Monday, 7 November 2016

Advice to persons about to elect a government


every vote counts


Some people think it is not worth voting because their individual vote is insignificant when compared to the total electorate. For example, the total US electorate is estimated to be 226 million, against which most individuals would consider themselves to be insignificant. The basis of that particular argument is what I call the metric shift illusion:

The “metric shift” illusion is a common ploy, particularly when someone has an axe to grind. “If everyone were to switch off just one light bulb, we could close a power station”. (Marvellous, but how many power stations are there? A small reduction in power consumption will lead to a small reduction in power generation, and not a kilowatt more than that). “Just one penny of tax will raise X million of money for good causes”. (Bless, but removing an additional penny from each pound of income will take a large amount of earnings from every citizen, and they probably regard their own choices as better than bureaucrats’ choices). “An enormous number of citizens are diagnosed every year with Horrible Disorder X”. (My sincere commiserations, but either give me the total numbers for all other disorders, or just give me the rate per 100,000 so I can put all disorders in all nations onto a common metric. Also, “diagnosed” is not equivalent to “about to die from”).

The metric shift illusion obscures the fact that voters in an election have just as much influence in that activity as they do in any other activity: switching off lights; giving up meat; selling their car in favour of a bicycle, picking up litter; being courteous to strangers; not making noise at night, shooting stray dogs. In both the election of governments and the election of activities they can exert influence at a national level. Really, each individual should compare the influence they have when they exert themselves against the smaller amount of influence they have when they do not. Seen in that light, citizens can attempt to boost their influence both electorally and behaviourally by talking to others about the reasons for their choices, and encouraging others to act like them. (That is a minority pursuit, probably restricted to about 4% of the population). Even then, activists on one side tend to cancel out activists on the other side, but one side wins out over the other often enough to encourage further activism, if only out of a thirst for revenge.

Of course, in an reductio ad absurdum, if everyone believed that it was not worth voting, no one would vote. Therefore, those who fail to understand the consequences, and thus do not vote, disenfranchise themselves on the basis of a misunderstanding. Possibly that boosts the average IQ of the remaining voters, but it most certainly boosts their influence on national affairs.

At this stage you might imagine that I am about to encourage US citizens to vote. Not really. Voting should be voluntary, and whether you want to vote or not is up to you. One proviso: if you don’t vote, don’t bemoan the governments you get.

Ever the contrarian, there is an argument that large scale national decisions have less impact on the average citizen than very local issues. The location of noxious factory or busy road, the management of local schools and hospitals, the probity and efficacy of the local Police force, the quality of mercy of your neighbours: all these may be far more impactful on your life than international conferences and the machinations of national legislators. Therefore, you might wish to be most active in local matters, and always vote in local elections, and always agitate for the changes which which concern you and your back yard. Let the big distant problems remain distant.

I pause for a moment to consider this notion. Nope, it doesn’t work. If a nation votes for open borders then your locality will face issues which are not of your own making. Equally, if your nation votes for or against free trade that will impact you more than a noisy local road, irritating as that may be.  Oh dear. Perhaps it would be best for you to vote after all, not that I would wish to impose anything on you, though if you don’t vote, that which will be imposed upon you will be done so without your consent or, more accurately, with your tacit approval.

Up to you. You could stay home and read de Tocqueville. Let me know when the whole thing is over.


  1. "A common view in social science is that democratic voting is not instrumentally rational. The contributory theory of voting states that this view is misconceived: voting is instrumentally rational if citizens aim to contribute to the advancement of the public good."

  2. "more impactful": aw, Dr T, no need to surrender to Trumpclintonland.

    1. will have more impact. Sorry about that. I mis-spoke.

  3. Mr Thompson, a question unrelated to the election: would you comment on the claim that WAIS IQ test are biased?

  4. Dear szopen, thanks for this interesting link. I would like to look at it in more detail, but cannot understand why, in something published last year, they studied the WAIS III when that test was replaced by the WAIS IV in 2008. The results are at least 7 years out of date, and for something purporting to show lack of representativeness this is a severe limitation on the generalizability of the results.

  5. From nations of shop keepers, you get quote like this from English politician “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

    The politics based on business like interest is better for the nation since it runs like a corporation. The goal is seeking better life for its people at end.

    The politicians motivated by ideologies/religions (ISIS, NAZI, commies, neocon, more) would bring disaster to people in the name of faith (ideology/religion). These politicians are on crusade to change the world according to their faith.

    I favor Trump who is more a politician for the nation of shop keepers. Like he said, he will get along any nation which want to get along with USA. That is it. He is not going to do regime change like democracy neocons. Hillary is more like an ideology driven politician who want to change the world like neocon. She is down right dangerous.