Posts Tagged ‘democratic theory’

Recently I finished reading the book Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone. I also assigned part of it to my Ethics & Economics Challenge students. It’s a fun and informative read, draping heavy-duty political science in engaging story-telling. (My post at e3ne.org on the topic is here.)

The book’s central thesis is that the American electoral system is irrational, and that range and approval voting methods provide obviously superior alternatives to the plurality rule for “single-winner” elections. Along the way, Poundstone discusses the Arrow Theorem and why it provides no obstacle to making a comparative judgment among voting rules.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem says that no social choice rule (method for coming up with a social preference ordering over possible alternatives) can satisfy the criteria of non-dictatorship (no one person can make the decision for the whole group, irrespective of the preferences of the rest), universal domain (no preference orderings are simply ruled out of order), Pareto optimality (if everyone prefers X to Y, so should the group), and independence of irrelevant alternatives (changing your relative ranking of X and Z shouldn’t affect your choice between X and Y). In simple language, the Arrow theorem says that there’s no such thing as a “will of the people”: only individuals have preferences.

Poundstone takes issue with that interpretation of the theorem, arguing that the “independence of irrelevant alternatives” criterion should be relaxed or removed. In essence, Poundstone believes that we can make interpersonal comparisons of utility (utility as cardinal, not just ordinal), and that once we do so, we can come up with some social choice rules that are objectively superior to others, because they result in more aggregate human welfare.

The assumption of cardinal, interpersonally comparable utility lies behind the case for range (or score) and approval voting as alternatives to plurality rule. The former methods are said to result in less “Bayesian regret” when used either sincerely or strategically. For instance, plurality voting leads to the “spoiler effect” (Nader causing Gore to lose to Bush) and lots of tactical voting (Nader supporters voting Kerry instead). Sometimes it can even result in victory for a candidate that would lose by a majority to every other candidate, or simply fails to choose the candidate that would beat every other candidate (Poundstone discusses how Stephen Douglas likely would have won a pairwise majority vote in 1860 rather than Abraham Lincoln).

From page 239 in the Poundstone book comes this graphic based on plausible simulations of different elections under various voting rules:

Bayesian regrets under alternative voting rules

Bayesian regrets under alternative voting rules

Lower scores here are better, and thus you can see that range voting leads to overall least “regret” when voters are sincere. When voters are 100% strategic, range and approval tie (fully strategic range voters simply cast strategic approval-like votes: full marks to their favorite and the preferred candidate of the two with the best chance of winning, none to the rest).

Of course, the whole exercise depends on the notion that you can sum up regrets across voters. In some parts of life, we make rough-and-ready interpersonal comparisons of utility. When we speak of those “less fortunate,” we clearly have in mind the idea that the poor are less happy than the rich. The possibility of empathy seems to require a view that others are “more or less similar” to ourselves, including in their capacity for happiness. At the same time, the possibility of individuality seems to require that we acknowledge that others are “in some ways quite dissimilar” to ourselves. I can’t know what’s best for you, because your happiness has a large idiosyncratic, unmeasurable component.

Where does that leave us? The Bayesian regret calculations, it seems to me, give us good reason to favor range and approval voting over the current system, simply because in the absence of any other numeraire for making cost-benefit calculations of policies, the assumption of interpersonal comparisons of happiness, with everyone capable of the same amount of happiness (no utility monsters), is better than the alternative of throwing up our hands. But we still can’t get away from the fundamental insights drawn from the Arrow theorem: that only individuals have preferences and act on them, and that trying to maximize social welfare at the expense of respect for individuality is not only possibly unjust, but also irrational.

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In Canada, provincial parties are totally organizationally independent of federal parties and may not even have the same names. Thus, the British Columbia Liberal Party has generally been right-of-center, and British Columbia Liberals tend to vote Conservative at the federal level. Quebec Liberals have generally been more Quebec-nationalist/decentralist than the federal Liberals. Most provinces have parties named “Progressive Conservative,” even though there is no longer any federal Progressive Conservative Party. And so on.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way in the U.S. State (and even local) elections feature Republican and Democratic candidates, except in Nebraska, where state legislative elections are nonpartisan. As a result, state election results are driven by national trends. Surprisingly, political scientists had not formalized this insight until recently. Here is a paper from Steven Rogers:

State legislative elections are not referendums on state legislators’ own performance but are instead dominated by national politics. Presidential evaluations and the national economy matter much more for state legislators’ elections than state-level economic conditions,  state policy outcomes, or voters’ assessments of the legislature. Previous analyses of  state legislative elections fail to consider which party controls the state legislature and whether voters know this information. When accounting for these factors, I discover that even when the legislature performs well, misinformed voters mistakenly reward the minority party. Thus, while state legislatures wield considerable policy-making power, elections are ineffective in holding state legislative parties accountable for their own performance and lawmaking.

Tyler Cowen calls this “the problem with federalism.” But it isn’t a problem with federalism as such. It’s a problem with U.S. federalism. In Canada, you can’t send a message to the federal government by voting against the incumbent federal party at the provincial level. (In fact, provincial elections are not held on the same days as federal elections.) Changing the perverse accountability dynamic of U.S. state legislatures may require something as simple as changing the names of state parties.

State parties may even have an incentive to do this. For instance, the Republican Party in New Hampshire could change its name to something like “New Hampshire Conservative Party” or “New Hampshire Party.” By doing so, it could help to insulate itself from the partisan swings at the national level that are beyond its control.

In the last election, New Hampshire Republicans lost majorities in the state house and the executive council. The reason for this was the (more…)

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Jason Brennan touts the case against voting on the Princeton University Press blog:

There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.

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