Friday, September 21, 2007

Voting as ritual

If voting could change the system it would be against the law, I used to say in my cynical anarchist days. But now I'm a good citizen, and anti-voting sentiment strikes me as puerile. I tried to respond to TGGP in-place and ran into some kind of bug (or moderation), so am replying here as well.
The libertarian distaste for politics and voting guarantees that they will remain without influence -- a good thing from my point of view, but probably not yours.

Here are some of my thoughts on voting from a couple of years ago, see especially the link to the Valdis Krebs paper.

The Landsberg piece you link to is a typically autistic piece of economist crapola. The Freakonomics boys made the same argument and I answered them there (first comment).
Voting is a ritual of social participation. The point of voting is not (as Landsberg stupidly holds) that it is only worth doing if you stand a chance of casting the single vote that tips the balance past 50/50. The point is that you are joining in with other members of your community to make a collective decision. The act of voting is a humbling and equalizing one -- in voting you (briefly) set aside your personal identity and personal power and act as just another equal citizen among others, willing to take the economic hit for the benefit of playing their small part in the collective political ritual.

I think there's an interesting comparison to be made between voting as a ritual and religious rituals, in fact. The point of religious rituals is in their collective enactment. They don't "do" anything except foster a sense of solidarity amongst their participants. But this is not at all trivial. Voting may play the same role, with the endpoint decision being less important than the ritual, and the jealously fought-for rights to participate in it.

Libertarians have a problem with this. Either they can't understand it at all, or they equate it with North Korea's mass rallies. Or they feel threatened by it. I suspect that what's going on in many libertarians is that their sense of individual identity is so weak that it feels existentially threatened by acknowledging the social nature of human existence. The Ayn Randroids are the most notable in this regard.

13 comments:

TGGP said...

Your comments are on the blog. The spam filter sucks, so I have to go to the manager section of my blog and notice you made comments and de-spam them before they appear. It's supposed to get smarter as I tell it what isn't spam, but since it has never received any spam I don't know how it will work.

Robin Hanson as "Ramone" did a broader defense of voting-as-ritual here. Libertarians don't object to man-as-a-social creature. We advocate forming social organizations as competitors to the state (which does not permit people to decline membership in it, as Herbert Spencer discusses here). I am a fan of the individualist anarchist Max Stirner (even though I am not an anarchist or lefty like him) who discussed a Union of Egoists, in which people join together for their mutual benefit.

The point of voting is not (as Landsberg stupidly holds) that it is only worth doing if you stand a chance of casting the single vote that tips the balance past 50/50.
If you knew that the vote was rigged and your ballot would be thrown out, would you still vote? If your vote makes no difference why don't you pull an imaginary lever in your house and cheer "Go [my candidate]!"? Do you like the atmosphere of the polling place?

The point is that you are joining in with other members of your community to make a collective decision.
If I stay at home and blog about how all the candidates suck, how am I playing less of a part than you? Can't I just declare myself as taking a part? Why let the state define your relation to the community?

mtraven said...

Thanks for the Hanson pointer, its interesting to find myself thinking along the same lines as him.

You ask: If you knew that the vote was rigged and your ballot would be thrown out, would you still vote?

What do you mean by "rigged"? Nobody in this discussion has been discussing vote fraud. The question you should be (and maybe are) asking is, if you know that your vote makes no final difference to the outcome, should you vote? The answer is, sure, sometimes. You might want to demonstrate that your side has a certain level of strength, even if it's not sufficient to win. You want to be able to say you did all you could to pull things in a good direction.

But you still don't seem to get the basic point that voting is primarily a collective process and only secondarily an individual act. That's what makes it interesting to me.

If your vote makes no difference why don't you pull an imaginary lever in your house and cheer "Go [my candidate]!"? Do you like the atmosphere of the polling place?
Actually, yes, in a way. They have a musty and solemn and unique feeling to them, as befits their ritualistic function. And its a chance to get to see people in your community that you ordinarily would not.

If I stay at home and blog about how all the candidates suck, how am I playing less of a part than you? Can't I just declare myself as taking a part? Why let the state define your relation to the community?

You've got a perfect right to not take part in the voting process. And if you can find other ways to relate to your community, fine. Go for it. There are certainly more effective ways to make changes than voting.

I'm not unsympathetic to your stance. But, the sad fact is that the government is the government -- they have the power, and they have that in part because a large portion of your community is willing to let them have it. The institutions of government run certain things and if you want to effect those things, you have to use established techniques of influencing government (of which voting is perhaps the least important), or plot a revolution. And revolutions are hard to pull off and tend to end up making things worse.

But most people who brag about how much they hate government are just wanking. They are not going to change anything. If you want to effect actual change you have to engage with the actual institutions of power.

tggp said...

What do you mean by "rigged"? Nobody in this discussion has been discussing vote fraud. The question you should be (and maybe are) asking is, if you know that your vote makes no final difference to the outcome, should you vote?
What's the relevant difference between that and a rigged election?

You might want to demonstrate that your side has a certain level of strength, even if it's not sufficient to win.
To what precision do they usually report the results of the vote? Do you really think it matters if they report that candidate X got 3,298,423 votes instead of 3,298,422?

You want to be able to say you did all you could to pull things in a good direction.
If your vote doesn't matter, how are you any more able to say that than the stay-at-home blogger?

But you still don't seem to get the basic point that voting is primarily a collective process and only secondarily an individual act. That's what makes it interesting to me.
YOUR vote IS an individual act. The collective cannot make you vote. We have laws preventing that sort of thing. You always have the option of not voting or casting a write-in or in some other way disregarding the collective.

Actually, yes, in a way. They have a musty and solemn and unique feeling to them, as befits their ritualistic function. And its a chance to get to see people in your community that you ordinarily would not.
Well I guess I don't have any way to dispute your feelings here. Touché.

But, the sad fact is that the government is the government -- they have the power, and they have that in part because a large portion of your community is willing to let them have it.
All true and irrelevant.

The institutions of government run certain things and if you want to effect those things, you have to use established techniques of influencing government (of which voting is perhaps the least important)
So once again, why vote rather than pulling an imaginary lever at home since it doesn't make a difference?

But most people who brag about how much they hate government are just wanking. They are not going to change anything.
I don't think I was bragging about not voting, just making a note of it since it was relevant to the topic HA asked me to write about. My point is that the voter is not going to change anything either. As long as I'm not changing anything I think I'll decline to waste my time by voting.

If you want to effect actual change you have to engage with the actual institutions of power.
I'm not going to effect any changes and neither are you, voting or otherwise. Sure, it would be possible for us to kill some politicians we especially dislike in the hopes that their replacements won't be so bad, but then we wouldn't really be in much position to enjoy the better resulting policies.

mtraven said...

A fraudulent election is like a communion where they've substituted Ritz crackers for the wafers -- it doesn't obey the rules, so it's invalid and does not serve its ritualistic purpose.

We are talking past each other. You and the economists have very cleverly noticed that voting is not "rational" for a very limited and boring definition of ratinality. I couldn't care less about that, but the actual reasons people do vote and care about it are interesting to me.

Voting is a quite imperfect and flawed system for collective decision making, especially our version of it, but it's the one we actually have. Ways to improve voting can be interesting, such as preferential ranking and instant runoffs. But kvetching about voting in general just isn't -- not to me anyway, since I went through your stage some 25 years ago.

TGGP said...

A fraudulent election is like a communion where they've substituted Ritz crackers for the wafers -- it doesn't obey the rules, so it's invalid and does not serve its ritualistic purpose.
I've been to communions that let you rip off bread from a large loaf, ones where they gave out crackers, ones where there was only wine to drink and ones where there was only juice. Perhaps it's because I was only baptized catholic and raised protestant, but it didn't seem like it made any difference to me or the other people in church.

We are talking past each other. You and the economists have very cleverly noticed that voting is not "rational" for a very limited and boring definition of ratinality. I couldn't care less about that, but the actual reasons people do vote and care about it are interesting to me.
We have observed that an individual vote will not affect the outcome, so if someone votes because they want to change something, they are irrational. All that's left seems to be a circular value for voting-for-the-sake-of-voting. Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses irrational beliefs people enjoy and why we should still replace them here.

Voting is a quite imperfect and flawed system for collective decision making, especially our version of it, but it's the one we actually have.
What a great defense, I didn't know you were a conservative defending things just because it's the status quo.

Ways to improve voting can be interesting, such as preferential ranking and instant runoffs.
What about restricting the franchise? Or giving some people more votes than others?

But kvetching about voting in general just isn't
Why not? If voting really is a crappy system with superior alternatives, there would be perfectly good reason to kvetch about it a lot. Attempting to limit discourse to just different systems of voting without giving any reason to ignore the alternative of chucking voting is a clear-cut case of status quo bias.

mtraven said...

OK, forget the communion analogy -- I'm no kind of Xian and probably don't know what I'm talking about as far as that goes. As for elections, part of the ritual is that your miniscule influence is nonetheless real. If votes aren't counted fairly, that quality goes away.

if someone votes because they want to change something, they are irrational. All that's left seems to be a circular value for voting-for-the-sake-of-voting

Did you ever hear of the categorical imperative?

You still didn't answer my challenge on your blog to define what you mean by "rational".

What a great defense, I didn't know you were a conservative defending things just because it's the status quo.
I'm not defending it, exactly. I'm saying that our current system is where the actual power is right now, rightly or wrongly, and if you want to change things you have to engage with the real-world power structures. Voting is of course only a weak and mostly symbolic way of doing this, but getting involved in electoral politics is not.


What about restricting the franchise? Or giving some people more votes than others?
Restricting the franchise runs counter to the spirit of democracy. Who are you going to restrict it to? The alternatives that you link to are a little more interesting, some of them I would approve of, some not. The one that makes the most sense, and could conceivably happen, is giving parents a vote for each of their children, since children have a greater stake in the future than adults but aren't competent to make choices about it....I'd support that one.

If voting really is a crappy system with superior alternatives, there would be perfectly good reason to kvetch about it a lot.
If you have better alternatives, let's hear them.

And you may be interested in some earlier speculation on alternative schemes.

Attempting to limit discourse to just different systems of voting without giving any reason to ignore the alternative of chucking voting is a clear-cut case of status quo bias.

"Chucking voting" is not an alternative; you need to specify how things are run in the absence of voting. Autocracy? Corporate ownership of everything? Gang warfare?

I will admit to being slightly conservative and having "status quo bias". The status quo (any status quo) has a big advantage over any alternative scheme, in that we already know that it works, albeit with numerous flaws. Radical schemes for change might make things better, but they also might make things much, much, worse, and there is no reliable way to predict the outcome. The experience of 20th century revolutionary movements has taught us that much.

Of course, this is a false dichotomy. The alternative to stone conservatism which opposes all change and radical revolutionary schemes is incremental, evolutionary change. More boring than drawing up grand schemes for reorganizing society, but also much more likely to actually have a positive effect.

B. Broadside said...
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goatchowder said...

Dude, you are arguing with libertarians.

Unlike them, don't you have work do to?

:-)

mtraven said...

A guy's got to have a hobby.

I find it sometimes interesting to bounce ideas off of libertarians, but when it turns into endless, fruitless back and forth -- you are right, it's a waste of time and brain cells.

B. Broadside said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Randy said...

I don't vote, and I am sort of a Libertarian, but the reason I don't vote isn't because I'm a libertarian, but because I'm also an atheist. That is, I agree that voting is a ritual, but I don't do rituals. A thing either has value to me or it doesn't, and voting doesn't.

mrda said...

Lamest argument for voting I've read yet.

mrda said...

That is to say, it works as a descriptive explanation of why people vote, but fails on the prescriptive level.