Thursday, June 28, 2007

How to Vote

My Constitutional Law professor raised an interesting argument today in an otherwise not particularly interesting class, which meant that I had a good hour or so to mull it over. He said that citizens, when voting, should not pick the candidates best for themselves (that is, the voters) personally, but rather the candidates best for everyone as citizens. His reasoning was that if everybody picks the person who will help them the most, then things will necessarily not be good for everyone, because everyone's personal interests necessarily conflict. If everybody picks the person best for them as citizens, on the other hand, than nobody's interests need conflict and everyone can go home happy.

What? I mean, really, what? I didn't raise the question with him, due to constraints of English, time, and energy to try to argue around any point that he has already settled in his head, but I really can't decide whether I like his argument or his conclusion less.

First the argument: Okay, maybe I just don't understand what he was saying, but the whole basis seems flawed. Do people have entirely different sets of interests as individuals and as citizens? Does government have a goal other than increasing the personal joy of all of the citizens? So either everybody's best interests necessarily conflict, in which even a candidate who really just wants what's best for everyone is going to have to favor the welfare of the majority of citizens over that of the few. Or else they don't conflict and a set of representatives chosen selfishly, given adequate representative-ness (actually, even more applicable in Israel than America), will include sufficient people pushing for everyone's selfish interests that the minority will get as much as it is efficient in terms of general happiness for them to get, via wheeling and dealing and alliances and all that good political jazz.

But even assuming his argument is correct and that more total happiness is achieved via candidates chosen for the benefits to the voter "as a citizen", I don't think that it's a smart way to vote. For one thing, you have a giant prisoner's dilemma, with every single other voter in the country having a lot of incentive to vote selfishly. If you look out for the public good only, you're probably going to end up left out. Secondly, who the heck knows what is in the public good? Can the average voter take a survey of the entire country and see which policy benefits the majority of them the most? Or perhaps is the exact same result achieved if everybody just picks the guy best for them? (It's like a survey, only easier!) Thirdly, you assume that most of the things that benefit people personally are going to be in conflict, while I think in reality at least 90% of differences in voting are based not on different selfish interests, but on different values, opinions, and beliefs about reality. Everybody wants a secure country; nobody agrees about how to get it. And so no situation is going to make everyone happy no matter how you want to slice it, and you can't pretend that less selfish voters will solve anything. Fourthly, I think the question assumes that interests 'as a citizen' are more important than 'selfish' interests- that it's more morally proper to vote your political agenda than your pocketbook. I don't buy it- the whole genius of democracy is that you get a system best for everybody by having everybody look out for themselves. Pork isn't inherently morally wrong, it's wrong because it causes more harm to the whole than it earns to the individuals and sufficiently intelligent and selfish voters will stop it just as well as altruistic ones. Democracy, certainly from the perspective of the voters, isn't about weighing the good of society, it's about a perfect balance of selfishnesses.

Yes, I acknowledge that the above statements are a bit extreme, trending towards all sorts of icky utilitarian calculus and tyranny of the many, but the principle is sound. And anyway, the flaws would in no way be solved by voters who try to guess at the greater good instead of simply taking a vote and finding it out.


Richard said...

I concur with your analysis (is that a first?) but wanted to clarify: did you mean pork, or political pork, i.e. favoring your own constituency for giving government contracts.

Tobie said...

Wow, that is a shocker. I meant more of the bridge to nowhere, etc. sort of subsidies than contracts.

e-kvetcher said...

You either misunderstood the professor, or he is some kind of slogan spouting, banner waving, Socialistic vestigial organ. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This is why colleges should only teach math and science. Not much to misunderstand in surface integrals and Laplace transforms :)

Tobie said...

I wish that I could say that I misunderstood the man, because it would go a long way to explain why the whole class sat there nodding sagely and taking notes, but I really don't know how else to understand 'you can't vote for the person who's best for you personally- you have to pick the one that's best for you as a citizen' fading into a musing about the fine lines between pork and bribing voters.

The saddest thing is that this man is a self-described conservative, one of the only people in the country to oppose Barak's judicial activism, not to mention a university professor.