Steve Levitt recently raised the ire of Andrew Gelman, among others, by insinuating that it’s not rational to vote. The basic argument, which Levitt really doesn’t lay out too well, is that if voters acted in their narrow (monetary) self-interest they wouldn’t vote, because the likelihood of altering the results of an election is incredibly low. Gelman’s responses is that voting can be completely rational if you place some value on benefits to other people, that is if you’re altruistic. If that’s the case then the value of changing the results of an election is astronomical, so even if the chances are low it’s a good bet. This story doesn’t sit right with me: ask people why they vote and very few can quantify their odds of altering an election outcome. That just doesn’t seem to be how people think about the problem. My friend Dan Hirschman pointed out that Gelman’s argument is really more of an “existence proof” – it shows that it is possible for voting to be rational, for certain preferences, and it’s valuable even if it’s not the true reason people vote.
But the real reason people vote is really important, because it helps us understand what they vote for. The “rational voter” models that Levitt was implicitly attacking tend to assume that voters, or groups of voters, are voting for whatever benefits them most personally. That certainly isn’t the case: what would benefit people most personally (that is, ignoring altruism) is to not vote in the first place. People are necessarily thinking about other factors than their own narrow self-interest. It’s possible this means looking at benefits to others; a simpler story would be that people vote because they find it enjoyable (Gelman said this applies to himself in a response to one of my comments) or out of a sense of civic duty. Whatever the real story, the implications of this for election results are profound, and tend to be somewhat depressing; Bryan Caplan goes through them in detail in The Myth of the Rational Voter, which I can’t recommend highly enough for people interested in policy and voting. To take one stark example from the book, a strong majority of Americans realize they personally benefit from trade liberalization, so rational voter models would predict support for freer trade. But many of those same people believe that trade is bad for society as a whole, and so they vote against it.
The upshot is that democracies, even well-designed ones, pick policies that are systematically worse than we might otherwise hope. And even if voters are rational and self-interested, getting democracy to work well takes a lot of work. As I pointed out in a comment on Jason Hopper’s post last week, I think an emphasis on democracy as a development goal doesn’t do people a whole lot of good. Part of this is practical: we tend to think of democracy as simply “holding votes and the majority rules” but in fact you need a lot of physical and institutional infrastructure to make democracy actually work; furthermore, as Hopper pointed out there are a lot of variations on democratic systems and I think which one works is very context-specific. But it’s also a basic feature of democracy itself: horrible policies can be extremely popular. It’s easy to think of extreme examples – Robert Mugabe was legitimately elected many times even as he devastated Zimbabwe. I’m aware that this sounds like I’m saying that we should ignore people’s desires, but really I’m arguing for the opposite. Democracy doesn’t do a very good job at listening to what people want and need. It’s a valuable tool – it does do a good job of preventing the worst abuses of bad governments – but when we’re talking about what to focus on in development I think it should be closer to #20 on the priority list than #1.