Voting as a collective action problem

A common criticism of libertarian philosophy is that it can’t handle collective action problems: That a totally voluntary society lacks the tools to build lighthouses, prevent over-fishing, or ensure we all get our vaccines.

In response, libertarians developed a branch economics dedicated to showing how collective action problems can be solved with voluntary cooperative arrangements. Elinor Ostrom’s work was particularly important for arguing that, under the right conditions, norms and civil society can evolve to govern the commons from the bottom up.

There are obviously limits to informal norms, however. For one, they are easy to undermine through appeals to rationalistic arguments. After all, norms exist to enforce cooperative arrangements that would otherwise be unstable. That suggests it is always possible for a sophist to jeopardize collective action by appealing to their peer’s individually rational, myopic reasons for action (“Just catch one more fish, no one will notice.”), and with each person who defects it becomes more tempting for everyone else to defect.

Voting represents an interesting test case for the robustness of voluntary solutions to collective action problems. After all, any single individual’s vote is mathematically insignificant, and yet they add up to be significant.

Yet many of the same libertarians who insist that norms and civil society can solve large scale collective action problems also insist that voting is individually irrational, and therefore abstain. This merely affirms the worries of many that the libertarian emphasis on individual rationalism contains the seeds of its own unravelling with respect to collective action.

Of course, that we vote in large numbers at all is in some sense a vindication of Ostrom and her school of economics. We cement the norm of voting with the help of overlapping institutions like political parties, religious congregations, unions, non-profits, membership clubs, and not to mention friends and family. We communicate voting intention to other individuals within these groups, which are small enough to reinforce a mutual expectation of follow through. Groups in turn coordinate with other groups, like when a local union coordinates with its other chapters. Pretty quickly a meagre individual vote becomes amplified into the hugely consequential endorsement of a union federation or influential political action committee.

I therefore don’t believe libertarians are totally sincere when they make the “voting is irrational” argument. Or, more to the point, I suspect it is a case of motivated reasoning. For one, it is cognitively dissonant with their optimism about voluntary collective action in other spheres (“collective action for me but not for thee”). And second, it seems to spring from their mood-aversion to electoral politics more generally, which suggests it is a kind of “technique of neutralization“—that is, a proactive way of rationalizing defection from societal norms that one finds inconvenient.

Other libertarians double down on their mood-aversion and argue that voting is inherently immoral or distasteful, possibly because it involves participating in a coercive enterprise. This view confuses me the most, especially when paired with the “voting is ineffectual” view. Which is it? An inherent vice or an astronomically insignificant form of self-expression? There is no pressing need for a new norm against voting anyway, just like there is no need for a norm for littering, overfishing or free-riding off of herd immunity. Those behaviors all fall out of individually rational human action. They are what is left in the absence of coordination.

Motivated reasoning is just the generous interpretation. The less generous one is that the average libertarian is tragically bereft of the social capital needed to leverage idiosyncratic beliefs and motivations into collective action. There may be some truth to that. If you thought it was hard to herd cats, try herding philosophical anarchists.

The even less generous view is that libertarianism represents a self-defeating memeplex, a mind virus that handicaps its host so badly that it ceases to spread. Indeed, if you wanted to actively hobble the labor movement, say, wouldn’t you want to plant agent provocateurs within their ranks to charismatically defend the game theoretic logic of being a scab? Or better yet, that being a scab is just and noble?

As a matter of fact, that is more or less what happened in the 1960s. It was called the New Left, and their congenital aversion to norm-conformity hobbled the progressive movement’s ability to influence institution change for a generation. Now the right is having it’s own countercultural moment with the alt-right, which, with some libertarian fellow travelers, is trying in vain to affect social change through various forms of culture jamming and norm subversion.


With activists like this, maybe muh roads won’t be built after all.


6 thoughts on “Voting as a collective action problem

  1. pxdelaney

    Isn’t there an vein of philosophical anarchism in modern libertarianism that makes folks pretty hostile to the very idea of collective action problems? I get that one could turn to Ostrom (and others) as ways to build a form libertarianism that resolves collective action problems, but I wonder if it might not just be politically and psychologically easier to deny those problems exist.

    If someone chooses a path of radical individualism, I guess I am not so surprised they end up hostile to collective action, period. Perhaps that’s the virus killing the host, as you suggest, but it’s no great surprise that the purest strains are the deadliest.

  2. “The less generous one is that the average libertarian is tragically bereft of the social capital needed to leverage idiosyncratic beliefs and motivations into collective action.”

    Elegant and polite as that might be, it’s prejudicial. Or at least, it’s an idea put forward, mostly, by people with stupendous prejudice against libertarians, and against economists, and high performing white college males, and white men with Aspergers, etc., etc. I don’t believe it.

    I do believe libertarianism is less of a political movement than it is an intellectual movement, that’s traditionally recruited from universities, on the idea that finding and promoting another Milton Friedman was the way to inspire smaller government.

    What’s much more plausible than that libertarianism is populated, disproportionately, with defectors, either because of their emotional, biological, or philosophical disposition — is that libertarianism is populated with a moral community for which protesting government is itself sacred.

    In this view, not voting, and advertising it, is a way to belong to a moral community that provides ample public goods to its members (see: our wide array of wing-nut-welfare fellowships, conferences, college clubs, and online communities). This isn’t “cognitively dissonant” (contradictory would have worked) with supporting nonviolent, spontaneous orders and collective action, at all.

    There are a range of essays and informal admonitions against Being That Libertarian Asshole that have cropped up, some of them useful, most of them silly. There may be many problems in libertarianism, but I suspect that most of them are structural, not personal, and not philosophical.

    It would be very sad indeed to see libertarianism give up its long tradition of housing iconoclasts and contrarians, of hosting debate among those people, and of promoting the sanctity of informal cooperation, just because disgruntled libertarians got tired of being the retarded kids everyone makes fun of.

    The solution to prejudice in the rest of the political and academic community, and the enormous barriers to entry they’ve set up, is not to assail each other as defectors and douche bags, even in polite tones and multisyllabic language.

    1. Wait, what exactly are you disagreeing with? I asserted that libertarians lack the social capital (the union chapters, the churches, etc.) to motivate effect political coordination. How is that prejudicial? And what does it have to do with white men with Aspergers?

      1. I thought you were using “social capital” for “social skills.” In terms of civil organizations, libertarians have plenty. We have large, well funded consciousness raising groups, a large and well funded (on a per constituent basis) political machine, and an outsized presence in Washington and the academy, relative to other fringe ideologies. Some libertarians might believe themselves to be Ayn Rand purists, purposeful egotists and defectors, but I think even those people are hard pressed to actually act that way on a consistent basis. And I don’t think it’s a major hangup for our political activism or voting patterns. Most libertarians, given a viable libertarian candidate, would vote for him. This has happened repeatedly in the last twenty years, with Ron Paul, and with tea party candidates.

  3. Prohibition, the Holocaust and every war ever started were “solutions” to collective action “problems”. Same thing with the pyramids and putting a man on the moon.

    Voting is only good to the extent that it doesn’t violate Quiggin’s Implied Rule of Economics (QIRE). So… when does voting not violate QIRE? The only way that we could know that voting was not violating QIRE would be if we actually knew people’s willingness to pay (WTP) for their preferred option. But that would require replacing voting with spending.

    “Economics teaches two basic truths: people make wise choices when they are forced to weigh benefits against costs; and competition produces good results.” – Edward Glaeser, If You Build It…

    “The correct fix for crowded roads is to charge people for the social costs of their choices.” – Edward Glaeser, If You Build It…

    “People should pay for the social cost of their flying. The TSA should be paid for by fliers.” – Edward Glaeser, The one thing Trump and Clinton agree on is infrastructure.

    “Until people are made to bear the full costs of their decisions, those decisions are unlikely to be socially sound, in this as in other areas of public policy.” – Richard Bird, Charging for Public Services: A New Look at an Old Idea

    “The people feeling, during the continuance of the war, the complete burden of it, would soon grow weary of it, and government, in order to humour them, would not be under the necessity of carrying it on longer than it was necessary to do so. The foresight of the heavy and unavoidable burdens of war would hinder the people from wantonly calling for it when there was no real or solid interest to fight for.” – Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

    “Public officials and professionals may have higher preferences for some public goods than the citizens they serve. Thus they may allocate more tax monies to these services than the citizens being served would allocate if they had an effective voice in the process. Under-financing can occur where many of the beneficiaries of a public good are not included in the collective consumption units financing the good. Thus they do not help to finance the provision of that good even though they would be willing to help pay their fair share.” – Vincent Ostrom and Elinor Ostrom, Public Goods and Public Choices

    WTP is an incredibly coherent thread in economics (and in the best libertarianism). Why are you ignoring it? Do you think it’s irrelevant? Are you not aware of it?

    Elsewhere you wrote…

    “Economists call this Tiebout sorting, a model that inspired a generation of libertarians to a kind of municipal fetishism which vastly overestimated the average person’s willingness to move, and vastly underestimated the potential for localized forms of tyranny.”

    It seems like you care about a person’s willingness to move. But willingness to move is the same thing as WTP. So…. clearly, to some extent, you’re not entirely unaware of WTP. The question is… why are you ignoring it when it comes to voting? Why does it matter when it comes to foot voting but it doesn’t matter when it comes to ballot voting?

    Giving people the freedom to decide for themselves whether it’s truly worth it to throw the alternative uses of their own resources under the bus is the only way to prevent QIRE from being violated.

  4. Nicholas Weininger

    Why disparage principled opposition as “mood-aversion”? The case against voting, as I understand it, is precisely that it is useless for individuals and pernicious for collectives: that it gives an individual no real increment of control over their own life, and a majority collective entirely too much control over dissenting individuals’ lives. What drives people to vote is the desire to be part of the majority collective, which is a form of tribalism. On the libertarian view, tribalism is ignoble and evil, and decent people should not act on tribalist impulses and should distance themselves from tribalist symbolism.

    This is then connected to the “lack of social capital” argument. We are averse to joining, community, solidarity, belonging, etc not, or not just, because we are bad at these things, but because we see the evil that springs from them. Standing apart from collective effort means standing apart from the howling mob. You can admit the existence, difficulty, and importance of collective action problems while still holding that most of the institutions humans devise to solve those problems– markets, when they work, being a shining exception– cause worse problems of their own.

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