Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In some areas of politics, however, emotions run high and irrationality can be bliss

Marginal Revolution Tim Harford's chapter eight, a contribution from Sahar Akhtar
Today's guest blogger is the very impressive Sahar Akhtar, who has a Ph.d. in both economics and philosophy; she is currently at Brown University. As I read her post on Tim, she is saying that most people really do act -- at least in part -- as if their votes count. I now turn "the mike" over to Sahar:

In Chapter 8, Harford illuminates a large chunk of life with a single insight. Borrowing from Schelling once more, along with a little Bates and North, he shows us that individually rational behavior doesn’t always add up to collectively rational results. But this time the domain is politics, and it might be a stretch to say people always behave rationally.
The analysis he provides on issues where there are high stakes, like revolutions and trade barriers, is pretty great. So I’m going to instead focus on the issue that’s been so hashed out that the marginal contribution of any additional discussion is almost as low as the marginal impact of my vote. But I’m not fully rational...
The fact that people don’t simply vote, but vote for a particular candidate, at best suggests that if people feel duty-bound it’s not to some abstract ideal but to particular parties and groups, which raises another, and not incompatible, potential motivation for voting.
Some might think that their votes count not individually, but as part of a group. Harford and other economists aside (including this one), people don’t always act on their (individual) self-interests. (for just some examples, see Fehr and Fowler on altruistic punishment)
There are good evolutionary reasons to think that we frequently adopt the perspective of “what is good for us”. You don’t have to believe in the group-selectionist theories of people like Sober and Wilson.
If that makes you feel dirty—selfish gene will get you there if there are enough genes shared in common among a group. And, a la Robert Frank, what starts out as emotional incentives to act on behalf of a fairly specified, narrowly defined, and kin-based group gets co-opted and extends (irrationally?) to larger, less cohesive groups. The group in this case would simply be the class of people thought to share the same values and beliefs.
Of course, like all evolutionary explanations, this is a just-so story and needs to be tested, but so does the rational voter idea. We still don’t have very good insight into the motives of voters, and until we do we should remain skeptical of any one model.
I’m not a hater--in many (maybe most) areas of life, the rational choice model makes damn good sense. In some areas of politics, however, emotions run high and irrationality can be bliss, and these may be areas where dynamic writers like Harford should resist the model a little. 12:17 PM

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