Wednesday, April 9, 2008


From the standpoint of individual benefit voting is almost certainly a waste of time. For example, if one estimates the chances of one's vote deciding a presidential election as being about 1 in 10 million and the personal benefit of having one president over another as valued about $10,000 then the expected return from voting is about a tenth of a cent. I think there's far less difference than that to most people in most elections, but we'll use those numbers.

Voting is the ultimate collective act, and one could argue that the same anticipated benefit would accrue to the entire citizenry of about 350,000,000 people. In that case, one could imagine one's vote as being a gift to the country of a tenth of a cent per person, or $350,000 total expected value. If one is at all civic minded, such a gift is certainly worth one's time.

There is an obvious flaw with this argument: it cannot possibly be true for the general voter. Approximately half the voters are voting "the wrong way". Those of us who are exceptionally intelligent and knowledgeable may feel that "we" are smart and "they" are stupid. But stupidity alone cannot explain the results, because nobody could be so stupid that he always makes the wrong choice given two alternatives. A maximally stupid ought to be able to guess right about half the time. One can assume that nearly everybody that votes "the wrong way" is stupid, but then one ought to also conclude that an approximately equal number of people that vote "the right way" are stupid, which leads to the conclusion that virtually everybody is maximally stupid. This clearly cannot be true.

If one strongly identifies with some subset of the population and that subset tends to all vote the same way these difficulties vanish. Although voting is a waste of time if only considering the gains to one's self, it becomes rational if one considers voting as primarily a gift to one's group, and a failure to vote as abrogating one's group responsibilities. Since voting as a whole must be a zero sum activity the benefits to one's own group must be assumed to be offset by costs to others, but there's an easy to remember song that expresses the proper attitude towards these others: "them, them, fuck them." How one chooses which group one is voting on behalf of varies with the individual, but some kind of identity based politics is the only grounds under which the act of voting makes sense.

So, dear reader, do not ask whether a person who votes the opposite way from you is evil or stupid. Most likely he is neither one. A democratic nation can be considered as a loose coalition of many tribes, and he is simply a member of a tribe different from, and hostile to, your own.

Personally, I don't vote.

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