Friday, August 18, 2006

Are Voters Rational? (1)

It's been a while since I posted anything work-related - mainly because, largely due to computer troubl, it's been a while since I wrote anything. I decided I'd give you a brief respite from the football with an essay I'm currently working on, to come in four parts.

The title is 'Are Voters Rational?', and this first part is devoted to clarifying the question I will address (and what I won't) As always, comments welcome...

I. Preliminaries: Defining the Question

The question ‘are voters rational?’ is rather ambitious for at least two reasons: firstly, to establish whether people actually are anything would seem to require extensive empirical research which is beyond my means, and secondly because it is such a broad question and open to several interpretations. I will therefore begin by specifying more narrowly the issues I will talk about.

Firstly, since voters are people, the question could be taken to be asking whether those people who vote are rational generally, in their everyday lives – for example, do they always choose the most efficient means to whatever ends they pursue, or do they meet standards of consistency such as not holding contradictory beliefs. I assume this is not the question; I am concerned with voters qua voters – that is, with their rationality (or otherwise) in the very limited domain of voting.

Even so, the question is still ambiguous between at least two interpretations. When we question whether voters are rational in their act of voting we may be asking either:
(i) ‘Are people rational in how they vote?’ (i.e. do they vote for the party best serving their interests, or one realistically likely to win?)
(ii) ‘Are people rational in that they vote?’ (i.e. does it make sense for them to bother, given the costs and little chance of affecting the outcome in a large election?).
The former considers how people use their vote once at the ballot box, while the latter concerns whether they are rational in going to the ballot box to begin with.

Of course, these two questions are inter-related. Whether it is rational to vote will depend on what one hopes to achieve. Suppose one votes for the Monster Raving Loony party; an observer may think that since they have no chance of winning, this vote is wasted and therefore irrational, even if the party would best serve the voter’s interests were they elected. They may also judge that it was irrational for this individual to bother voting, given how ineffectively their vote was. The individual may not be concerned with voting for a winning party, or one that will serve her interests, however – she may be voting in order to fulfil what she feels as a civic duty, and at the same time wishing to express her dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties by voting for ‘none of the above’. If this is what she wanted to achieve, then her actions may achieve her end, and what’s more the satisfaction she gets may make it worth the trouble to vote. Nonetheless, since I have only limited space, I will confine myself to the second question – whether it is rational for anyone to take the time and effort to cast a vote.

Even suitably circumscribed, the question whether people are actually rational in deciding whether or not to vote would seem to require considerable empirical study, at least if rational choice is understood as explanatory rather than merely predictive. One more modest goal could be to show how voting turnout can be explained by, and is thus compatible with, Rational Choice theory (RCT), thus showing people could be rational. However, attempting to explain how observed behaviour, such as voting, is explained by RCT is an example of what Green and Shapiro condemn as theory-driven research. If one starts with a ‘pet theory’, such as an assumption that voters must be rational, then one may (even unconsciously) find contrived means to save these pre-commitments when studying the phenomena. Such vindications of RCT should therefore be treated with caution, owing to the prevalence of ‘confirmation bias’. Moreover, it should be noted that even if behaviour is compatible with RCT (as I hope to show), it doesn’t follow that it is best explained or analysed this way – after all, we might explain why stones fall by postulating a desire to be with (close to) other stones, and hence a tendency to maximise their proximity to the centre of the earth. Therefore, I will not set out to defend a RCT account of voting turnout.

I will argue for the weak claim that voting turnout is compatible with the rationality of voters. I do not, in doing so, commit myself to RCT playing any part in the actual explanation of turnout; I merely show the fact that people vote does not refute – or even count against – the supposition that they are rational. In fact, I think that, while rationality is one factor in voting turnout, it must be supplemented by many other exogenous, non-rational variables (in this respect, my position is what may be termed ‘partial universalism’). Nonetheless, I do not think that voting turnout need be a problem or embarrassment, if we recognise that rationality is not as constraining of action as is sometimes supposed.

One further qualification: I confine myself to what one might call ‘interesting cases’, i.e. those in which voting is efficacious – or as reasonably efficacious as might be expected in a large-scale democracy – (not merely rubber-stamping a one-party dictatorship), voluntary (not backed by legal sanctions for non-voters) and relatively uncostly (i.e. not particularly demanding on voters other than a relatively short journey to the polls and marking an X – they are not required, for example, to vote in person in the nation’s capital). Further conditions might be added, but hopefully my focus is intuitively clear: cases typical of national elections in most Western democracies.


At 4:37 pm, Anonymous Oli Cover said...

Hi Ben. Cool blog, and interesting introduction. I like analysis of turnout, so I thought I'd contribute and ask a question on your 'interesting case' selection procedure, in particular over your focus on states in which voting is voluntary.

It strikes me that one way to analyse voter rationality would be to compare turnout rates between nations with a) some form of compulsory voting law; and b) no such law, but more interestingly between states within the set of nations with these laws. There is, indeed, significant variation in the extent to which citizens are punished for non-voting, and in the extent to which these laws are enforced.

If you can code each nation with compulsory voting as having a certain score on a hypothetical 'incentive scale', which measures the attractiveness of voting based on avoiding the possibly unpleasant consequences of not doing so, and find a strong correlation between this scale and turnout, you have a case for suggesting voters as a group appear to respond rationally to a potentially important institutional influence on whether to vote or not.

This of course opens the wider question of exactly what 'rationality' we are trying to find. Rationality in voting is perhaps more than casting a vote to achieve narrow political ends, and may involve 'rational' reaction to complex cues in the political system (such as institutionalised rules, but also the degree of competition between parties, the electoral system, etc.) which have a bearing on the vote / no-vote decision.

I aaume you'll be controlling for these variables in your analysis?

Anyway, all the best to Liverpool tomorrow. Pompey have Blackburn, but we should be all right this year, as Bellamy's gone off to you lot...


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