Sunday, May 27, 2007

Are Voters Rational?

I'd expect most scientists (natural or social) would say we usually put other considerations first. Kevin Drum agrees, discussing Chris Hayes's The Myth of the Rational Voter, whose author argues that voting is less rational than economic choices because since voters don't believe their votes mean much, there's not as much of a connection between one's choice and its consequences.

Drum's post contends that rationality is a good thing, but:

...there's a distinction between "rational" and "good," and most of us know it when we see it. Thomas Jefferson, for example, kept slaves because it was, after all, a rational thing to do. He needed the money his slaves brought in and he was too weak-willed to forego that money and free them. However, he also argued that slavery was wrong and should be banned — a position that's usually presented as an unfathomable paradox. But it's not. Jefferson wanted slavery banned because he understood that individuals often lack the willpower to do individually what they know is right. Sometimes it takes the power of community action to force ourselves to do good things that we can't (or won't) do on our own.

There is such a distinction, but the Jefferson analogy isn't apt. Jefferson was brilliant, but famously capable of believing self-contradictory ideas when it suited his personal ambitions. Almost anything can be rational within narrowly-defined limits, but with Jefferson it points out the true distinction between "rational" and "rationalized."

Rationality is purely a tool, a way to try to properly connect facts to a desired end. Some significant part of Jefferson knew slavery was wrong, but another part wanted to allow it to continue. We can argue over the reasons, but ultimately, this was a failure of rationality in allowing obvious contradictions to persist. That this rationalization was practiced by nearly every American at the time is relevant and maybe even partly exculpatory, but doesn't change the facts.

Where societies end up reasonably disagreeing is on desirable ends. Is a clause in the Patriot worth the sacrifice in freedom to gain some expected measure of security? Is it worth reforming Social Security to give up some security for expected freedom and economic expansion?
Whether we can see them clearly or not, there are facts underpinning discussions like these, but determining which road is best is a value judgment.

This issue is far too large for one blog post, but suffice that I agree with Hayes that voters are less rational in voting, but our reasons are complex. Our motives are best understood through frameworks like sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, I think.

1 comment:

redbarb said...

Economic rationality as used in the book Drum is commenting on is defined as 'utility maximization." This economic concept does not require the clear applications of the facts. Whatever fits your utility, whether based on facts or not, is rational in this sense. This author emphasizes self interest over everything else. That doesn't fit my utility or millions of other voters who recognize that a policy as simple as the minimum wage benefits the society and the economy.