Saturday Night Live On Rational Irrationality

Saturday Night Live did a cute skit this weekend on how undecided voters know nothing about politics. It’s actually an excellent demonstration of rational irrationality – most people are ignorant and irrational about politics because there is little incentive for them to be otherwise.

I think most viewers assumed the joke was at the expense of a few comically ignorant voters, but actually the joke is on everyone who thinks their vote matters. The election will certainly be decided by ignorant and irrational voters, so any effort you put in to actually understanding the issues is totally wasted, as far as the electoral result is concerned – you will get the same President that these ignorant, irrational voters choose regardless of how much effort you invest in understanding the issues.

A Vocational Chat With Voters

I thought it time we had a little talk. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you here this evening. Well, you see, I’m not entirely satisfied with your performance lately. I’m afraid your work’s been slipping and…

…and, well, I’m afraid we’ve been thinking about letting you go.

Oh, I know, I know, you’ve been with the company a long time now. Almost… let me see. Almost ten thousand years! My word, doesn’t time fly? It seems like only yesterday… I remember the day you commenced your employment, swinging down from the trees, fresh-faced and nervous, a bone clasped in your bristling fist…

“Where do I start, sir?” you asked, plaintively.

Well we’ve certainly come a long way since then, haven’t we? And yes, yes, you’re right, in all that time you haven’t missed a day. Well done thou good and faithful servant. Also please don’t think I’ve forgotten about your outstanding service record or about all of the invaluable contributions you’ve made to the company…. fire, the wheel, agriculture… it’s an impressive list, old-timer. A jolly impressive list, don’t get me wrong.

But… well… to be frank, we’ve had our problems too. There’s no getting away from it. Do you know what I think a lot of it stems from? I’ll tell you… It’s your basic unwillingness to get on within the company. You don’t seem to wan to face up to any real responsibility or be your own boss. Lord knows you’ve been given plenty of opportunities. We’ve offered you promotion time and time again, and each time you’ve turn us down. “I couldn’t handle the work, Guv’nor” you wheedled, “I know my place.”

To be frank, you’re not trying, are you?

You see, you’ve been standing still for far too long and it’s starting to show in your work. And I might add, in your general standard of behavior. The constant bickering on the factory floor has not escaped our attention. Nor recent bouts of rowdiness in the staff canteen. Then of course there’s… hmm, well, I really didn’t want to have to bring his up but I’ve been hearing some disturbing rumors about your personal life. No, never mind who told me. I understand that you are unable to get on with your spouse. I hear that you argue, I am told that you shout. Violence has been mentioned. I am reliably informed that you always hurt the one you love. The one you shouldn’t hurt at all.

And what about he children? It’s always the children who suffer, as you’re well aware. Poor little mites. What are they to make of it?

It’s no good blaming the drop in work standards on bad management either, though to be sure the management is very bad. In fact let’s not mince words: The management is terrible. We’ve had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars, and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is a plain fact.

But who elected them?

It was you. You who appointed these people. You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you. While I’ll admit that anyone can make a mistake once, to go on making the same lethal errors century after century seems to me nothing short of deliberate. You have encouraged these malicious incompetents who have made your working life a shambles. You have accepted without question their senseless orders. You could have stopped them. All you had to say was “No”.

You have no spine. You have no pride.

You are no longer an asset to the company.

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From V For Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

Voting for Beer

The competing “President of Beers” ad campaigns are vaguely amusing, but fortunately we don’t actually choose beer in a national election. Often, votes in a political election are compared with dollars spent in a market, but in reality elections and markets are two fundamentally different ways of selecting something. For instance, here is a beer ballot from Palm Beach County, Florida:
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and here is a genuine market for beers in Fairfield, Ohio:
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courtesy of my favorite grocery store, Jungle Jim’s. See the resemblance? I hope not, because there really is no comparison. Other than the size of the selection, how would political selection of beers differ from buying beers in a nominally free market?

Beer selection via bullets ballots

  • Whichever beer won would be the only beer available for the next four years.
  • You would have to pay for the elected beer whether you liked it or not, or even if you didn’t drink beer.
  • Even if you had no strong preference for Bud or Miller, you would be admonished to vote, as that would somehow, magically, improve the quality of the choice.
  • If you did have a strong preference, some elementary math would tell you that voting for it would have essentially no chance of influencing the outcome.
  • People would get in loud confrontational arguments on the merits of Bud vs. Miller. Even sober people.
  • If you started talking about microbrews or imports, people would consider you a bit nutty.
  • The Complete Joy of Homebrewing would be a book owned only by wacky anarchists.
  • In order to appeal to the least common denominator, Miller and Budweiser would eventually come to have nearly identical, weak, flavors. Oh, wait.
  • Despite this, people who had never tried other beers would insist that the two are quite different
  • What a nightmare world. Fortunately, despite its being heavily taxed, regulated, and licensed, the market for beer is still nominally free. Some key features of a beer market are:

    Beer selection via a market

  • You can choose any beer available, buy it, and drink it, no matter how few other people like it.
  • No one else will expect to be forced to try your favorite beer, so they will take nearly no interest in your preference.
  • You can make your own beer at home, or start a microbrewery, if nothing on the market is to your taste. In fact, I highly recommend homebrewing for the tax avoidance alone.
  • You can choose not to drink any beer at all. I don’t recommend it, but I’ve heard of people doing it.
  • imageWithout a healthy market, this blogger’s beer fridge (right) might not be properly stocked. That would be an immense shame, and I wouldn’t even be left with the small comfort of crying about it into a proper beer. The next time you’re spending some quality time carefully selecting a few bottles of the magical brew to welcome into your home, remember: beer, unlike national defense, police, airline safety, and road construction, is just too important to leave up to the vagaries of the political process.

    Power Without Accountability

    It’s been widely noted that the Senate approved the spending of $87.5 billion in Iraq by voice vote. This was done to save at least some senators from having to go on the record one way or the other. And we know the overwhelming majority of them were conspiring to cover each other’s asses because it only takes a fifth of a quorum to force a roll call vote.

    The Agitator‘s Brian Kieffer wrote:

    For the moment, I’m going to suspend my opinion on our foreign policy with regard to Iraq. Whether I think we should be there or not is irrelevant now, since were are indeed there. We elect people to debate this for us and let us know what they think… or at least I thought we did.

    No, my real problem is that the Senate authorized this package and spent $87,500,000,000 of our money by Voice Vote. I don’t know about everyone else, but I want to know who is spending my money.

    Hear! Hear! I’d certainly be interested to learn who authorized the spending of my money. But there’s a problem: The folks exercising their “sovereign franchise” to authorize the spending of my money vote by secret ballot – just like the senators they elected did in this case.

    They’re called voters.

    It’s been widely noted that the Senate approved the spending of $87.5 billion in Iraq by voice vote. This was done to save at least some senators from having to go on the record one way or the other. And we know the overwhelming majority of them were conspiring to cover each other’s asses because it only takes a fifth of a quorum to force a roll call vote.

    The Agitator‘s Brian Kieffer wrote:

    For the moment, I’m going to suspend my opinion on our foreign policy with regard to Iraq. Whether I think we should be there or not is irrelevant now, since were are indeed there. We elect people to debate this for us and let us know what they think… or at least I thought we did.

    No, my real problem is that the Senate authorized this package and spent $87,500,000,000 of our money by Voice Vote. I don’t know about everyone else, but I want to know who is spending my money.

    Hear! Hear! I’d certainly be interested to learn who authorized the spending of my money. But there’s a problem: The folks exercising their “sovereign franchise” to authorize the spending of my money vote by secret ballot – just like the senators they elected did in this case.

    They’re called voters.

    I see voters...

    Lysander Spooner had a lot to say about the secret ballot:

    “As all voting is secret (by secret ballot), and as all secret governments are necessarily only secret bands of robbers, tyrants, and murderers, the general fact that our government is practically carried on by means of such voting, only proves that there is among us a secret band of robbers, tyrants, and murderers, whose purpose is to rob, enslave, and, so far as necessary to accomplish their purposes, murder, the rest of the people.”

    “But even these pretended agents do not themselves know who their pretended principals are. These latter act in secret; for acting by secret ballot is acting in secret as much as if they were to meet in secret conclave in the darkness of the night. And they are personally as much unknown to the agents they select, as they are to others. No pretended agent therefore can ever know by whose ballots he is selected, or consequently who his real principles are. Not knowing who his principles are, he has no right to say that he has any. He can, at most, say only that he is the agent of a secret band of robbers and murderers, who are bound by that faith which prevails among confederates in crime, to stand by him, if his acts, done in their name, shall be resisted.

    Men honestly engaged in attempting to establish justice in the world, have no occasion thus to act in secret; or to appoint agents to do acts for which they (the principals) are not willing to be responsible.

    The secret ballot makes a secret government; and a secret government is a secret band of robbers and murderers. Open despotism is better than this. The single despot stands out in the face of all men, and says: I am the State: My will is law: I am your master: I take the responsibility of my acts: The only arbiter I acknowledge is the sword: If anyone denies my right, let him try conclusions with me.

    But a secret government is little less than a government of assassins. Under it, a man knows not who his tyrants are, until they have struck, and perhaps not then. He may guess, beforehand, as to some of his immediate neighbors. But he really knows nothing. The man to whom he would most naturally fly for protection, may prove an enemy, when the time of trial comes.

    This is the kind of government we have; and it is the only one we are likely to have, until men are ready to say: We will consent to no Constitution, except such an one as we are neither ashamed nor afraid to sign; and we will authorize no government to do anything in our name which we are not willing to be personally responsible for.”

    Do it. Vote.

    “This is the kind of government we have; and it is the only one we are likely to have, until men are ready to say: We will consent to no Constitution, except such an one as we are neither ashamed nor afraid to sign; and we will authorize no government to do anything in our name which we are not willing to be personally responsible for.”

    Are voters willing to be personally responsible for the power they exercise? Brooke Oberwetter, another blogger at The Agitator is crystal clear on this question:

    “No one has elected me to be a voter; therefore I am not accountable to anyone else for the way I vote.”

    There it is. She wields the fundamental political power of this republic and isn’t accountable to anyone for the consequences.

    I ask you: Who then is responsible for that exercise of political power?

    In the same thread Oberwetter writes:

    I want to take two hour lunch breaks, but it isn’t within the parameters of my voluntary employment. If I want to take two hour lunch breaks, I can either quit my job, or find an employer willing to accommodate my wish.

    That’s certainly the way things ought to be but it’s not quite the way things are. As a voter Oberwetter can find a politician willing to accommodate her. Her representative can conspire with other representatives to impose her will on her employer by force. Her representative is accountable to her and she is not accountable to anyone. It’s a neat trick.

    When I first read Spooner I thought he was trying to make too much of the secret ballot. I see now that it is a significant corrupting factor in democracy because people are naturally more inclined to abuse power when they know they will not be held accountable. That’s true for senators and it’s true for voters.

    I don’t hold that public accountability would fix democracy any more than it would fix the Senate. The real problem is much deeper. The real problem is that the power wielded by voters and their representatives is fundamentally illegitimate in principle. But secrecy facilitates the abuse of that power.

    I also do not hold that all voters conspire to rob and murder, though many do. It can be moral to cast a defensive vote, as Spooner acknowledged:

    On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man takes the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot—which is a mere substitute for a bullet—because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him.

    Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot, would use it, if they could see any chance of thereby meliorating their condition. But it would not, therefore, be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or even consented to.

    So I don’t I don’t infer from the fact that a man votes that he is conspiring to wield illegitimate power over me. But Kieffer writes:

    When I cast my vote, I am trying to elect someone to represent me in a way that is close to how I would represent myself. To do this I look at the candidate’s platform, which is essentially a promise. A record of his votes in congress must be available to me so that I may verify that he is keeping his word. He is accountable to me for his voting record because he has created an expectation, and in return, I have given him my vote. If he does not meet that expectation, I can choose not to vote for him again.

    As a citizen I have offered no promise to anyone that I will vote in a certain way, hence I am not accountable to anyone for the way that I cast my vote.

    Again: Who then is responsible for that exercise of political power?

    A man casting a defensive vote as Spooner describes doesn’t hold that his “representatives” are accountable to him, he merely tries to deflect the aggression of those who would rob and murder him.

    But when a man wields political power and holds that the government is accountable to him then certainly he bears moral responsibility for the consequences.