The Paradox of Commenting

There is a literature, or at least a batch of memes, holding that voting is not an ‘instrumentally rational’ activity, since casting a ballot is costly and one’s vote is unlikely to decide an election. The expected ‘instrumental value’ of voting is thus held to be low, very low, surely less than the value of a free half an hour. The supposed implication is that a sane person should vote only if it’s fun, like Candy Crush is.

The other day I saw a philosophy professor berating a professed voter in a Facebook thread. The philosopher banged on at length, making comment after comment, editing some of them, over the course of an hour. “If you view voting as a consumption good, like eating a candy bar or wave a flag for fun [sic], then it might not be a waste of time,” said the good prof, appropriately citing “the entire ‘paradox of voting’ literature.”

Say I were to add my two cents, as it were, to this established thicket of ideas. My slice of discourse might be, say, the 10,000th piece of writing that has appeared in the greater literature area.

Probably there is a conventionally diminishing marginal product of additional takes on the matter. While it’s remotely possible my piece will discourage a lot of voting, odds are it will affect no one and deter zero votes. Perhaps it will affect a few folks, though it’s not even certain what effect it would have on them. (Possibly my argument would be so facile and my style so repulsive that readers resolve to vote more often out of spite.)

What is the expected instrumental value of me making my argument? With some probability it causes a few votes not to be cast, saving a few half-hours, though losing the supposedly very low instrumental value of the votes.

The probability that my argument converts a few votes to non-votes might be higher than the probability that a vote swings an election, but that would have to be established. The value of a few half-hours saved is a great deal lower than the value of deciding an election. Also, the half-hour spent casting a ballot entails voting in several contested elections, not just one.

If sane voters can only be getting themselves off, what are sane contributors to the “paradox of voting” literature, as it carries forward in isolated corners of social media, doing? Their refinements, it would seem, are not helping society in an appreciable way. Nor is it likely that one’s latest comment, sentence, correctly spelled word, or well-chosen punctuation mark noticeably furthers one’s career. It’s also not clear that the world is any better off if the careers of “paradox of voting” aficionados do advance.

May it all be irrationality, or a ploy to sell books, or clawing for status. Hopefully no one views the hurling of insults as a consumption good.

5 thoughts on “The Paradox of Commenting

  1. Defending Not Voting

    To me it’s pretty obvious why you would add marginal commentary:

    * You enjoy writing (source: I enjoy writing and I assume the same of you)
    * You derive social status benefit from being seen as an intellectual with complex opinions.

    Both of these lines of reasoning can apply to voting as well. Some people might enjoy voting and derive social status benefit from being seen as an intelligent, engaged supporter of party X or Y or Z.

    There’s a qualitative difference though:

    * There’s very little to enjoy about voting. You have to take a lot of time out of your day. You have to wait in a line with a bunch of obnoxious people. You don’t improve any important skills as a side effect. If you were someone who did not understand the utility argument against voting, you might enjoy it by mistakenly believing you’re making a difference. But if you do understand it, I’d argue there’s nothing intrinsic about voting to enjoy
    * People very, very obviously derive status benefits from _supporting_ one party over another, but at the end of the day nobody knows for sure who you voted for, or even if you voted. In blogging, there is a concrete public proof of this: the post itself. In voting, at the end of the day people are just taking your word for it. Given this, it seems that ‘having voted’ is more important than actually voting. And it’s easily lied about.

    These qualitative differences suggest that there is personal utility in adding your commentary to the discussion, even if its affect on voting behaviours is zero. But it also suggests that this line of reasoning does not apply to voting. It suggests that the plausible benefit people get from voting could be strictly improved by just lying about voting instead.

    1. Would you find it odd if I were to suggest to you that some of us experience a disutility of lying?

      Put differently, if you find yourself in a position where you can either do XYZ, don’t do XYZ, or lie about doing XYZ, and you choose the lie, then I might humbly suggest that your morality is broken.

      Don’t worry, I get it. What you’re really saying is, “You don’t have to lie, you can just not vote and be honest about it.” But part of your argument rests on the notion that a person might as well lie, and that’s the kind of notion that makes the whole proposition unappealing.

  2. I should not add a comment to the paradox of commenting… but I cannot resist whatever the consequence may be. Here in Australia, voting is mandatory and the penalty for not doing so is $20. And failure to pay the $20 is a fine of $170.

    Consequently, the paradox of voting is overridden by the paradox of freedom… that in order to be free one must suffer in not exercising one’s freedom. That’s stating it in the negative. In the positive it would be that the preservation of freedom requires the exertion of individual responsibility.

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