I don't think any economist would argue that voting is irrational if done for the intrinsic joy of voting. But few voters go to the ballot box singing a tune about how they love standing in queues and pulling arms on machines; they really seem to think that it's important and that it makes a difference. If voting is performed as an instrumental act in pursuit of better policies, it's irrational.

Andrew Gelman says it's not necessarily irrational if you count up the benefits to all the other folks who are benefited by your changing policy. But what about all the people you harm by pushing outcomes away from what they'd prefer? Surely if your vote winds up being the decider between A and B, half the population is going to be pissed off at you, right? But suppose that you, the deciding voter, really have better knowledge and know which party's bundle of policies is better for the country as a whole. We're then relying on your willingness to provide public goods to make the voting act rational. And we already know that folks in large anonymous environments defect in provision of public goods. So it's pretty unlikely that that's what's going on.

I'll stick with voting as onanism. If done for its own sake, you can't call it irrational. But if you think it's productive activity, you're probably a bit nuts. We'll see how many Americans today prove that they're masters of their domain and how many are tempted by the seemingly attractive candidate across the street....


  1. It's a shame the tabloids don't cover social science blogging. Ohterwise we could look forward to articles along the lines of "Crampton calls Wilkinson and Gelman w**kers".

  2. Heh. More accurately, "Crampton, unlike Wilkinson and Gelman, says voters are w**kers".

  3. No. Too complicated, not personalized enough.