Sunday, November 06, 2005

Why vote?

Today's New York Times Magazine has a disappointing piece by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt entitled "Why Vote?" The writers seem to be economists, or at least they approach the question like economists, and as far as I can tell they conclude that there are no good reasons for a rational person to participate in elections. A rational person knows that his or her vote makes no difference.

The definitive refutation of this viewpoint, which is mentioned in the article and called the "slippery slope" argument is simply dismissed. That, of course, is the obvious fact that if everybody acted as a "rational" person there would be zero participation in elections.

So really they are talking about the assumed New York Times reader's self interest here--is there any reason for me to get off my ass and go stand in line on election day?--not about whether it would be a good thing if everybody acted with self-interest questions in mind.

The standpoint of the writers is that of course elections will continue to be held, but you and I, being smart people, readers of the New York Times, might as well stay home. At best, if we live in a Swiss village, we might rationally vote just to be seen at the polls and to be able to wear a little "I voted" lapel sticker and thus gain the esteem of our fellow villagers. They actually say something like this.

But the article title "why vote?" raised some issues in my own mind, which I was disappointed the authors did not address.

As I said, they did mention, and give short shrift to, the most literal answer, which is that if we don't vote there will be no elections.

But if we are being rational, why stop here? Why even have elections? I don't mean doing away with democracy, but rather, why not do this scientifically, with well-designed polls?

(I will say at the outset I am opposed to this, but in thinking about it I clarified something of my own view as to the real reason we have elections.)

Pollsters go to great lengths to select their samples accurately, and if their goal were to represent an accurate cross-section of the population in their poll, they would do a far better job of it than we presently do by holding a national election. Elections select for certain kinds of voters in a very unrepresentative way and give those people an excessively large say in public affairs.

This is not at all democratic, when you think about it. To take one example of many, and a very obvious one: angry voters are given more of a say in public affairs than people who are not angry. Likewise, individuals crazed with certainty are given more weight in public decision making than thoughtful but uncertain people. It's hard (self-servingly or not) for a thoughtful person to argue that this is altogether a good thing.

So if we want representative democracy, a scientific poll (ignoring the important question of who determines the sampling procedures and makes sure that they are in fact scientific) will give us better answers on issues and candidates.

The problem is that we--the public--are all of us very well aware that poll results have a range of error, and that they change over time. Such awareness weakens public confidence in their results--as well they should.

So I realized that my own view of "why vote" is that voting is ceremony of civic religion, one that confers on all of us a sense that our government is legitimate. It is an all-important rite of validation. Although a scientific poll is far more accurate as measurement of public sentiment, I don't see any way we could ever come to think of poll results the way we think of election results.

Polls would never give us that sense that we have all decided that candidate Smith or candidate Fulano is legitimately our representative for four years.

So, in short, I think voting is our method of being able to believe in our government.

Part of the reason (only one of many, obviously) that I despise what Republicans are doing, is that they are destroying--for everyone--the sense that elections confer legitimacy. In their drive to win at all costs, like we see in the Florida recount or their Texas gerrymandering, they do win, at least in the short term, but at the cost of the rest of us accepting the legitimacy of government.

This can't be a good thing.

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