Voting on voting

Image taken from here.

With a little reflection, you might consider that many of your beliefs, you hold without a ton of scrutiny.  Consider the belief, all people are created equal.  Most of us would agree to this, but apply a little scrutiny and we realize, well, different people have different abilities, so we don’t mean equally capable.  We don’t mean equally beautiful or equally intelligent.  Maybe we mean all people should have equal chance to succeed, but that’s not likely true because we each start off in different places with different advantages and we seem to be ok with some of that.  It’s ok, thinkers have clarified for us.  All people are equal is usually a belief that people have the same basic rights.  Why we believe this is unclear.  There are a thousand different models, faith-based, utilitarian, etc, that might underpin this belief, each of which is highly controversial.  For the most part, we don’t end up scrutinizing these things.  We’re comfortable with the beliefs we have, often regardless of why we have them.

And that’s fine in a practical sense, until we have disagreement.  Consider the beliefs, capitalism is good or capitalism is bad.  We all know individuals that hold to one or the other.  Imagine you meet someone who strongly holds the opposing view from you but hasn’t scrutinized it.  You might argue, sir, do you know about A, B, C, things that capitalism is responsible for.  Do you truly understand the impact capitalism is having across the world?  What has brought you to your belief on capitalism, and how much thought have you given to it really?

Often, even if a lay person like myself hasn’t studied the subject matter, a belief I hold to without scrutiny has been scrutinized by others: experts, academics, philosophers, journalists, etc.  If I’m lucky, there’s a consensus of relevant expertise that I can rely on.  I don’t know whether there is any consensus on capitalism, and I’m pretty sure that there is no consensus on why we think people are created equal, but there are plenty of scrutinized models and rationales for these beliefs that I can rely on.

Weirdly, I know of one belief that does not have an expert consensus or scrutinized rationale, even though so many of us hold to it.  That belief is: we should vote.  I’m amazed it’s so pervasive, even though it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

The reason to vote is to increase the likelihood that government actions are in the best interests of its people.  Implicit in this are assumptions that you know the best interests of your people and you can adequately judge what candidate best serves those interests.  Some argue that there is no “best” candidate.  If there is no “best” candidate in any sense, then voting can’t “matter” in any sense.

I won’t dwell on affirmative arguments like, “voting is a civic duty”, or “voting is what we owe to the men and women that died for our rights.”  I’ll assert that these don’t stand up under scrutiny.  Even if you’ve argued these things, I’d urge you to spend 10 minutes arguing against it, and after that time I’d be surprised if you haven’t succeeded in that goal.

Likewise, you’ve perhaps heard the saying, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.”  That’s another one of those beliefs that sounds good but does not stand up to even a little scrutiny.  On the other hand, “If you vote, don’t complain” sounds good and does stand up to scrutiny if you think about it.  I’ll leave puzzling that out to you.

There are a number of compelling arguments against voting. One argument goes something like “the likelihood of your dying in an accident on the way to the polling place is greater than the likelihood of your vote making a difference.” As stupid as it sounds, it’s true. In fact, accidents are more likely on voting days. From a strict cost-benefit perspective, voting doesn’t make much sense for most people.

Of course, if almost no one votes, then each vote counts more, so certainly, there should be some equilibrium between one’s vote mattering and one’s vote not mattering. What’s weird is that the equilibrium is such that so many people vote and any single vote is so unlikely to matter. That’s probably why ideas like civic duty and nationalism and ethics and idealism are attached to the idea of voting, because otherwise, choosing to vote boggles the mind. People that do vote and advocate voting almost always associate it with these sorts of values.

Never mind the cost-benefit. Most people still maintain that you should vote in spite of the cost-benefit. I think the more compelling argument is best conveyed in the following story:

John is an average/above average intelligent dude. He reads the newspaper, likes Indie music, plays soccer on Wednesday nights, has a steady job. One day, the CEO of General Electric, CEO Frank accosts him in an Irish pub and says, “John, my man, I’ve got these two candidates for my successor, Mark and Jennifer. I can’t decide between them. Help me out, although if you screw up, the board might sue the hell out of you.”

John is a little weirded out by CEO Frank. He says, “CEO Frank, why are you asking me? I don’t know anything about your company. I don’t know anything about your industry. I’m no expert on business in general. I’ve never met Mark or Jennifer. You should ask someone else.”

CEO Frank blinks twice and says, “Oh, huh, that’s a good point, John. I don’t know why in the world I would ask you.”

The next day, as John visits the ballot box, his prior conversation occurs to him and he considers whether or not history is repeating itself. He reflects, “I’m no expert on economics, or foreign policy, or healthcare. I’m a smart guy, but I know less about the pertinent issues in this election than I do about picking the CEO of GE. Why am I trying to choose a President when I can’t choose a CEO?”

John reflects on whether even if he were an expert on all pertinent issues, he’d have the information to choose the right candidate.  “If I were choosing a CEO, I’d want a personal interview with the candidates.  I’d ask them about their stands, but I’d also ask, what’s your management style?  How would you describe the culture you want to cultivate?  How do you plan to prioritize, and what conditions would change those priorities?  These questions probably would also apply to a political candidate also, but almost no one media body has asked them.  I’ve been spending more time thinking about stature and how well-spoken the candidates are.  I haven’t treated this like a real job selection.  I’ve been treating this a little more like a Homecoming King selection.”

He further considers, “Oh man, what if my vote was the vote that made the difference? Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to choose for CEO Frank.  If my vote was the only one that mattered, and if I had to singly bear the cost of being wrong, I certainly would never vote.  I’d only ever vote if it mattered little and I wouldn’t get blamed for being wrong.  If I knew that my vote would make the difference, wouldn’t I be afraid? I mean, I’m not confident enough in my vote that I would bet much on it.”

The global warming issue pops into John’s mind. Having a limited science background, he knows enough to know that the overwhelming consensus of scientists considers climate change to be human caused. He knows that this consensus is true across party lines among the experts, so he has to concede the likelihood. Yet, so many of his friends seem to disagree, not because they know something different but because it clashes with their politics. “What’s the deal with this global warming issue? It must be that politics has polarized us. What else would account for a party-line division among lay-people when there is no party-line division among experts?”

John admits that he thought some of his friends were being a little foolish at times, and much of the time, John considers the people at the other end of his political spectrum idiots or wed to their ideals, but then John wonders, “Hmmm.. if at least half of the voters seem to be foolish or selfish, why do I think that I am different. Isn’t it weird that most voters think that they’re educated enough, but most of us think that most other voters–at least for the other side–aren’t?  Why do I think that the same forces that have led others astray have not led me astray?”

So John realizes that A) He is poorly qualified to know what is best for his state, B) has poor information to assess a candidate, and C) is susceptible to the same forces and human failings that leads his opponents to err.

But can he be sure that voting is bad? No, John cannot be sure. He’s no expert on ethics or philosophy or law or economics. His lack of expertise is what got him into this conundrum in the first place. Maybe John decides that as little confidence as he has in the rewards of voting, he has even less confidence in his choice of president once he acknowledges the tremendous scope of his ignorance.  And then maybe John throws his vote away.

Or maybe none of that applies to you.

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