Wednesday 9 February 2011

No, it can't!

Andrew Gelman again argues that voting can be rational where your one-in-a-million shot of affecting the outcome is matched by the massive benefits you bring to everyone who's benefitted by your changing the outcome:
If your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for 300 million people. If you think your preferred candidate could bring the equivalent of a $50 improvement in the quality of life to the average American--not an implausible hope, given the size of the Federal budget and the impact of decisions in foreign policy, health, the courts, and other areas--you're now buying a $1.5 billion lottery ticket. With this payoff, a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive isn't bad odds.

And many people do see it that way. Surveys show that voters choose based on who they think will do better for the country as a whole, rather than their personal betterment. Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish, but if you care how others are affected, it's a smart calculation to cast your ballot, because the returns to voting are so high for everyone if you are decisive. Voting and vote choice (including related actions such as the decision to gather information in order to make an informed vote) are rational in large elections only to the extent that voters are not selfish.
I'm totally on board with Andrew that voters are more inclined to vote sociotropically than egocentrically - altruism at the ballot box seems very likely. But I'm not sure that irrationality hasn't come in through the back door here.

Gelman has turned voting into a positive expected value lottery by assuming that your vote changes the outcome for the good, providing benefits for everybody in the country on average. Or, at least, that each voter estimates as much.

But surely, if you're the decisive voter, half of all other voters think that you're changing things for the worse! Put in uncertainty over whether you're providing a $50 benefit for everyone else or imposing a $50 cost and the case for rational voting disappears: the altruistic benefits diminish to zero if you're as likely to prevent as to provide benefits.

Now maybe it's the case that you're the one that's rational and has private knowledge about the great benefits that will be achieved if only your preferred party is elected. But that's only the case because half of all voters are imposing large probabilistic costs through their votes. And how can you be so sure that you're not one of the bad half? After all, none of the folks in the bad half are chortling about how they're going to make the country worse off than your team. They're saying your team's guy will make things worse. Isn't it as likely that you're self-deceiving about the merits of your vote as that they are? Voting is then only rational because of your irrationally high assessment of the quality of your vote!

The first footnote in Gelman's paper:
A failure to update [based on others' expected votes] reflects that the voter feels strongly enough about which candidate is best for the country that his or her mind will not be changed simply because the majority of voters disagree. In this framework, the two groups of voters in an election do not represent competing interests but rather competing perspectives about what is best for the country.

Can you have rational voters each of whose priors are sufficiently strong that they discount all information contained in the numbers lining up for other candidates? Could I consider myself rational for discounting all the "round earth" proponents if my priors on "flat earth" are sufficiently strong?

I think that Gelman's mechanism requires that the voter place himself in an epistemically privileged position.

Gelman disagrees in the comments to his original post:
I think you're overthinking things here. In an election with two options, some people will think candidate A is better for the country, others will think candidate B is better. And of course others won't give a damn at all. If you prefer A or B, sure, if you're sane you'll realize you might be wrong, but your preference is still there in expectation. For example, maybe I'm pretty sure that A is better than B, but I think there's a 20% chance I'm wrong. That's like any decision problem: the existence of uncertainty does not imply indifference. Nowhere did I say that I know I'm right, and in a decision problem there's no need to assume certainty. Not at all.

Regarding heterogeneous preferences: most political issues are not like abortion where people have completely opposing goals. A vast majority of Americans want peace and prosperity, but people have different ideas about how to get there.

Finally, my argument applies to all voters who have a preference. Nobody is privileged, it's just that people disagree about who should represent them in public office. There's a disagreement so we have an election. And the same argument applies to any sort of political participation, including campaign contributions, letters to your congressmember, etc.
Let's reduce it entirely to disagreement about whether A or B is more likely to achieve our shared goal. That half the population disagrees with me (if I'm the pivotal voter) about which party is best requires that I place myself in an epistemically superior position relative to other voters in order to tally up these really big expected net benefit numbers. Suppose before I look at polling data, I figure that Party A will make the country per capita $100 better off relative to Party B. After I look at polling data, I see that half the population reckons $100 per capita net benefit of A and the other half says $100 per capita net benefit of B. I can only continue to maintain my position if I discount all the information in the other half's preferences. And I can only do that if I think I (and the folks on my side) am way better informed than the folks on the other side. And each voter will have to think that. They can't all be right.

Suppose that I do reckon, rationally, that I'm in an epistemically superior position relative to the median voter. In that case, I should vote if I'm altruistic and have a decent enough chance of winning. But what if I see a whole pile of other smart people lined up on the other side? We're then back to the same problem again. I have to fail to update based on their beliefs if I want to estimate large per capita net benefits based on my choice. And I'm not sure such failure to update is consistent with rationality. There's a theorem about that. But that theory also says I shouldn't disagree with Andrew Gelman. I'll put it this way then: I agree with him that altruistic voters who do not update their beliefs based on observing others' vote preferences can vote rationally, if such failure to update is rational. But any updating based on observing other intelligent voters' disagreements about which choice is best ought to erode the expected net benefits of voting sufficiently to make such voting again a loser on a cost-benefit assessment - or at least no more rational than buying lotto tickets in hopes of being able to make a large charitable contribution.

I'll stick with my assessment of voters tendencies and my reasons for not voting.


  1. Eric, I think I understand the reasoning behind the argument that you, Bryan Caplan, Don B. etc advance. But surely there is a danger that many of the 'rational' non-voters are likely to collectively discard their votes. In this scenario the aggregate effect is that 'rational' individuals are marginalized in the democratic process. It is most likely to be libertarian / classic liberals that are thus affected. How do you reconcile advocating for a real Liberal Party in your other posts with conscientious non-voting? the one seems to doom the other (Yes - I arrogantly assume that rationality towards voting is common amongst people of this leaning)

    - Dennis

  2. @Denis: Voting in that case is like contributing to a public good, right? You trivially increase the chance of your side winning but incur all the costs of voting. Abstention remains rational. But I also recognize that a lot of people get a lot of jollies from the act of voting and they're going to go out and do it. It would be nice if they had a properly liberal party for which to vote. And I think that there's space among the set of current voters for a competent liberal party to succeed.

  3. I don't know if there's something about the concept of 'rationality' as used in economics that I don't understand, but I would have thought that the most rational voter would be the selfish one who is a member of a large cohort of voters who share the same selfish interest (e.g. the elderly). Selfish voters are well-informed about what policies will benefit them personally, whereas the altruistic voter is probably usually not that well-informed about what will genuinely benefit others.

    Hence I don't understand Gelman's statement that, “Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish.”

    Also, I am a little astounded that anyone believes that voters are more likely to be altruistic than selfish. The evidence is all around us that that is not the case, and this evidence takes the form of unneeded benefits that accrue to the elderly and the middle class, but not so much to poor children.

  4. @dragonfly: Young people aren't much less likely to support Medicare and old age pension systems than are old people. Maybe you could tell a self-interest story about wanting to be able to dump grandma on the state rather than having to take care of her, but altruism is the more plausible explanation. Overall unemployment rates are better predictors of incumbent support than personal unemployment status. Again, you could build a self-interest story around it but the altruistic one is more plausible. The tragedy is that most of the altruistic preferences are satisfied by "showing you care" rather than figuring out which policies actually work.