Voting

Another election is here, which means another chance for people like me to try in vain to preach the futility of voting and the inefficiency of the whole democratic system. Here's a nice Freakonomics column in the NYT about the subject.

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim. This was documented by the economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, who analyzed more than 56,000 Congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898. For all the attention paid in the media to close elections, it turns out that they are exceedingly rare. The median margin of victory in the Congressional elections was 22 percent; in the state-legislature elections, it was 25 percent. Even in the closest elections, it is almost never the case that a single vote is pivotal. Of the more than 40,000 elections for state legislator that Mulligan and Hunter analyzed, comprising nearly 1 billion votes, only 7 elections were decided by a single vote, with 2 others tied. Of the more than 16,000 Congressional elections, in which many more people vote, only one election in the past 100 years - a 1910 race in Buffalo - was decided by a single vote.

But there is a more important point: the closer an election is, the more likely that its outcome will be taken out of the voters' hands - most vividly exemplified, of course, by the 2000 presidential race. It is true that the outcome of that election came down to a handful of voters; but their names were Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. And it was only the votes they cast while wearing their robes that mattered, not the ones they may have cast in their home precincts.

Do I ever vote? Sure - voting can be fun! In local elections, it might even have an impact (tiny compared to the time it takes, but still, an impact). But if you think that by voting in a major election you are making a difference or having a voice in how society is run, well, I think you're wrong. This is especially true if, as I do, you have minority political views. The very nature of the democratic aggregation system is that each individual opinion is almost always ignored, hence no one has incentive to form good opinions, hence the opinion pool as a whole is ignorant.

It's not like voting doesn't accomplish anything. Voting lets people feel as though they have done their civic duty. It lets them believe they have a voice in their government. It hides the evidence of their partial slavery, cleverly reducing their reaction to reaching into their pockets by giving them a miniscule voice in how the stolen funds are spent. Far better than dictatorships or monarchies, democracy is a devilish compromise where the majority may steal from the minority but at least the latter get to vote and lose.

In the modern world, voting is the opiate of the masses.

UPDATE: So what should we do instead of voting? Anything where effort expended actually improves our lives. If you want to research alternatives, research them where you have a choice, like your next major consumer purchase or vacation. If changing government is really your goal, the most effective way to do it is to research alternate cities, counties, states, or countries, and then "vote with your feet". Unlike going to the ballot box, moving has a significant and definite effect on your tax and regulatory burden.

Share this

I say we let the candidates

I say we let the candidates fight to the death, mano a mano. Such a system would have several advantages, least of which that convervatives and liberals alike would never have to worry about women being elected again.

"In the modern world, voting

"In the modern world, voting is the opiate of the masses."

I might even agree with you on this with extremely ulterior motives, but how is it not a contradiction with this statement:

"Far better than dictatorships or monarchies, democracy is a devilish compromise where the majority may steal from the minority but at least the latter get to vote and lose."

You seem to be implying that the majority of those who vote are getting what they want out of it. Therefore, it cannot be the opiate of the masses, if by masses you mean what people conventionally mean by it---the largest grouping.

I, of course, think that the majority are way too timid when they vote: they could be helping themselves to more of what the undeserving minority have obtained.

As a personal opinion..

As a personal opinion.. fine, but should anyone take this seriously in a normative sense?

What do you actually expect to accomplish with such a sermon?

What do you propose as an alternative? If it's some grand project of minarchism or something more extreme, then complaining about voting doesn't seem very cogent.

Jason, In my own opinion,

Jason,
In my own opinion, the reason to point out things like this about voting is to counter the argument that you can't really complain too much about the government violating your rights or making bad policy, since you get to vote for your elected officials. I believe that knowing exactly what your vote can and cannot do is an important wake-up call for people who otherwise tend to believe that voting is like everybody getting together to have a friendly chat over what most serves the common good, instead of one group imposing its will on others. I have personally tossed the issue back and forth with people who feel that the right to vote means that government is more accountable to people and responsive to their needs than any company or institution in the free market. It's a pernicious idea, since it creates the illusion that the government is some kind of servant to you. Here's just one example: where do I vote to end the DEA's war on painkiller users? Can you point to a raft of candidates I can vote for who promise to do this immediately if they get elected?

He can accomplish many

He can accomplish many things. For instance, if he convinces a big government liberal that the political process is not the best way to achieve his goals of, say, helping poor people, then that liberal will direct more of his energies into private solutions.

Required Tuesday

Required Tuesday Reading
Here's a quick roundup of several items out there that deserve your attention.

I'd like to convince

I'd like to convince everyone with whom I disagree politically that they shouldn't bother to vote. And I'd like to convince everyone with whom I agree politically that they should bother to vote.

Voting makes sense for libertarians if they can achieve something like those conditions, and if they can convice a lot of people that libertarian ideas make sense. But when libertarians get in their echo chamber and convince each other that voting is a waste of time, here's what happens: They convincing people with whom they agree politically that they shouldn't bother to vote. Self-defeating, I call it.

Lisa, Ok, see you are being

Lisa, Ok, see you are being more constructive when you make the issue more specific: where do I vote for specific causes? Can we imagine a system where that is somehow possible? That type of question is more interesting to me, but the original post offered no concrete alternatives. Perhaps if I had thoroughly read Patri's other posts, the issue you mentioned might have been tangible, or maybe you are just projecting your thoughts onto his post.

David, I imagine everyone who votes realizes that their vote has very little chance of affecting the outcome. I don't see what additional information the original post contained that would have convinced anyone of anything new. The 2000 (and '04) examples are specious.. de facto but not de jure.

I didn't want to be argumentative, or shit in the foyer on my first post here. It just rubs me the wrong way when someone rants without presenting alternatives.. maybe again the alternatives were assumed given the context.

Jason - I agree with your

Jason - I agree with your general and specific points, it is best to offer alternatives when criticizing existing systems.

The question of what alternatives to democracy exist is a difficult and complex one. However there are plenty of better things to do than voting, I'll add some to this post.

While I agree that voting is

While I agree that voting is futile, I don't think it is for the reason you say. Of course the odds of an individual changing the course of an election are incredibly small. Thats not the same thing as saying an individual doesn't affect the course of an election. They do, just not very much. But ideally one individual affects the election just as much as any other individual.
What makes voting futile isn't the fact that an individual doesn't have much power, its the fact that the election doesn't really mean anything. The government would be doing that same crap it is today, just with a different dipshit at the helm. The only reason I voted was because I thought bush needed to be fired, not because I thought Kerry would be any better.

Anyone have any thoughts

Anyone have any thoughts about about this merely being a symptom of universal suffrage? Perhaps if the voter base was more concentrated and only people who were being affected by it (taxed and such) were voting than it wouldn't dilute everything quite so much? Just food for thought...

Unlike going to the ballot

Unlike going to the ballot box, moving has a significant and definite effect on your tax and regulatory burden.

Been there, done that...with great success.

I highly recommend it.

Keenan, Anyone have any

Keenan,

Anyone have any thoughts about about this merely being a symptom of universal suffrage? Perhaps if the voter base was more concentrated and only people who were being affected by it (taxed and such) were voting than it wouldn’t dilute everything quite so much? Just food for thought…

The problem is that everybody is affected by government actions now. It wasn't always such a problem—in 1800 the scope of government action was a fraction of what it is now. I suppose the question is whether the extension of suffrage or the extension of scope happens first.

Patri, Now I was familiar

Patri, Now I was familiar with your prediction market posts, which were how I discovered Catallarchy. My focus is political predicition markets (which can theoretically be used to hedge tax exposure and unwind subsidies). My link is below.. http://riskmarkets.blogspot.com/

The passivist approach to

The passivist approach to voting is rampant in the libertarian bolgs. There is also a distressing anti-democratic undertone. The underlying fallacy is to equate the whole (the electorate at large) with the parts (the voter.) Patri would say you can never fill up a bathtub because one drop of water makes no appreciable difference. You should have been around during the sixties. Maybe you could have helped those white Southern sheriffs explain to those Black demonstrators how foolish they were to want to vote. Nowadays, of course all those sheriffs are Black. How did that happen? Voting is a social thing and social movements have power beyond that of the individual.
Of course there is a problem with tyranny of the majority, but there are checks and balances to mitigate that.
The best way to get changes is not to vote but to form a movement. Get some support by spending some money on propaganda. You have to get a lot people to support your cause. Appeal to people’s sense of right and wrong, but also go low. Go to nursing homes and get all the oldsters to fill out absentee ballots supporting your cause. Register the homeless and bus them to the polls. It doesn’t sound too idealistic but it works better than doing nothing.
You could vote with your feet by leaving the US but you might bump into all the people going the opposite direction.

Keenan - certainly the more

Keenan - certainly the more concentrated the voter base is, the less of a problem this is. One (unoriginal) idea I've had is a true representative government, where anyone can give their vote proxy to anyone else. And you have transitivity, if I give my proxy to you, and you give it to someone else, that latter person has my proxy.

Someone with a significant number of proxies actually has incentive to get educated about the best way to vote. This is what a republic is supposed to me, that's how our representatives are supposed to work. But our implementation is deeply flawed - giving all the votes for one geographic area to one person limits their choice of representatives and disempowers all the minority voters in that regiion.

"Appeal to people’s sense

"Appeal to people’s sense of right and wrong, but also go low. Go to nursing homes and get all the oldsters to fill out absentee ballots supporting your cause. Register the homeless and bus them to the polls. It doesn’t sound too idealistic but it works better than doing nothing."

Dave —

You’re addressing a different point – rather than the optimality of the political system, you’re describing optimal behavior of someone who has already accepted that system. Patri was not arguing that regardless of effort and expenditure a single person is powerless in a voting system, but that the system itself needs improvement. In fact your comment highlights one glaring problem: large, unnecessary transaction costs.

You could vote with your

You could vote with your feet by leaving the US but you might bump into all the people going the opposite direction.

But to paraphrase Ayn Rand, no vote can give others a legitimate claim on you or your property. So you could "vote" by leaving the US, but morally it is unnecessary.

The best way to get changes is not to vote but to form a movement.

I think you'd hate this blog then.

Randall, Patri, thanks for

Randall, Patri, thanks for the responses.

Patri, you mention representative gvt, but what about at the local level? Surely in a town with a couple thousand people it'd be pointless to proxy your vote to someone else. Then again, that's really the only place where I think we should have universal suffrage (city councils, mayor, etc).

One possible solution might be implementing the condorcet method in ALL elections, letting you choose the order of candidates/policies you want in a mathematically and statistically sound manner. That might also give people more incentive to become educated since the more they know about various candidates, the more choices they can make (assuming people aren't picking their favorite then randomly picking the rest)

Patri: But our

Patri: But our implementation is deeply flawed - giving all the votes for one geographic area to one person limits their choice of representatives and disempowers all the minority voters in that regiion.

Keenan: One possible solution might be implementing the condorcet method in ALL elections, letting you choose the order of candidates/policies you want in a mathematically and statistically sound manner.

I think that Keenan is exactly right about this. The problem that Patri (quite rightly) points out is that minorities are quite frequently effectively disenfranchised in a representative government. While it may be impossible to completely remedy that problem, it is nonetheless possible to mitigate it significantly.

The first-past-the-post system that we have in place in the U.S. (more formally known as the single member precinct) means that a 50%+1 majority can secure a representative, leaving the remaining 50%-1 without any voice at all. Proportional voting (or the single transferable vote) allows all groups to have representation, provided of course that the group consists of a number that is at least 1/435 of the total population.

I've written on the tyranny of the majority problem and compared Madison's SMP proposal (in Federalist 10 and 51) to Mill's STV (in Considerations on Representative Government), arguing that Mill's is by far the more effective route for preventing majority tyranny. Coming soon to a journal near you...I hope.

Whereas my thoughts are that

Whereas my thoughts are that it's the minority---not the majority---we have to watch out for.

Joe and Keenan your ideas

Joe and Keenan your ideas for giving minorities power would be similar to coalition government with its parliamentary system. This results in instability and judging from European experience, a lot of populist crap, socialism, protected interest groups, paternalism, loss of individual rights, economic stagnation and crime plus social unrest.

It is better to have our two party winner take all system where one party rules until they foul things up so bad that they get thrown out of office. Plus we get the protection of the Bill of Rights, and Federalism, some protection against populism etc. Red/Blue polarization keeps each side from inflicting their wonderful ideas on everyone. Yet there is progress over time, no stagnation, and no violent revolution. Over time, painfully, differences get worked out.
Sure this it is inefficient and unfair, but show me a working system with a track record that works better.

Dave, I would argue that

Dave,

I would argue that Europeans get lots of " populist crap, socialism, protected interest groups, paternalism, loss of individual rights, economic stagnation" because that's pretty much what Europeans _want_. That's what democracy is supposed to do; it gives people the government that they want to have. STV is designed to better approximate what it is that people really do want. It also better works to protect minority rights by preventing permanent majorities from forming. European parliamentary systems approximate this a bit, but few of them are genuine STVs. Mostly they are a mix of first-past-the-post single member districts and party lists. As for the social unrest, the current situation in France notwithstanding, I don't think that Europeans are much worse in that regard than the U.S.

The problem with our current system is that it's very possible (as Scott alludes to above) for a _minority_ to hijack the entire system. It's pretty difficult to remove the people screwing things up when those same folks can redistrict themselves into a permanent legislative majority. A pretty extreme minority can then rule in more-or-less permanent safety. We see it now with a Republican majority that is far to the right of the majority of Americans. We saw it in the 30s with a Democratic majority that was far to the left of the majority.

Incidentally, before I can show you a system that works 'better', you have to define what you mean by 'better'. If you mean, "show me a system that does a better job getting the sorts of results that I happen to think are the best results" and then define 'best results' in libertarian terms, then there may not be any better systems. Though libertarians seem to like to point to Ireland sometimes as a success story. The Irish, incidentally, use STV. If, on the other hand, 'better' is defined in democratic terms such that it means "more closely approximates what satisfices a society" then I'd point to pretty much all of Western Europe as an improvement. Let me know which definition of 'better' that you want, and I'll give you my answer. Fair enough?

I was referring to a

I was referring to a winner-take-all condorcet system. Basically it just ensures that you don't have to choose between "douche and turd".

As far as presidential elections are concerned: I'm in favor of keeping the electoral college, but I would like to see the electors (winner take all still) be chosen via condorcet method *within* the state. The 17th amendment really destroyed some of the last built-in federalism we had. Everyone wants things done at the national level nowadays =\

The bill of rights, unfortunately, has grown to become EXACTLY what Hamilton was afraid it would become: a list of what people think are the only rights they have.

"If changing government is

"If changing government is really your goal.."

Yep, that's what I want to do: change government. So the questions are: how can I change which government rules me w/o moving? Why not? And then we need to figure out how.