Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When Shouting is Better than Voting

A while back I questioned the value of public protesting and suggested handwriting a letter instead. I've also questioned the value of voting, the most traditional way of citizen involvement. I certainly don't think voting is worthless, but I do have a different understanding of why I and others really vote (even for a third party). Not only is the probability of your vote making a difference in national election statistically impossible, voting also has another huge flaw, everybody only gets one. No matter how how passionate/apathetic and educated/uneducated you are, all voices count the same. This is simultaneously democracy's greatest strength and weakness. Luckily, citizens have created other ways to influence government, some better than voting:
"One man one vote" is not always optimal. I reported a few days ago that technocrats can under some conditions take better decisions than a referendum could. The point there was about information and heterogeneity of preferences.

Surajeet Chakravarty and Todd Kaplan use similar arguments to compare simple voting and shouting matches. In the latter, those caring more about the outcome put more effort into shouting. Thus, if there is a lot of variance in opinions, shouting better reflects marginal utility and yields something closer the social optimum.

How is this shouting concretely expressed? It should be a signal that is costly and in some way wasteful. In France, it is demonstrating on the streets. In the United States it is donating to political campaigns. In Thailand it is erecting barricades. Usually seen as major inefficiencies, all these can actually be good.
Greece seems to have their own, less conventional method. This is why I was happy with the Supreme Court case earlier this year that struck down limits to campaign finance. I've done a lot of research on the topic and it seems to be one of the most efficient ways for citizens to show their preferences for government. Criticizing the equality in voting probably makes many very uncomfortable, but that only confirms to me that voting is less about producing an effective government and more about satisfying a citizen's desire for participation.


  1. Amike3:00 PM

    Good points. On campaign finance: I see your point, but eliminating limits on donations will not accomplish the purpose you're seeking here. The multimillionaire can give hundreds of thousands without batting an eye--it's not "costly" for him in the same way that it's "costly" for a single mother working two jobs to donate $50 to a campaign. That's a 'louder shout,' in the sense you're describing, but of course the $100,000 donation will register as a louder shout in political discourse (and in the mind of the politician receiving it).

    Or in other words, Luke 21: 1-4.

  2. Amike3:05 PM

    ...a passage that ends happily (i.e. the REAL sacrifice is recognized as such) only because the observer is Jesus, who is insightful and who has his priorities straight. Were every politician and every voter Christ-like, this setup would work just as well for campaign donations. (Of course if men were angels, we wouldn't need government at all.)

  3. Sure a thousand dollars means less to a millionaire than it does to a pauper, but I'm not sure that unravels the value of the shout. As for the the Luke passages, those were in regard to sacrificing for charity, not having your political voice heard. I think the two are too different to compare.

    Good point about Christ-like voters and politicians. But my guess if we were perfect, a benevolent dictator would probably be easiest.

  4. Amike3:23 PM

    Well, the point is to register how much you care about the issue in question, right? In that case, probably better to measure the 'value' of donations as a percentage of income, rather than in real dollar amounts. I presume that would be true of charity giving, political giving, and everything else--even purchasing goods for personal use. ("I care SO MUCH about the Black-Eyed Peas that I will spend 40 percent of my weekly paycheck to see them live.")

    The point about Christ-like voters is a good one, but I can't take credit for it--that's me paraphrasing James Madison again.

  5. That's a great idea! Though I guess Bill Gates could control politics by donating billions to a poor person who then donates it to a politician. Still, I feel like there is something in the idea.

    As for James Madison, there are fewer better politicians to quote. In fact, I'm getting paid to go to a week long conference on him this summer.

  6. Amike1:14 AM

    Awesome! I want to go!

  7. Amike9:39 AM

    Just got this link from Jeff:

    The system described here still favors the wealthy, I think, since it's measuring votes in "real" dollars rather than proportions, but this is exactly what we were talking about...


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.