Mathematical Illiteracy and National Elections

August 3, 2012 § 93 Comments

The contention is often made that because a third party candidate has “zero” chances of being elected President, it is mathematically illiterate to cast one’s vote for a third party candidate. Of course the person making this contention doesn’t literally mean “zero”: he means that the odds are extremely low, akin to the odds of being struck by lightning on a cloudless day. The odds of a third party win are negligible, not zero. So far so good.

But his own argument manifests the very mathematical illiteracy he decries. The odds that his (or my) personal act of voting will determine the outcome of the election are even closer to zero than the odds that a third party will win. It is more likely that a third party will win the election than it is that my personal vote will determine the outcome.

So ironically, the contention that voting third party is only for the mathematically illiterate is only convincing to the mathematically illiterate.

Once again reality affirms that when it comes to the act of voting in a national contest, the effect of your vote on the outcome is materially (and therefore morally, as a matter of evaluating proportionate reason) irrelevant. The effect of an act of voting on the voter himself, and the persons around him, independent of the outcome of the election, is the dispositive moral consideration.

§ 93 Responses to Mathematical Illiteracy and National Elections

  • Tom K. says:

    Anyone who disagrees is welcome to try to make some free money off me: http://disputations.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-disputations-election-challenge.html

  • Lydia says:

    Interesting point. I suppose the person might argue that he’s not just trying to get you to vote but also to campaign or put up a sign or something for the candidate–to influence others. And that can be a lot more influential than just your personal vote. Influence can even be multiplied exponentially.

    The mathematical nonsense in this are that really bugs me is when people say, “A vote for anyone other than A is the same thing as a vote for B.” I mean, they _must_ know this is not literally true, mustn’t they? One can hope so. Taken literally, it’s so easy to refute. If I’m the only person voting in an “election,” and I vote for neither A nor B (perhaps for no one, perhaps for C), then B has zero votes. If, on the other hand, I vote for B, then B has one vote. Hence, a vote for C is not the same as a vote for B. QED.

  • I haven’t created a model for it, but I expect that for most of us the odds that a third party candidate will win are still vastly greater than the odds that one’s personal influence, propagated through every “force multiplier” available to garner the maximum number of votes, will change the election outcome. That may be less manifestly obvious than the point about one’s vote specifically, I suppose, though it still seems really clear to me.

    Someone somewhere is going to become a newly minted billionaire in the next few years, and someone is going to win the Tour de France. Those are sure things, even. But the man who thinks his personal influence over a national election is materially significant is like the man who is convinced that he is going to win the Tour de France even though he has never ridden a bicycle. Heck, even that might happen to someone: it isn’t literally impossible. It just isn’t going to be you.

    There is something about our modern culture and its democratic rituals which indoctrinates us into neglecting the sphere where we actually have some genuine influence – within ourselves and with the people right around us who we interact with every day – and wasting our moral energy on vast, distant, grand scale events over which we have no (that is, infinitesimally negligible) influence. Ritualized narcissism, or something.

  • William Luse says:

    Does this mean that Zippy isn’t going to vote in the coming national election?

  • I haven’t voted for President since Bush I vs Clinton, and I’m not about to start now.

  • William Luse says:

    You realize, of course, that this means your chances of affecting the outcome just went from negligible to zero.

  • I don’t worry about my personal material influence on outcomes when it is negligible. That’s what “negligible” means.

    Prayer and fasting will still be appropriate of course: but if I’m asking God for a miracle I’m not going to waste it on something like “please let Romney win”. It is going to be “please deliver us from this despicable political order.”

  • William Luse says:

    Here’s some encouragement to get you to vote. We are in a war of good against evil. We are the good guys and they are the forces of darkness. We, the voters, are soldiers in a war. Our cause is just, our means proportionate, and we seek not unconditional surrender, but our enemy’s retirement from the field of battle. Not only is our cause just, but the very survival of our country (in the sense of it being transformed from one thing into another very worse thing) is at stake, such that a failure to act would be a dereliction of duty. As a soldier in battle, my death alone will likely not affect the outcome one way or another, but every soldier’s life is as valuable as any other’s, my labor in conflict as important as any other, and therefore to be honored as such.
    There. Now you can get back in the democratic swing of things.

  • I think the analogy of voting to war is a poor one. I think voting is a form of highly truncated speech embedded in a decision game (game in the sense of game theory); and that understanding informs my moral analysis of it as an act.

  • William Luse says:

    Is that another way of saying that you think the outcome of this election, or any other, is largely unimportant? I already know that you think the most significant outcome is what casting a vote says about the person casting it, and what he is in effect saying to himself about himself. But what about the outcome? Is it important at all?

  • Sure, the outcome is important. I just have no say in it, and pretending that I do would involve self-deception.

  • William Luse says:

    Then it would be a perfectly prudent and moral decision for all the good guys to stay away, while the bad guys all show up. Thus we foreordain by this wise and good decision an evil outcome. Is that how it works? (I know we’ve probably been through this before, but my memory ain’t what it used to be.)

  • Yes to both: we have been through it before, and 50 million men doing as I do is a far greater force for good than the same number trying to make sure the wrong lizard doesn’t win.

  • William Luse says:

    Well, in that little, uh, parable I guess you’d call it, all the lizards are all identical, without distinction. I find that morally obtuse, as though Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were the same man. Furthermore, since the lizards come from the people, and the people keep voting for them, the people are lizards too. There is no moral obligation to vote in a particular election (especially when the choices are manifestly awful) and perhaps not in any election. But when one choice is clearly superior to the other, I can’t see how doing as you do is a force for good. But I won’t bother you any more about it.

  • Tom K. says:

    One might judge that the net effect on the world of *not* voting in a particular election is greater than the net effect on the world of voting. Certainly the net effect of not voting wouldn’t have to be very great for that to be true.

  • Personally I believe that my own not-voting, when coupled to other acts of speech congruent to it, has had greater effect.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    I’ve written before that a mass boycott of democracy would be a particularly emphatic and (very likely) influential act of democracy: http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2012/04/mass_organized_boycott.html

    That established, I’m going to set out a few demurrals to my esteemed friend Zippy.

    (1) To the extent that our numerical assumption compasses the whole nation we’ve made a mistake. In truth Presidential elections under our electoral system consist of 50 individual state contests. These states, in turn, have a considerable variance in size and influence and detail. Votes in Ohio and Florida and Virginia just do have far more weight than votes in Georgia or New York. I’ve heard serious electioneers conjecture that this election could hinge on a few counties in northern Ohio. The residents there, events may demonstrate, cannot tell themselves tidy lullabies about the insignificance of their vote.

    (2) The national election is only the culmination of a very long (almost interminable and far longer than it should be) process, and all the previous points of decision constitute moments where the math of democracy weighs heavier on single votes. For instance, votes all over the country for Rick Santorum have elevated his status and the status of his concerns to a much more prominent level than before the primaries. The idea, a year ago, of Santorum getting a high-profile speech at the RNC would have sounded ludicrous.

    (3) The party structure of America seems stable enough at the moment, but then again I’m sure Democrats and Whigs felt the same during the 1848 election: few men could foresee that in just over a decade the Whigs would be gone from the earth and the Democrats split in half as a presage of the rending of the Union. The fragmenting of these great parties generated a sudden churn in politics which presented enormous opportunities, the like ones than made a certain Railsplitter from the backwoods a statesman of inestimable importance.

    More recently, the infusion of energy and activism into the GOP by a new faction Tea Party people has issued in some noticeable effects on national politics. Much of this has been achieved by — voting. The few thousand Republicans in Utah who so unceremoniously threw Bob Bennett from public office, or the few thousand more in Florida who curtailed the rise of Charlie Crist, have already vindicated the importance of their votes.

    These are just three of what could certainly comprise a longer list of reasons why I must reply to Zippy’s argument here with a “well, it depends.”

  • Lydia says:

    That’s one thing that does occur to me: Isn’t this question only coming up because we’re all thinking of an election with, shall we say, a lackluster candidate on the side we might be thinking of voting on? Zippy, if you imagine a sort of dream candidate, with all the best qualities for the national office, qualities of practical know-how, character, and moral/political principles, wouldn’t you along with all of us want to vote for him?

    I’ve just finished a primary in which we voted for a candidate who challenged the incumbent, and as far as I’m concerned it did only good for my character to have supported the challenger. I wish we could have done more for him. Now, of course in mathematical terms our influence on this election was *much* bigger than on a general national election, but had this particular person been running in the general, even for President, I would have been an enthusiastic supporter also and would have voted for him with only a feeling of happiness at having a good candidate to vote for.

    So I _think_ the issue is compromising one’s standards to vote for an iffy candidate in a vast election where one has only negligible influence. Is that right?

  • So I _think_ the issue is compromising one’s standards to vote for an iffy candidate in a vast election where one has only negligible influence. Is that right?

    That is the way my thoughts on the matter started a couple of decades ago. But from my perspective now, popular democracy with universal suffrage is bad no matter how good the individual candidates of the moment might accidentally – or, more accurately, miraculously – be. It is a “game” system designed to teach us to be “good” liberals and to produce “good” liberal candidates, so as long as we have democracy that is what we will get. An act of voting is not merely, and not even all that importantly, speech in support of a particular candidate. It is a quasi-sacramental act of personal allegiance to liberalism; so I reject it utterly. I’ve posted about this before.

    It is perhaps because of this utter rejection that it is easier for me to see the mathematical fallacies, etc that skim the surface of democratic ritual. But getting me back into liberalism’s black Mass would take quite a lot more than just adjusting the inputs on some particular election.

  • Robert King says:

    It is a quasi-sacramental act of personal allegiance to liberalism; so I reject it utterly. I’ve posted about this before.

    Interesting. Could you link to said previous posts? I’d like to understand what you mean by this – especially your use of the word “liberal” and democracy as a game. Thanks!

  • In aggregate, the trend will always be toward increasing liberalism until the system breaks. That is the nature of democracy founded on explicitly liberal principles with universal suffrage. Conservative “victories” ultimately help the system to remain more stable, as the rear-guard of liberalism’s advance.

    But of course this is all well beyond the subject of the post. Back on that subject, I’ll suggest that specific examples of people winning the lottery are not evidence that the odds are meaningful that I will win the lottery.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Don’t think we haven’t noticed your lapse into military analogies! If liberalism is indeed in the business of “advances” and “rear-guard” operations, then Bill is right to exhort its opponents to fight against it without pausing for analysis of the influence of each bullet fired or bastion defended.

  • I have no interest in fighting in the rear guard of my enemy’s army, perpetuating his advance, preventing my friend and his great enemy Nature from defeating him.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    The rear-guard analogy is a bit of a puzzle to me. Are you saying that there is a mass of disparate enemies of liberalism hanging around, disorganized, the suppression of which liberals have cunningly dragooned conservatives into joining?

    I think there is something to that, though not precisely in this context. David Frum, it seems to me, is the very type of this sort of character. He shows up in the aftermath of conservative routs to mop up the survivors.

    But the folks who show up before the routs, in a (very often vain) effort to prevent a rout: how are they liberalism’s rear-guard?

  • What I am suggesting is that what we call conservatism is the rear guard of liberalism’s army, protecting liberalism from the ravages of Nature which would otherwise overtake and destroy it. Without conservative “victories”, liberalism itself would be unsustainable.

    This isn’t a new idea: the old saw goes that liberals insist on making mistakes and conservatives make sure those mistakes aren’t corrected. I myself have called it the “Hegelian Mambo”.

    What I am suggesting (not for the first time) is that democracy founded on expressly liberal principles[*] with universal suffrage is itself the lex orandi to liberalism’s lex credendi.

    [*] “liberalism” being, roughly, the system of political belief founded on the notion that government’s just powers derive from consent, that freedom and equal rights are the supreme political principle (other principles are permitted authority only inasmuch as they reflect the will of free and equal citizens), etc.

  • all the lizards are all identical, without distinction

    No: the reason people feel compelled to vote is the possibility that the wrong lizard will win. The lizards are not all the same. The voters are expressing their preference for the lesser evil, as they see it.

  • Scott W. says:

    There is moment in the Simpsons when Mrs. Krabappel is dating Comic Book Guy and decides to break it off:

    Comic Book Guy: But Edna. I don’t understand!

    Mrs. Krabappel: Well, it’s like I’m DC Comics and you’re Marvel.

    Comic Book Guy: I understand completely.

    I’ve been absorbing plenty of reactionary/counter-revolutionary thought, but it has never really clicked into place.

    Me: Tory history, Mencious Moldbug, The Orthosphere. I think they are on to something, but I don’t understand.

    Zippy: universal suffrage is itself the lex orandi to liberalism’s lex credendi.

    Me: I understand completely.

    Thanks! :D

  • Hello Robert,

    A rough outline of my view is in this thread now; finding and assembling old posts (here and elsewhere) and/or creating a new one to put more flesh on the bones is more work than I can take on at the moment, but I’ll put it in the round tuit queue.

  • Robert King says:

    No rush. These are questions that should be decided well, not hastily. Thanks!

  • Lydia says:

    Zippy says, “The voters are expressing their preference for the lesser evil, as they see it.”

    Okay, but that trope wouldn’t even come up (the “lesser evil”) if we had a really stellar candidate.

    I mean, I understand, Zippy, that you really do reject the whole kit-n-kaboodle. The Moldbuggian (Moldbug-esque?) perspective is one I’m a little familiar with from reading Moldbug himself, which I don’t do very often but have done on occasion.

    It’s just that it seems to me to lose a lot of its appeal, argumentative as well as rhetorical, for the rest of us when it’s that sweeping. Some of us heartily share the ennui with, and even alarm at, all the “lesser evil” talk, as well as the way it works out in practice and the way that it undermines people’s standards. But that just makes us wish all the more for a candidate we don’t have to make excuses for.

  • The Moldbuggian (Moldbug-esque?) perspective is one I’m a little familiar with from reading Moldbug himself …

    FWIW, I’ve had this basic view since before Moldbug existed. Before the Web existed, actually. And I haven’t read more than a post or two of his, mainly because Scott W linked to him. So I’m reluctant to sign on to the characterization because of my own ignorance of that ‘sphere.

    It’s just that it seems to me to lose a lot of its appeal, argumentative as well as rhetorical, for the rest of us when it’s that sweeping.

    I understand that. That’s why, while I’m honest about it when asked, I don’t push it into everyone’s faces. Usually.

    Even if I’m a nut in the big picture, though, that doesn’t invalidate my more focused observations, like the mathematical one in this post. It may be the very thing that allows me to see, sometimes and in my own small way, what others often miss.

    Part of the problem is this:
    …if we had a really stellar [consistent run of electable candidates capable of actually reversing the liberal juggernaut].

    I know you didn’t say exactly that, but that is exactly the issue. There is a reason why, in the real world, those electable messiahs capable of being more than just the rear-guard for liberalism don’t exist and never materialize: lex orandi, lex credendi. A society which changed profoundly enough to offer up those great men and seat them in power would not be a liberal society, nor would it be democratic.

  • Lydia says:

    Part of the psychological problem is really not caring about electability. I hope the candidate for whom I’ve just campaigned won’t read this, but I always knew he was going to lose this year. And in 2010, too, when we also campaigned for him. It didn’t matter. I just liked supporting someone who was a really good guy. A few weeks ago a graduate student who isn’t into local politics was at our house and said, “So who is this ______ whose signs I see in your lawn?” I said, “Oh, he’s great! We’ve known him for years. Really proud to support him. He’s running against the Republican incumbent in the primary on August 7. He’s going to lose, but it doesn’t matter.” He looked at me in some surprise, which he tried to conceal.

    Or a relative was here a few weeks ago and we got talking about the upcoming national election, and when he perceived that I’m seriously inclined not to vote for Romney, he said, “So, what’s the strategy here? What is that supposed to accomplish? Would you be hoping to get a better candidate next time?” Not challengingly. He assumed I had a strategy and was curious about it. I looked at him a little blankly and then said, “I don’t have a strategy.” He gave me the same bemused look as the graduate student gave me.

    The willingness either to fight or not to fight for a candidate based on something quite other than strategy is pretty foreign.

  • Part of the psychological problem is really not caring about electability.

    Yes, that’s a huge barrier, also wrapped up with a reluctance to admit to ourselves just how little influence we have; and since caring about electability is not supported by the math it is an issue I raise from time to time.

    I have no problem with folks supporting quixotic third party candidates and such: we are all at different places on the journey, and I wasn’t always where I am now. And like you say, for a particularly great individual I actually personally knew I might even vote, even while truthfully telling him what I think of democracy, liberalism, and the rest. (Mind you I’ve not encountered the situation, so I can’t really say how it would work out).

    But the idea that you have to vote for an “electable” candidate because third party candidates aren’t viable is just mathematical nonsense. Some folks may realize that and never take it further; for others it may be a first step; or it may be that I’m just a nut to see it as a first step rather than a stand-alone fact. However one falls on those options, it is nonetheless definitely true.

  • Lydia says:

    In primaries, the math looks way,way different. Voter turnout was extremely low here yesterday. According to the results page, approximately 19,000 people voted in the Republican primary for this particular position. For what it’s worth, I imagine our vote probably counted for something appreciable.

  • William Luse says:

    “No: the reason people feel compelled to vote is the possibility that the wrong lizard will win. The lizards are *not* all the same. The voters are expressing their preference for the lesser evil, as they see it.”

    It’s true; the lizards are not all the same. That’s why it’s permissible to vote for some lizards but not others. But if you think the long-term outcome of voting for either lizard is identical, thus perpetuating this evil thing called liberalism, such that you cannot be a party to it, then they might as well be the same.

    Furthermore, it’s not universally true. I may have been naive, but in 1980 I voted for Reagan and felt, possibly for the last time in my life, that I was voting *for* someone rather than against the lesser evil. That my vote for one guy is against the other is built into the nature of a vote. This election, here in Florida, the favored Republican senate candidate is Connie Mack Jr. I went to his webpage, clicked on “issues” and found some babble about ‘freedom.’ I have no idea where he stands on anything. Then I went to the lesser known candidate’s site, Dave Weldon, a physician, and found a whole host of specifics in different areas, including a strong pro-life platform. I’ll be voting for him (*for* him), even though he supposedly doesn’t stand a chance. Re Romney, I don’t know yet. Every time I see him on TV, I get a sinking feeling. A vote for him would most probably be for the lesser evil. But even that is permissible within certain parameters.

    Universal suffrage may be imprudent, but it’s not inherently evil nor is participating in it. I’m getting the impression your real complaint is with the content of liberalism, a complaint we all share; but we have only certain tools at our disposal to fight against it, and if seems at all possible to use the enemy’s weapons against him, I will.

    “A society which changed profoundly enough to offer up those great men and seat them in power…”

    Out of curiosity, any idea how that would work?

    “An act of voting is not merely, and not even all that importantly, speech in support of a particular candidate. It is a quasi-sacramental act of personal allegiance to liberalism; so I reject it utterly.”

    Zippy just called me a liberal. I’m going to drown myself. On the brighter side, it’s good to see his blog bustling with old friends.

  • Lydia:
    My guess is that the odds of your friend winning were significantly greater than the odds that you personally would cast the deciding vote.

  • Bill:
    Yeah, it is great to be among good old friends, even virtually.

    Keep in mind that I view universal-suffrage democratic elections as a kind of liturgy; and not everyone who goes to Mass is Catholic.

  • KJJ says:

    So what about this idea:

    1. Join the political party of your most effective enemies

    2. Replace your potential enemies with your friends in local primaries as best you can

    3. Wait for the old guard to die so your friends can rise higher and higher.

    Even if this doesn’t work, you can at least cause a little chaos for fun.

    If you’re going to sit out mainstream conservative /right liberal politics, why not act as a sapper?

  • William Luse says:

    If you’re trying to turn me against him, it’s working. In the second article, he’s trying to have it both ways, supporting the Scouts’ right to do what they want while simultaneously supporting the right of homosexual boys to join up. This squishiness is not likely to be confined to one area. Shea linked to a video in which he refused to take a stand on the Chik-fil-a controversy, but there’s another in which he reasserts strongly that marriage is between man and woman. It seems, depending on what crowd he’s talking to, that he’s good at saying what his listeners want to hear. I’ve always suspected this about him, but haven’t done much research. Maybe I’m afraid of what I’ll find. Interesting that I haven’t seen this story in other outlets.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Zippy: “I view universal-suffrage democratic elections as a kind of liturgy.”

    It’s a fascinating idea, definitely worth fleshing out. If we agree that at the heart of any culture lies its corporate worship, and we stipulate that the democratic election constitutes a kind of worship manque, then it is easy enough to see how the worship finds an improper object, namely, man and his unchecked will, and that therefore the whole ritual is misbegotten at best and positively impious at worst.

    But I’m inclined to take a more historical approach. I’d start by asking, when it the democratic election really come into its own? Wherein lies is historical (as against its theoretical) origin?

    Answer: The election of 1800. There you find the modern world’s first peaceful transfer of full political power between parties as bitterly divided as you can imagine. It was no small achievement for the Federalists to vacate their offices and hand them over to Jefferson’s Republicans. In this vale of tears, the usual method by which bitterly opposed parties transfer power is: subversion, war, slaughter.

    The idea of a “loyal opposition” sits very naturally with us, but it’s important to remember how historically unique it was. Burke’s “Thoughts on the Present Discontents” (1770) is the first sustained effort to frame the idea of loyal but oppositional parties into the constitution of a great nation — to distinguish opposition from treason.

    And by golly it is an important distinction, one that no force of necessity, no nebulous arc of historical progress made inevitable. It is a distinction that was vindicated magnificently in 1800, most powerfully when Jefferson proclaimed in his Inaugural, “we’re all republicans — we’re all federalists.”

    Jefferson could have easily sustained the vitriol. Lord knows a lot of the Jacobins in his party desired that. Events could have easily followed the usual pattern of things, with reprisals, purges and proscriptions. John Adams could have gone to the scaffold like Charles I, the latter like the former defeated by Republicans.

    Instead he went into a quiet and prosperous retirement.

    So as much as I admire and feel invigorated by Zippy’s anti-democratic polemics, I always come back to an appreciation for democracy’s real achievements, never unmixed with failure and vice and corruption, but real nonetheless. The triumph of ballots over bullets is nothing to sneeze at.

    It’s a very good thing that, far from desiring his head, the very worst I desire for the current occupant of the Presidency is a quiet and prosperous retirement.

  • Tom K. says:

    If my math is right, the probability of a tie in an election of 19,000 voters, all of whom are equally likely to vote for either of two candidates, is about 0.58%. That’s a knife-edge maximum; If the voters are divided 51%-49%, the probability is about 0.01%, and at 55%-45%, the probability drops to about 1^(-44).

  • Kevin:
    I don’t have any objection to that for those who are called to it, as long as it is done with honesty and integrity.  It certainly appeals to my inner Loki.  But there is also the matter of other life priorities, so I don’t think it is for everyone.

    Paul:
    You are erudite and deeply informed, as usual, my friend.  To that I would only suggest that you add a Christian sense of tragedy, in order to apprehend the full truth in all it’s glory and terror.  Liberalism did indeed replace the wars of fragmented Christendom and the bloodiness of premodern succession with ballots-over-bullets.   But it is this same liberalism which has slaughtered nigh a hundred million of its own progeny in the womb.   

    Those who disagree with me often point toward the fact that the connection is not one of absolute necessity.  But lex orandi, lex credendi is not a relation of absolute necessity.   If it were, Catholics wouldn’t be sinners.

  • Fair enough, and great article: I shouldn’t use the term “wars of religion” or cognates, though I don’t know another easy well-recognized shorthand.

    BTW if y’all haven’t seen Tom’s post on election math, it is nerd heaven.

  • johnmcg says:

    A couple thoughts:

    1. It is true that liberalism has led to, among other things, the slaughter of millions of unborn children. To borrow from some of the other discussions, this is not an unintended consequence for many of liberalism’s founders and defenders.

    But it has also had the positive effects Paul has noted, among others.

    Obviously, neither a world of war nor a world of 1 million annual abortions are acceptable end states. But is it possible that the current liberal state is on the path from one to the other, and that by throwing out voting, because it’s part of the liberal package that includes abortion, we are delaying the day where we get to where we need to be?

    2. I think Paul’s point about the Tea Party is an important one and worth considering some more. The Tea Party managed to change the conversation in both the Republican Party and national politics, and one of their chief weapons was their voting behavior.

    Mitt Romney has had to disown his own health care initiative, and all Republican candidates must continuously reaffirm their anti-tax bona fides.

    In my opinion, the direction they took it in was not for the better, but it does demonstrate that this can happen.

    Now, it’s possible that our culture is so sick that people can only be motivated to do this for self-interested reasons like “How dare you tax me to pay for someone else’s health care?” or, “Don’t double my student loan rate?” or even, “They want to ban birth control!”

    And, I think it’s also useful to consider that the Tea Party succeeded not by just who they voted for but who they would not vote for. The entreaties that we must vote are usually along the lines that you must support our guy because the other guy is so much worse. The Tea Party said we won’t support you if you don’t affirm your support for what’s important to us, and in fact we will actively work to oust you if you do not.

    This has not been what has characterized pro-life political involvement. We keep quiet in the primaries, and then support whatever gets thrown at us, so long as we can convince ourselves it’s better than the alternative (I’m looking at you, Scott Brown).

  • johnmcg says:

    To shorten the point of my second half.

    It is mathematical idiocy to say, “You must vote for bad candidate X to prevent the election of mostrous candidate Y.”

    However, it is not so to say, “We likeminded people should strategically use our votes to bring about the change we all desire.”

    And I think refusing to vote for either of the major candidates is an example of the second.

  • Lydia says:

    It would be stretching it to say that the abortion holocaust was not an unintended consequence for the founders of our country.The issue wasn’t even on their radar. I know that probably wasn’t what you meant, John McG, by referring to “liberalism’s founders,” but given that “liberalism’s founders” and “our country’s founders” are in some sense being cojoined or connected in the discussion, I thought it only fair to mention.

    Zippy, in response to this:

    “Liberalism did indeed replace the wars of fragmented Christendom and the bloodiness of premodern succession with ballots-over-bullets. But it is this same liberalism which has slaughtered nigh a hundred million of its own progeny in the womb.

    Those who disagree with me often point toward the fact that the connection is not one of absolute necessity. But lex orandi, lex credendi is not a relation of absolute necessity. If it were, Catholics wouldn’t be sinners.”

    I have this question: Is it your position that a man who voted in the presidential election of 1800 (which Paul was discussing) was participating in a liturgy in worship of a murderous political regime?

  • I don’t think intentions are the important thing here. I think the important thing is that ideas and liturgies have consequences.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    My view is that we are not in anyway obliged to agree with the liberals when they insist that the Framers were mere early expositors of that disastrous liberal creed.

    What if Hamilton had indeed, as Willmoore Kendall speculates, immersed himself in the documentary history of the Middle Ages, the great political theory of the Schoolmen, for his inspiration in penning my very favorite part of the Constitution, the Preamble? Chesterton, too, was quick to praise America (in the midst of a whole lot of criticism) for that emulation of the old medieval tradition of austere charters and constitutions for everything. That was the late 1920s, I believe.

    Or again, was it not Calhoun who proposed positivism and a proto-eugenist creed, and Lincoln who proposed an appeal to natural law and the brotherhood of man? And who indeed had the better of interpreting the American tradition? That old codger Cuomo has got Lincoln all wrong when he makes him out as a liberal ahead of his times.

    So I can rest in the knowledge that the political system of my country has roots in things deeper, nobler and truer than the passing fads of modern liberalism.

  • Lydia says:

    “I don’t think intentions are the important thing here. I think the important thing is that ideas and liturgies have consequences.”

    Okay, was a man who voted in the presidential election of 1800 *actually* participating in a liturgy in worship of an *objectively* murderous political regime, even if he didn’t intend to be?

  • Lydia:

    I think it is silly to make some sort of direct connection between a random American voter in 1800 and Roe vs Wade, just as it would be silly to directly connect some random Moslem in 1800 to the 9-11 attacks. But I don’t see that as some sort of reductio disproving the connection between Islam and the 9-11 attacks, or liberalism and the abortion regime.

  • (And if you prefer, we can substitute “the democratic liberalism of 1800″ and “the Islam of 1800″.)

  • Lydia says:

    But I _would_ call Islam a murderous religion. If you asked me, “If a Muslim goes to the mosque and participates in Friday prayers, is he participating in a liturgy giving worship to an objectively murderous false religion, even if he doesn’t intend to be?” I would say yes.

    The Islam of 1800 was pretty bad. In fact, a lot of our tax money, such as it was, that we collected at that time went to pay protection money and ransom money for our sailors to the Barbary pirate states. We kept having trouble with them until we and then, even more, the British navy whupped them, which I think may be the source of the line “the shores of Tripoli” in the military song. (Trivia) And jihad has been part of Islam all along, right from the beginning.

  • Then you have your answer.

  • Lydia says:

    So the answer is yes?

    I think what I’m getting at is this: I think, if I’ve got this right, your view is that, now, voting in a national election is (or at least voting in a national presidential election is), whether one realizes it or not, participating in a liturgy for a really,really bad religion, maybe even a wicked religion.

    But on your view, was it always that? Or has voting in a national election become something different now than it was at the beginning of the country?

  • Lydia says:

    IMO, Islam hasn’t changed much between 1800 and now. It’s still the same religion of conquest that it always was. The fact that Islam “thinks” (if we can attribute thinking to a religion) in terms of centuries and bides its time is one of the most remarkable things about it. America has changed far more.

  • Neither are static things. Both have developed naturally into what they are today, based on their essence and their environment.

    I get it that most conservatives see today’s liberalism as an aberration as opposed to a natural development. See Paul’s comment. I don’t agree. What we see is what we get because that is what liberal democracy is. It may have looked nicer as a cute little baby; and when it was younger and cuter folks might have had more excuse to love it. But that doesn’t make it something different from what it is.

  • Lydia says:

    That _sounds_ like it would imply that America was a mistake from the beginning. I know that Moldbug thinks that; he’s pretty unabashed about it. But I wasn’t going to attribute it to you willy-nilly.

  • I think it would be a huge mistake to conflate America with liberal democracy, so if that is Moldbuggian then I’m no Moldbuggian. I do think that some nontrivial errors were enshrined as founding principles of American politics. Perhaps you recall my polemics against the Declaration’s “consent of the governed” principle here and at W4?

  • Scott W. says:

    Moldbug if I understand correctly, would hold that the American Rebellion was a mistake. Well, actually less of a mistake than a deliberate unjustifiable criminal conspiracy. Sometimes when I’m feeling impish and I hear a Catholic comment on the wonderfulness of the Declaration, I challenge them to read Hutchinson’s Strictures upon the Declaration of Independence paying particular attention to the parts where Hutchinson deals with the specific charges the Declaration levels against the Crown. Then read the Catechism’s section on armed resistance and then try to calculate how many light years are between the two.

    He would point out that most people stop reading the Declaration after the second paragraph and don’t really ask if the facts it laid out jived with reality. It’s a bit like my history professor who recalls teaching a class on Marxism in the early seveties. But he didn’t teach the Manifesto, which was what all the Leftist chuckleheads who signed up for the class were familiar with. Instead he taught Das Kapital and made the students plug in Marx’s actual math. Most stopped being Marxists after the class.

  • Scott W. says:

    Arr! I forgot about the two-links-throws-you-in-moderation “feature”.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Liberal democracy “may have looked nicer as a cute little baby” but “that doesn’t make it something different from what it is”; however, “it would be a huge mistake to conflate America with liberal democracy.”

    There is, you’ll concede, strong pressures in the direction of conflating the two. Factions of both the right and left have found it convenient to effect this conflation at various times.

    But is the conflation now so complete in practical terms that even the man who enters the voting booth with a mind to resist it cannot help himself? He prays therefore he believes?

  • Lydia says:

    I guess it doesn’t seem like much of a conflation to me if we’re talking about the election of the President as a bad sort of liturgy that is automatically in some objective sense connected with “liberal democracy.” I mean, America had to have some mechanism for choosing its President, and that was set up in the Constitution. I find it difficult to talk about “America at the founding” (e.g., in 1789 when the Constitution was ratified) and separate that from “America which had a national Presidential election.” Was America supposed to _not_ have a President, or was he supposed to be a monarch instead, or what, if the problem of “liberal democracy” is supposed to be enshrined in the “liturgy” of national elections? And what about Congressional elections? If the election of national congressman is also part of this same “liturgy,” that was part of the basic structure of the country from the beginning as well.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    The Election of 1796 was an important one too. Washington’s example of retirement from office at the peak of his prestige has had almost constitutional significance (ultimately codified as such, of course). He probably could have made himself an elected despot more akin to a monarch, had he so chosen. Back in 1783 he was the general at the head of a triumphal army unchallenged on the whole continent. Again the potential for caesarism was ripe.

    If we take Washington’s extraordinary example as of a piece with the democracy of the early Republic, I think we’re again in head-on collision with a strong element of ancient virtue as ballast against modern enthusiasm.

  • johnmcg says:

    As we romanticize this “cute little baby” let’s not forget that is also featured things like chattel slavery. We can debate whether the injustices of that time are better or worse than today’s , but I don’t think it’s fair to claim that the government of 1800 was some ideal that has since been corrupted.

  • The baby was quite a bit cuter before the nineteenth amendment. But the nineteenth amendment was inevitable.

  • Lydia says:

    John, I’m not romanticizing anything. I’m saying that it seems, to put it mildly, enormously implausible to me that the very act of electing presidents in America, or congressmen, every four years was a “liturgy” to a bad religion from the outset of the country. And if it was, I’m saying that that is an indictment of the entire existence of America, because Congress and the President, elected by electors voting, were of the essence of the political structure of the country from the outset.

    In any event, it’s highly difficult to connect chattel slavery with “liberal democracy” in any important way. Chattel slavery has been part of many-a governmental type.

  • Lydia says:

    For example, it was *because* chattel slavery was part of the colonies while they were under the British and because it couldn’t be abolished while bringing in enough colonies into the new country that it was accommodated in the U.S. Constitution. To call slavery in the United States a product of liberal democracy (which I know you didn’t do, John, but that’s what would make it relevant to the present discussion) would simply not answer to the historical facts.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    And with that we can be certain Mrs. Zippy is not a regular reader.
    :)

    JohnMcG — That’s why I made reference to the dispute between Calhoun and Lincoln.

  • Lydia writes:
    I mean, America had to have some mechanism for choosing its President, …

    I’m saying that it seems, to put it mildly, enormously implausible to me that the very act of electing presidents in America, or congressmen, every four years was a “liturgy” to a bad religion from the outset of the country.

    Liturgies aren’t mere procedure. A bunch of kids play acting a Mass or a wedding aren’t actually having a Mass or wedding.

    Liturgies take place in a context of (among other things) belief, authority, and culture, reinforcing and interacting with belief, authority, and culture. Those things in this case aren’t some mystery, because they were often enough written down in documents like the Declaration, letters, etc.

    Also, I think it is a mistake to think of America as having been brought into being ex nihilo by, say, the Declaration of Articles of Confederation or whatever. Such thinking lies at the bottom of the “proposition nation”.

    Don’t take me to be saying that procedures and propositions have no importance whatsoever: of course they do. But they are not everything, and they certainly do not constitute the essence of a country or people.

  • And with that we can be certain Mrs. Zippy is not a regular reader.

    Hah! Mrs Zippy is not a regular reader, but that is just because her interests (and trials) lie elsewhere. She doesn’t vote either, is fully aware that I think women’s suffrage is a disaster (and agrees), and despite being an Iron Man finisher she is very traditional about things like wifely submission, etc.

  • Lydia says:

    Well, okay, but does that mean that the elections _weren’t_ a liturgy to a bad religion when the country started, or that America didn’t really exist until it had developed more, or what?

  • Well, okay, but does that mean that the elections _weren’t_ a liturgy to a bad religion when the country started, or that America didn’t really exist until it had developed more, or what?

    The question confuses me. Yes, the secular religion existed at the time of the Declaration, etc. I thought I already made it clear that the essence of America (or any country) is not her secular religion though, so if the secular religion had developed earlier or later how would that pertain to America’s existence?

    Also liberal democracy isn’t exactly exclusive to America, so if it were the essence of America wouldn’t that imply that the neocons are right: that everyone who believes in liberal democracy is automatically American?

  • If we take Washington’s extraordinary example as of a piece with the democracy of the early Republic, I think we’re again in head-on collision with a strong element of ancient virtue as ballast against modern enthusiasm.

    It was extraordinarily admirable. Though I think the man may have been wise enough to see that being King (especially a virtuous one) is an enormous burden, and decided to live a happy life instead of a miserable one.

    In any case, I don’t think it is an accident that the modern enthusiasms have over time squeezed out ancient virtue.

  • Lydia says:

    What I _think_ I get from that, then, is that anyone who voted in a national election from America’s very beginning was, willy-nilly, even without his own intention, objectively participating in a liturgy to a secular religion. But America literally couldn’t function without that participation, so how could America have existed and functioned as a political order without asking people to participate in a secular liturgy?

  • johnmcg says:

    What I _think_ I get from that, then, is that anyone who voted in a national election from America’s very beginning was, willy-nilly, even without his own intention, objectively participating in a liturgy to a secular religion.

    I think it’s always been a secular liturgy. The problem becomes when it becomes a secular “religion” that takes a place higher than our own religion. Maybe in 1800 the number of people for whom this is true is smaller than it is now.

    There’s all sort of things we do that are participations in the secular “religion” – standing and saluting the anthem, saying the pledge, obeying the laws, cheering for the US in the Olympics, even getting up and going to work.

    The problem is when this secular religion takes precedence over our actual religion. When people are willing to defend a certain level of taxation, or a certain aspect of the social safety net, over aspects of the faith. And, in my opinion, the political parties have become increasingly effective in co-opting people to self-indentify first as political party members, or as adherents to a political philosophy.

  • Lydia:
    What I _think_ I get from that, then, is that anyone who voted in a national election from America’s very beginning was, willy-nilly, even without his own intention, objectively participating in a liturgy to a secular religion.

    Yes. Liberal democratic elections are in fact the liturgy to a secular religion, no matter what terms are used, willy-nilly, to belittle the notion.

    But America literally couldn’t function without that participation, so how could America have existed and functioned as a political order without asking people to participate in a secular liturgy?

    Now we’ve entered the irresistible realm of hypotheticals and alternate histories. Are you seriously telling me that you cannot in your own imagination – and I’ve seen the powers of your formidable imagination in action – even conceive of the development of a political order, in a counterfactual history over which you can make the facts whatever you will, which is not a liberal democracy based on the principles of the Declaration, etc?

    But lets suppose we cannot even conceive of any alternate history.

    Does our putative incapacity to develop a fictional alternate history have the power to alter the nature of the reality we face right now? Will our lack of imagination about centuries-old counterfactuals change things such that it is reasonable to expect a parade of good candidates capable of turning back liberalism, if only we’ll support them and vote for them like good little classical liberals? Will the “vote for the less evil lizard” dynamic of the system in which we actually live be altered in the slightest by alterations in our telling of the mythology of its origins?

    The whole hubbub over origins is really pointless. I get it: many don’t see the history the way I do. This apparently brings hope that golly, if only we can all vote for the right lizards, all do our part in the great civic ceremony, we can finally beat the liberal Other. We will attain the transcendent altar of political relevance and do what no conservatives in all of American history have done yet: stop liberalism in its tracks, and return the polity to a more sane order. The conservative history of being liberalism’s great codependent enablers will finally come to an end, because by golly, we will have elected in mass scale egalitarian elections a government which does not believe in mass scale egalitarianism.

    That isn’t going to happen.

    At the end of the day, what difference does it make how we landed on this particular beachhead? We’ll start the war from here.

  • Lydia says:

    “Are you seriously telling me that you cannot in your own imagination – and I’ve seen the powers of your formidable imagination in action – even conceive of the development of a political order, in a counterfactual history over which you can make the facts whatever you will, which is not a liberal democracy based on the principles of the Declaration, etc?”

    Considering the way _you_ seem, as far as I can tell, to define “liberal democracy” and to interpret the principles of the Declaration and its relationship to the founding of the country in the Constitution and so forth, it seems to me that any political order that I would conceive, that I would call “America” in virtue of its looking to a meaningful extent like America as founded, would still probably fall under your negative heading of “a liberal democracy based on the principles of the Declaration.” _I_ don’t interpret or conceive of those principles and their relation to the Constitution, etc., in the same way, so, sure, I can imagine a much better alternate history for America while still having it be recognizably America.

    So, I hate to say it, but it seems to me like you probably should be a Moldbuggian even though you aren’t one. But maybe that’s good, right? I think Moldbug is mad as a hatter on this subject, so it’s just as well not to go that direction all the way.

  • So, I hate to say it, but it seems to me like you probably should be a Moldbuggian even though you aren’t one. But maybe that’s good, right? I think Moldbug is mad as a hatter on this subject, so it’s just as well not to go that direction all the way.

    Again, I don’t read him so I can’t address the accusation. But I think looking at coming to the truth on a subject as a “direction” in which it is possible to go too far is a bad way of looking at truth.

  • Lydia says:

    Here is a practical question that relates to the main post: Suppose in a state there is a referendum on a marriage protection amendment to the state constitution. There really was one of these in my state some years ago, and it passed. It was a particularly good one, because it also ruled out civil unions. Now, a voter referendum is pretty much a pure expression of democracy. Moreover, it’s extremely unlikely (I don’t think this matters a lot myself, but I’m gathering that you do) that the vote would be razor-balanced so that my personal vote would tip the scales in favor of passage. In fact, it’s more likely that it’ll pass without me than that I’ll make the difference. So: Would someone who takes your position hold that it’s better not to vote for such a referendum because one is participating in a “liturgy to liberal democracy,” and one’s particular vote is unlikely to be *the one* event that brings about the desired result?

  • Here is a practical question that relates to the main post:

    Well, most of the discussion we’ve been having is very far afield of the main post, and this is too. The main post is about the fact that it is mathematically illiterate to claim that it is mathematically illiterate to vote for a third party in a national contest. In a referendum there is no third party: there isn’t even a second party.

    …it’s extremely unlikely (I don’t think this matters a lot myself, but I’m gathering that you do) that the vote would be razor-balanced so that my personal vote would tip the scales in favor of passage.

    It only matters to the extent that some seem to have the notion that their vote is more likely to influence the outcome in a “close” scenario. I mean, it is more likely, but only in the same sense that it is more likely for a meteor to hit the earth and destroy Hoboken, New Jersey next Thursday than it is that a black hole will stray into our solar system and compress the earth into its singularity. Much rhetorical hay is made over possibilities that are so infinitesimal that they are literally in the “noise” of everyday life, and it makes no more rational sense to take them into consideration than it does to take the possibility of a miracle into consideration.

    And once we are in the domain of praying for miracles I can dream up much better options than “please let Romney win”.

    Would someone who takes your position hold that it’s better not to vote for such a referendum because one is participating in a “liturgy to liberal democracy,” and one’s particular vote is unlikely to be *the one* event that brings about the desired result?

    I don’t vote at all, so I don’t vote for referenda. And obviously I think that’s the right thing, as demonstrated by the fact that it is what I do. But I recognize that there are tremendous intuitive and other barriers to people making that same choice.

  • Lydia says:

    I hadn’t known for sure that your non-voting position extended to state elections, perhaps local elections, and referendum votes as well.

    I think that what John McG said above about primaries was very shrewd. Much can be done with primaries that we are not doing. The fear of the non-incumbent should cease. Those of us, especially, who are concerned about specific issues should get behind non-incumbents who represent us, yet our interest groups, such as right-to-life groups, who should exist for that very purpose, refuse to do so even in the primary elections. It’s pathetic. There are many lost opportunities there.

  • I hadn’t known for sure that your non-voting position extended to state elections, perhaps local elections, and referendum votes as well.

    I’m not dogmatic about it: it is my personal practice, but I don’t pretend to have a universal prescription for how folks ought to respond to the reality. Where I am far more intransigent is when it comes to my understanding of the reality we face.

  • Scott W. says:

    Over on the other thread, you pointed me to the CCC that says it is morally obligatory to excercise the right to vote and defend one’s country. I see your point about how one is not obliged to sign up for every military action available, but was wondering how you square this with not voting at all. Conscientious objection? Not voting for anything higher than town dog catcher?

  • Very briefly: the Catechism is a universal document. It applies in Communist China, all across Africa, Russia; it applied to Catholics in Saddam’s Iraq — you name it. Whatever significance you grant to the specific examples it gives to illustrate co-responsibility for the common good, has to apply everywhere. An understanding consistent with that does not allow one to simply write off the common good in apathy; but it is certainly consistent with principled conscientious objection.

  • […] is going on here is that two extremely low probability events are being implicitly pitted against each other: the probability that someone other than a major party candidate will win versus the probability […]

  • […] it, and the test of whether I am right about it is to observe our political process, including the mathematical realities which are inherent to it, and see if it in fact functions the way I say it […]

  • […] of a personal act of voting in a national election the effect of your vote on the outcome is negligible.  At the same time the outcome-independent effects of your vote are not negligible.  So it is the […]

  • […] only one of these two can win.Perhaps you should revisit the concept of Realism.  Reality is that neither my vote nor yours will “change the outcome of the election.”  The impact of your vote on the outcome of a […]

  • […] simple incomprehension and outright refusal to grant manifest premises, the most common objection I get to my voting arguments is that if enough people did as I do the […]

  • […] that is the realization that because our personal, material influence over the outcome is literally negligible – our personal signals are well beneath the real world noise floor of the process – a genuine, […]

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