Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Irrationality, Suboptimality, and Voting

In "The Rational Voter?" I define rationality as the application of "sound reasoning and pertinent facts to the pursuit of a realistic objective (one that does not contradict the laws of nature or human nature)." I later say that
[m]any (a majority of? most?) voters are guilty of voting irrationally because they believe in such claptrap as peace through diplomacy, "social justice" through high marginal tax rates, or better health care through government regulation. To be perfectly clear, the irrationality lies not in favoring peace, "social justice" (whatever that is), health care, and the like. The irrationality lies in knee-jerk beliefs in such contradictions as peace through unpreparedness for war, "social justice" through soak-the-rich schemes, better health care through complete government control of medicine, etc., etc., etc. Voters whose objectives incorporate such beliefs simply haven't taken the relatively little time it requires to process what they already know or have experienced about history, human nature, and social and economic realities....

Another way to put it is this: Voters too often are rationally irrational. They make their voting decisions "rationally," in a formal sense (i.e., [not "wasting" time in order to make correct judgments]). But those decisions are irrational because they are intended to advance perverse objectives (e.g., peace through unpreparedness for war).
Voters of the kind I describe are guilty of suboptimization, which is "optimizing some chosen objective which is an integral part of a broader objective; usually the broad objective and lower-level objective are different."

I will come back to suboptimal voting. But, first, this about optimization: If you aren't familiar with the concept, here's good non-technical definition: "to do things best under the given circumstances." To optimize, then, is to achieve the best result one can, given a constraint or constraints. On a personal level, for example, a rational person tries to be as happy as he can be, given his present income and prospects for future income. (Note that I do not define happiness as the maximization of wealth.) A person is not rational who allows, say, his alchololism to destroy his happiness (if not also the income that contributes to it). He is suboptimizing on his addiction instead of optimizing on his happiness.

By the same token, a person who votes irrationally also suboptimizes. A vote may "make sense" at the moment (just as another drink "makes sense" to an alcoholic), but it is an irrational vote if the voter does not (a) vote as if he were willing to live by the consequences if his vote were decisive and/or (b) take the time to understand those consequences.

In some cases, a voter's irrationality is signaled by the voter's (inner) reason for voting; for example: to feel smug about having voted, to "protest" or to "send a message" (without being able to explain coherently the purpose of the protest or message), or simply to reinforce unexamined biases by voting for someone who seems to share them. More common (I suspect) are the irrational votes that are cast deliberately for candidates who espouse the kinds of perverse objectives that I cite above (e.g., peace without preparedness for war).

Why is voter irrationality important? Does voting really matter? Well, it's easy to say that an individual's vote makes very little difference. But that just isn't true. Consider the presidential election of 2000, for example, where the outcome of the election depended on about five hundred votes out of the almost six million cast in Florida. I recall that Florida was thought to be safely in Bush's column, until after all the votes had been cast.

If you are certain that your vote won't make a difference (as in Massachusetts, for example), don't bother to vote -- unless the act of voting, itself, gives you satisfaction. Otherwise, always vote as if your vote will make a difference to you and those about whom you care. Vote as if your vote will be decisive. To vote otherwise is irrational, in and of itself.

The next (necessary) step is to vote correctly. Short-sighted voters (i.e., irrational ones) vastly underestimate the importance of voting correctly. As Glen Whitman points out, there is a tendency to
give[] too little attention to the political dynamics of...a mandate, instead naively assuming that the mandate could be crafted once-and-for-all in a wise and lobbying-resistant fashion.
That is to say, voters (not to mention those who profess to understand voters) overlook the slippery slope effects of voting for those who promise to "deliver" certain benefits. It is true that the benefits, if delivered, would temporarily increase the well-being of certain voters. But if one group of voters reaps benefits, then another group of voters also must reap them. Why? Because votes are not won, nor offices held, by placating a particular class of voter; many other classes of them must be placated as well.

The "benefits" sought by voters (and delivered by politicians) are regulatory as well as monetary. Many voters (especially wealthy, paternalistic ones) are more interested in controlling others than they are in reaping government handouts (though they don't object to that either). And if one group of voters reaps certain regulatory benefits, it follows (as night from day) that other groups also will seek (and reap) regulatory benefits. (Must one be a trained economist to understand this? Obviously not, because most trained economists don't seem to understand it.)

And then there is the "peace-at-any-price-one-world" crowd, which is hard to distinguish from the crowd that demands (and delivers) monetary and regulatory "benefits."

So, here we are:
  • Many particular benefits are bestowed and many regulations are imposed, to the detriment of investors, entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors, and people who simply are willing to work hard to advance themselves. And it is they who are responsible for the economic growth that bestows (or would bestow) more jobs and higher incomes on everyone, from the poorest to the richest.
  • A generation from now, the average American will "enjoy" about one-fourth the real output that would be his absent the advent of the regulatory-welfare state about a century ago.
Conclusion: Voters who have favored the New Deal, the Square Deal, the Great Society, or almost any Democrat who has run for national office in the past seventy-five years have been supremely irrational. They have voted against their own economic and security interests, and the economic and security interests of their progeny.

This isn't rocket science or advanced economics or clinical psychology. It's common sense, a quality that seems to be lacking in too many voters -- and in the politicians who prey on them. What else can you expect after seven decades in which creeping socialism and "internationalism" have been inculcated through public "education" and ratified by the courts.