Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday And The Paradox Of Voting

I haven't written about politics in a long while, and that's partially because my interest in the subject matter has waned over the past year or so. In 2004, I knew every candidate, what they stood for, and I had a clear idea who I supported. It was easier because I felt Bush was better than anyone the Democrats were offering, but overall I just cared more. I care less now, although I'm not sure why. I guess part of the reason is that I'm more interested in other subjects, and a guy can only pay attention to a limited number of interests at any given time.

So I'm somewhat ignorant about the primaries. Obviously I know a decent amount about the candidates (mostly who they are and where they're from), but I haven't done any serious research about anyone's record. But in that regard I'm not different than the average American.

The paradox of voting (explained well here) is that each vote is statistically meaningless, yet people vote anyway. But since votes count for so little, voters don't have any motivation to study the issues and make an informed choice. The aggregate of the votes end up being the decisions of ignorant voters, which can lead to disastrous choices. Even worse, in my opinion, is that political honchos know that voters will choose less based on substance and more on other not as important factors like appearance and charisma so they will push less qualified candidates who can appeal to the common voter, rather than serious leaders.

The biggest problem is that voter ignorance is entirely rational. If someone's vote matters so little, why should have take the time to become learned? Unless he has some other reason to follow politics (interest or he works in the political world), why follow the issues? The opportunity cost will always be higher than the gain in political knowledge. So remaining ignorant is the most rational choice, just as most of us choose to remain ignorant of subjects we find uninteresting.

So the rational choice on a micro-scale is ignorance, but that creates problems on the macro-scale. The result is a big flaw in democracy.

I've heard the argument that we should promote voting only for people who are educated. I once believed that we should require tests before people could vote (no, not literacy tests). The problem with this idea is that instead of increasing voter knowledge, it will most likely depress the ranks of the voters. Since votes matter so little, many people will simply just stop voting because the opportunity cost of learning the material is too high (I am ignoring other serious problems with that idea). So we'll end up having mostly people who have an interest in politics making the decisions. But why is that better than having the ignorant masses pick out leaders? The educated elite are not representative of society and would impose a narrow world-view on society. That doesn't help solve our problem, and might create other ones.

I don't know if there is a solution. Promoting more voting doesn't help choose good leaders. Pushing less voting doesn't work either. Increasing voter knowledge is close to impossible.

On a personal level, I just don't vote. My vote is practically meaningless, especially in New York and in a presidential election. But if I did vote, I'd choose McCain, simply because he has a better shot of beating whomever the Democrats nominate. If anyone is out there, you should vote, so go vote for McCain.

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