Political Inequality

Market probabilities on US presidential nominations have changed greatly in the last week, due to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries.  This illustrates how the US primary system gives early states far more influence:

The voting weights implied by the estimated model demonstrate that early [primary] voters have up to 20 times the influence of late voters in the selection of candidates, demonstrating a significant departure from the ideal of "one person, one vote."

This inequality is well known.  Pundits often praise it for giving obscure politicians a chance, and making politicians interact personally with individual voters.  Few express sympathy for other states, whose efforts to be as early were actively beaten down this last year by the parties.

But consider all the ink spilled over possible tiny inequalities in rates of "hanging chads," or in distance to voting places.  Or consider the horror many express at Bryan Caplan’s suggestion to give more votes to the better educated.  These might give you the impression that we are quite averse to political inequality.   

In fact, however, we tolerate enormous inequality in political influence.  In addition to primary timing inequalities, a Marginal Revolution commentor notes:


A voter in Wyoming has 3x the voting influence of a voter in California in the general election.

And there is vast variation in political influence among voters in the same district, due somewhat to gerrymandering, but mostly to unequal information about which politicians favor which policies, and which polices are good for whom.  We are well aware of these inequalities and mostly just don’t care.

Many people think governments help to reduce social inequality, but the more government intervenes in society, the more it replaces private inequality with political inequality.  And my guess is that inequality in political influence is larger than, for example, consumption inequality. 

As I noted a year ago, inequality discussions focus almost entirely on the smallest (#6) of these eight kinds of inequality: 

  1. Inequality across species
  2. Inequality between actual and possible humans
  3. Inequality across the eras of human history
  4. Non-income inequality, such as of popularity, respect, beauty, sex, kids, political influence
  5. Income inequality between the nations of a world
  6. Income inequality between the families of a nation
  7. Income inequality between the siblings of a family
  8. Income inequality between the days of a person’s life

Humans clearly do not have a generic aversion to inequality; our concern is very selective.  I suspect our distant ancestors often formed coalitions that complained about inequality of transferable assets, as a way to coordinate a veiled threat to take those assets if they were not offered freely.  So we care mostly about income inequality within a nation that is correlated with existing political coalitions, since we can threaten to use coalition politics to transfer income within a nation between such groups.

Added: I supposed I should also include inequality between the worlds of a universe.

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  • Unknown

    I commented in one of the posts on voting that no one really votes because of the influence on the result: the influence is too small for anyone to bother with. People vote for other reasons. So it isn’t surprising that people aren’t bothered by inequalities in the amount of influence had by different voters; even the largest voting influence is incredibly tiny.

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    All this makes so much more sense when looked at with the perspective of history: for most of our history on Earth, we’ve been single-cell organisms. Multi-cellular life was an incredible innovation. So, probably we will need to be patient on the equality and fraternity front.

    Politicians preserve inequalities because, as it turns out, overcoming bias is a geeky hobby of ours, not a general human desire. Overcoming rivals is more what most people want.

    What truly surprises me is that societies have evolved that claim equality as a value, even when that seems to go against the interests of the powerful. It’s quite fascinating to see the rise of this idea in English history, specifically in the history of women’s suffrage, labor unions, or the Levellers following the English civil war.

  • Arne B

    “A voter in Wyoming has 3x the voting influence of a voter in California in the general election.”I wonder how that has been calculated. Electoral votes/population?

    That seems far too easy. I remember having read an article (in german, unfortunately) explaining that a fair distribution of votes in the Council of the European Union would mean assigning the weights proportional to the square root of the members’ population, because only then the probability of country X casting the decisive vote would equal X’s share of the population.

    Applying that to the electoral college, it is less unfair than it seems, giving California a much higher chance of changing the outcome in the electoral college than Wyoming, even higher than it should be given the former’s larger population. Of course, the individual Californian’s chance of changing the outcome in their state is smaller than for those in Wyoming, but it’s far from obvious whether the latter effect is exactly opposite to the former.

    btw: The link to the comment on MR does not seem to work (but the one to the entry does).

  • Stuart Armstrong

    This inequality is well known. Pundits often praise it for giving obscure politicians a chance, and making politicians interact personally with individual voters. Few express sympathy for other states, whose efforts to be as early were actively beaten down this last year by the parties.

    I’d express sympathy for the other states – I see no reason for the current odd system (apart from that old trope, Tradition). If California traditionaly voted first, pundits would praise the system for ensuring that only politcians with trully national appeal would make it, and for shutting down time-wasting fringe candidates at an early date.

    But to give some credit to the selective-inequality crowd, it does seem that the average voter is much more worried about hanging chads, distance to voting places, or everyone having equal vote, than about different dates for primaries. Inequality can be seen as a Bad Thing intrinsically, or it can be seen as causing people to be unhappy about the inequality, which is a seperate Bad Thing.

    If one is worried exclusively the second Bad Thing, then one should either be educating people to see that inequality is not so bad (as many economists try and do), or making public, dramatic gestures to appear to reduce the inequality (apperance is what matters here, as the perception is what is causing the unhappiness).

    I got a buzz last time I voted; analysing it now, I’d say it was a feeling of pride in that “I was participating in a totaly fair and even aspect (of an admitedly unfair process)”. Just making the whole process fairer would not produce the same buzz.

    Of course, catering to the biases of the population is not an argument (or at least not one that should be made on this blog!) for not changing something. But you can say “I care deeply about the people made unhappy by inequality”, have a highly selective view of inequality, and be honest.

  • Chuck

    Your come off a lot like Data or Spock from star trek, only instead of you aspiring to become human, you’re criticising the the rest of humanity for not changing to be more like you.

    We act at a national level to address national equity issues. We act at a family level to address family equity issues.

    It is legitimate to desire some equity across the nation, because those with a lot owe much of their success to the nation in which they achived it. Furthermore, we have come together for mutual benefit. We are not anarchists. We fight and die in our wars as a nation. Our culture and values span a nation. We all share the national identity. And, to some fair degree, we share in our success, too.

    It is a false premise that total equality is sought. It seems to me that simple equity is sought. We’ve all made investments in the status quo, why shouldn’t we all benefit to within a few order of freakin’ magnitude. (And there is literally orders of magnitude in variable benefit here – someone making 50k per year is 3 orders of magnitude removed from someone making 50mil per year.)

    Not so irrational.

  • http://achillesshrugged.blogspot.com Benquo

    Chuck, do you really think that the actual standard of living of someone making $50M differs by 3 orders of magnitude from that of someone making $50K? What about the diminishing returns of money?

    3 orders of magnitude seems to me to better represent the difference between a well-off person today and, say, a German peasant during the 30 Years’ War. Or a Spanish Jew during the Inquisition. Or someone now suffering from malaria.

  • Silas

    When the left starts caring about #4, I’ll take #6 more seriously.

  • Boris

    I’ll back up Arne here. Suppose every voter in the 2004 or 2008 presidential elections voted 50/50 independently between two candidates. Then the probability that California’s electoral college block affects the result is around 47.5%, while Wyoming’s is 2.73% (see Banzhaf power index). The probability that a voter in a state with 2n other voters affects that state’s result is about 1/sqrt(n Pi) (apply Stirling’s approximation to (2n choose n)/2^(2n)). Thus the probabilities of an in-state voter affecting California’s or Wyoming’s results are about 1 in 4,400 and 1 in 610, respectively.

    The overall probabilities of affecting the national outcome are 1 in 9,200 for California voters and 1 in 27,400 for Wyoming voters. Californians have more influence than Wyomingites.

    [You may argue empirically (and correctly) that votes are not modelled well by independent coin-tosses, but this is a far better model than the naive metric #(votes in Electoral College)/population.]

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin,

    Why do you say we’re well aware of the inequalities but just don’t care? My intuition is that while lots of pundits, politicians, and scholars are aware, few “civilians” are really aware, except about general facts about the electoral college etc. And of the pundits, politicians, and scholars, a good number do care. Of those who don’t, some don’t care because the inequality is in their favor (southerners, midwesterners, republicans), or because they have some kind of normative belief that permits the inequality (stuff about federalism, which I personally think is incoherent, but I’m not yet king). How many people does that leave who have a full appreciation of the problem, think it IS a problem, and don’t care?

    Though this question is an easy one to solve. Got funding for some survey research?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    James Bach, have you been reading Mencius Moldbug’s Unqualified Reservations? He talks a lot about the English Civil War and the breed of ideas common now that would have seemed ridiculous centuries ago.

    Chuck, Spock was discussed here, here and here and though not here I think it’s relevant. I’ve never watched a complete episode of Star Trek, but even I know that Data strove to become human, not that made any sense to do so.

  • William Newman

    Robin Hanson writes “Or consider the horror many express at Bryan Caplan’s suggestion to give more votes to the better educated. These might give you the impression that we are quite averse to political inequality.”

    I think you’d be much closer to the mark if you compared the intense negative reaction to David Friedman’s proposals for letting the market sort out policy questions, or various milder broad negative reactions to various forms of people choosing policy by “voting with their feet”; those attitudes seem closer to an ideal of everyone having an inalienable share of coercive political power, and the proposals they oppose seem like a much closer parallel to decision markets.

    One doesn’t need to romance the idea of everyone having a right to impose majority rule in a district to intensely dislike the idea of giving more votes to the well-educated. Legally-mandated credentialism schemes in general, and voter qualification schemes in particular, have nasty theoretical instabilities that have an even nastier habit of showing up in the real world. I’m skeptical that having the government appoint a Predictor Certification Board and jailing any non-certified predictors would improve prediction quality; does that suggest to you that I’m motivated by a dream that no consensus be arrived at without giving equal weight to every uninformed person’s opinion?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Boris and Arne, Boris’ calculation also suggests great tolerated inequality of political power.

    Paul, it seems clear to me most understand and don’t care, but a survey to clarify would be fine.

    William and Chuck, you lost me completely.