Wednesday, January 16, 2008

And Now, For Something Completely Serious

All the glee that I was just feeling a few minutes ago kinda went away when I happened upon Adam Cohen's editorial in yesterday's NYT. But you should read it anyway, especially if you're one of those people who thinks voting doesn't matter because "they're all the same."

They're really not. Presidents get to nominate Supreme Court Justices, and there's a lot more at stake than you might think.


Adam said...

Even if you don't think they're all the same, the ruthless mathematics of voting in a state with millions of other voters mean that even if you have a very, very strong preference for President, your utility function is maximized by going to see a movie or playing with the kids or doing something you enjoy, rather than waiting on line to cast a meaningless vote.

Unless, of course, you derive some psychic benefit from knowing that you participated in the democratic process and got to pull the lever or play with the touchscreen or whatever.

But you reality-based folks would never be into such irrational, superstitious rituals, right?

bjkeefe said...

That's a familiar argument you make, and one of these days, I'm going to have to sit down and come up with a pithy response. In the meantime, here's some long-windedness.

The analysis of the decision whether to vote, and the hard-to-dismiss conclusion that it's pointless for the reasons you (and Landsburg) point out, strikes me as hyper-rationality, missing the forest for the trees, or just plain selfishness.

This is one of those cases where the reasoning learned in Microeconomics 101 -- which, btw, I used to embrace 100% -- fails. For a society to flourish, some aspects of behavior have to be considered in a manner different from an exclusive focus on maximizing one's personal and immediate utility function. Some things have to be looked at as a team effort, duties that one must perform for the common good. The analogy I like to think of is the mathematical operation of integration -- adding up an infinite number of infinitesimals.

Back a few decades ago, litter was a big problem. It was hard to drive or hike anywhere and not see trash strewn about. Today, the situation, while not perfect, is immensely better than it used to be. Why? Mostly because we as a society were able to convince each other that throwing just one paper cup out the window of a car or leaving just one bottle or can at a picnic site really did matter.

Very few of us live in a vacuum. Our choices affect others in our social circles, and these choices can have ripple effects. The attitude of apathy (or concern, to put it in a positive sense) can spread like a virus. If you want society to be better in some way, you have to act in the way you want others to act, even if you can't see an immediate result of your action. Your flippancy aside, I seriously doubt that you think voter apathy is a good thing for society.

I have a small amount of sympathy for the argument that none of the candidates are appealing, but in response, I'd say two things: first, it's always possible to pick the least worst, and second, part of the reason we have such unappealing candidates is that people don't register their complaints about the options in a useful way. I think Ron Paul is a great example of voter dissatisfaction; while I'd never actually want him anywhere near the Oval Office, he provides an outlet for Republican primary voters who cannot bear the rest of the Republican candidates' message of endless war and torture as the new American way. It might not affect outcomes this year, but there's a chance that his willingness to buck party orthodoxy might stimulate a more worthy candidate to run the next time.

Getting back to personal considerations: I don't think it's irrational to derive pleasure (what you call "psychic benefit") from having done one's duty as a citizen, unless you're arguing that choosing to do anything that produces pleasure can be called irrational. If so, it seems just as irrational to me to think that going to the movies should be something that makes you happy.

Finally, it really doesn't take that long to vote. In nearly three decades of voting, I've never waited in line for more than fifteen minutes, nor have I had to travel more than a mile or two to get to my designated polling place. I suppose if one happens to be unfortunate enough to live in one of those precincts where the local Republicans have managed to suppress adequate provision of voting machines, this may differ. So what? Do it anyway. You can still catch the late show.

Adam said...

As Landsburg points out in response to the "if everybody thought the way you do we'd all be screwed" argument: very few people are rational enough to think this way. So many of them vote, in fact, that the chances of my vote mattering are infinitely small.

So if you feel good about having voted, go for it. It's probably worth it to you to spend 15 minutes or whatever doing it. You'll feel like a virtuous citizen.

I can't give a shit. I'd much rather spend the time registering to vote, going over to the voting place, and voting doing anything else. I really couldn't care and don't have any regrets when I don't cast my meaningless vote.

Different strokes for different folks, but really, there is no rational case to be made for voting, other than if you enjoy the act of voting itself or if you enjoy being a person who votes.

Adam said...

Also, btw, whenever I'm in NYC or in a shitty part of NJ (like on the highway or in one of the more ghetto parts) I'm not embarrassed to say that I litter whenever a garbage can is not reasonably accessible. I don't usually litter in my hometown where I have some pride about what the place looks like, but like where I live in the city near the hospital on the East River is so full of garbage and crap already I don't feel bad about littering.

bjkeefe said...

Well, I didn't think I'd win you over, but I was hoping at least for a bit of grudging concession along the lines of "you may have a point." (I suppose you did toss me one bone on my claim that seeking pleasure is either not irrational, or is always irrational.)

Not much else to say, except that as far as voting and littering go, my attitude is that you're either part of the problem or part of the solution. Immeasurably small either way, maybe, but improvements have to start somewhere. Why not with one's self?

bjkeefe said...

P.S. I'm not sure about the East River, but my vague memory of reading about the issue says that it's not nearly as bad as it used to be, albeit still being pretty gross.

One thing I'm sure of, though: The streets of Manhattan are noticeably cleaner than they were back when I first was walking around them (in the late '60s and the '70s).

Adam said...

Yea, I remember coming into NYC during the Dinkins years with my parents... it was much worse then. Times Square was full of gross porn stores instead of being a schmaltzy tourist trap.

You're right though, Giuliani and Bloomberg have really cleaned up the city. Manhattan is much, much nicer than it was even in the early 90s, which is my earliest frame of reference for what the city was like.

bjkeefe said...

If you want to get in a little stealth Democrat bashing and Republican puffing, fine. If so, I will point out that I am reminded of a subway/bus ad that New York magazine took out during the Giuliani years, which, needless to say, Hizzoner caused to be removed. It showed a great nighttime shot of the skyline and one of the bridges, all lit up, and had the caption "The one thing Rudy hasn't taken credit for. Yet."

If party-based spin wasn't your intent, but you just want to deny my claim that it was a change in people's mindsets that cut down on the litter problem, that's also fine. I would point out, then, that you're arguing for government intervention, which doesn't seem entirely consistent with the libertarian way.

As for the metaphorical clean-up of Times Square, I don't have much of a dog in that fight. I am hard-pressed to say which I find more objectionable, chain retail outlets or street hustlers. Some self-proclaimed "real New Yawkuhs" bemoan the Disneyfication of the area, but it is nice to feel a little safer walking those streets.

Unknown said...

God. What an insufferable prick Adam is.

Unknown said...

He actually thinks he's clever. You can tell he's very impressed with himself.