Friday, October 17, 2003


A few weeks ago I nodded approvingly toward Will from Crescat Sententia’s disagreement with Steve from Begging to Differ’s insistence that one is obligated to choose between the Left and the Right. I closed by noting that Will’s reasoning was akin to the reasoning that usually leads me to vote Libertarian. Then I went to bed.

It looks like a lot of other people stayed up late. Will had several follow-up posts (like this one and that one) which linked to a number of other bloggers’ musings on the subject and which also veered like I had into the closely related issue of voting. Then the Elder at FratersLibertas joined the fray, and in doing so he fired a link my way, accused me of being “clever,” demanded that I and other Libertarians “pull [our] heads out,” and called us “the Greens of the right.”

It took me a while to choke back the tears, but what follows is my response. The argument runs from the positive to the normative. That is, I begin with a descriptive analysis of why people vote before concluding with a prescriptive analysis of which candidate deserves your vote–or rather, which candidate deserves my vote. The rest of you are on your own.

This post is insanely long, and considering that there are still nearly thirteen excruciating months to go before the 2004 election, your time surely would be better spent here or here or here, or perhaps here, or even here. But if you’re into this sort of thing, have at it.

Why do people do anything? Because they think it will make them better off. In other words, because the benefits of any action (or nonaction), as perceived and experienced by the actor, outweigh the costs, as similarly perceived and experienced. Or, to put it a third way, because people are rational. Not in the sense of being wise or even of thinking logically, but in the economist's sense of adapting means to ends, of "tend[ing] to find the correct way to achieve their objectives," as David Friedman has said.

Animals are rational in this sense. So too are children, drunkards, and the insane. This is not to deny that people sometimes or even often misperceive facts about the world, nor that they sometimes or even often miscalculate in their attempts to achieve their ends; acquiring and processing information, like everything else, is not costless, and some people face higher costs in this regard than others. It is simply to assert that nobody ever does anything unless they think there's something in it for them.

Why do people vote? Because they are rational. But what’s rational about voting? The most obvious explanation–to influence the outcome of the election by helping the voter's favored candidate win–is after a moment's reflection obviously wrong. Once the size of the electorate begins to exceed a few hundred voters, the chance of one person’s vote affecting the outcome quickly becomes vanishingly small; in a presidential election (which is what this discussion is primarily aimed at), the chance is effectively zero. So if the only reason to vote is to influence the outcome, there are no benefits to voting. And since voting is not costless–the opportunity cost of the time spent voting is one cost; the time and efforts necessary to decide which candidate to vote for are another–there are negative returns to voting and therefore we should expect no one to vote.

But of course people do vote, and in droves (even if the droves are never as large as the hand-wringers among us would like). So there must be other benefits to voting. Many (Will Baude, for example) have suggested that voting is expressive activity–that people vote in order to express their support for a candidate, in much the same way that someone might write a poem in order to express an emotion. (Or for that matter to express support for a candidate, though I’m certain that's a poem I wouldn’t want to read. And I should add that if the sole reason for a poem’s creation is the expression of an emotion, I wouldn’t want to read that either. But I digress.)

There is some truth to this hypothesis, but I have never found it entirely convincing. To the extent that expression entails communication–that is, transmission of a message to an audience, real or idealized–it is difficult to imagine a less expressive activity than voting, which after all is done in secret amid a group of complete strangers who are doing their best to ignore you and which channels any expressive content it may have into the banal if indubitable mathematical proposition that 50,000,001 votes for Candidate Mephistopheles > 50,000,000 votes for Candidate Mephistopheles. And there are plenty of ways other than voting to express support for a candidate that entail equal or lower costs but that would seem to have much greater expressive benefits: putting up a lawn sign, for instance, or affixing a bumper sticker to your car, or wearing a political button, or simply announcing “I support Candidate Mephistopheles” to friends, neighbors, and annoyed passers by.

I think the real key to understanding why people vote is to conceive of it not as expressive activity but as social activity. This is somewhat paradoxical, given the private (dare I say masturbatory?) nature of the act itself, as discussed above. But counter-intuitive truths are always the most interesting ones.

By characterizing voting as social activity what I mean is that the primary reason why people vote is to become or remain a member of a group. There are many groups at work here, and they overlap considerably, but they can be split into two kinds. The first is simply the electorate at large. It is in the public interest that all eligible voters cast their ballots, because the consent of the governed is what legitimates a democratic government. And so it is drummed into us from a very young age that the bedrock duty of every citizen is to become a member of the electorate by voting. A moral or at least a civic imperative to vote--a voting “norm” is apparently what the kids call it these days–arises in order to increase the costs faced by the individual voter of not voting (or, alternatively, to increase the foregone costs and thus the benefits of voting). To say that it “arises” papers over the precise mechanism by which it arises, but I suspect that it is rooted like many other norms in the urges to gossip and to condemn that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain and that seem to be the underpinnings of much social behavior. If we don’t vote, many of our fellows will try to inflict feelings of shame in us by accusing us of being bad citizens; and even if they don’t, most of us have so internalized the voting norm that we will feel at least twinge of guilt all by ourselves.

This takes us only so far, however, because the public interest requires only that citizens vote for Candidate Mephistopheles or Candidate Beelzebub, not that they vote for Candidate Mephistopheles instead of Candidate Beelzebub. Here is where the second kind of group enters the picture. Aggregates of voters, and in particular the aggregates of aggregates known as political parties, can and do influence elections in a way that individuals can’t and don’t. Still, the right to vote rests in individuals, so if a group (or, more precisely, the people who run the group) wants to harness the power of aggregated votes, it must find ways to induce its existing and potential members to vote together as one. And since directly buying or stealing individual votes is usually considered out of bounds, more indirect measures are needed.

Here again norms come to the rescue, though in this context they become group- and candidate-specific. For instance, suppose that the Brotherhood of Thneed Makers has leveraged its longstanding relationship with the Styx Party (the Styx-Journey-Foreigner Party in Minnesota) into a commitment from Styx Party front-runner Candidate Mephistopheles. He promises that if elected he will support tariffs and import controls to protect the vitally important domestic thneed-making industry. (Candidate Mephistopheles has also made a commitment to the Friends of the Lorax to support tough new restrictions on the generation and disposal of Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp, the principal waste products in the thneed-making process. So he’s probably lying to at least one of the groups, but that’s his problem, and in any event the decisionmakers in both groups have taken this into account.) The BTM will now need to make good on its return commitment to get out the vote for Candidate Mephistopheles.

A norm will arise: a “good” BTM member ought to vote for Candidate Mephistopheles. Sure, any individual member can attempt to buck the norm–if he wants to risk getting on the bad side of the shop steward, or hindering his own prospects for rising up through the BTM hierarchy, or arousing the suspicions of his buddies when they’re shooting the shit about politics over a few beers after the shift ends on Friday evening. Some of the rank and file will run these risks, but most won’t, at least insofar as the BTM is a cohesive, well-functioning organization.

If you still have doubts about the importance of group-based voting norms, ask yourself this question: Why do political parties even exist in the first place? They are hardly constitutionally mandated, and one can easily imagine a world in which candidates for public office ran as individuals and created campaign teams from scratch, like entrepreneurial start-ups. But this almost never happens: candidates almost always emerge from or at least seek the imprimatur of a preexisting political party. Political parties arise because the ground-level, grass-roots groups that people belong to and care about can deliver votes, and because conglomerations of such groups can deliver a lot of votes.

So far I’ve focused on formal organizations like political parties and the interest groups that woo and are wooed by them. But informal groups also play a crucial role in voting behavior. These groups reflect the simple truth that most people enjoy “basking in the association of the like-minded,” as Joshua at Foolippic put it (he called this “one of the chief motivators for political activity,” and he’s right). A corollary of the desire to bask is the compulsion to define the rest of the world in binary opposition to those with whom you are basking: they are them and we are us and a combative and unbridgeable “versus” often springs up in the space between.

Quite by accident I happened recently to reread an early story by Flannery O’Connor called “The Barber” that illustrates this nicely. “The Barber” is about a college teacher named Rayber who in the three weeks leading up to the Democratic White Primary gets into several heated discussions with his barber and the denizens of the barber shop about the two leading candidates, Darmon (Rayber’s choice) and Hawkson (the barber shop’s man). The barber kicks off the first discussion by asking Rayber which candidate he supports; when Rayber tells him, the barber asks baldly, “You a nigger-lover?” The discussion continues:
The barber drew a clean path through the lather and then pointed the razor at Rayber. “I’m tellin’ you,” he said, “there ain’t but two sides now, white and black. Anybody can see that from this campaign. You know what Hawk said? Said a hunnert and fifty years ago, they was runnin’ each other down eatin’ each other–throwin’ jewel rocks at birds–skinnin’ horses with their teeth. A nigger come in a white barber shop in Atlanta and says, ‘Gimme a haircut.’ They throwed him out but it just goes to show you. Why listen, three black hyenas over in Mulford last month shot a white man and took half of what was in his house and you know where they are now? Settin’ in their county jail eatin’ like the President of the United States–they might get dirty in the chain gang; or some damn nigger-lover might come by and be heart-broke to see ‘em pickin’ rock. Why, lemme tell you this–ain’t nothin’ gonna be good again until we get rid of them Mother Hubbards and get us a man can put these niggers in their places. Shuh.”
Rayber is disgusted by the rhetoric of the barber and his henchmen–he fancies himself a “liberal”–but he’s is a little slow on his feet: he can’t “open his head in a second like they did.” So he ends up writing out a speech to defend his position. On the eve of the primary he makes his last trip to the barber shop and delivers the speech. It does not go well, and when it’s over, the barber shop begins to mock him:
For a second–as if they were expecting him to go on–no one said anything.
“How many yawl gonna vote for Boy Blue!” the barber yelled.
Some of the men turned around and snickered. One doubled over.
“Me,” Roy said. “I’m gonna run right down there now so I’ll be first to vote for Boy Blue tomorrow morning.”
Rayber, whose head has been filled with violent thoughts since the story began, now reaches his breaking point. He punches the barber before storming outside, where “the sun was suspending everything in a pool of heat” and “lather began to drip inside his collar and down the barber’s bib, dangling to his knees.”

The barber shop gang is just the sort of informal group I’m talking about. They see the world in black and white terms–literally–and their like-mindedness is what unites them. Hawkson is their totem; a vote for Hawkson is the litmus test for inclusion in their group. Derision of the opposing group–“Boy Blue” Darmon and the “Mother Hubbards” like Rayber who support him–follows almost automatically. And Rayber responds in kind, only more primitively: instead of mocking the barber, he hits him.

I don’t mean to argue that us-vs.-them dichotomies are never valid; for instance, there really is a combative and unbridgeable “versus” between the open societies of the West and the Islamofascists of the Middle East (Lileks touches on this in his expert fisking of Coleen “Fifteen Minutes of Fame Just Isn’t Enough” Rowley’s staggeringly stupid op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Strib). For that matter, there really was a gulf between the segregationists and integrationists of the Deep South that to this day has not been entirely transcended. My point is that the urge to create “us” and “them” groups is a powerful determinant of political activity in general and voting in particular.

Just look at the Elder’s finger-wagging to me and other libertarians: “The right needs to rally together,” he says. Why? Because “[t]he 2004 campaign is already underway” and “[i]t's going to [be] a long, grueling, nasty slugfest.” Bang, zoom, pow! “We're”–got that? We are–“not going to win just by showing up next November. It's time to join the fight, get in the trenches, strap on the gear, put on the foil, whatever analogy works for you go with it.”

Again, my point is not that the Elder is correct or incorrect about “the right” having to rally together. It’s that his appeal is pitched in terms of “the right.” His argument is itself a demonstration of my thesis that voting is fundamentally a social, group-centered activity.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. So what about you? Well, the flip side of my analysis is that if you don’t have strong group ties, then there’s no reason for you to bother voting. And I don’t. I’m introverted, stand-offish, and asocial–an inveterate non-joiner. (INTP, if you haven’t guessed already.)

Now, I have sufficiently internalized the norm of voting that I’d feel like a bad citizen if I didn’t vote at all. But beyond that, I feel no obligation to divert my vote from whichever candidate’s principles and positions are closest to my own. Why should I? My single wee vote won’t make a difference to the outcome, and I owe no fealty to any formal groups. That leaves informal groups like Rayber’s barber shop and the Elder’s “the right.” There’s no one at the barber shop that I care to associate with, and “the right” is too amorphous and ad hoc to have any pull on my affections.

Does that mean I’ll be voting for the Libertarian Party candidate? Maybe, maybe not; I don’t know yet (my flippant “undoubtedly” in another context notwithstanding). I’ve voted Libertarian since 1992 (Bush pere got my vote in 1988, Reagan in 1984), and I’m lukewarm on George W. overall. But I think the war against terrorism is by far the important issue facing this country today, and Libertarians seem to be more concerned with the excesses, real and imagined, of the Patriot Act than with the very real possibility that the next terrorist attack on American soil will kill millions, not thousands. Lileks seems to think this is a virtual certainty, and while I’m not that pessimistic, doomsday scenarios cross my mind a hell of a lot more now than they did during the Cold War, which after all had the icy logic of mutually assured destruction to keep everyone honest. Those days are gone; the challenge now is to find a new way to keep us safe. Bush’s decision to topple Saddam was a bold and risky attempt to do just that. It may turn out to fail, though I sincerely hope it doesn’t. But at least Bush seems to recognize both the gravity and the novelty of our predicament. I don’t get the sense that any other candidate does.

So, if you want me to vote for Bush, there’s your hint. Don’t try to tell me that my vote matters (it doesn’t) or that “the right” has to band together (I’m not interested). Try convincing me on the merits. Who knows? Maybe it’ll work.


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