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.
If you live in a country where it is already common knowledge that voting is a sham, please enjoy this post as an opportunity to laugh at Westerners and our delusions.
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 dog metaphor is shamelessly stolen from this brilliant piece by Popehat and yes, attitudes on “dogs” are 50-50 in the USA.
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.
76 thoughts on “Vote Against”
“Obama famously promised to pull all soldiers out of Afghanistan and didn’t, what does thattell me?”
There’s a typo in there.
“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.” is a great takeaway.
I myself was flirting with the idea of maybe one day running on the local elections, but in the end decided that that does’nt have much impact either, despite lower voter turnouts. (If I wanted to replicate the case of Bell, Californa, on the other hand)
Empathy also helped me with the malady of having strong opinions on abortion (amongst other things. Although in my locale, you are by no means required to raise till 18. We have baby hatches where you can deposit your unwanted children. I don’t know the exact split on opinions either here, or in the USA, but if liberally sprinkling the country with baby hatches (or any other direct solution of the percieved issues, as opposed to debating on the morality of either action) would satisfy pro-lifer’s desire of not aborting children, and pro-choicer’s desire of not having to raise children, I’m all for it. (As it stands, I think allegations of murder are much more serious than allegations of being forced to carry out a child, but if it was a choice between that, and 18 years of forced parenthood, I myself may turn pro-choice. (My current stance is that it does’nt matter that much, I fully subscribe to the view that life’s worth is on a spectrum which allows for a born healthy animal to rank higher than an unborn or comatose human, but 9(-detection, -nonsucky period of pregnancy) months does’nt seem THAT much to ask for, especially since our population is in sharp decline, we have a pool of willing adopters, and my government already went all in on all kinds of corveeish things. Of course, I have no experience in what being pregnant entails. ‘Course, I stand by H+ish ideas, and ownership of your own body, all that… so the malease caused by internal inconsistency prevents strong opinions either way)))
Also, VAVA and going somewhere with them other people, and actually getting to know them, as opposed to willfully distancing yourself, that’s something I can stand behind.
I hope you do not imply my voting for Trump is not the objectively right choice.
Have a good not-writing-for-two-weeks time! (Though, I would assume since posts have this pesky habit of not writing themselves, and you saying mid-january…)
“Baby hatches” sounds a little ominous but you’re making a great point regardless! An effective national system of adoptions and/or well run orphanages could be a great solution or it could be a crappy solution, but as long as people are blinded by hatred for the other side on abortion debates no one even stop to think of third alternatives.
I agree with your overall argument and have abstained from voting for years, but the bit in the middle about specific policies and presidential decisions strikes me as wrong- maybe I’ve been reading too much Bryan Caplan lately.
Take an issue like free trade- public is somewhere around 50-50, but professional economists are more like 95-5 if we’re being conservative. I’d say if we’re trying to make the best decision, we should just listen to the economists and disregard the public’s opinion as not as informed enough. President’s probably do this to a degree when making decisions, but they still have their eyes on future elections, approval ratings and campaign contributions and can’t disregard the public (or special interests) entirely even though there might be times when that would probably be beneficial if we’re just trying to make the best decision. For this reason, I believe there are probably some issues where moderately well informed people could knowingly make better decisions than the president.
Love the site by the way, just discovered it today via Scott Alexander.
I don’t disagree that presidents make suboptimal decisions, it just means that trying to affect decisions by voting for presidents is even more pointless. If you want to affect trade policy in light of economics research you can become an economist, a lobbyist, or run for senate.
Regarding free trade, Obama did manage to sneak in the TPP agreement while 99% of Americans were too busy talking about culturally sensitive Halloween costumes to notice :)
You should really look at Jacques Ranciere’s ‘Hatred of Democracy’ (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hatred-Democracy-Jacques-Ranciere/dp/1844670988). He would argue that democracy is lottery tout court and this a logical move from a premise of everybody has an equal right to rule.
Beware absentee ballot treachery.
The tragedy of the commons is a well know well studied well modeled situation in game theory. If you are doing a numbers blog you should know game theory to at least a college / coursera level. It sounds like you don’t.
You also don’t engage at all with empirical observations. How does lifespan across wealthy developed democracies vary with voting percentages? Median income? Happiness? How do those vary across groups within the US compared with voting rates?
A numbers blog should engage with the numerical models for the subject at issues and with the actual measurable numbers relating to it. This post does not live up to what the about page promises.
I’m always happy after writing a 4,000 word post to receive feedback that the post should’ve been 10,000 instead!
I appreciate your support :)
Initial emotional response: Not voting is free-riding. Someone has to do it. Might as well count myself among that number.
I wonder if that’s how people feel about religious rituals. “The mighty Ra makes the sun shine, so if I don’t join everybody in worshiping at the temple of Ra I’m a free rider!” In reality, it just feels good to go along when everybody is doing something, regardless of it’s usefulness. ;-)
When I change my engine oil at home, a cost benefit analysis tells me that I may as well pour the used oil down the storm drain, since that small amount of oil makes almost zero difference to anything or anybody. I’d be more likely to die in a car accident if I brought it in for proper disposal. As long as other people do the appropriate thing with their oil, I can do what is best for me. I think I’ll also start fabricating my tax forms, grazing my cattle on public lands, not picking up my dog’s poop, and throwing my cigarette butts out the window.
Would you agree that these are all rational decisions (as long as no one is watching) based on the argument laid out here? Or am I missing something?
Polluting, cheating on taxes and stealing public resources hurts your neighbors. Not voting… just makes their votes count for more! Here’s why I keep repeating that you shouldn’t vote on the margin! If everyone stopped voting it would suck (maybe?) as badly as if everyone stopped picking up dog poop, but you’d much rather see your neighbor clean up after their dog than see them vote.
Maybe I’ve missed something important in this post but the difference is in the consequences on voting and a religious ritual of universalising this behaviour. What happens if nobody engages in the religious ritual and nobody votes? Well, in the absence of the ritual, we can say with fairly high confidence that the sun will still rise. If voter turnout is 0%, that’s self-evidently a catastrophe… but so too is turnout below at least 50% because we are then operating in a self-professed democratic system where a minority of people are making decisions about the rights of the majority of people.
So, what then? We could throw democracy out the window. If we argue that not voting is something of an altruistic decision in that it raises the value of all other votes, and take this to its conclusion (not to an absurd conclusion, mind you), aren’t you really arguing that we should all cede our votes to each other until only one person remains who makes all the decisions about how we run society? Okay, it might be more effective and less inefficient but it ignores the fact that self-governance and self-determination are necessary parts of a functioning pluralist nation.
Perhaps this argument holds more water when you have a voting system as anachronistic as that of the USA but in other parts of the world – such as my home, Australia – all elections are done by way of candidate preferences. If there are eight candidates, you number each one from 1 to 8 in order of which you prefer. There can’t be any such thing in our system as a wasted vote because you have expressed your view on every single candidate. It’s not perfect in the sense that people will still vote based on incorrect information, a lack of information or a lack of skill at interpreting information. Yet, that’s why most of us live in LIBERAL democracies – liberal because they are democracies bundled with checks and balances that are supposed to stop corruption, tyranny and bad decision-making from being the outcomes of democratic votes. If those outcomes arise more often than we are willing to accept, it might be more valuable for us to examine the ‘liberal’ part of the equation, rather than the ‘democracy’ part.
Again, I feel like this is obvious and that I must have misinterpreted your approach on it – but my background is law and public policy, so it’s possible that I just came at it from a different angle to you.
Doesn’t your analogy between a stock at equilibrium and a political issue polling at 50/50 conflate a policy’s popularity with its effectiveness? It seems to support the view that you can’t tell in advance whether a policy could be made to fly with the electorate, not whether or not it would have (beneficial effect) according to (metric). In the case of the ACA, for example, the 50/50 polling doesn’t tell us that 50% of people judge it to be ineffective, it tells us 50% of people dislike it for all manner of reasons — to pick one, they might think that it *does* effectively do what it sets out to do, but that government should not be intervening to affect outcomes in either direction as a matter of principle.
Of course, if its unpopularity endures in the medium term, there is a high risk a future president will modify or outright repeal it. However even in this case, whatever benefit or harm it has visited on the people in the meantime will remain done.
Yeah, that part seemed flawed to me too. Votes aren’t fungible, so arbitrage does not occur, dumb people and smart people all get one vote only.
It’s true that popularity doesn’t equal effectiveness, but it’s a better guide than “my opinion = effectiveness”. Are you the only person who supports all policies purely on total utilitarian benefit while everyone else is biased? Besides, if someone prefers to pay a bit more for health insurance for the sake of keeping a small government isn’t that a legitimate preference?
You appear to use the term “the elections” as if it meant “The general election for U.S. President”, though the same ballot generally includes many other candidates for local, state and Congressional positions that arguably have more impact on our lives, as well as local initiatives such as borrowing a train load of money to build a stadium. Is the chance of influencing any of those also, equally, one in ten maximajillion or am I missing something?
Yeah, I wanted to ask the same thing. City councils in Germany are usually selected by pure proportional systems. At the last election in my home town, about 300 votes could “buy” a seat and city councillors have a lot of influence over stuff that has an immediate impact on me personally (bus stops, library opening hours, …). I’d assume that at least there voting could prove beneficial. In general, I’d like to know your opinion on legislative bodies which are elected by proportional systems or other (cooler) voting systems.
The chance of influencing an election roughly grows linearly with population, and your chance isn’t 0 only if the vote is likely to be close OR in a finely grained proportional system. On the other hand, in a proportional system the difference between the outcomes is usually tiny. Does having 8 or 9 representatives out of 40 in a city council really make that much of a difference in the lives of your neighbors? I assume that the impact scales with population as well, so I don’t think it’s worth the bother either way. Also, are you really that informed about the politics of your local town that you know what’s best for everyone? If you are, you can probably affect more change by other means than casting a vote that’s worth the same tiny bit as everyone else’s.
“I assume that the impact scales with population”.
No, the impact on you personally doesn’t.
Right, we are talking about the impact on everyone else because I’m arguing against the “voting as charity” point.
While I personally don’t vote, I worry that arguments such as this would influence some types of voters more than others were they to become popularized. Rather than not vote and explain to others why I am not voting, I choose to not vote and quietly enjoy the benefits of that decision. This also means I am targeted with less social ostracism by the irrational.
Great article. I live in Ireland in the largest population area, i.e. Dublin city, Ireland uses proportional representation. We have a general election coming up. Should I bother voting?
Lou, see my reply to shacklesburst above. I don’t know much about Irish politics despite tearing through two Paul Murray novels in the last month. With that said, unless the elections are literally Voldemort vs. Gandhi, the polls project a race too tight to call, the voting block is below 100,000 and you don’t have any friends who will get angry at your vote then I’d still say you should go bowling :)
I’m a fan of the idea that voting is communication. You have an opinion, and voting is your chance to communicate it to the government and your fellow citizens. A good use of this opportunity is to strike a balance between voting for someone with a well known political stance (thus making for clear/loud communication), and someone with whom you mostly agree (thus making for accurate communication). Trying to vote-to-win for “the lesser of two evils” makes for a boring message, you have skewed your weighting so far toward clearness/volume that you have washed out all precision. Better to vote independent, with no hope of winning. At least then you send a clearer message about your views.
Well said. I think that the benefit of communicating your opinions through a vote can have a significant impact on policy, even if it has negligible impact on who gets elected. For instance, most analysts seem to think that Trump has a very low chance of winning the nomination. And yet, if I were a Trump supporter then it would definitely be rational to vote for him in the primary, since that shifts the Overton window strongly away from the previous status quo, where his brand of xenophobia would have been considered highly improper. Likewise, for a general election the popular vote is completely irrelevant to the election, but it does signal future politicians on what policies are likely to gain support.
There are two types of Americentric articles: those that don’t realise that countries other than the US exist, and those that do but assume the same conclusions without research.
I’ll happily participate in VAVA if you’re happy to pay my fine for not voting.
PS. I don’t drive.
What does it tell you about the rationality of voting if your government (Australia?) has to use threats to get you out to vote?
That it is a communal benefit rather than a personal one. Same as with any other fine.
I think voting has important effects outside of the result. Politicians pay attention to who votes and what they think. Therefore if for example I’m a young person and I vote that means that politicians are more likely to pay attention to issues that I care about. I would argue that the voter turnout numbers might be more important than the results. Simply showing you are paying attention seems good.
Cool name, bro.
How does your government know if you voted or not, and what your age is? Whatever the voter turnout numbers are they are they same with or without you. The chance that your vote is the one that pushes the turnout in someone’s mind from “low” to “high” is the same as the chance of your vote flipping the election, only the impact is so much tinier.
So your argument is based on the idea that you can never be confident in your personal opinion on a contentious political issue, given that the people with the opposite opinion are just as moral and educated… and your conclusion is that it’s right to abstain from an act, when you yourself admit that there’s almost a complete consensus that this act is a moral duty? Something’s fishy.
Your long argument against the ‘charity’ argument for voting (really just the overall social benefit argument) seems like a very roundabout way of just saying that your confidence in the correctness of your views is too high.
Your credences are your credences so if you do the math and it says that the expected population benefit is greater than the cost to you of voting then it is rational to vote. If not no.
I could have just told you “hey, your credences about political questions are way too extreme, adjust them closer to 50-50” but why would you have listened? If there was a single argument here that you haven’t thought of it should have done something to change your credences. If it didn’t, I hope you were at least entertained for 10 minutes :)
I agree with you and have never voted and do not plan to in the future.
There are very few things that I would care about enough to bother with a one in ten million chance of getting them, and determining the next President is not one of them. I think this is probably true of most people, and if people say this is their motive, they are deceiving themselves, and their real motive is probably something like recreation, much like having a political argument online.
I think figuring out the real underlying motivations of people is the most fascinating thing. Unfortunately I can’t claim any more authority in that field than the next armchair psychologist :)
I just came up with a theory about lottery psychology when writing my new post. Why do people need to pay $10 to fantasize about a lottery win instead of daydreaming for free about launching a billion dollar start up? Perhaps it’s the feeling that indulging in fantasies is shameful, but paying for it “grants permission” because they actually “earned it”.
People may feel that yelling about politics is shameful when it’s not “earned” by voting. That could be the core of the “if you don’t vote you can’t complain” argument. A shameful action is offset by paying for it – the Catholic church spun that sentiment into a lucrative business model!
If smart people systematically stop playing lotto we’re fine.
If smart people systematically stop voting we’re screwed.
Great article – I have never voted due to some of these reasons. Incidentally, your VAVA system is already in long-standing use in various parliaments, included the US House of Representatives and the UK House of Commons. Called ‘pairing’, members on opposing sides agree to abstain. However it does rely on both people sticking to this agreement. In the 1970s a UK government fell due to a single vote resulting from the failure of a pairing arrangement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pair_(parliamentary_convention)#United_Kingdom
Cool, I didn’t know that.
If you’re a member of parliament your vote does count and does impact you personally, I was thinking of VAVA more in terms of simple people. Anyway, if the British MP had taken his rival to bowling instead of just relying on handshake agreements, this would’ve been avoided :)
An overall convincing article, but these questions have stuck with me for days after first reading it:
1. What if you approach voting not as a option for trying to change the world through the wisdom of Bayesiamism, but as something you feel good about doing?
2. What about using your vote not to vote for the lesser nincompoop, but to help draw attention to a third-party candidate like Zoltan Istvan of the Transhumanist Party?
3. By voting, you signal to politicians that your demographic votes and henceforth deserves consideration when making policy. The more people in your demographic that vote for anything, whether it be Trump or Istvan, (eg 18 year olds, psych residents) the more the establishment knows it has to care about your views (deinflating the price of college, reforming medical regulations) if it wants your support. By not voting, you signal “My cohort does not care about the country one way or another, therefore you should focus on appeasing the baby boomers that do vote. Is it not worth it to turn in a ballot for the purpose of showing that you wish to be represented in democracy as well?
4. Why are you so quick to dismiss the “if everybody did X, we’d be in trouble” argument? Isn’t that what most of morality and society is based on?
5. What about important primaries and/or local elections?
1. Hey, do what feels good. I was only arguing against people treating voting as some sacred duty, especially those that harangue their friends who abstain. Some people use nipple clamps to get off, some people vote, I ain’t judging.
2-3. Standing on your rooftop and shouting “Zoltan, take me with you to the glorious future!” is also a signal, and a stronger one than voting. Some people may hear you shouting, but no one is going to notice if 145,605,323 people voted for Hillary or 145,605,322. No matter what your political hopes are, there are much better ways to use 30 minutes of your time to promote them than voting.
4. Should you not withdraw money from your bank because if everyone did it the financial system would crash? Only Kantian morality, which few people strictly adhere to, argues from “what if everyone did this”. I think Kant misses the distinction between the impact of an action on aggregate and on the margin. Polluting is bad on aggregate and on the margin. Not voting is only bad on aggregate. When everyone in a society has an incentive to do something harmful on aggregate (like not pay taxes), society must organize a system to make people do the right thing. With voting, plenty of people do decide to vote already, so there’s no need for society to force people to vote and no moral argument for it.
5. See a comment above. Your chance of affecting the election scales with the number of people voting, but so does the impact on the population, so the expected value of your vote stays pretty much the same. It would take an election in a tiny polity (like a town of 20,000) in which there’s a huge difference between candidates and a reasonable chance that the vote splits 50-50 for voting to be justified for reasons of expected impact on yourself and others.
My own rationalization for voting is that I’m not a special snowflake. Whatever aspects of my thought that lead to my decision about voting are probably not unique: other people will be thinking about the issue similarly to me.
This means that whatever decision I make on voting, I make this choice not only for myself, but for everyone else who thinks the same way as I do about voting, and whoever they can convince to vote, too. So I don’t think the “1 in 10 million” chance is quite correct, by this reasoning*.
Another reason I choose to vote is that I’m pretty committed to not being complicit in tragedies of the commons that can be avoided by a small effort. This is why I vote for third parties that best represent me. It’s the people who do this small effort that help start the movements, too: third parties are much more likely to gain traction if they’ve got a base of black sheep who will vote for them even knowing that they’ll lose.
Even with this reasoning, my vote will still usually not mean much, but I wouldn’t count on myself to recognize when it will, so I vote every time.
As for the “politics considered harmful” part of the post, I’ll mostly agree, except that you can vote and still not get too worked up about politics. Your mantra of “no one cares what I think, and no one cares what they think either” can be used whether or not you vote.
When it comes to votes to opposite parties cancelling out, that’s only true if there are only 2 parties, which isn’t usually the case. Also, you say that “maybe seeing a low turnout will spur someone to run for office who isn’t part of the usual old band of nincompoops”, but I’m pretty sure voting for a third party is more likely to trigger this scenario than not voting.
*Ironically, I’ve never heard of anyone else having this crazy reasoning, so I might actually be a special snowflake in this case.
Insane, you’re not insane at all! Your “crazy reasoning” is a reinvention of a core idea of timeless decision theory. The guy who developed TDT is also a unique snowflake, but he’s a snowflake worth listening to.
Re: voting. Go ahead! On every scale of behavior, people at different ends need to hear different advice. Bernie needs to be told that not everything the market achieves is evil, Koch needs to be told not everything it achieves is perfect. If you have internalized the math of voting, made a calculated signaling decision to vote for Johnson, and don’t let politics mess up your personal life, you’re on the far tail of being a thoughtful voter and don’t need advice from me. Go vote if it makes you happy :)
(I found a link to this from your recent Mandatory Obsessions article)
I’ve seen this sort of argument before, and I disagree with both of what seem to be your main points (1. you can’t tell which policy is better, and 2. voting is useless because your vote won’t make a difference).
My main argument is against 1, so I’ll just address 1 quickly: unlike with the EMH, the system isn’t self-correcting for effectiveness. If somebody can see that Twitter will go up a lot, they buy Twitter, causing it to go up; if enough people do that, Twitter can no longer be predicted. If somebody can see that 36 is a tiny number and the health benefits of pet ownership probably save more lives than that, they vote for pet ownership, but this doesn’t affect public opinion the same way that buying a lot of Twitter affects their share price. (Note that this is my thoughts on dog ownership based on the arguments presented, not my thoughts on the metaphor)
Now, for 2: Yes, one vote isn’t much, but I think the tragedy-of-the-commons style arguments still apply. This is because it isn’t a random sampling of people who might not vote, but instead not-voting is correlated (I suspect; I haven’t looked at empirical studies) with political opinion. The people who look at the numbers and say that one vote has a tiny effect are probably the same ones who could look at the numbers and find out that 95% of economists support free trade (to use an example from an earlier commenter), or how good the ACA was besides whatever personal anecdote they have, or whatever other issues there are. Your saying “[n]ot voting isn’t a Kantian imperative, it’s advice for the smart readers of this blog.” is exactly what worries me; if I’m right about 1 and people can identify better positions than just what’s popular, the “smart readers of this blog” and similar people who can come up with the same reasoning that are more likely to actually identify those positions.
I am a big fan of your blog, having discovered it a few months ago, however when I came across this post, I will admit that I was quite shocked. I read through, and must conclude that this is unfortunately an actual Bad Thing. Discouraging the kind of people that read your blog from voting is highly counterproductive, and claiming this under the guise of Rationality is simply misguided. Voting is not just about the immediate election, and the immediate outcomes thereof. Not only is voting worthwhile, protest voting and voting for third parties is worthwhile too. I argue here that the benefits of voting are much greater than simply the microscopic chance of being the deciding voter in any particular election, but that the effects of not voting are highly non-linear, and do not seem to be being considered sufficiently seriously.
Voting as communication – the only thing politicians know about people that don’t vote is that they don’t vote. Voting for a particular party signals support, and signals that they should keep doing what they’re doing. Voting for a third party signals to the larger parties that they could win you over by adopting some of the policies of that third party, shifting the overton window, and if enough people support this third party, the mainstream parties may consider shifting their position to capture back some of these voters in subsequent elections. Not voting signals nothing at all – politicians don’t know what you want, so they can’t give it to you. Campaigning or lobbying for something might tell them something, but it doesn’t truly tell them how much genuine support there is for it – only who is willing to shout the loudest – actually voting tells them the raw numbers of support without distortion.
Voting for long term effect – voting for a third party signals to other voters that there is support for this party, and if this support grows, others may be tempted to switch their votes too. Over several election cycles, more and more people could start supporting the third party as it ticks over each individual person’s threshold for viability or relevance. At a certain point, it could reach a critical level, triggering a support cascade at which it becomes one of the dominant parties (e.g. Labour in the 1920s).
Voting as a system with ‘long tailed’ outcomes – simple cost-benefit analysis breaks down if the situation is non-gaussian, i.e. if a very unlikely event is more bad than it is unlikely. In most models of most phenomena it is assumed that extreme events are even more extremely unlikely. This entirely discounts the existence of ‘black-swan events’ which are usually sufficiently rare as to be difficult to factor into analysis. If your cost-benefit analysis does not concern itself with ‘anomalous’ events such as the fall of the Roman Republic, the fall of the Weimar Republic, etc. then it may not be correctly reflecting the ‘benefit’ of not falling into autocracy – ‘boycotting democracy’ might be successful in so far as it might bring an end to democracy. Even without a highly motivated minority group trying to hijack the democratic process, low turnout de-legitimises democracy, which leaves it much more open to attack.
Voting as the archetype of people sufficiently like you – you can’t force people to vote the same way as you, but you can still assume that anyone that thinks sufficiently similarly to you will be convinced by the same arguments. Therefore if you are convinced by an argument to vote, or to vote for a particular candidate, it is reasonable to assume that a number of people were similarly convinced by that argument. This means that if you go out and vote after being convinced by something, then so will all of the other people that think sufficiently similarly to you, and if you stay home, so will all of the people that think sufficiently similarly to you. Like cooperating with a clone of yourself in a prisoner’s dilemma because you are both rational and both know how each of you think, this should motivate you to go out and vote, because you are demonstrating that it is sufficient motivation to all sufficiently similar people.
Rationality should not advise you to do things that make you lose (e.g. two-boxing in Newcomb’s problem) – if irrational people vote, and rational people don’t vote because they know there is no point, politicians that are supported by irrational people will consistently get in, and rational people will have been defeated by their own supposed ‘rationality’. In general, the rationalist community’s distaste for the blood and guts of politics is a real issue, because this community is full of the exact kind of people that modern political discourse could really do with hearing. Simply stating ‘politics is the mind killer’, then leaving the hard work of trying to actually run the world to other people is pretty much guaranteed to result in outcomes that are disadvantageous to society.
The constant refrain that ‘progressives win when turnout is high’ is a demonstration of both the long-tail and archetype arguments. Firstly, turnout is correlated with political leaning – people that think sufficiently similarly about politics also think similarly about whether to vote at all. Secondly, a majority may support something, but if they are not motivated enough to endure the cost of going out to vote, they will be overruled by a vocal minority, and will only realise their mistake when the outcome is much worse than expected, causing them to reevaluate their initial cost-benefit analysis. Equally, this vocal minority views losing as an existential threat, so are highly motivated to vote, whereas the majority know that they are a majority, so individually there is really no benefit to them voting – they will surely win anyway. This is why compulsory voting, with fines for not doing so are arguably a good idea – not to force indifferent people to make a random decision, but instead to overcome the inertia of ‘knowing’ that you’ll win anyway, or that it can’t really ever get that bad. To make the cost-benefit analysis come out definitively on the side of voting. That way the next lot of National Socialists don’t get into power off the back of a determined minority, because the vast majority of people vote against them, even though they knew they’d never get enough votes anyway.
So in conclusion – people that consider themselves rationalists shouldn’t think so short-term. There are benefits to voting that go beyond the current election – signalling to politicians what they could do to win you over next election, signalling to other voters that there is support for alternatives, avoiding unlikely but very bad political outcomes, and slightly reducing any correlation between people agreeing with your views and not bothering to vote. Go and vote people!
Do you know what the math looks like for smaller elections? I think student council elections with ~300 voters are actually worth voting in since those elections tend to be close, and unlike national elections, you probably understand the full set of issues.
City water board elections, city council elections (if in a small town) also fall under this category. I was getting surprisingly high probabilities (>3% sometimes) for elections with less than 1000 voters especially if there were multiple candidates vying for multiple spots (as is common in city council elections)
For reference I have voted in precisely 11 elections (all small and local), of which 7 were decided by less than 5 votes and 2 by one vote, sadly I voted for the other guy in both of those :/ so I have impacted 0 elections.
The explicit math is a bit hard, but you can write a simple algorithm to simulate it (see link below). There are two levels of uncertainty: one is the actual percent of all people who support each choice, the second is the actual outcome giving some underlying percentage.
As a concrete example, let’s say there are 8,000 voters likely to show up in a city and polls show that A is favored over B 55%-45% with a standard margin of error of 8%. So you have a distribution of the underlying % (normal with mean 55% and SD 8%), and for each value of that % you know the binomial probablility of the vote splitting exactly evenly. Almost of the latter probability will come from the probability region where the underlying % is very close to 50% – with 8,000 voters the chance of an even split is 600 times higher at 50% than at 52%. For the numbers in my example, your chance of deciding the election is roughly 1 in 2000 – calculated via this spreadsheet. You can comment on that spreadsheet and view the formulas, please don’t ask to edit it.
VAVA has another interesting bug/feature: It allows an intraterrestrial alien to “vote” by annihilating with an eligible voter.
The median voter theorem doesn’t make the candidates the same, because most of the selection happens on the party level, you get a choice between the median democrat, and the median republican. The efficient market hypothesis says that you can’t expect to make money on the stock market, unless you are more skilled than the average stock trader. Quite a high bar.
Assuming that all people have the same values, to beat an election ( predict the better candidate better than the election) you just need to beat the average voter. If you thought that you were in the 90% percentile in predictive ability, and that most stock traders were in the 99% percentile, then you can’t beat the market, but you can predict the right candidate.
In a country where almost half the population are creationists, being more rational than average does not seem that hard.
( I expect >95% of people reading this comment to be more rational than average.) Don’t vote for selfish reasons. If you can vote cancel, do. But otherwise, vote if you think you are above average.
I read this one a little while ago, just came back to read through the comments as well.
The point that voting is frequently a form of ‘signalling’ has already been widely made: assuming the results of the election are recorded correctly and declared honestly, a vote can signal to the public the level of support for certain values and ideas. Admittedly, so can a bumper sticker. And it’s true that the marginal vote makes close to zero difference to the totals (though it’s not worthless, I can certainly understand why anyone feels voting’s not worth their time).
The other side of this though, which I don’t think has really been mentioned, is that voting is not just about signalling to the world, but also about signalling to oneself (and much more effectively so, since you – hopefully – know how you voted!). A vote is a confirmation to yourself, about the kind of person you are and what you are committed to. At least for me: while I talk a lot about politics, voting is the only time I’m really challenged to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ and be honest with myself about what I truly believe in.
Though I wouldn’t ever say anyone must vote – not voting is a legitimate and important choice too, and sometimes arguably the correct one – I think those self-communication aspects might actually be the best reason for doing it.
Voting does force you to decide which candidate to support, and hence ideally to research the issues a bit. Though whether that does you any good beyond the vote will depend – as the information gained may or may not be any other use to you.
This doesn’t even start well.
“People encourage others to vote, even though every vote reduces the power of all other votes.”
Yes. But, under the assumption that the people they encourage most likely vote for the same party/candidate as them, they still turn their own 1 vote into 2*0,999 votes.
This is such as basic thought error…