Choosing Team Litterbug
October 22, 2012 § 29 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.  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.  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  is called a tragedy of the commons.  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!”
 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.
 I would contend that almost everything important has already happened by the time the ballots go to print; but that is a different discussion.
 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).