Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Trouble with Voting

I recently heard an interview with the author of the book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter” and it got me thinking. What is it about voting that slowly brings about bad government? Why does the electorate seem to give up a tiny piece of their essential rights every election (or follow a one step forward, two steps back cycle)? I’ve got the book on my reading list, so one day I’ll be able to match my theory up with what the book says. For now, though, I’ll just have to speculate.

I thought back to the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” which talks about group decision making to find part of my answer. You should read it, if you haven’t already. The book contained many examples of groups making decisions, making very good decisions, even though few of the members of the group were experts in the area. What’s the difference between these group decisions and voting?

One difference is cost. The good decisions that groups were able to make always entailed some form of expense to the decision makers if they got it wrong, or a reward if they got it right. Whether it was trying to guess the weight of a bull at a county fair to win a prize (the example the book opens with) or betting against Morton Thiokol in the Challenger shuttle disaster on the stock market; the quality of the individual decisions had a direct link to a reward or expense. Isn’t this also true with voting?

No, it isn’t. Because while in voting the decisions are made by the individual, the costs and rewards are spread over the group. That is, if you vote and get it “right” it won’t affect you at all unless you’re on the winning side. Likewise, if you vote and get it “wrong” it won’t you personally, but everyone. This causes a slight shift in the definition of “right” and “wrong” in the election process.

The meaning of right and wrong change from “selecting the best choice” to “selecting the winning choice.” It’s a subtle change, because quite often those are the same. Consider an election on whether to commit national suicide via drinking poison Kool-Aid. In this case (I hope) the winning choice is also the right choice. But it isn’t always so.

There will be times, however infrequent, that the best choice doesn’t appear to be the most popular one. In that case, when enough voters shift sides because they want to be on the “winning” side of an election, the wrong choice is made. Since this doesn’t happen every time, it explains why voting is a slow slide into fascism and socialism. Even more perverse is the idea that the winning side may not actually have been the most popular, but was portrayed as such by the media; becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can see this shift in action every time someone tells you that you’re “wasting your vote” by selecting candidate X because they can’t win. The only way such a vote is wasted is if the goal of voting is to predict the winner, not to vote for the most capable person.

Voting has the inherent flaw that it does not scale well. There are times when it is an effective way to judge the interest of a group (where should we have lunch today?) but quickly breaks down as the size of the group grows. If you feel like your vote has no impact on the outcome, but you’re going to be subject to its decision, what’s the point in trying to vote well?

Voting is a topic I will visit again, as I think an understanding of its flaws is critical to breaking the official myth that Democracy = Freedom.

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