Voting Is A Far Fest

In 6 experiments, … priming high power led to more abstract processing than did priming low power. (more)

To many of us it seems obvious that collective choice often goes very wrong. Yes there are many real and serious coordination problems, and yes collective choice institutions can and do often address such problems. Even so, democratic policy often seems quite dysfunctional.

There have been many attempts to account for democracy’s dysfunction, but it has turned out to be hard to make much sense of such accounts via formal game theoretic models using selfish rational agents. Bryan Caplan’s celebrated book The Myth of the Rational Voter, argues instead that voters are “rationally irrational,” indulging in varied irrationalities regarding their political beliefs, because their very low chance of being pivotal (i.e., decisive) in an election means each voter’s vote matters to them mainly for non-outcome reasons, such as personal identity, group loyalty, personality signaling, etc.

While Caplan is insightful, Tyler Cowen once noted that democracy skeptics tend to distrust policy decisions made by randomly selected voters, even though such voters could be confident that their choices matter. You might think that random voters deciding would be better than ordinary democracy.  Even so, if you’d also be wary of policy choices by random decisive voters, then you must think something else goes wrong with democracy besides a low chance of voters being pivotal. But what?

Longtime readers should not be surprised to hear my suggestion: even random pivotal voters tend to think in a far mental mode. When we make concrete choices about our own immediate lives, especially for our private consumption, we are in a pretty near mental mode.  Since near-far depends on distance in time, social distance, and unlikeliness, our mental mode becomes farther when our choices are about a more distant future, are about a wider scope of people, are seen by more people, are about more unlikely situations, or are unlikely to matter. So citizen votes in a democracy are pretty much a far fest (especially regarding unlikely far future techs).

Of course this analysis suggests that autocratic rulers also think in a rather far mode, suggesting that choices by random voters wouldn’t be much worse than those by a randomly selected king. Autocratic rulers selected via a vicious and ruthless contest for power might think in a more near mode, but more serving their own private ends, which might deviate greatly from ours. Ideally we’d select firm CEOs in part for their ability to maintain a nearer mental mode, while adhering to rules limiting their ability to exploit firms for personal gain.

Futarchy’s slogan, “vote on values, but bet on beliefs,” suggests that it might encourage collective choices based on more realistic near-mode evaluations of policy consequences, though voting on values would still retain a far fest of values.  I’m not sure how best to deal with that.

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  • Brian

    Autocratic rulers selected via a viscous and ruthless contest for power…

    Mud wrestling?

  • sark

    The problem people have with Futarchy I think is that our Far mode preferences are supposed to be vague and flexible. We want to be there along the way guiding the implementation of our Far mode desires. This is so that we can compromise it with our equally important if not more so Near mode desires. This is in turn because our Near mode desires are usually much more implicit/procedural than our Far mode ones, which are more explicit/declarative. (otherwise we could declare explicitly our Near mode desires, and combine them with our Far desires from the outset)

    The seeming dysfunction of democracy could simply be an essential part of how our Near and Far desires interact in their expression.

    • Robin Hanson

      Yes, our reluctance to commit to acting on far values could make us reluctant to commit to acting on an explicitly defined national welfare function.

  • michael vassar

    I think that you are becoming Manichean regarding far and near modes.
    The far and near modes both involve problems, not just far mode.

  • Ray

    So when someone votes for a Bill Clinton or Warren Harding, men of notoriously low character even among politicians, and these men are only saying what the people are obviously wanting to hear at that moment, how does the near-far model fit in to such a scenario?

    Because the national mood is currently at X, and they have the personal charisma to win over the masses, and so they simply preach X? Thus their charisma combined with a timely message triggers the voters’ approval?

    This sounds more near thinking to me, but I’m speculating. . .

    • Proper Dave

      Clinton had only a low character among the DC crowd the so called “Village”. Don’t know about Harding, only that he usually pops up in the “worst president” lists. Clinton never does.

  • Gil

    This is a bit of a head scratcher. If John Lott reckoned that the “rise of the Welfare State/decline of the Capitalist West” can be tied to the increase in womens’ right to vote and participtae in previously mens only domains then should women be barred from voting and participating eqally with men in society. Apparently John Lott seems to shrug this off and say “no of course not, women should be able to vote and so forth”. I would disagree, if it can be indeed shown that empowering one group in society leads to its demise then they shouldn’t be empowered at all. By the same token if Democracy really means “my vote doesn’t matter” or “I’ll vote for my own short term interests at the expense of society” then Democracy will lead to the degeneration of society and as such should be avoided (presumably in favour of the vote only extending to those of significant wealth).

    • Proper Dave

      “I would disagree, if it can be indeed shown that empowering one group in society leads to its demise then they shouldn’t be empowered at all.”

      Can this be shown? What then, when they disagree, you get rid of them?(Note this is highly euphemistic…).

      “decline of the Capitalist West”

      The West and the world for that matter has been more capitalist than ever. See the last 20 years…

      Every state is a “Welfare State” after all it takes care of those “empowered” and doesn’t care about those that isn’t.

  • http:/ Stephen R. Diamond

    Some critics, like Caplan, criticize democracy for (in essence) its far-mode bias. But other critics, such as Gil above or the opponents of “special interests,” criticize democracy because they think it means, “I’ll vote for my own short term interests at the expense of society.” The first attacks democracy for being too far-mode, the other for being too near-mode.

    That both ring somewhat true suggests that either diagnosis is simplistic, but let me offer an alternative simplification: politics is far; markets are near; at least that’s how it ought to be. If ideals and abstractions have any place, certain they are in the realm of the political. Otherwise, politics becomes the pursuit of narrow self interest.

    When issues suited for the near-mode intrude into the political realm, the far-mode is exploited to justify near-mode positions. The resulting perversion of the far mode gives it a bad rep. The whole point of politics is to impose the higher aspirations of the far mode on quotidian near-mode conduct.

    • Gil

      Actually I was criticising those who criticised Democracy. If people believe they can show the Democracy means special interests have the most power and screw over everyone else then this would show that Democracy has no long term stability. However my grudge is that Democracy critics rarely look at other forms of rule and their deficiencies. It would seem such critics do presume some sort of rule such as Monarchy, Kritarchy or Oligarchy.

      • Kevin C.

        But semocracy does have no long term stability.

      • Proper Dave

        In a Democracy I can form a special interest group to oppose another one.

        Almost any other system have a “special interest” group in permanent power, sometimes membership is totally arbitrary too, but always exclusive.

    • sark

      I don’t think special-interests are Near mode. Special interests are ‘special’ in the sense of a coalition being identified with it. And those ‘interests’ may be no one’s at all! Even with coalitions, the marginal vote has little effect. But a voter would still want to vote for her coalition, since that signals ingroup loyalty. It’s all Far mode.

      The problem with Far mode is not that it’s abstract/distant, but that it is too loosely tied to the actual interests of individuals regardless if they be concrete or abstract, self-serving or idealistic.

      • Stephen R. Diamond

        I don’t think special-interests are Near mode. Special interests are ’special’ in the sense of a coalition being identified with it. And those ‘interests’ may be no one’s at all!

        Public-opinion management requires that political interests be expressed in far mode terms. But when it comes to deciding which “special interest” one belongs to, near mode methods predominate.

        Examples help. One special interest receiving much attention is “Big Pharma.” What determines the expression of this interest? The companies’ balance sheets, a near-mode analysis. This is then expressed in far mode as opposition to socialized medicine.

        The right tends to be more concerned about “Big Labor.” Here, as well (but admittedly less clearly) the laborers forming the interest’s foundation decide whether they support labor’s “agenda” primarily based on whether they have personally benefited from union membership (or whether others have These observations are near mode.

      • sark

        I’m inclined to believe you, as I don’t know so much about politics in practice. But this seems to conflict with theory. Voting for your chosen special interests, your vote has as little marginal effect. (obscure qualifier: rationally there is an acausal means-end relationship between you voting and others voting, hence it is rational to vote, but people are not rational (enough))

        I suspect it’s more that self-interested seeming opinions are a natural attractor for the predominant opinion of a group. You can’t sell just anything as something group members should believe. So although the belief of group members seem to track the their actual interests closely enough, it is really Far mode expression of loyalty to one’s group at work.

        I guess there is some Near mode mechanism at work here in that it influences which belief gets to signal group loyalty. But it is really Far mode expression that allows them to enter politics and mess things up.

        Note that this isn’t ideally how Near and Far should interact. You should start Far, then modulate it with Near, not the other way around.

  • anon

    While Caplan is insightful, Tyler Cowen once noted that democracy skeptics tend to distrust policy decisions made by randomly selected voters, even though such voters could be confident that their choices matter.

    There are lots of potential problems with sortition, but most of them are unrelated to the near-far mode axis.

    Nonetheless, one proposed advantage of elections over sortition is stimulating ‘interest, debate and learning’ about politics, and thus conferring legitimacy to the elected government. This mght be a unescapable tradeoff, in that prospective legitimacy can only be evaluated in far mode.

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I wonder if collective votes serves as a kind of paternalistic benefit for technocraticadministrative elites -like a sticky note that the masses exist and have preferences and some coordination ability, irrational though they might be.

  • David Gerard

    As I understand it, the purpose of voting is similar to the purpose of jury trials: it doesn’t promise a better result, it promises a result that people will accept without setting fire to things. Its success in this regard is variable across countries; the difficult part of the trick is getting people to accept the result (let alone a close result) as valid.

  • John Weldon

    I just read about this research via, and immediately thought of your recurring theme of near vs. far, and how ‘far’ skews thought and perspective toward higher/nobler/idealistic ideas.

  • bo

    Far notions are generated by synthetic cognitive processing. When we are dealing with near notions, we put more emphasis on our analytic abilities.

  • bo

    Just look how idealistic approaches are filled with suitcase words like pride, trust, confidence, desirable.

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