Choosing Team Litterbug

October 22, 2012 § 22 Comments

One of the biggest intuitive difficulties most people seem to have with my voting polemics is reconciling the fact that your personal influence over the outcome of a national election is negligible with the fact that election outcomes are determined, at least in the final and formal step of holding the election itself, by mass aggregations of personal influence. [1]  I’ll note that this isn’t peculiar to any argument of mine in particular.  It is a manifest fact that both are true: your vote has negligible influence, and the outcome of the final step (the election itself) is determined by a process of aggregating votes. [2]  If we haven’t wrapped our intuitions around those simultaneous truths we haven’t properly understood the mechanics and implications of mass market universal suffrage democratic elections.

It has been suggested that Presidential elections represent what in game theory [3] is called a tragedy of the commons. [4]  Littering is an example of a tragedy of the commons: one person tossing a gum wrapper does negligible harm, using the tiniest bit of public space as a garbage receptacle; but the aggregation of all the litterbugs in the world creates non-negligible problems.   While I think that understanding applied to elections leaves out some important considerations – game-theoretically, national elections are contests over which team can build the biggest sand pile – there is some truth to the characterization of elections as tragedies of the commons.

There is no real ‘solution’ to the tragedy of the commons barring some way of changing the aggregate behaviour of large numbers of people.  As individuals with negligible personal influence at the scale of national elections, we don’t have the power to do that.  But the suggested personal action in the face of a tragedy of the commons is to act as we would prefer other people like us to act.  Then at least we set an example for the people around us, even though we are quite literally powerless to stop the large-scale tragedy.

Human beings are social and tend to join with others in thinking and acting a certain way.  We don’t have the personal influence to make Team Litterbug or Team Worse Litterbug disappear, replaced by something better.  But we do get to decide if we personally are going to join Team Litterbug or Team Worse Litterbug; and the material and other consequences of our personal choice are independent of which team actually wins.  We can’t choose whether Team Litterbug exists or not, and we can’t choose whether Team Litterbug wins or loses.  But we do get to choose whether or not we are personally going to be a Litterbug.

This seems to be at one and the same time obvious and extraordinarily counterintuitive, based on the relentless resistance I encounter to this manifest point.

This next is the part that really bugs people, but it follows quite directly.  Because the consequences of our choice are independent of which team actually wins, we can’t justify our choice based on the relative merits of Team Worse Litterbug losing.  We have to justify our choice on the absolute goods obtained by the mere act of  joining Team Litterbug – whether they win or lose –  versus joining some other team, or no team at all.

To which I say, “Give a hoot — don’t pollute!”


[1] This process has a signal to noise ratio, like any real process.   People seem to think that 500 votes in this State or that can influence the outcome.   I would suggest that that level of “signal” never actually determines the outcome, not even in Florida in 2000, because a signal that small cannot be accurately resolved by the system (“hanging chads”, anyone?).  For those of you who have no signal processing background and are interested in following up on the concept, I recommend that you explore the precision/accuracy distinction and ask yourself how meaningful, in terms of accuracy, the down-to-one-voter precision of our real-world electoral process actually is.  The appearance of a 500 vote decision in a Presidential contest is most likely indistinguishable, as a real world problem, from rolling the dice to see who wins.  I apologize in advance for any constitutional crises created by mathematics.

[2] I would contend that almost everything important has already happened by the time the ballots go to print; but that is a different discussion.

[3] That would be von Neumann’s game theory, not manosphere game theory.   The fact that I have to make that distinction is another strike against the latter use of the term “Game”.

[4] The “tragedy of the commons” is arguably a multiplayer iterated version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  If you aren’t familiar with game theory and would like an easy-to-follow introduction for a general audience, I recommend the book The Prisoner’s Dilemma by William Poundstone.  (I added this footnote because some comments took me to be referring to the tragedy of the commons in some more general and fuzzy sense, rather than the mathematical sense).

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§ 22 Responses to Choosing Team Litterbug

  • Tom K. says:

    Surely political campaigns are tragedies of the least common denominators.

  • Gian says:

    I thought Tragedy of the commons refers to the actions that are not bad or unlawful in themselves but lead to bad outcomes in the aggregate.
    So littering is not a example of Tragedy of the commons.

    What I am not understanding is
    1) The problem with liberalism
    2) The idea that there could have been a perfect politics. Like when? France pre-1789? America pre-1861 or pre-1914?

  • Tragedy of the Commons is a mathematical concept in the domain of game theory. It has nothing to do with legalities. You can read up on it at the link I provided.

    One of the things that participation in liberalism’s rituals seems to have done to a lot of people is that it has caused them to equate “doesn’t formally sanction and encourage the wholesale murder of tens (or perhaps hundreds, by now) of millions of innocents” with “perfect”.

    So when I point out basic flaws in the form of modern politics which has murdered tens or even hundreds of millions of innocents (depending on how we want to count corpses) I am some sort of irrational raving ivory tower perfectionist.

    I’m not asking for perfect. The fact that people read my polemics against mass murder of the innocent and the politics which produces it, and interpret me as if I were asking for “perfection”, should be astonishing. But it is a very common response. That’s where present day standards now lie: reject mass murder of the innocent as anything other than inevitable and you are a “perfectionist.”

  • Gian says:

    But the politics is offering you a choice to stop the slaughter-it is not that both parties are pro-abortion.
    Or do you think that Republicans are only pretending to be pro-life?

    Re: Tragedy of Commons, the link to wikipedia defines as:

    The “tragedy of the commons” is one way of accounting for overexploitation. In economics, the tragedy of the commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to their long-term best interests

    It could be an interesting discussion on the way liberals and Economists have defined or actually not defined the expression “self-interest”.

    The self-interest of economists is merely a desire. Since to actually concern oneself with self-interest requires rational thought and is apt to take one to illiberal directions.

    Now, economics requires one to set the market. The moves have to be legal. There can not be a market without definition. Thus legality of the acts is a per-condition. But you say that the Tragedy of Commons is also a technical term in mathematical game theory. Could be, but again any application to real life necessarily involves restriction to legal acts.
    Thus littering is at best a poor example here and a misleading analogy to voting.

    Indeed I do not think aggregation of votes is a moral problem. The moral problem is Our Acts must be Oriented to the Common Good. It does not matter if my Act contributes to one-millionth of the common good. It is only permissible to abstain from voting if one judges that abstaining is best for the common good.

  • Gian says:

    You actually raise very good points and I have often wondered why conservatives who rave and rant against Islamic barbarism, why they drop their voices against American barbarism.

    They think that the foreign barbarism must be fought with guns while the domestic barbarism could be argued with and persuaded.
    The debate regarding person-hood was not settled with words in 1861 and may not be even now.

  • Gian:
    Again, TofC is a mathematical concept, not a legal concept. Though if anything the fact that the sovereign can’t manage to put a stop to littering by outlawing it makes it a better example of a TofC.

    Or do you think that Republicans are only pretending to be pro-life?

    It is not that individual Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) are insincere. It is that the politics they support has an objective character, no matter what stories they tell themselves about what they really intend. They sincerely oppose the actions of the alcoholic while buying him free drinks on an endless bar tab.

    I would modify this statement:
    It is only permissible to [do any civic act] if one judges that [that civic act] is best for the common good.

    Furthermore, from that fact that one has good intentions it does not follow that one’s act is, objectively, best for the common good.

    One who joins Team Romney is responsible for the effects of joining Team Romney. Any decent Christian who joins Team Romney is not going to do so with full-throated enthusiasm, but rather as a calculation that a Romney win is less bad than the other guy winning. I’ve repeatedly shown how, objectively, the person making that decision has made an intellectual mistake. He thinks his act is best for the common good, based on faulty reasoning; objectively, it isn’t.

  • William Luse says:

    This is a wonderful series of posts. In my case it’s pretty simple. I’ve come to understand my vote as token furtherance of another man’s political ambitions, usually a man with whom I disagree on what I believe to be the most fundamental issues. Every time I vote for such a man, I have to compromise some principles, but he never does. There may be more compromises to come, but he’s already done most of it just to get as far as he has. I’m just tired of it, and I ain’t going to do it anymore.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Let’s assume, arguendo, that you are right about the basic irrationality of ever supposing that your (or mine, or anyone’s) single vote will be an effective means of improving the common good.

    It seems to me that the rest of your arguments implicate far more than merely voting.

    Consider the case of a potential Christian voter who intends to cast his vote for Romney but is unavoidably detained at work or with family responsibilities and cannot make the polling place in time. He gets home, having failed to cast a vote, but proceeds with watching election returns no differently. He’s cheering on Romney, hoping for signs of a victory, etc.

    Now it would seems that intentions are decisive, despite the fact that objectively he did not participate in the liberalism’s ersatz mass. Do your criticisms compass him any less than his neighbor, also Christian, who was able to vote?

    We might even go farther. Is not the mere desire that one candidate be elected (or, what is very close to the same thing, that one candidate be thrown out of office) enough to implicate a citizen in the ersatz mass? If such a citizen, desiring the defeat on one candidate by another, is at all gregarious, it is very likely that he has expressed himself in public, laying out his reasons for his desideratum. Perhaps he has even argued at length on the subject, not so much because he is inclined to volunteer his political opinions to anyone who will listen, but because the expounding of such opinions can hardly be avoided during election season.

    If I’m reading Zippy right, the Christian citizen ought to refrain from such business, striving to avoid giving the impression of his participation of presidential election politics at any level. It is probable that he would do well to avoid even forming an opinion of the candidates, given the extent to which such a forming of opinion on relative merits will lead naturally to that commitment of personal desire or intention which would taint his soul with participation in the ersatz. In his heart of hearts he should never say “it would be better if Romney is elected.”

    That is all very abstract. I’ll bring it down to earth. Children ask their parents about big elections. Their curiosity is immense, and their tolerance for the elaborate subtleties favored by adults is well known. Not infrequently they are learning basic civics at school. Not infrequently other children at school come from homes far more vocal and strident in their politics. I’ve heard the very insistent “Daddy, who are we voting for?” questions for three straight elections; and no formulation I’ve yet composed to downplay the matter has succeeded. “Well, sweetheart, we don’t really like either candidate.” “Yeah, but who is better?” “Neither one is good.” “Yeah, but who is better?” It seems to me that children understand this question of relative merits pretty well. And one candidate just is better, despite the very true fact that neither is good.

    If I am mistaken in drawing out these conclusions from Zippy’s argument, I’ll be happy to be shown where; but as far as I can see there is indeed a radical civic quietism at back of it, which would end up inclining a father to leave his children in a state of confusion about the relative merits of candidate rather than give the impression that he favors one: to, in other words, decline to instruct them on public affairs for fear of thereby participating in the ersatz mass of democratic elections.

    (I’m going to repeat something I’ve said before: Were a mass boycott of elective politics organized, on the grounds that the available candidates have all embraced grave moral evil, thus precluding a vote in good conscience for them, I could easily get on board. But the whole point there is that it would not be nonparticipation. It would be participation of a particularly radical (and, I suspect, particularly effective) sort. It would be, in a sense, direct rather than indirect political action. It would have the character of a strike and there would be nothing quiet about it.)

  • An act of attempted voting thwarted by circumstances isn’t fundamentally different from any other attempted act thwarted by circumstances, it seems to me.

    As far as talking to children goes, I’ve found it to be far easier than talking to adults. Children grasp the situation almost immediately.

    Little Johnny: “Mr. Zippy, why aren’t you voting for President?”

    Z: “Because both choices are very bad, so I refuse to personally support either one.”

    LJ: “But Mr. Pontius says that Romney is better than Obama. Isn’t that true?”

    Z: “Yes it is true. But giving me a choice between one candidate who supports murdering the innocent versus a different candidate who supports even more murder is not acceptable to me. I reject it as a false choice.”

    LJ: “Wow. That’s pretty awful. Mr. Pontius said that Romney was pro-life. I didn’t realize that he really isn’t. But Mr. Pontius says that one of them is going to win, so we have to stop Obama from getting elected.”

    Z: “Well LJ, nothing that you or I or Mr. Pontius can do is going to change the outcome of the election. If we all get stranded on a desert island during the election, the outcome is going to be the same either way. I have to be responsible for my own choice of whose team I join, and I can’t support a candidate who thinks there is a right to murder the innocent in any circumstances.”

    LJ: “But Mr. Zippy, if everyone did what you do aren’t we letting the bad guys win?”

    Z: “No LJ, if everyone did as I do we wouldn’t be faced with a choice between two candidates who both support murdering the innocent.”

    LJ: “Wow you really make sense Mr Zippy. I was feeling pretty anxious about the whole thing, but how you put it makes so much more sense than what all the people waving signs and bumper stickers say. Plus you tell the truth about the candidates rather than hiding what is awful about them.”

    Or something like that.

    That my sort of activism is so often characterized as civic quietism signals a problem with someone’s premises, it seems to me.

    Were a mass boycott of elective politics organized, on the grounds that the available candidates have all embraced grave moral evil, thus precluding a vote in good conscience for them, I could easily get on board. But the whole point there is that it would not be nonparticipation.

    So the scale of the team I am on is what changes my activism into quietism?

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Pretty good, pretty good.

    Just to be clear, though: you’re saying that even if you don’t actually vote, but you actively favor one candidate, you fall under the opprobrium of the Zippy Critique?

  • Paul:
    Just to be clear, though: you’re saying that even if you don’t actually vote, but you actively favor one candidate, you fall under the opprobrium of the Zippy Critique?

    “Actively favor one [major party] candidate” isn’t an act, it is merely a predisposition to some putative acts, so it is hard to evaluate morally. Also there is more than one Zippy Critique: the one given here is different from the one linked in footnote 2 of the OP, though they aren’t completely orthogonal.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    What I’m trying to get at is this: suppose someone conceded to your probability argument but still actively favored a candidate. “Fine, my own vote is worthless, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to play neutral in this election.” That sort of thing. He still argues that one guy is better, deserves to be elected, on the merits, comparative to the other guy, etc.

    Then there is the question of monetary contributions to candidates, parties, SuperPacs, etc.

    If we disentangle the effectiveness argument from the larger criticism of the two-party system, to what extent would any kind of political activity within the extant system but judged indefensible?

  • Paul J Cella says:

    . . . BE judged indefensible

  • Paul:
    He still argues that one guy is better, deserves to be elected, on the merits, comparative to the other guy, etc.

    … and votes for him? Doesn’t vote for him? I think someone who agitates for others to vote a certain way but then doesn’t do so himself is engaged in a kind of dishonesty, which is a separate question. I think a person who has granted my whole argument and then goes on to personally support a national candidate who favors policies of murdering the innocent either hasn’t actually granted my argument or (to psychologically speculate, which I’m not particularly fond of doing) is engaged in some sort of egotistic nihilism.

    If we disentangle the effectiveness argument from the larger criticism of the two-party system, to what extent would any kind of political activity within the extant system but judged indefensible?

    “Any kind of political activity” seems to be setting up that false quietism category again. It always depends on the particulars.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Doesn’t vote; agrees that mathematically it’s meaningless. He’s not granting your whole argument; he granting the part of it which posits the mathematical irrelevance of his vote. But he goes on to say that of the two guys on offer for Chief Executive, one is on the merits superior and ought to be elected.

  • Paul:
    But he goes on to say that of the two guys on offer for Chief Executive, one is on the merits superior and ought to be elected.

    Offhand I don’t see any particular problem with that. Frankly, it is close to my own view: a saner society would evaluate Romney as far better qualified than Obama by a large margin; a sane society would reject both.

  • Scott W. says:

    Out of curiosity Zippy, are you going to the election place and look at the ballot even if you are not voting for President?

  • Nope. I withhold my consent from the whole thing.

  • [...] when it is sinking into an ocean of nihilistic hedonism, aided and abetted by the very people whose team you support.  The hill we are standing on is one where our society has committed mass murder of the innocent [...]

  • [...] he notes that voting “pragmatically” (e.g., X is less evil than Y) is a prudential error, akin to planning one’s budget around future lottery winnings. It’s not that your vote [...]

  • [...] very poorly developed imagination, I suppose.  For me, it is obvious beyond words that declining, with good reason, to make a particular personal ritual act of civic piety, is not the same thing as hating [...]

  • [...] suffrage democratic elections are not merely a matter of choosing what outcome we prefer. They are game-theoretic contests and civic rituals with all sorts of history and implications, most of the consequences of which [...]

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