Comments on comments on “Voting as a rational decision”

After reading our article, “Voting as a rational decision,” Mark Thoma asked,

If helping other people makes me happy, why would caring about other people be contrary to my own self-interest? This is essentially a question about the meaning of the term selfish. I [Mark] assume selfishness means maximizing my utility, which may or may not include the happiness of other people as an argument.

My reply:

The challenge in all such arguments is to avoid circularity. If selfishness means maximizing utility, and we always maximize utility (by definition, otherwise it isn’t our utility, right?), then we’re always selfish. But then that’s like, if everything in the world is the color red, would we have a word for “red” at all? I’m using selfish in the more usual sense of giving instrumental benefits. For example, if I cut in front of someone in line, I’m being selfish. If I don’t do it (because I get pleasure from being a nice guy and pain from being a jerk), then that’s other-directed. I’m sacrificing something (my own time) in order to help others. Just because something is enjoyable it doesn’t have to be selfish, I think.

To put it another way, if “selfish” means utility-maximization, which by definition is always being done (possibly to the extent of being second-order rational by rationally deciding not to spend the time to exactly optimize our utility function), then everything is selfish. Then let’s define a new term, “selfish2,” to represent behavior that benefits ourselves instrumentally without concern for the happiness of others. Then our point is that rationality is not the same as selfish2.

Also, some of his commenters questioned whether a single vote could be decisive, what with recounts etc. The answer is, yes, it can, because there is ultimately some threshold (even if unobservable) as to whether the recount occurs. And even if this threshold is itself probabilistic, the probabilities can be added. We demonstrate this mathematically in the Appendix to the 2004 Gelman, Katz, and Bafumi article in the British Journal of Political Science; see page 674 here.

P.S. Mark has further remarks here. Those are his comments on my comments on his comments on my article which, when you come down to it, was basically a comment on some of the political science literature. That should be enough, I think.

4 thoughts on “Comments on comments on “Voting as a rational decision”

  1. This doesn't really affect your main point, but there's another definition of selfish that I think lots of people operate with.

    "If helping other people makes me happy, why would
    caring about other people be contrary to my own self-interest?"

    The obvious answer to this is that you could care about other people more than actually makes you happy. We do this all the time, and the entire concept of self-sacrifice is built around it.

    Not being self-sacrificing isn't something we do by definition. However, it's also not clear that voting behavior is self-sacrificing in this sense.

    (Again, this is not meant to detract from the point of your argument. I just wanted to suggest that your two definitions didn't exhaust the possible space of concepts.)

  2. Andrew—

    You and Mark are committing a common error: equating utility maximization with selfishness. Generally speaking, the two are unrelated. An economic actor has preferences, and we assume those preferences to be rational, which means that when goods are compared pairwise, the relation "at least as good as" is complete and transitive. That's what it means to be a rational economic actor; there is no statement whatsoever as to what goods a person prefers, so it can be entirely rational to have a preference for, say, giving gifts.

    Goods can be abstract. When one purchases home insurance, one is purchasing a degree of certainty; when one gambles, one is purchasing a degree of risk. We are even willing to pay for fairness, as demonstrated by the ultimatum game where players will reject divisions that benefit them monetarily but which they perceive to be unfair.

    As an economic actor I have limited money and time, obviously, and lets suppose that I value helping other people by volunteering at a soup kitchen. I prefer that volunteer time & effort more than (many of) my other options (given my time-money budget constraint), and since that's my preference, by volunteering, I'm maximizing utility.

    While selfishness & altruism may determine what goods I prefer to other goods, neither play a role when I act on my preferences to optimize my own utility. The latter is a neutral act.

  3. John,

    We weren't being clear enough, perhaps. I (and, I think Mark also) agree completely with what you wrote. That was our point.

  4. One question: if the entity you give your vote to turns out to be only self-interested, what than?
    Wouldn't your voting turn into unrational thinking; why don't they maximize for me? It still looks rational, but it's ratio based on not being heard.

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