Stop Voting For Nincompoops

by Eliezer Yudkowsky8 min read2nd Jan 200891 comments



Followup toThe Two-Party Swindle, The American System and Misleading Labels

If evolutionary psychology could be simplified down to one sentence (which it can't), it would be:  "Our instincts are adaptations that increased fitness in the ancestral environment, and we go on feeling that way regardless of whether it increases fitness today."  Sex with condoms, tastes for sugar and fat, etc.

In the ancestral environment, there was no such thing as voter confidentiality.  If you backed a power faction in your hunter-gatherer band, everyone knew which side you'd picked.  The penalty for choosing the losing side could easily be death.

Our emotions are shaped to steer us through hunter-gatherer life, not life in the modern world.  It should be no surprise, then, that when people choose political sides, they feel drawn to the faction that seems stronger, better positioned to win.  Even when voting is confidential.  Just as people enjoy sex, even when using contraception.

(George Orwell had a few words to say in "Raffles and Miss Blandish" about where the admiration of power can go.  The danger, not of lusting for power, but just of feeling drawn to it.)

In a recent special election for California governor, the usual lock of the party structure broke down - they neglected to block that special case, and so you could get in with 65 signatures and $3500.  As a result there were 135 candidates.

With 135 candidates, one might have thought there would be an opportunity for some genuine voter choice - a lower barrier to entry, which would create a chance to elect an exceptionally competent governor.  However, the media immediately swung into action and decided that only a tiny fraction of these candidates would be allowed to get any publicity.  Which ones?  Why, the ones who already had name recognition!  Those, after all, were the candidates who were likely to win, so those were the ones which the media reported on.

Amazingly, the media collectively exerted such tremendous power, in nearly perfect coordination, without deliberate intention (conspiracies are generally much less necessary than believed).  They genuinely thought, I think, that they were reporting the news rather than making it.  Did it even occur to them that the entire business was self-referential?  Did anyone write about that aspect?  With a coordinated action, the media could have chosen any not-completely-pathetic candidate to report as the "front-runner", and their reporting would thereby have been correct.

The technical term for this is Keynesian beauty contest, wherein everyone tries to vote for whoever they think most people will vote for.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger (4,206,284 votes) had been as unable to get publicity as Logan Clements (274 votes), perhaps because the media believed (in uncoordinated unison) that no action-movie hero could be taken seriously as a candidate, then Arnold Schwarzenegger would not have been a "serious candidate".

In effect, Arnold Schwarzenegger was appointed Governor of California by the media.  The case is notable because usually it's the party structure that excludes candidates, and the party structure's power has a formal basis that does not require voter complicity.  The power of the media to appoint Arnold Schwarzenegger governor derived strictly from voters following what someone told them was the trend.  If the voters had ignored the media telling them who the front-runner was, and decided their initial pick of "serious candidates" based on, say, the answers to a questionnaire, then the media would have had no power.

Yes, this is presently around as likely as the Sun rising in the west and illuminating a Moon of green cheese.  But there's this thing called the Internet now, which humanity is still figuring out how to use, and there may be another change or two on the way.  Twenty years ago, if the media had decided not to report on Ron Paul, that would have been that.

Someone is bound to say, at this point, "But if you vote for a candidate with no chance of winning, you're throwing your vote away!"

    "The leaders are lizards.  The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."
    "Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."
    "I did," said Ford, "It is."
    "So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"
    "It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."
    "You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"
    "Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."
    "But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"
    "Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?"

To which the economist replies, "But you can't always jump from a Nash equilibrium to a Pareto optimum," meaning roughly, "Unless everyone else has that same idea at the same time, you'll still be throwing your vote away," or in other words, "You can make fun all you like, but if you don't vote for a lizard, the wrong lizard really might get in."

In which case, the lizards know they can rely on your vote going to one of them, and they have no incentive to treat you kindly.  Most of the benefits of democracy may be from the lizards being scared enough of voters to not misbehave really really badly, rather than from the "right lizard" winning a voter-fight.

Besides, picking the better lizard is harder than it looks.  In 2000, the comic Melonpool showed a character pondering, "Bush or Gore... Bush or Gore... it's like flipping a two-headed coin."  Well, how were they supposed to know?  In 2000, based on history, it seemed to me that the Republicans were generally less interventionist and therefore less harmful than the Democrats, so I pondered whether to vote for Bush to prevent Gore from getting in.  Yet it seemed to me that the barriers to keep out third parties were a raw power grab, and that I was therefore obliged to vote for third parties wherever possible, to penalize the Republicrats for getting grabby.  And so I voted Libertarian, though I don't consider myself one (at least not with a big "L").  I'm glad I didn't do the "sensible" thing.  Less blood on my hands.

If we could go back in time and change our votes, and see alternate histories laid out side-by-side, it might make sense to vote for the less evil of two lizards.  But in a state of ignorance - voting for candidates that abandon their stated principles like they discard used toilet paper - then it is harder to compare lizards than those enthusiastically cheering for team colors might think.

Are people who vote for Ron Paul in the Republican primary wasting their votes?  I'm not asking, mind you, whether you approve of Ron Paul as a candidate.  I'm asking you whether the Ron Paul voters are taking an effectless action  if Ron Paul doesn't win.  Ron Paul is showing what an candidate can do with the Internet, despite the party structure and the media.  A competent outsider considering a presidential run in 2012 is much more likely to take a shot at it now.  What exactly does a vote for Hilliani accomplish, besides telling the lizards to keep doing whatever it is they're doing?

Make them work for your vote.  Vote for more of the same this year, for whatever clever-sounding reason, and next election, they'll give you more of the same.  Refuse to vote for nincompoops and maybe they'll try offering you a less nincompoopy candidate, or non-nincompoops will be more likely to run for office when they see they have a chance.

Besides, if you're going to apply game theory to the situation in a shortsighted local fashion - not taking into account others thinking similarly, and not taking into account the incentives you create for later elections based on what potential future candidates see you doing today - if, I say, you think in such a strictly local fashion and call it "rational", then why vote at all, when your single vote is exceedingly unlikely to determine the winner?

Consider these two clever-sounding game-theoretical arguments side by side:

  1. You should vote for the less evil of the top mainstream candidates, because your vote is unlikely to make a critical difference if you vote for a candidate that most people don't vote for.
  2. You should stay home, because your vote is unlikely to make a critical difference.

It's hard to see who should accept argument #1 but refuse to accept argument #2.

I'm not going to go into the notion of collective action, Prisoner's Dilemma, Newcomblike problems, etcetera, because the last time I tried to write about this, I accidentally started to write a book.  But whatever meaning you attach to voting - especially any notions of good citizenship - it's hard to see why you should vote for a lizard if you bother to vote at all.

There is an interaction here, a confluence of folly, between the evolutionary psychology of politics as a football game, and the evolutionary psychology of trying to side with the winner.  The media - I am not the first to observe this - report on politics as though it is a horse race.  Good feelings about a candidate are generated, not by looking over voting records, but by the media reporting excitedly:  "He's pulling ahead in the third stretch!"  What the media thinks we should know about candidates is that such-and-such candidate appeals to such-and-such voting faction.  Since this is practically all the media report on, it feeds nothing but the instinct to get yourself on the winning side.

And then there's the lovely concept of "electability":  Trying to vote for a candidate that you think other people will vote for, because you want your own color to win at any cost.  You have to admire the spectacle of the media breathlessly reporting on which voting factions think that candidate X is the most "electable".  Is anyone even counting the levels of recursion here?

Or consider it from yet another perspective:

There are roughly 300 million people in the United States, of whom only one can be President at any given time.

With 300 million available candidates, many of whom are not nincompoops, why does America keep electing nincompoops to political office?

Sending a message to select 1 out of 300 million possibilities requires 29 bits.  So if you vote in only the general election for the Presidency, then some mysterious force narrows the election down to 2 out of 300 million possibilities - exerting 28 bits of decision power - and then you, or rather the entire voting population, exert 1 more bit of decision power.  If you vote in a primary election, you may send another 2 or 3 bits worth of message.

Where do the other 25 bits of decision power come from?

You may object:  "Wait a minute, not everyone in the United States is 35 years old and a natural-born citizen, so it's not 300 million possibilities."

I reply, "How do you know that a 34-year-old cannot be President?"

And you cry, "What?  It's in the Constitution!"

Well, there you go:  Since around half the population is under the age of 35, at least one bit of the missing decision power is exerted by 55 delegates in Philadelphia in 1787.  Though the "natural-born citizen" clause comes from a letter sent by John Jay to George Washington, a suggestion that was adopted without debate by the Philadelphia Convention.

I am not necessarily advising that you go outside the box on this one.  Sometimes the box is there for a good reason.  But you should at least be conscious of the box's existence and origin.

Likewise, not everyone would want to be President.  (But see the hidden box:  In principle the option exists of enforcing Presidential service, like jury duty.)  How many people would run for President if they had a serious chance at winning?  Let's pretend the number is only 150,000.  That accounts for another 10 bits.

Then some combination of the party structure, and the media telling complicit voters who voters are likely to vote for, is exerting on the order of 14-15 bits of power over the Presidency; while the voters only exert 3-4 bits.  And actually the situation is worse than this, because the media and party structure get to move first.  They can eliminate nearly all the variance along any particular dimension.  So that by the time you get to choose one of four "serious" "front-running" candidates, that is, the ones approved by both the party structure and the media, you're choosing between 90.8% nincompoop and 90.6% nincompoop.

I seriously think the best thing you can do about the situation, as a voter, is stop trying to be clever.  Don't try to vote for someone you don't really like, because you think your vote is more likely to make a difference that way.  Don't fret about "electability".  Don't try to predict and outwit other voters.  Don't treat it as a horse race.  Don't worry about "wasting your vote" - it always sends a message, you may as well make it a true message.

Remember that this is not the ancestral environment, and that you won't die if you aren't on the winning side.  Remember that the threat that voters as a class hold against politicians as a class is more important to democracy than your fights with other voters.  Forget all the "game theory" that doesn't take future incentives into account; real game theory is further-sighted, and besides, if you're going to look at it that way, you might as well stay home.  When you try to be clever, you usually end up playing the Politicians' game.

Clear your mind of distractions...

And stop voting for nincompoops.

If you vote for nincompoops, for whatever clever-sounding reason, don't be surprised that out of 300 million people you get nincompoops in office.

The arguments are long, but the voting strategy they imply is simple:  Stop trying to be clever, just don't vote for nincompoops.

Oh - and if you're going to vote at all, vote in the primary.  That's where most of your remaining bits and remaining variance have a chance to be exerted.  It's a pretty good bet that a Republicrat will be elected.  The primary is your only chance to choose between Hilliani and Opaula (or whatever your poison).

If anyone tells you that voting in a party's primary commits you to voting for that party in the general election, or that a political party owns the primary and you're stealing something from them, then laugh in their faces.  They've taken nearly all the decision bits, moved first in the game, and now they think they can convince you not to exercise the bits you have left?

To boil it all down to an emotional argument that isn't necessarily wrong:

Why drive out to your polling place and stand in line for half an hour or more - when your vote isn't very likely to singlehandedly determine the Presidency - and then vote for someone you don't even want?