Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Symbolic Voting?

"Modern politics is just as you should expect it to be when votes are cast by ignorant people taking advantage of a low-cost source of emotional gratification." - Jamie Whyte, "Fewer Voters Are Better Voters"
Americans across the nation will take time away from their busy lives today to do their part in keeping our democracy alive. But why? Many economists argue that voting is irrational—the costs outweigh the benefits. A lawyer can't rack up billable hours standing in line at the voting booth (at least not ethically!). True, voting doesn't take as long as it used to, but it still takes time away from other productive activities. And time is money. So the cost of voting is obvious and unavoidable.

The benefit, on the other hand, is less clear. One person's vote is unlikely to swing an election, so if the benefit of voting is the influence that one vote will have on the outcome, there's little point in doing it. That time would be better spent billing clients, browsing the Internet, or reading this blog. But people do in fact vote, despite the balance of costs over benefits, creating a puzzle sometimes known as the "paradox of voting."  A commonly suggested answer is that people enjoy voting; they're not voting for results; they're voting to vote. Hence, the "emotional gratification" referenced in the provocative quotation that prefaces this post. People vote for the same reason they eat potato chips—they like it.

But in his book "Law and Social Norms," Eric Posner argues that the common answer is wrong. In fact, people vote, not because they like it, not because it's fun per se, but because they care about their reputations. And voting, as a symbolic act, reinforces the opinions that their peers hold of them, as to whether they are cooperative, trustworthy people. That's why it's embarrassing not to vote. It sends a signal that you don't care to participate in our political system; that you aren't willing to pay the small price of a few hours of your time to help your country solve its problems. The effect that voting has on one's reputation tips the cost-benefit scale.

The hypothesis that voting is intrinsically enjoyable also tips the scale, so why should I believe the one over the other? Here are some supporting reasons and facts (suggested by Eric Posner) in favor of the voting-as-symbolic theory:

  • Voting correlates with wealth and education. Rich, educated people are more likely to vote than poor, uneducated people. Yet rich, educated people bear higher opportunity costs for their time. Their time is "worth" more. They hypothetical lawyer mentioned earlier forgoes $75 for every 15 minutes not spent billing clients. That's a lot more (in absolute terms) than the grocery clerk loses. And since the cost of voting is higher, and the benefits under the voting-is-fun theory presumably the same, we should expect to see the opposite of what we see; we should expect a negative correlation, not a positive one; as the cost rises, people will spend their time on different, less expensive "goods" than voting. By contrast, the voting-is-symbolic theory posits that an activity cannot be symbolic—cannot signal underlying, "hidden" qualities—unless it is costly. If there's no sacrifice involved, everyone would do it—the good and the bad, the cooperative and the selfish. The signal would be drowned out by noise.
  • Voting correlates with participation in organizations such as PTAs and charities. The voting-is-fun theory cannot explain this relationship as easily as the voting-is-symbolic theory; why should people who participate in charitable activities enjoy voting more than other people? The obvious answer is that the same types of people prefer both. But, again, why? The voting-is-fun theory has no answer. The symbolic-act theory suggests the answer by going directly to the source: participating in civic organizations and voting both send the same signals, and the same sorts of people will be driven to do both.
  • Not-voting is embarrassing, as evidenced by the fact that people exaggerate and prevaricate about their owning voting behavior. This makes sense if people regard voting as an indication of character as opposed to an act of self-gratification. This does not make sense if voting is just about satisfying a preference: is it embarrassing to admit that you don't like the way garlic tastes? or that you prefer coffee over green tea? Well, maybe it is for people with low self-esteem, but voting is clearly different; very few people (other than, perhaps, some economists) will state that they don't vote because it doesn't seem worth their time.
That's enough argument for now. I'll be back soon with a few additional reasons for believing that it makes more sense to believe that people vote in order to protect their reputations than to believe, as Jamie White (whom I otherwise admire) apparently does, that they do so because they like to. One of these reasons addresses another element of the Jamie White quote from the outset of this post, namely the idea that voters are ignorant. This sounds like a put down, and in a way it is, but it turns out that not knowing who politicians are is actually quite rational. In fact, being ignorant is often a rational strategy. But more about that later...


  1. Baxter,

    You're on to something here. I'm a rational man (as far as it goes) and I understand that my vote has little meaning in the outcome of national, or state-wide elections, especially in a state like Maryland where one party perennially dominates. Yet I do it anyway. Why? Is it because I enjoy it as Jamie Whyte contends? Certainly not, it's inconvenient and takes time away from other (more productive) things. Is it because of the symbolism of voting as Posner argues? Yes, to some extent. There is a certain responsibility that I feel to vote...remember Civics class? Voting is one of the few activities that we are supposed to participate in as citizens. In many countries voting for some or all elections is compulsory (Australia and Switzerland for example). Voting proves that I’m an interested, responsible citizen. Still, I think there may be something more to consider.

    As an individual I understand that my vote carries very little value, and therefore, I could abstain with no impact on the outcomes of any particular races. However, I also understand that if this position was shared and adopted by others I would abdicate my democratic rights to entrenched special interests who do have a strong collective motivation to vote. Knowing this, I vote to express my individual will. If others act the same way then our collective votes do matter. Thinking this way, the cost-benefit calculation may shift.

    You know that I am deeply skeptical of the political process. I find is exasperating that people, especially on the national level, tend to treat politicians like heroes or villains. For the most part of course politicians are just wealthy people with inflated egos (or exceptional wills to power). They may be smart, extremely smart in some cases, and certainly motivated (campaigning is hard and costs money, time, and energy), but who is so capable to effectively lead our complex society as opposed to riding the wave? Few, very few.

    I blame the media for their coverage of political races. Politics is treated like sports where one contender is pitted against another with constant updates about polls, trends, who’s making progress on whom, etc. This treatment of politics as sports is wholly inappropriate. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of political polls? I understand why a candidate would want the information, that’s why campaigns run detailed internal polls, but why do we as voters need that information? Are we going to vote based on the poll results? No. Does poll information indicate anything about the candidate’s positions, policies, character? No, or certainly not directly. So why are polls, especially in national-level elections, cited constantly, updated on a daily basis – for months on end? The only explanation is that such tactics by the media make the races a spectator activity, like a baseball pennant race, or a football game. Think of it as sports for power geeks. By keeping people’s attention the media become more relevant and one would think, can generate more revenue.

    We can’t forget that there is no group more self-important than the media (in a collective sense)…other than politicians, of course. Maybe therein lays an explanation – a large group of egoists covering a smaller group of even greater egoists.


    I would, however, point out that at the local level things may look quite different. In smaller scale elections (state delegate elections, mayoral/municipal, county-level, etc.) individual votes do matter. In these races the total number of votes may only be in the thousands and a few votes here and there can change the outcome. Moreover, at the local level, an individual voter may get the chance to actually meet and interact with a politician during his/her term. For example, my family directly benefited from the (appropriate) intervention of a local politician on behalf of my disabled brother after the existing bureaucracy failed to function properly.

  2. Popularity contests, egos, and the impossibility of instituting a viable meritocracy aside, I'm surprised neither of you brought up what I've termed the "drop in the bucket" effect. A drop in the bucket, though very small, has mass. It is only when a great number of these drops are collected that they produce any substantial result. Also consider a large number of people on a ship. If I walk over and stand by the railing, the ship is not going to lean in that direction. However, if I pick up a loudspeaker and convince enough people to walk to the railing, the ship almost certainly will lean in that direction. Thus, as the country has grown, the effect of my single vote understandably has decreased -- nevertheless, it still holds weight, and I should be proud to use that weight to a desired effect. If I truly wish to have a large influence on the direction of my country, then I should quit my complaining and pick up a loudspeaker.