As people across the Middle East engage in life-and-death struggles for democracy, most Canadians who are not political insiders are audibly groaning at the thought of yet another election. I heard the hosts of a radio show falling over themselves to make light of the whole process, inviting listeners to phone in with the most farcical reason for playing cards with each party leader. This three part series examines some of the counterintuitive incentives that can make elections so frustrating.
Some commentators try to explain the apathy about this election as a function of “election fatigue,” as voters face their fourth federal election in seven years. Others blame the First-Past-the-Post system and call for proportional representation. On the other hand, the works of two great political economists suggest that perhaps apathy is a sign of rational voters responding to the incentives that elections give them, and, if anything, it is amazing that anyone bothers to vote at all.
In his 1957 Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs coined the term “rational ignorance.” Rational people (meaning people who wish to maximize their own welfare) will ignore a decision when the effort required to become informed is greater than the value of making the right decision. For example, say you are choosing between two cars and you know that one will be $1,000 cheaper to maintain than the other one. If it will cost $2,000 for a consultant to tell you which one is cheaper, the rational thing to do is just buy one and take your chances.
The same logic applies to elections. You can spend from now ‘til the election studying party platforms, the likely results of the policies promised therein and the character of the candidates promising to implement them. Nevertheless, for the cost of that information gathering, your one-in-fourteen-million vote will make no discernable difference to the election result. The government you will end up with is the same government you would have ended up with if you had not voted. Becoming informed about the election might be noble, but it is not rational.
Voters do not completely ignore politics; most do vote, and many hold very strong views on policy matters. Downs’ theory might have a grain of truth, but it cannot be the whole story.
In the Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan argues voters do hold political views, often strong ones. Yet, Caplan argues that rational voters often hold irrational views about public policy. Normally rational behaviour means holding rational views, for example plumbers have an incentive to think rationally about plumbing or they will be out of a job.
As voters, however, people discover there is a psychological cost to discarding beliefs they may share with family and friends or have held for a long time, even when confronted with evidence that contradicts those beliefs. Rational voters realise that the electoral system offers no reward themselves personally for doing so. Voters who vote for bad policies end up with the same government as everyone else anyway, so the path to maximum welfare is to blissfully retain whatever beliefs are most comforting.
Unlike voters, professional economists do have an incentive to be rational about economic policy questions, just as plumbers have an incentive to be rational about plumbing. Caplan presents a set of surveys on economic policy in which he compares the results for professional economists with those of the public. Even after allowing for differences in gender, income and political views, formal training in economics leads to quite different views on economic policy questions. Economists are more in favour of trade with foreigners, more optimistic about our economic progress, more skeptical of “make work” policies and more optimistic about the benefits of markets.
The point is not that economists are smarter than the public, but because they make their living studying economics, they have an incentive to be rational about the subject, whereas the average voter does not.
When each individual has little incentive to spend time absorbing complex policy prescriptions and rationally sorting through them, it should not be surprising that politicians resort to sound bites, gimmicks and the kinds of political mediocrity for which the same individuals generally despise them. It is nobody’s fault in particular, but it makes perfect sense. The only reasonable conclusion from all this is that we should not hand politicians governed by this tragicomical process so much money and power in the first place, but, for now, I offer this column, the first of three, as a philosophical balm for election frustration.