The addiction to politics

“As the leader of a think tank dedicated to public policy, I would love it if Americans were as obsessed with policy as I am.”
(Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute)

Can politics become an addiction? A more realistic question is to ask why politics is an addiction for so many people. The most straightforward answer would be that a compulsive interest in politics just reflects a natural preoccupation with advancing one’s interest (or that of others). But as was discussed in the previous installment, The Calculus of Voting, as general rule, politics is not a very effective means to advance one’s interests. Could it be that the identification of advancing one’s interests and engagement with politics reflects tribal instincts? As Hal Finney writes on the blog Overcoming Bias:

We have this instinct that choosing our Leader is as important to our lives as it was when we were a tribe of two dozen, and that we have similar influence over the result. Following elections and participating in politics activates these vestigial tribal instincts in much the same was as sports, with similarly futile results.

Such an explanation helps in reconciling the mysterious discrepancy between the empowerment voters  experience when engaging in politics and the actual power it confers to them. If during most of mankind’s existence there was a strong relationship between participation in small-scale decision making and individual consequences, it should not be surprising that we have evolved to be “political animals” and that such instincts are even triggered in elections where millions of people vote and where most individual goals can be more easily gained by non-political individual acts.

It is interesting to note that the changed scale in human interaction does not produce similar effects in markets. Being a consumer of a product or service does not become more futile when more people consume  the good. A company can grow to serve millions of individuals in different nations and supply and demand generally ensures that one gets what one chooses. In his book Social Contract, Free Ride:A Study of the Public Goods Problem, Anthony de Jasay even argues that the absolute size of a group is not directly relevant to the rationality of voluntary contribution to public goods.

Although much ink has been spilled over political bias in the media, one rarely encounters the opinion that the media devotes too much attention to politics as such. Most people who shape public opinion and write for a living seem to share the Aristotelian vision of political participation as salvation. As William C. Mitchell and Randy T. Simmons write in their book Beyond Politics:

Participating in the political process is seen as a way of lifting oneself above the crass self-interest many believe characterize market transactions. In this essentially Aristotelian vision people are not able to reach their highest potential unless they participate in the political process. In fact, such participation is deemed necessary for human moral development.

But as public choice scholars have pointed out, the nature of man does not change as soon as he enters the political arena or takes office. Perhaps it even brings out his worst traits or selects for the people that have them. The short-term and divisive nature of everyday politics seems to be a very fertile ground for fanaticism and biased reasoning.

The desire to engage in political battle and to see one party as the enemy is so strong that, as Bryan Caplan speculates, people tend to ignore the absence of any real differences in public policy between the major parties for the  sake  of enjoying the illusion of a partisan rift:

So what is the “key difference” between the parties? Rhetoric. When Republicans advocate a small contraction of the welfare state, Democrats claim that Republicans totally oppose the welfare state. And many Republicans oblige them by standing up for “liberty” and “responsibility.” Similarly, when Democrats advocate a small expansion in the welfare state, Republican claim that Democrats oppose free markets. And many Democrats oblige them by saying things like “markets only benefit the rich.”

This rhetorical illusion is so powerful that when a Democrat like Clinton adopts many pro-market reforms, Republicans still hate him as a 60s radical. And when Bush II sharply expands the welfare state, Democrats still hate him as a billionaire’s lackey.

The observation that people can get so excited  about rhetoric despite minor differences in public policy does not bode well for the view of politics as salvation or as a source for wisdom or personal growth.

Although one would expect the views and temperament of people who advocate a de-politicized society to steer them away from a strong engagement with practical politics, a surprising number seem obsessed with everything political. It appears that the tribal instinct to engage in politics and strife does not necessarily exclude people who claim that society would be better off without it.

Some of the most remarkable examples of such libertarian obsession with electoral politics were displayed during the Ron Paul campaign. For example, self-identified libertarian anarchists were observed to continuously monitor the primary elections results and blog the latest results online. But when Ron Paul failed to win the primaries, many of his advocates returned to advocating non-voting instead.

Although campaigning to vote for a  politician on one occasion and advocating non-voting on another may reflect just pragmatic political strategy, such a mixed message risks leaving people profoundly confused. In some respects it is also incoherent. The orthodox economic argument that in large democracies  an individual vote has a very low probability of deciding the outcome does not change when Ron Paul runs for office.

But perhaps the most persuasive argument against resorting to politics is one of opportunity costs. All the time that has been spent in vain to political campaigning and producing handbooks to persuade politicians to  refrain from being politicians could have been spent on the creation of private alternatives for government, education of the general public, and legal assistance to people who are faced with government interference instead. One does not have to subscribe to the view that voting is an immoral act to agree that “if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”

Further reading: Carl Watner (ed.) & Wendy McElroy (ed.): Dissenting Electorate: Those Who Refuse to Vote and the Legitimacy of Their Opposition

This is part 2 in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 1: The calculus of voting
Part 3: Beyond politics

The calculus of voting

Is it rational to vote? For most people the question may seem absurd but quite a few economists and political scientists have made the claim that it is not. The reasoning is that in large elections the probability that your individual vote will decide the outcome is so small that voting is a futile exercise. A classic statement of the orthodox economic view of voting can be found in David Friedman’s Price Theory: An Intermediate Text:

“…consider someone making two decisions–what car to buy and what politician to vote for. In either case, the person can improve his decision (make it more likely that he acts in his own interest) by investing time and effort in studying the alternatives. In the case of the car, his decision determines with certainty which car he gets. In the case of the politician, his decision (whom to vote for) changes by one ten-millionth the probability that the candidate he votes for will win. If the candidate would be elected without his vote, he is wasting his time; if the candidate would lose even with his vote, he is also wasting his time.”

If the probability of affecting the outcome is negligible, there is no strong incentive to inform oneself of the  positions of the candidates. Contrary to respectable opinion, being ignorant about politics  can be rational. This  stands in stark contrast to the situation of a consumer in the marketplace who is going to get what  he chooses. Leaving aside the complicating issue of “public goods,” it might be argued that there is no tension between rationality and choice in the marketplace but there is a serious tension between rationality and participation in (large scale) democratic elections.

Strictly speaking, the negligible probability that one’s vote will decide the outcome of an election itself does not render voting irrational. A voter may place an extremely high value on a particular outcome of  the election. So even if the probability of deciding the outcome is very low,  a voter may still be motivated to vote. To use an interesting example, if one believes that the probability of resuscitation of cryonics patients is very low, one can still justify the decision to make cryonics arrangements because of the high value placed on being alive. But a contrary position is possible as well. If one does not care about the outcome of an election, the low probability of affecting that outcome will even further undermine the reason to go out and vote.

In his 1971 book for new voters, Why Vote?, the author William C. Mitchell is making this very point.  He believes that people who do not care about the value of the outcome in an election where the probability of influencing it is perceived to be very low is a good reason to abstain from voting. In all other scenarios, he recommends voting.  He also mentions another reason to vote; voting may be intrinsically rewarding and can be seen as an expression of values, such as the support for democracy. But in 1994, the same William C. Mitchell co-authored a book with Randy T. Simmons called Beyond Politics: Markets, Welfare, and the Failure of Bureaucracy, an introduction to public choice (the economic study of politics) that displays a far more negative vision on government and politics as evidenced by sections such as “In Dispraise of Politics—Some Public Choices,” “The Anatomy of Public Failure,” “In Praise of Property, Profits, and Markets.” The authors revisit the issue of voting as follows:

Voting is a painfully limited way to express one’s values and preferences. It accomplishes its results only indirectly; the vote does not immediately call forth that which is voted for. In fact, if we vote for something but are in the minority we do not get it at all, if we vote against something and are in the minority, we get it and are compelled to pay for the unwanted goods or services.

The authors also address the issue that as more voters participate in an election the individual power of  a vote decreases. In light of this, it is hard to make something of campaigns to “get out the vote” that appeal to the power conferred by  voting. The more people are persuaded by such a message, the less their votes matter.  Perhaps the value of a vote would increase if voters would be able to sell it. But there is a great taboo on  selling votes. But this taboo may not be consistent if one considers the fact it only applies to one part of the electoral process. Politicians routinely “buy” votes by promising entitlements to specific groups.

The value one assigns to different election outcomes is informed by one’s views on the relationship between a specific candidate winning and the effects on policy. For example, if one believes that in terms of public policy (not just rhetoric), there is not enough difference between the parties, the value one attaches to a specific outcome will lessen. If one further believes that contemporary democratic politics will generate an endless cycle between slightly different policies (for example, mixed economies with a bias on markets versus mixed economies with a bias on government), and substantial deviations from this generate their own incentive for  substantial reversals, the combination of a low chance of affecting the outcome and a decreased interest in a specific outcome of the election, will tip the scales in favor of abstaining from voting again.

The only argument that does not appear to be so vulnerable to considerations about the expected benefits from voting is that which claims that by voting one is expressing support for political democracy and ensures a non-violent transition of power. But there is an important flip-side to this argument because it can also explain why people may decide not to vote. By not voting people can “signal” to others their disapproval of a system that allows one person (or group) to gain at the expense of another. Historically such a perspective has been rare because of the conviction that the existence of government is necessary to solve public goods and coordination problems. But economic and political arguments for the necessity of government have been subjected to increased (technical) scrutiny by  some economists and political philosophers, culminating in a school of thought that seeks to substitute markets and private institutions for government.

It may be true that voting is not just about self-interest but about expressing oneself, but so is not voting.

Further reading: Doug Casey – None of the Above

This is part I in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 2: The addiction to politics
Part 3: Beyond politics