Riker and Ordeshook ride again.

There’s a back-and-forth going on at Volokh about whether it’s instrumentally rational* to vote. The discussion is revolving around Riker and Ordeshook’s good old D.

For those of you who do not have the great good fortune of being political scientists (you poor children, you bereft, you who are ever wandering and always lost, OhOhOh), Riker and Ordeshook’s D is from a classic “solution” to the problem of rational voting. The problem of rational voting: it’s hard to see how it’s utility-maximizing to vote. Mo Fiorina famously described the prevalence of voting as “the anomaly that ate rational choice.” (Because Mo is the bomb.) What Riker and Ordeshook basically did was say “ok, let’s say voters get some utility from the mere act of voting, like if they satisfy social duty, or some value in the utility of other people. Let’s call that D. D is greater than the cost of voting. Solved.”**

Which, when it comes down to it, is probably true. Democratic societies are very good at socializing citizens to believe that voting is something that has intrinsic value, regardless of one’s probability of affecting the outcome. But it’s a really bad way to solve rational choice theory problems, because you can always just add another term to the utility function to make anomalous behavior rational. It’s totally ad hoc.

Eric Posner and Ilya Somin seem to be falling into that trap. Right now, they’re dithering about the expected amount of money-normalized utility that other citizens (other than the voter) get from having the better candidate in office, which depends on the voter’s probability of correctness (determined how?) as well as the amount of benefit for correctness to other citizens, as utility to one’s self (determined how?). If you have a theory of why it’s rational to vote that depends on which number you stick in for the utility of other people, who aren’t even necessarily relevant except on a heroic assumption, you need to go back to the drawing board. Sorry guys.

What’s really annoying is the first comment on Posner’s post, from a dm:

Posts like this make me wonder why I am bothering to get my Masters in Political Science. I realize the post was done in a joking manner, but I don’t get the value of this type of quantitative “analysis”. What does it tell us really? Everyone votes or doesn’t vote for their own reasons and to measure the utility you would need to get inside the head of each person. As for making a difference, it seems that every person who votes for one of the two major candidates has the same chance of making that difference.

Noooo! Competent political scientists don’t do this! Please don’t take the argument on a law blog as representative of what political scientists do! Also, what’s up with the “making a difference” stuff?

* Where are you when I need you Joseph Raz?
** And right now, Riker is rising from the grave to do a Hamlet’s-Father job on me in revenge for that total butchering oversimplification.


3 Responses to “Riker and Ordeshook ride again.”

  1. Mike Says:

    The only thing rational in Somin’s post is his rationalization that his vote is rational. He’s obviously not read Ben Franklin:
    I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

    At least Franklin was self-aware enough to understand what he was doing.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    That is a fabulous quote; I’m stealing it and putting it to work in my paper for the practical reason seminar I’m taking.

  3. Uncommon Priors » Why on earth don’t we just reduce the cost of voting like woah? Says:

    [...] Riker and Ordeshook ride again. [...]

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