You can’t lose if you don’t play
Economists have long been puzzled by the phenomenon of people participating in lotteries. The numbers clearly show that lotteries are irrational and a waste of hope, but since even educated people often have a poor grasp of statistics that could be the culprit. A common delusion among gamblers is that that they “cracked the code” of predicting the outcome of lotteries, despite the inherent opacity and unpredictability of the results.
The government promotes lotteries under a narrative of ‘social benefit’; it’s clear that the benefits accrue solely to the government itself. Still, many people lean on that excuse to justify playing. Remarkably, people who play the lottery will often use social pressure to encourage their friends to join, despite the fact that each additional player on the margin reduces the effectiveness of the other tickets. Aside from that, lotteries are also notorious for sowing discord among friends, even within families!
I apologize for the typos. I wrote “playing the lottery” by accident, I meant to write “voting”.
Take a deep breath
Did you just seriously compare lotteries to voting?
Yes, and it’s a little unfair. Lotteries aren’t so bad, and people aren’t as delusional about them.
Why are we doing this strange Q&A format then?
Instead of a single story, this post will present several arguments and responses to counterarguments. This format makes it easier to follow.
Can I dismiss this entire post if I disagree with a single argument?
You may be tempted to do so if you immediately rejected my premise on an emotional level and you’ll gladly take any excuse to dismiss it without thinking about it seriously. I’d advise you to stick through it and focus on those arguments that you think have merit. A lot of people have never seen even a single good argument against voting in general elections in a democratic country. Even if I don’t convince you to forego voting you’ll still come out wiser.
What’s the point if I don’t change my mind?
The very last section of this post will present VAVA, an exciting new development in democracy technology from the Putanumonit labs. Even if you disagree with every single point in this post and remain convinced of the paramount importance of voting, VAVA is an alternative that you may be happy to embrace.
Are you saying that democracy is bad?
No! I mostly agree with Churchill on this one. I’m making a personal/marginal argument, not a national/universal one: as long as millions of your compatriots vote (and they always will), your personal choice to vote has precisely zero impact on national outcomes and a negative impact on personal outcomes.
Do you claim to present a balanced debate?
No, I will only argue against voting. The case for voting is already pressed by your friends, your school, your government, your national media and your Facebook, so I’m OK with presenting just one side.
What if I’m not American?
This post will use the US almost exclusively as an example because it’s the country I’m familiar with. Each reader can do a better job than I could of translating the arguments to the language and numbers of their own national political system. The conclusion doesn’t change.
Very roughly, the basic equation is:
Chance to decide election * Expected benefit of election = Benefit of voting
The chance to decide an election falls linearly with population (explanation below) and the expected benefit grows linearly, so the benefits of voting don’t really depend on population.
The odds be never in your favor
What are odds of my vote affecting the elections?
According to superstar sages of statistics Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman, in the US it’s about 1 in 10,000,000. This is not a pessimistic estimate either: Gelman is known for repeatedly arguing in defense of voting and in fact I will dedicate a lot of this essay to dispelling Gelman’s own reasoning.
Just how bad is 1 in 10 million?
It’s about as likely as dying from “misusing a right-handed product as a left handed person“, being struck by lightning this month and ironically, it’s exactly your odds of becoming a US president if you’re US-born. If you are willing to gamble for a minuscule chance of affecting national policy, doesn’t running for office yourself make more sense?
What if I know I’m in a swing state that’s split exactly 50-50?
The problem with this argument is that you can never know that your state is split exactly down the middle, and even a small deviation from a perfect split brings the chances of your vote mattering down to practically 0.
Assuming a simple random model of voter turnout, in a state of 10 million people even a 49.9%-50.1% split in the underlying electorate makes the chance of the actual vote turning out 50.0%-50.0% microscopic. This is a consequence of the law of large numbers: over many trials (votes) the results will adhere closely to the underlying average. The most you can tell about the underlying electorate is by looking at polls, and these have an error margin of 3%-5%. Since polls have consistent biases (e.g. only polling people with phone numbers), even aggregating a bunch of polls together can’t get you closer than 1%-2% to the actual distribution. Remember the closest presidential election in Western history? The polls showed Gore leading Bush by 4% in Florida a week before the vote.
Even if all the polls in your state show an exact 50-50 split, the most optimistic case is that the real split is somewhere between 49% and 51% and you can never tell exactly where you are within that range. If the real percentage voting for your candidate is 49.32% your vote doesn’t matter. If it’s 49.89% your vote doesn’t matter. If it’s 50.16%…
Even in the tightest range, the polls can give you there’s a tiny chance that you’re even in the tiny area where your vote has a non-astronomical chance of mattering. Seriously, you should run for office instead.
But if everyone followed your argument, nobody would vote and your argument would fail.
I’m only including this silly objection because I actually heard it from other people. Not voting isn’t a Kantian imperative, it’s advice for the smart readers of this blog. If you live in a state of 10 million people but the new season of House of Cards just dropped on election day and all but a few hundred people are stuck home binge watching it, then go ahead and vote!
If Gelman calculated that 1 in 10 million himself, why does he still defend voting as rational?
“Why” is a very interesting question. Here’s the man himself:
I’ll be voting in New York, where my vote has almost zero chance of making a difference, so why do I do it? Not for instrumentally rational reasons. I do it for the usual reasons of civic duty, supporting the legitimacy of the electoral process, etc. […] I’m not saying that all voting or even most voting is rational but that voting can be rational in many important settings.
Andrew Gelman is a world-class expert, I think that he writes the best current blog about statistics and I bought his book too. When an intelligent expert starts from a genuinely open question, he is more likely than others to reach the correct answer. But when the expert starts from a fixed conclusion, his expertise makes it all the easier to rationalize the conclusion and come up with arguments to support it, regardless of what it actually is.
Gelman knows he’s very rational, and he also knows that he votes, so just saying “I vote because it’s fun but not rational” isn’t wholly satisfying. To address this mild dissonance, it’s very tempting to come up with a story of how maybe sometimes it is rational to vote, and Oh-you-never-know.
I voted when I was 19, and then again when I was 23. Then I thought about it and did some math and looked around and decided that I’ll stop voting. I know that my arguments against voting at least convinced me, I don’t know if Gelman’s arguments ever convinced a single person.
So what is Gelman’s argument?
He’s suddenly pivoting away from rational self-interest and making the case that voting is actually an act of charity:
Consider the upcoming presidential race.
The two candidates have significantly different
policies, and it seems plausible that the
average benefit to the citizenry is $1000 or
more per citizen to have the better candidate
In New Mexico, the chance that a single
vote is decisive is roughly 1 in 6 million. Perhaps
that seems slim, but if you consider the
300 million people who would benefit from a
better choice, voting on the better candidate is
equivalent to giving roughly $50,000 to charity
(i.e., to others). In Colorado the value is
$30,000 per vote, as seen in the table […]
Likewise, there is little reason to vote if one
infers from the fact that the election is close,
that there is little net expected benefit to society
from one candidate over the other. However,
for the policy wonk who thinks he knows
better—and, really, don’t we all—voting can
make a lot of sense.
His argument is that if you know that one candidate is objectively better for everybody (i.e. like giving everyone in the country $1000), voting pays off. I’ll argue that no candidate is, and even if there was we wouldn’t know it.
I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing
Forget Socrates for a moment, did you just call me ignorant?
True, I know absolutely nothing about you, dear hypothetical-reader-whose-thoughts-I-am-actually-writing-myself. Let me explain to you why I, Jacob, know only that I know nothing.
One of my biggest “A ha!” moments in apprehending rationality is internalizing that bias research is about me, not other people. When scientists talk about the halo effect it means that I, Jacob, am more likely to vote for the taller and better-looking candidate even when I know the objective facts. When they talk about confirmation bias it means that I, Jacob, am going to ignore any negative aspects of my preferred policy/candidate and any positive aspects of the opposition.
And when scientists say that people aren’t smart enough for democracy, I agree: I am nowhere smart enough. No one is.
But Jacob, you read [insert favorite newspaper] and watch [insert favorite news channel]!
Unfortunately, the goal of [TV channel] to get ratings, not to uncover objective truths, let alone make accurate predictions. Even if political channels tried to be accurate, it would be very hard to judge them. Is anyone going to remember what TV pundits predicted about the effects of minimum wage on employment 5 years from now?
Let’s look at a much simpler world: business news. Channels like CNBC and Bloomberg do make predictions all the time, these predictions are quickly testable (i.e. the stock goes up or down) and they don’t gain from distorting factual truths. A few months ago all the business papers and TV channels were intensely covering Twitter’s CEO search. Twitter is a simple company of 3,900 employees, it’s financial and operational information is public, and its CEO has a single mission: increase share price. Surely an educated person watching CNBC can easily predict the effect of each CEO candidate on Twitter’s share price and make a gajillion dollars! And yet, no one does.
The American government is unfathomably complex, employs 22 million citizens and impacts 300 million others, the president is judged by a thousand different measures and knows thousands of things the public doesn’t. Thinking that I can predict which candidate is objectively better for America when I can’t begin to do the same for Twitter is simply delusional.
Twitter is only unpredictable relative to efficient markets, the collective wisdom prices it correctly.
That’s precisely my point. Efficient markets mean that the correct share price in light of all available information is the current price, and the current price is the one at which an equal number of people want to buy and sell the stock.
In other words, It’s not possible to be smarter than the share price for which 50% of investors “vote” that is should be lower (by trying to sell the stock) and 50% “vote” that it should be higher (by trying to buy the stock). So if 50% of the population say that Candidate Red is better and 50% say that Nominee Blue is better, you can’t know which one is actually better.
Here’s how the equilibrium is achieved: there are about 200 million people who are eligible to be president of the US. Some would be great presidents, the vast majority would suck as president and a few would be apocalyptic. Mysterious machinations beyond your ken reduce that number from 200 million to a couple dozen who would do about equally well as presidents (compared to the variance in presidential ability in the general population), and then more processes that you hear about but aren’t really involved with reduce that number to 2 or 3. 2 out of 200,000,000! By election day, the process of narrowing down the variance in the quality of presidential candidates has 99.9999% already taken place. Even where quality isn’t objective there’s an inevitable pressure on each candidate to squeeze in tight to the median voter anyway until most of their positions converge (but whatever small differences remain are amplified by the media).
Look, someone posted an article by [insert favorite pundit] on Facebook.
It has been shown time and again that pundits don’t know more than anyone, and they’re only selling you what you want to hear because you only listen to those you already agree with. You are living in an unavoidable filter bubble.
39% of Americans are in favor of banning gay marriage, that’s 120 million people! Yet among the hundreds of people in my broad social circle (university, work, friends, sports, family) I have heard exactly one person express that opinion openly. Dozens of my Facebook friends lament daily about the horror of the millions of Donald Trump’s supporters, and yet they don’t personally know a single one, and I barely do.
I actually make some effort to avoid the bubble. I have about 15 Facebook friends whom I keep only because they share political opinions that are loathsome to me, including a few that post hateful things about my ethnicity and nationality, just to know what they think. And despite this effort, I am still mostly cut off from the voices of half the country I live in. I can claim to be educated, but I can’t remotely claim to be objective. And I certainly can’t claim to be tolerant.
What if you ignore the people and parties and impersonally look at the actual policy proposals?
Not only will I not know which policies are better (cf. Twitter), I don’t even know which will get implemented! Tracking shows that Obama fulfilled only 45% of his campaign promises, and I’m sure that the hit rate is no better or worse for other presidents. Obama famously promised to pull all soldiers out of Afghanistan and didn’t, what does that tell me? It tells me that it must be the obviously correct decision! The president has information that I will never see, expert advisors that I will never hear from and the experience to decide such matters. For these decisions, no matter who the president is I have to assume that he makes a more informed decision than I could in my armchair. If went against his prior promise at cost to himself, that means that his reasons must be even sounder and the decision even more obvious!
What about the promises that got fulfilled? A majority of them are ones with broad bipartisan support – but those would have happened no matter who’s in charge because they have broad support.
Some policies are controversial: Obama will be remembered for his management of the economic recovery, the Iran deal and the Affordable Care Act. Three years after the latter was implemented, public opinion of ACA is still almost perfectly split with a slight majority of people opposing it. The same is true for the recovery and the Iran deal. ACA (Obamacare) is a clear-cut policy with immediate and personal impact and people can’t agree if it was good or bad three years after it happened. Does anyone still think it’s reasonable to predict which controversial policies will benefit the country in advance?
Politics considered harmful
OK, forget figuring out policies that are objectively good for everybody. What about value issues, like abortion? Surely your values are just and kind while these nasty [baby killers / religious zealots] are evil?
No, my enemies aren’t evil. People probably tumble into their stance on abortion as a result of the social environment they grew up in and not as a result of years of moral contemplation, but their position seems as just and kind to them as their opponents’ does. I can empathize with the anguish of honestly believing that babies with immortal souls are being murdered every day with the blessing of your own government. I can empathize with the horror of knowing that an unwanted child is growing inside you that your government will force you to carry to term and devote 18 years to raising. Maybe one is worse than the other, but both are really really horrible. Whom I can’t sympathize with are people dismissing their opponents as evil mutants, isn’t lack of empathy itself the source of all evil?
I’m not arguing for moral relativism. Even if abortions were all I cared about, I could just volunteer at Planned Parenthood or volunteer to stand outside an abortion clinic with picket signs for the hour it took me to vote, guaranteeing a much bigger positive impact in the direction I want. Voting, like sharing on Facebook, is a moral sinkhole: it makes you feel that you’ve done your good deed for the day and significantly lowers your motivation to actually do something good.
Opinion change on a national scale too, and when they do they carry policy regardless of who’s in office. 10 years ago 60% of Americans were against gay marriage, now 60% are in favor. This was caused by advocacy, exposure and by the simple process of old people dying off and younger people growing up more accepting of LGBTQ. At 60-40 and rising, national gay marriage was inevitable whether by state or by court. The “losing side” doesn’t feel like as much that they were unfairly cheated since the tide so clearly turned against them. Had the president tried to amend the constitution for gay marriage when the public was 50-50, it would have resulted in a riotous shitstorm instead of relatively peaceful acceptance.
The worst topics for “value voting” are those that split the electorate 50-50 and in which partisanship is reinforced by ignorance. Imagine that tomorrow a major paper writes that dogs kill 32 Americans a year and a national debate starts on dog ownership. Some people want to ban pit bulls and rottweilers, or all dogs above 50 pounds, or require background checks of people buying dogs. On the other side, people argue that deer kill more people than poodles, that Finland has a higher average dog weight and fewer bite fatalities, and that if you’re not required to be licensed to own a lethal toaster you shouldn’t be to own a dog.
The bottom line is that nobody sees the entire picture about dogs, everyone thinks they know something different, and everyone talks past each other. Some people deeply love dogs, and some people are deeply afraid of dogs, and each side is using politics to bully their opponents.
The original argument was that voting is irrational if you’re doing it for selfish reasons, but the tiny odds are multiplied if you consider it as charity. If you want to vote to enforce a value or norm that half of your compatriots oppose, you’re being ineffectively selfish and an asshole to half your country. Charity shouldn’t be politics, and politics isn’t charity.
Fine, I’ll be selfish then. What’s the personal harm in voting?
You are likelier to die in a car crash.
Politicization leads to stupidity, stupidity leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.
Politics is the mind killer. We evolved in an environment in which politics were a contest of force to decide life and death, not an enlightened debate. It takes a lot of remove to be able to discuss political issues at least somewhat reasonably and dispassionately. Once you’ve sacrificed your own time to vote, you are no longer at a remove. You have enlisted in an army, you gave up objectiveness, and you primed your brain to cultivate a blind hate of people who are otherwise your friends and neighbors.
I have seen a close and friendly class in my American university torn apart by the 2012 election. I have seen otherwise cordial and intelligent people unfriend and break contact with dozens of classmates over Obama and Romney. Is the personal impact of either of those dudes taking office really worse than losing 50 friends?
You know how I tolerate all those obnoxious political posts on my Facebook wall? By repeating the simple mantra: no one cares what I think, and no one cares what they think either. I immediately feel a surge of warm, Zen like calm. Can you imagine how wonderful your life could be if political arguments made you peacefully contented instead of angry?
I think of politics like I do of weather. Maybe I prefer a sunny day and I don’t like rain, but rain doesn’t cause my blood to boil – I just grab an umbrella. Think how much worse each rainy day would be for a person who doesn’t see it as part of nature but as a result of an evil conspiracy of rain-worshippers. Imagine if you couldn’t be friends with people who liked clouds, and were engaged in endless debates on the merits of various policies of atmosphere humidity. If I find the rain intolerable I can probably move to a sunnier place, but shouting at the clouds will leave me enraged, bitter and just as wet as everyone else.
But if you don’t vote you can’t complain!
Of course I can! Everyone is free to complain! I can complain about the rain as well, and with precisely equal results to complaining about politics. Honestly, I wish I actually wasn’t allowed to complain. Gratitude increases happiness and grievance causes stress, especially grievances about things beyond our control. If I really couldn’t complain about politics it would be a feature of not voting, not a bug.
Tomorrow is the midterm elections. It’s very important, so don’t forget to head down to your local polling place and cancel out your dad’s vote.
– Seth Meyers
Thank you for sticking with me through 4,000 words, dear reader, especially if you violently disagreed with everything I wrote so far. If you don’t believe the statistics of a vote mattering, if you think that Twitter and America are easy to understand and if you know that your values are the pinnacle of moral progress, I’m glad you’re still here. I don’t know if I changed any minds, perhaps only offered some comfort to those who believe in voting but just couldn’t find the time to get around to it last November. Here’s an idea we can all embrace regardless of our attitudes about politics or meta-politics, inspired by Seth Meyers and particle physics: the Vote Anti-Vote Annihilation principle, or VAVA.
You have a friend, or a relative, maybe it’s your roommate. Decent person by all accounts, but you just can’t get over their politics: they just naturally gravitate to the candidate you least want to see elected, who has the exact wrong stand on every issue. Election week is a dangerous time to spend with them: while you’ve usually learned to avoid any conversation that might veer into politics, it’s harder to do the same as voting day nears.
The solution is simple. Come election day you make a pact with your buddy: instead of voting, you’ll both spend the day bowling together. As long as you can both credibly threaten to vote for the other’s hated candidate otherwise, the political impact of canceling each other’s vote is the same as if both of you voted. The total voter turnout will be lower, but that’s actually a positive: maybe seeing a low turnout will spur someone to run for office who isn’t part of the usual old band of nincompoops. Just think of the upside: you saved time, had fun, and most importantly you leveraged election day to bring you and your friend closer together instead of driving a wedge in your relationship. VAVA professionals will utilize this powerful tool on election day to rekindle marital bliss and reconnect with recalcitrant parents or children.
Politicians, aides, pundits, activists, journalists, lobbyists: these people affect politics and benefit from it. Leave it to them. Next election day you can break the ritual, grab your friend and give me a call – I vote for bowling.