Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Don't vote

I'm late to the democracy-hating party, having missed last year's American, Canadian and New Zealand elections. But it's still worth pointing out that voting is:
-a waste of time
-often harmful

Patri Friedman loves this topic, so I'm not going to say much that's new here.

First: your vote doesn't matter. If you're American, your vote has about a one in sixty million chance of swinging the election. So, voting is a waste of time, in the sense that its chance of achieving some kind of useful outcome is ignorably low. (But what if everyone thought that way? Fine. Here's what to do: estimate how many people will vote in the next election by asking people what their intentions are. If it's a low enough number that the expected effect of voting outweighs your time cost, then vote; otherwise, don't. If everyone follows that strategy, we'll be fine.)

Of course, how you spend your time doesn't bother me. If you want to spend your time voting, or watching paint dry, that's fine. The bothersome part is the moral significance that people attach to voting. Many people seem to have a religious belief in democracy. You don't vote!?

This is frustrating because, if anything, the moral outrage should go the other way. Almost all voters are ignorant, mistaken and/or misinformed about very important issues. You voted!? I sure hope you know what you're doing. If you were a bad voter, it seems unlikely that you'd know that. So - at least for the hypothetical average voter - it's not at all clear that they are fit to govern, or to choose who should govern.

A friend of mine is an American living in Taiwan. His state pays for postage when he votes from Taiwan. I guess that costs about $1. Was that $1 well spent? With hindsight, no. Obama won by more than one vote, so that $1 could have fed a somebody for a day instead, which would have been more helpful. Of course, if I were to criticize every wasteful use of resources amounting to $1, then this would be a very tiresome blog. But irritatingly, people somehow think that $1 was put to good use. If I bought a bag of apples and forgot to eat them before they rotted, I certainly wouldn't be proud of it. You could accuse me of being wasteful.

Road deaths increase by about 24 on Election Day in the USA.

Finally, I worry that voting channels the noble human desire to help society to a pointless activity. If people didn't vote, people might be inclined to actually do something about the unfortunate state of society. Admittedly, that is pure speculation (and it's possible that many people would choose something even more harmful).

In conclusion: you probably shouldn't vote. If you do vote, please be very well-informed (especially in economics but not just economics), pay for the postage yourself, drive carefully, don't pretend you're doing anything useful or noble, and don't forget to actually do something useful and noble.

Update: Eliezer Yudkowsky says this line of thinking is based on "the standard wrong decision theory". He's a smart guy, maybe he's right.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

If you were a better-than-average driver, how would you know?

Are you good at maths? Are you good at drawing?

Your answer to these questions is probably reasonably accurate. Unless you're a mathematician or an artist, you probably don't have much pride or identity tied up in your skill in these things, so that won't cloud your judgment. (And if you are a mathematician or artist, then - relative to average people - you're almost certainly good at maths or drawing.)

Are you good at driving? Are you a good judge of character? Are you (or would you be) a good parent? Are you a good voter?

Everyone thinks they are a better than average driver. The appropriate conclusion to draw from that is that, if you need to know whether you're a good driver, the way to discover this information is not to simply introspect on the question for a few seconds. I suspect the same holds for whether you're a good parent, voter, or judge of character.

That's a serious problem! It probably doesn't matter whether you're a good driver. Even if you're worse than average, you're probably not so bad that you shouldn't be driving at all. But bad parents and aggregated bad voters do a lot of harm. If you're likely to be a bad parent, then that is actionable information: don't have children! If you're likely to be a bad voter, don't vote! If you're a poor judge of character, get a prenuptial agreement.

If you really wanted to know whether you're a good driver, you could probably find some reasonable metric and compare yourself to the average. But there are no controlled experiments in parenting or politics, which makes it very difficult to be sure you have reliable knowledge on these questions.