Stop Voting For Nincompoops

Fol­lowup to: The Two-Party Swin­dle, The Amer­i­can Sys­tem and Mislead­ing La­bels

If evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy could be sim­plified down to one sen­tence (which it can’t), it would be: “Our in­stincts are adap­ta­tions that in­creased fit­ness in the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, and we go on feel­ing that way re­gard­less of whether it in­creases fit­ness to­day.” Sex with con­doms, tastes for sugar and fat, etc.

In the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, there was no such thing as voter con­fi­den­tial­ity. If you backed a power fac­tion in your hunter-gath­erer band, ev­ery­one knew which side you’d picked. The penalty for choos­ing the los­ing side could eas­ily be death.

Our emo­tions are shaped to steer us through hunter-gath­erer life, not life in the mod­ern world. It should be no sur­prise, then, that when peo­ple choose poli­ti­cal sides, they feel drawn to the fac­tion that seems stronger, bet­ter po­si­tioned to win. Even when vot­ing is con­fi­den­tial. Just as peo­ple en­joy sex, even when us­ing con­tra­cep­tion.

(Ge­orge Or­well had a few words to say in “Raf­fles and Miss Blan­dish” about where the ad­mira­tion of power can go. The dan­ger, not of lust­ing for power, but just of feel­ing drawn to it.)

In a re­cent spe­cial elec­tion for Cal­ifor­nia gov­er­nor, the usual lock of the party struc­ture broke down—they ne­glected to block that spe­cial case, and so you could get in with 65 sig­na­tures and $3500. As a re­sult there were 135 can­di­dates.

With 135 can­di­dates, one might have thought there would be an op­por­tu­nity for some gen­uine voter choice—a lower bar­rier to en­try, which would cre­ate a chance to elect an ex­cep­tion­ally com­pe­tent gov­er­nor. How­ever, the me­dia im­me­di­ately swung into ac­tion and de­cided that only a tiny frac­tion of these can­di­dates would be al­lowed to get any pub­lic­ity. Which ones? Why, the ones who already had name recog­ni­tion! Those, af­ter all, were the can­di­dates who were likely to win, so those were the ones which the me­dia re­ported on.

Amaz­ingly, the me­dia col­lec­tively ex­erted such tremen­dous power, in nearly perfect co­or­di­na­tion, with­out de­liber­ate in­ten­tion (con­spir­a­cies are gen­er­ally much less nec­es­sary than be­lieved). They gen­uinely thought, I think, that they were re­port­ing the news rather than mak­ing it. Did it even oc­cur to them that the en­tire busi­ness was self-refer­en­tial? Did any­one write about that as­pect? With a co­or­di­nated ac­tion, the me­dia could have cho­sen any not-com­pletely-pa­thetic can­di­date to re­port as the “front-run­ner”, and their re­port­ing would thereby have been cor­rect.

The tech­ni­cal term for this is Key­ne­sian beauty con­test, wherein ev­ery­one tries to vote for who­ever they think most peo­ple will vote for.

If Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger (4,206,284 votes) had been as un­able to get pub­lic­ity as Lo­gan Cle­ments (274 votes), per­haps be­cause the me­dia be­lieved (in un­co­or­di­nated uni­son) that no ac­tion-movie hero could be taken se­ri­ously as a can­di­date, then Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger would not have been a “se­ri­ous can­di­date”.

In effect, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger was ap­pointed Gover­nor of Cal­ifor­nia by the me­dia. The case is no­table be­cause usu­ally it’s the party struc­ture that ex­cludes can­di­dates, and the party struc­ture’s power has a for­mal ba­sis that does not re­quire voter com­plic­ity. The power of the me­dia to ap­point Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger gov­er­nor de­rived strictly from vot­ers fol­low­ing what some­one told them was the trend. If the vot­ers had ig­nored the me­dia tel­ling them who the front-run­ner was, and de­cided their ini­tial pick of “se­ri­ous can­di­dates” based on, say, the an­swers to a ques­tion­naire, then the me­dia would have had no power.

Yes, this is presently around as likely as the Sun ris­ing in the west and illu­mi­nat­ing a Moon of green cheese. But there’s this thing called the In­ter­net now, which hu­man­ity is still figur­ing out how to use, and there may be an­other change or two on the way. Twenty years ago, if the me­dia had de­cided not to re­port on Ron Paul, that would have been that.

Some­one is bound to say, at this point, “But if you vote for a can­di­date with no chance of win­ning, you’re throw­ing your vote away!

“The lead­ers are lizards. The peo­ple hate the lizards and the lizards rule the peo­ple.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democ­racy.”
“I did,” said Ford, “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hop­ing he wasn’t sound­ing ridicu­lously ob­tuse, “why don’t the peo­ple get rid of the lizards?”
“It hon­estly doesn’t oc­cur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much as­sume that the gov­ern­ment they’ve voted in more or less ap­prox­i­mates to the gov­ern­ment they want.”
“You mean they ac­tu­ally vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, go­ing for the big one again, “why?”
“Be­cause if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”

To which the economist replies, “But you can’t always jump from a Nash equil­ibrium to a Pareto op­ti­mum,” mean­ing roughly, “Un­less ev­ery­one else has that same idea at the same time, you’ll still be throw­ing your vote away,” or in other words, “You can make fun all you like, but if you don’t vote for a lizard, the wrong lizard re­ally might get in.”

In which case, the lizards know they can rely on your vote go­ing to one of them, and they have no in­cen­tive to treat you kindly. Most of the benefits of democ­racy may be from the lizards be­ing scared enough of vot­ers to not mis­be­have re­ally re­ally badly, rather than from the “right lizard” win­ning a voter-fight.

Be­sides, pick­ing the bet­ter lizard is harder than it looks. In 2000, the comic Melon­pool showed a char­ac­ter pon­der­ing, “Bush or Gore… Bush or Gore… it’s like flip­ping a two-headed coin.” Well, how were they sup­posed to know? In 2000, based on his­tory, it seemed to me that the Repub­li­cans were gen­er­ally less in­ter­ven­tion­ist and there­fore less harm­ful than the Democrats, so I pon­dered whether to vote for Bush to pre­vent Gore from get­ting in. Yet it seemed to me that the bar­ri­ers to keep out third par­ties were a raw power grab, and that I was there­fore obliged to vote for third par­ties wher­ever pos­si­ble, to pe­nal­ize the Repub­licrats for get­ting grabby. And so I voted Liber­tar­ian, though I don’t con­sider my­self one (at least not with a big “L”). I’m glad I didn’t do the “sen­si­ble” thing. Less blood on my hands.

If we could go back in time and change our votes, and see al­ter­nate his­to­ries laid out side-by-side, it might make sense to vote for the less evil of two lizards. But in a state of ig­no­rance—vot­ing for can­di­dates that aban­don their stated prin­ci­ples like they dis­card used toi­let pa­per—then it is harder to com­pare lizards than those en­thu­si­as­ti­cally cheer­ing for team col­ors might think.

Are peo­ple who vote for Ron Paul in the Repub­li­can pri­mary wast­ing their votes? I’m not ask­ing, mind you, whether you ap­prove of Ron Paul as a can­di­date. I’m ask­ing you whether the Ron Paul vot­ers are tak­ing an effectless ac­tion if Ron Paul doesn’t win. Ron Paul is show­ing what an can­di­date can do with the In­ter­net, de­spite the party struc­ture and the me­dia. A com­pe­tent out­sider con­sid­er­ing a pres­i­den­tial run in 2012 is much more likely to take a shot at it now. What ex­actly does a vote for Hilli­ani ac­com­plish, be­sides tel­ling the lizards to keep do­ing what­ever it is they’re do­ing?

Make them work for your vote. Vote for more of the same this year, for what­ever clever-sound­ing rea­son, and next elec­tion, they’ll give you more of the same. Re­fuse to vote for nin­com­poops and maybe they’ll try offer­ing you a less nin­com­poopy can­di­date, or non-nin­com­poops will be more likely to run for office when they see they have a chance.

Be­sides, if you’re go­ing to ap­ply game the­ory to the situ­a­tion in a short­sighted lo­cal fash­ion—not tak­ing into ac­count oth­ers think­ing similarly, and not tak­ing into ac­count the in­cen­tives you cre­ate for later elec­tions based on what po­ten­tial fu­ture can­di­dates see you do­ing to­day—if, I say, you think in such a strictly lo­cal fash­ion and call it “ra­tio­nal”, then why vote at all, when your sin­gle vote is ex­ceed­ingly un­likely to de­ter­mine the win­ner?

Con­sider these two clever-sound­ing game-the­o­ret­i­cal ar­gu­ments side by side:

  1. You should vote for the less evil of the top main­stream can­di­dates, be­cause your vote is un­likely to make a crit­i­cal differ­ence if you vote for a can­di­date that most peo­ple don’t vote for.

  2. You should stay home, be­cause your vote is un­likely to make a crit­i­cal differ­ence.

It’s hard to see who should ac­cept ar­gu­ment #1 but re­fuse to ac­cept ar­gu­ment #2.

I’m not go­ing to go into the no­tion of col­lec­tive ac­tion, Pri­soner’s Dilemma, New­comblike prob­lems, etcetera, be­cause the last time I tried to write about this, I ac­ci­den­tally started to write a book. But what­ever mean­ing you at­tach to vot­ing—es­pe­cially any no­tions of good cit­i­zen­ship—it’s hard to see why you should vote for a lizard if you bother to vote at all.

There is an in­ter­ac­tion here, a con­fluence of folly, be­tween the evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy of poli­tics as a foot­ball game, and the evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy of try­ing to side with the win­ner. The me­dia—I am not the first to ob­serve this—re­port on poli­tics as though it is a horse race. Good feel­ings about a can­di­date are gen­er­ated, not by look­ing over vot­ing records, but by the me­dia re­port­ing ex­cit­edly: “He’s pul­ling ahead in the third stretch!” What the me­dia thinks we should know about can­di­dates is that such-and-such can­di­date ap­peals to such-and-such vot­ing fac­tion. Since this is prac­ti­cally all the me­dia re­port on, it feeds noth­ing but the in­stinct to get your­self on the win­ning side.

And then there’s the lovely con­cept of “electabil­ity”: Try­ing to vote for a can­di­date that you think other peo­ple will vote for, be­cause you want your own color to win at any cost. You have to ad­mire the spec­ta­cle of the me­dia breath­lessly re­port­ing on which vot­ing fac­tions think that can­di­date X is the most “electable”. Is any­one even count­ing the lev­els of re­cur­sion here?

Or con­sider it from yet an­other per­spec­tive:

There are roughly 300 mil­lion peo­ple in the United States, of whom only one can be Pres­i­dent at any given time.

With 300 mil­lion available can­di­dates, many of whom are not nin­com­poops, why does Amer­ica keep elect­ing nin­com­poops to poli­ti­cal office?

Send­ing a mes­sage to se­lect 1 out of 300 mil­lion pos­si­bil­ities re­quires 29 bits. So if you vote in only the gen­eral elec­tion for the Pres­i­dency, then some mys­te­ri­ous force nar­rows the elec­tion down to 2 out of 300 mil­lion pos­si­bil­ities—ex­ert­ing 28 bits of de­ci­sion power—and then you, or rather the en­tire vot­ing pop­u­la­tion, ex­ert 1 more bit of de­ci­sion power. If you vote in a pri­mary elec­tion, you may send an­other 2 or 3 bits worth of mes­sage.

Where do the other 25 bits of de­ci­sion power come from?

You may ob­ject: “Wait a minute, not ev­ery­one in the United States is 35 years old and a nat­u­ral-born cit­i­zen, so it’s not 300 mil­lion pos­si­bil­ities.”

I re­ply, “How do you know that a 34-year-old can­not be Pres­i­dent?”

And you cry, “What? It’s in the Con­sti­tu­tion!”

Well, there you go: Since around half the pop­u­la­tion is un­der the age of 35, at least one bit of the miss­ing de­ci­sion power is ex­erted by 55 del­e­gates in Philadelphia in 1787. Though the “nat­u­ral-born cit­i­zen” clause comes from a let­ter sent by John Jay to Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, a sug­ges­tion that was adopted with­out de­bate by the Philadelphia Con­ven­tion.

I am not nec­es­sar­ily ad­vis­ing that you go out­side the box on this one. Some­times the box is there for a good rea­son. But you should at least be con­scious of the box’s ex­is­tence and ori­gin.

Like­wise, not ev­ery­one would want to be Pres­i­dent. (But see the hid­den box: In prin­ci­ple the op­tion ex­ists of en­forc­ing Pres­i­den­tial ser­vice, like jury duty.) How many peo­ple would run for Pres­i­dent if they had a se­ri­ous chance at win­ning? Let’s pre­tend the num­ber is only 150,000. That ac­counts for an­other 10 bits.

Then some com­bi­na­tion of the party struc­ture, and the me­dia tel­ling com­plicit vot­ers who vot­ers are likely to vote for, is ex­ert­ing on the or­der of 14-15 bits of power over the Pres­i­dency; while the vot­ers only ex­ert 3-4 bits. And ac­tu­ally the situ­a­tion is worse than this, be­cause the me­dia and party struc­ture get to move first. They can elimi­nate nearly all the var­i­ance along any par­tic­u­lar di­men­sion. So that by the time you get to choose one of four “se­ri­ous” “front-run­ning” can­di­dates, that is, the ones ap­proved by both the party struc­ture and the me­dia, you’re choos­ing be­tween 90.8% nin­com­poop and 90.6% nin­com­poop.

I se­ri­ously think the best thing you can do about the situ­a­tion, as a voter, is stop try­ing to be clever. Don’t try to vote for some­one you don’t re­ally like, be­cause you think your vote is more likely to make a differ­ence that way. Don’t fret about “electabil­ity”. Don’t try to pre­dict and out­wit other vot­ers. Don’t treat it as a horse race. Don’t worry about “wast­ing your vote”—it always sends a mes­sage, you may as well make it a true mes­sage.

Re­mem­ber that this is not the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, and that you won’t die if you aren’t on the win­ning side. Re­mem­ber that the threat that vot­ers as a class hold against poli­ti­ci­ans as a class is more im­por­tant to democ­racy than your fights with other vot­ers. For­get all the “game the­ory” that doesn’t take fu­ture in­cen­tives into ac­count; real game the­ory is fur­ther-sighted, and be­sides, if you’re go­ing to look at it that way, you might as well stay home. When you try to be clever, you usu­ally end up play­ing the Poli­ti­ci­ans’ game.

Clear your mind of dis­trac­tions...

And stop vot­ing for nin­com­poops.

If you vote for nin­com­poops, for what­ever clever-sound­ing rea­son, don’t be sur­prised that out of 300 mil­lion peo­ple you get nin­com­poops in office.

The ar­gu­ments are long, but the vot­ing strat­egy they im­ply is sim­ple: Stop try­ing to be clever, just don’t vote for nin­com­poops.

Oh—and if you’re go­ing to vote at all, vote in the pri­mary. That’s where most of your re­main­ing bits and re­main­ing var­i­ance have a chance to be ex­erted. It’s a pretty good bet that a Repub­li­crat will be elected. The pri­mary is your only chance to choose be­tween Hilli­ani and Opaula (or what­ever your poi­son).

If any­one tells you that vot­ing in a party’s pri­mary com­mits you to vot­ing for that party in the gen­eral elec­tion, or that a poli­ti­cal party owns the pri­mary and you’re steal­ing some­thing from them, then laugh in their faces. They’ve taken nearly all the de­ci­sion bits, moved first in the game, and now they think they can con­vince you not to ex­er­cise the bits you have left?

To boil it all down to an emo­tional ar­gu­ment that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily wrong:

Why drive out to your pol­ling place and stand in line for half an hour or more—when your vote isn’t very likely to sin­gle­hand­edly de­ter­mine the Pres­i­dency—and then vote for some­one you don’t even want?