Sunday, February 8, 2009

Politcal Apathy: A Rational Response

I am often chided and have even been (once or twice) verbally assaulted due to my extreme disinterest in all things political. And I thought I might take a minute or two to illustrate why, using a paper I wrote based off the arguments of one of my favorite philosophical articles of all time, "Is it Rational to be an Informed Voter?" by Anthony Downs (I couldn't find the article online, but if you come across it, I highly recommend reading it. I'd even loan you the book I got it from if you ask.).

The main argument Downs gives for why it is irrational to be an informed voter is that the time and effort put forth into becoming informed is not worth the output of being informed.

"...in a culture so flooded with information (much truer now that it was in 1957 when the article was written), one cannot absorb all the information to possibly be weighed in his decisions before he makes them. You must selectively pick and choose datum from the large supply of data in existence. This is true even if the datum don’t cost money, for they can still cost you time, a commodity which is usually harder to come by than money. The amount of information we should rational obtain Downs defines by this axiom: “It is rational to perform an act if its marginal return is larger than its marginal cost” (Downs 360). That is to say, an act is rational if you get a higher level of return than the time and/or money you invested into it. Since we live in an imperfectly informed world, the exact cost or gain from any decision cannot be known in advance, but this axiom can still be used to speak of expected costs and returns."

The supposed outcome of being "informed" (I use this term somewhat loosely, since there are problems knowing the reliability and biases of the information we receive) is that we vote "correctly", i.e. for the outcome with the highest utilitarian interest (utilitarianism has its own set of problems, but, for the sake of brevity, we'll gloss over them). The problem with voting in large elections, however, is that:

'This is the inevitable result of a large electorate: the higher the number of individuals who participates in an election, the lower the weight of each individual vote. Take, for instance, the 2004 presidential election. 1, 463, 732 Oklahomans voted in the 2004 presidential election (Washington Post). Had I been old enough to vote, and chosen to participate, my vote would have added one to this number, raising the total vote to 1, 463, 733. Out of these almost 1.5 million people, my vote would have accounted for only a fraction of a fraction of the percentage of votes cast. And, when we add this 1.5 million voters from Oklahoma to the almost 120 million voters nationwide (Washington Post), the vote of any one individual accounts for only 1/120 millionth of a percent. “Since the cost of voting is so very low, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of citizens can afford to vote. Therefore, the probability of any one citizen’s vote becoming decisive is very small indeed. It is not zero, and it can even be significant…but, under most circumstances, it is so negligible that it renders the return from voting ‘correctly’ infinitesimal” (Downs 361).'

However, I'm sure there are some of you who believe in the electoral process, and believe it to be a rational process. Downs does give four examples of individuals for whom becoming an informed voter is rational. The first is that "you may enjoy being well informed for its own sake, so that the very acquiring of information becomes your motivation for being informed. You feel yourself a good citizen, and your feelings of worth and accomplishment at furthering the democratic process are their own reward." I would agree, but this still gives me no reason to be politically informed, as I gain zero pleasure from the process.

The second reason for being an informed voter is that "you may believe that the election is going to be so close that the probability of you casting the deciding vote is relatively high." However, if 120 million people vote, this is fairly improbable.

The third and fourth reasons for being an informed voter is that "you may need information to influence the vote of others so that you can alter the outcome of an election, or persuade the government to give your preferences more consideration than others" or "you may need information to influence the formation of government policy as a lobbyist". These last two reasons apply to a very small minority, and they certainly don't apply to me personally.

Some would say that the call to being politically informed is made so that we will have a well-informed electorate who will change government policy and make the world a better place. However:

The problem is, we do not require a citizen to be well-informed about the electoral process or even vote at all to share in the benefits of the decisions made by the majority. It’s not as if not voting for a president exempts you from having to live under the reign of that president and follow the precedents he sets. So, as long as a citizen holds the same general opinion as the majority, he will reap the benefits of their decisions whether he actively took part in these decisions or not...In cases such that participation awards you no benefits, the most rational thing to do is simply find the way to most effectively minimize your personal cost, in this case minimizing the cost of your time that would be a waste of resources becoming an informed voter by remaining politically ignorant. However, if all citizens reason this way, then no one bears the cost of democracy and nothing is accomplished.the general solution for such a problem is the implementation of a centralized governmental agency responsible for coercing citizens. Everyone is forced to pay the price, and everyone receives a share of the benefits which (Downs assumes) more than offsets the cost of forced participation. This is the basic thinking behind the collection of taxes by the IRS for things such as national defense and other necessary costs of running a governmental system. The problem, however, is that, unlike the collection of taxes, there is no objective criterion for how informed an individual is, and there is no objective standard for how informed an individual should be. The farthest that any government has taken any such ideas is requiring its public schools to teach classes on civics, government, and history.

Such is the problem of becoming an informed voter. Even if you believe that your vote will not be tampered with, even if you believe that your vote will not be lost or misplaced, even if you live in a state where the Electoral College has to vote with the general consensus, even if you believe that you can actually influence people to behave in more rationalistic ways, you are still only one voice out of 120 million, and as such too much thought about which candidate to vote for will only be a waste of resources that could be better applied in another area of your life.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

1 comment:

Shane S. said...

I would argue with you, but 1.) you already know how I feel about this, and 2.) the time and effort put forth into formulating a thoughtful comment is not worth the output of doing so.