Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Rational Voter?

To act rationally is:
(a) to apply sound reasoning and pertinent facts to the pursuit of an objective, or

(b) to apply sound reasoning and pertinent facts to the pursuit of a realistic objective (one that does not contradict the laws of nature or human nature).
Answer: (b).

It's true that voters often reason poorly and are largely ignorant of particular facts when they cast their ballots. But voters mainly fail to vote rationally because their objectives are wanting in reality. They (and the candidates for whom they vote) tend to believe in "six impossible things before breakfast" (the White Queen to Alice, in Alice in Wonderland).

Given that, the likelihood of finding a rational voter in a polling booth is vanishingly small. That most voters are irrational is certainly my view, and that of Bryan Caplan of EconLog and George Mason University's economics department.

Ilya Somin (of The Volokh Conspiracy and the George Mason University School of Law) argues, on the other hand, that American voters are "rationally ignorant." Somin spells out his theory of rational ignorance in "Knowledge of Ignorance: New Directions in the Study of Political Information," the abstract of which reads, in part:
For decades, scholars have recognized that most citizens have little or no political knowledge, and that it is in fact rational for the average voter to make little effort to acquire political information. This article shows that rational ignorance is fully compatible with the so-called paradox of voting because it will often be rational for citizens to vote, but irrational for them to become well-informed....
Somin, however, offers a naïve view of rationality; for example:
Assume that Uv = the expected utility of voting; Cv = the cost of voting; and D = the expected difference in welfare per person if the voter’s preferred candidate defeats her opponent. Let us further assume that this is a presidential election in a nation with 300 million people; that the voter’s ballot has only a 1 in 100 million chance of being decisive....

If we assume that Cv is $10 (a reasonable proxy for the cost of voting) and that D is $5000 (this can incorporate monetary equivalents of noneconomic benefits as well as actual income increases), then Uv equals $5, a small but real positive expected utility.

To be sure, actual voters are unlikely to calculate the costs and benefits of voting this precisely, but they might make an intuitive judgment incorporating very rough estimates of D and C. Furthermore, the fact that voting is a low-cost, low-benefit activity ensures that there is little
benefit to engaging in precise calculations such as these, so voters might rationally choose to go with a default option of voting and forego any detailed analysis....

By contrast, the acquisition of political information in any significant quantity is a vastly more difficult and time-consuming enterprise than is voting itself. Assume that Upi = the utility of acquiring sufficient political information to make a “correct” decision, and Cpi = the cost of acquiring political information...

If we conservatively estimate Cpi at $100 by assuming that the voter need only expend 10 hours to acquire and learn the necessary information, while suffering opportunity costs of just $10 per hour, then the magnitude of D would have to be nearly seven times greater — $33,333 per citizen — in order for the voter to choose to make the necessary expenditure on information acquisition. It is unlikely that many otherwise ignorant voters will perceive such an enormous potential difference between the opposing candidates as to invest even the equivalent of $100 in information acquisition. And this theoretical prediction is consistent with the empirical observation that most citizens in fact know very little about politics and public policy, but do vote.

The analysis changes only slightly if the voter does not care about the welfare of the entire nation, but only about that of a subset, such as her racial or ethnic group. Alternatively, she may care about everyone in the nation to at least some extent, but value the utility of some groups more than others. Similarly, it may be that the voter believes that her preferred candidates’ policies will benefit some groups more than others....

For example,...the result that obtains if...a voter...cares far more about the welfare of a subgroup of the population numbering 50 million than about the rest of the public, valuing members of the group five times as much as the rest....

...Uv will turn out to be $8.33, a slightly higher figure than [$5, calculated above]. At the same time, it would still be irrational for the voter to pay the costs of becoming adequately informed....[T]he per-person difference in welfare would have to be over $20,000 in order to justify a decision to pay the price of becoming informed.
Most of that is rote, simple-minded cost-benefit analysis. Aside from being no more than a vague, non-operational description of how voters choose to vote, it ignores the fundamental question: What do voters want? Or, in Somin's terminology, what is "D" -- the "welfare" (i.e., objective) that the voter is trying to attain by voting in a certain way?

Many voters can perceive (and long have perceived), in Somin's words, "enormous potential difference[s] between...opposing candidates," without making any special "expenditure on information acquisition." Voters certainly knew, without benefit of research, the essential differences between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alfred M. Landon, between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry M. Goldwater, and between Ronald W. Reagan and James Earl Carter -- to take a few, obvious examples from the annals of presidential elections.

In such cases, which are a-plenty, voters eschew Somin-ized gyrations. They simply "know" whether they "like" the policies advocated by a candidate. That is, they "feel good" about what the candidate seems to "stand for": peace through diplomacy, "social justice" through higher taxes on the rich, better health care through greater government control of it, and so on. (Alternatively, they are "put off" by candidate A's opponent's views on such matters, and vote for A as the lesser of two evils.)

That's where the irrationality comes in. Many (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. (Consider, for example, rich liberals who strive to get richer so as to leave wealth to their privately educated children, all the while propounding higher taxes that will hinder the efforts of the less-rich to do the same.)

Why do such voters not "know" what they know? Because they "feel" certain ways about certain things. They feel -- for example -- that higher defense spending is likely to lead to war, even though (in the America of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries) defense spending has risen only after we have been attacked or an avowed enemy is already well armed. Voters who know such things, but nevertheless reject their policy implications, prefer to view history and human nature through the lens of their emotional preferences. They compartment what they know from what they feel, and they succumb to what they feel.

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., as outlined by Somin). But those decisions are irrational because they are intended to advance perverse objectives (e.g., peace through unpreparedness for war).

Related posts:
IQ and Personality
IQ and Politics
The Right Is Smarter Than the Left
Things to Come

See also this post by Don Boudreaux.