Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Voting Paradox

Key quote from this video: "While it's entirely rational not to vote...maybe that's not how people decide whether or not to vote."

Gordon Tullock's logic on why he doesn't vote is valid. However, it leads one to consider the following riddle.

Suppose you live in a nation of about 100,000,000 eligible voters (you do). Now suppose you are perfectly rational (you aren't, but just suppose) and that you know that every single one of these other eligible voters is perfectly rational (they aren't either, but again, just suppose). Now let's say you reason like Gordon, that the only reason to vote would be if it really counted: that is, yours would surely be the deciding vote. And let's say, for simplicity, that there are just two candidates to be voted on (for practical purposes, there usually are just two in real life, anyway).

How many people go to the polls on election day?

Well, let's reason it out logically. Suppose you know that no one else will vote. Then you know that your vote will make a difference; in fact, it will be the deciding vote. Therefore voting is the logical thing to do. But you know that everyone else is logical, too, so you know that everyone else will vote. That means that your vote will only decide the election if all of the other voters are perfectly split. There is, by any reasonable estimate, zero chance of this happening. So the logical thing for you to do will be to stay home. But you know that everyone else will reason similarly, so logically you can conclude that no one will vote. But that means it's logical for you to vote, which means that it's logical for everyone to vote, which means everyone will vote, which means that it's illogical for you to vote, which means that no one will vote...

Some smug economists might tell you that it's irrational to vote, but it's clearly just as irrational not to vote. To sum up: the decision cannot be decided on purely rational criteria.

Those who are discontent with the current political system, such as Sandy Ikeda, use terms such as "myth" to disparage the public belief in our civic duty to vote. And of course we in the modern world would never believe such silly things as "myths," when reason is here to liberate us from that archaic device. That is why people will look down on such an accusation. Surely the power of the vote is not pure mythology!

My claim is not that there is some purely rational justification for voting on election day. My claim is rather that a society cannot live without myth. The above riddle should be enough to convince the reader that reason alone is insufficient to justify human behavior. If we assume rationality, we inevitably run into paradoxes.

The myth that every vote counts may be a good or a bad myth, depending on how important it is that we have a vote. It is akin to the myth that kings had some sort of divine right. Note that "myth" here does not necessarily mean "untrue." By "myth" I simply mean a narrative that does not arrive through purely rational contemplation. Rational contemplation is wonderful for tearing down existing structures that allow societies to flourish, and this is sometimes necessary in order to allow newer and better structures to take their place. But whatever does take the place of current structures must in turn be justified by some myth. This is not a cynical statement. It is a logical certainty.

As a final remark, let me ask my reader whether or not he finds it offensive to call the power of the vote a "myth." Do you find this a disparaging comment? If so, I urge you, dear reader, to ask yourself whether this is because you assume in your heart of hearts that you are essentially rational, believing only those things which rational contemplation can justify a priori. If that is what you are inclined to believe about yourself, or if that is the goal to which you are striving, then I would politely suggest that you have bought into a much greater and grander myth already.

Even more powerful than the myth of the power of the vote or any other myth is the myth of rationality. This myth is a narrative, just like all myths. It says that human beings started out as creatures who needed myth to explain the world but now have facts and reason to understand everything. This myth is surrounded by irony, however, since it is a myth about why we don't need myths anymore. The fact is, we do need myths--and if that sounds cynical, it is only because the myth of rationality has shaped it to be so!

Perhaps what we need in the modern world is a higher respect for myth, a greater appreciation for what it gives us, and a clearer understanding of what it actually is. As a corollary, we need to better understand the limits of our reason, the pitfalls of the myth of rationality, and the need for more truthful myths!

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