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.


Voting at the Edge of the Abyss

Anyone who has engaged with even a handful of libertarians in their time is familiar with their disapproval of voting. There are three kinds of reasons for this disapproval: rationalistic, moral, and the hybrid of democratic pollution. I want to admit at the outset that once upon a time I subscribed to each of these arguments. I now believe I was wrong on all counts.

Voting reductionism

The likelihood that your vote will sway any given election of more than several dozen people is vanishing. Unless the decision hinged on a single vote, then no single individual’s vote made a difference. You could have stayed home and the outcome would have been the same. So far so good. But it does not follow that you shouldn’t vote.

Libertarians make a lot of noise about how, given these quantitative probabilistic aspects of voting, your time would be spent far better doing literally anything (praying for rain, injecting heroin into your eyeball, whatever) than painstakingly adjusting your schedule to fit in the time to laboriously trudge uphill in the snow both ways to the polling station. Voting in a modern democracy isn’t some Herculean task, and voting by mail makes it quite easy for the kinds of people who read these arguments. Further, the libertarians who make this argument rarely apply the same exacting standards of efficiency for other aspects of life. Arguing with people on the Internet about how inefficient voting is on rationalistic utilitarian grounds isn’t a promising way to rack up your own utils.

This argument also implicitly assumes that the only value of voting lies in its impact on the probability of swaying the election. But this misses the point. When we talk about how we plan to vote, we are engaging in political dialogue with one another. When we explain our reasons for how we plan to vote, we’re educating ourselves about the salient arguments. Admittedly this can be done well or poorly, and our tribal instincts make it all too easy to seek out confirmation of our biases. In any case we’re potentially influencing outcomes with our reasons, not just our votes. And of course voting is a symbolic act as well. It signals to others your commitment to the civic order.

Neither ballots nor bullets

Some libertarians view voting as an act of aggression. On this view, by casting your vote for some candidate, you shoulder at least some portion of moral responsibility for that candidate’s actions in office. You consent to that candidate’s political power, and to that extent lend them legitimacy. Without such consent, whatever evils the candidate visits upon the people would be those of a common brigand or non-democratic tyrant. With your consent, you too are culpable.

This argument has some force. Voters must indeed pay attention to the consequences of their voting. If you participate in the election of a monster, and there was ample evidence for a reasonable person to predict the consequent harms, then, all else equal, you are at least partially culpable for the carnage.

But of course, how often is all else really equal? Voters are never given angels among their options, but two or more flawed candidates, one of whom will surely prevail. Moreover, candidates are not measured along a single dimension, but along numerous dimensions including character traits in addition to policy proposals. Voters must gauge those traits and policies not just on their own merits in a vacuum, but how they will likely play out in their social and political context (Will their plans be stymied by other political actors? Does the candidate’s party affiliation and the structure of the electoral system preclude the candidate’s chance at success?). And especially for high offices, a candidate should be assessed by their rhetoric and soft power. What passions might they evoke in their supporters? Will lynchings be given tacit approval, even if there isn’t an official lynching policy?

Fiat justitia ruat caelum?

This complexity doesn’t remove moral accountability from voting, but it does mean that assessing the morality of a vote is not at all straightforward. It requires assessing the reasons why you vote the way you do. The same vote may be praiseworthy or blameworthy depending on the supporting justifications. I’ll use the current pressing example. Libertarians are rightly critical of Clinton for a number of reasons, most notably her history of military hawkishness and its deadly consequences for innocent people abroad. Libertarians generally also find Trump loathsome for his clear strongman style authoritarianism and narcissism, in addition to his blatant sexism and his evocation and legitimization of rank bigotry.

Some neoconservatives will vote for Clinton at least in part because they wish to preserve American military hegemony in the world. To the extent this is their justification, I think they’re culpably wrong. So, does voting for Clinton necessarily imply bestowing your stamp of approval on ongoing campaigns of aerial drone terror? Clearly not. One might reasonably believe that, while Clinton has her problems, they’re the status quo problems we’re used to. Whereas Trump represents a “high variance” threat to our very institutions, the kind of threat that could lead to chaos and devastation impacting far more people than our current flawed system, while simultaneously crippling our best tools for improving the system.

Consider a more concrete example: a Muslim American chooses to vote for Clinton, not because she is unaware of Clinton’s hawkishness, but because she is terrified that a Trump presidency will result in pogroms and prison camps for her friends and loved ones, all while in all likelihood doing nothing to abate the bloodshed abroad. Condemning this person’s vote because “voting is an act of aggression” or because Clinton will predictably authorize actions that hurt and kill other people is implausible. Our voter has done her due diligence, and after carefully weighing the alternatives, she has reasonably concluded voting for Clinton is her best moral option.

Importantly, our voter acknowledges that her vote is not without a “moral remainder,” a degree of inevitable moral tragedy. Voting as she does is the best option available among a set of imperfect options, but that doesn’t mean she won’t feel bad for the specific Clintonian damage that proceeds. Our responsible voter is obligated to criticize the Clinton administration’s failures.

But the moral remainder is not unique to voting. The electorally abstinent anarchist suffers his own moral remainders. If Trump wins and all the predictable race- and religion-based violence, institutional corrosion, and setbacks to US-world relations ensue, then our anarchist nonvoter bears some of blame. This doesn’t change if Trump loses; in this case the anarchist will merely have enjoyed the good fortune that their abstinence (and their political dialogue running up to the election) failed to contribute to a much worse outcome. Abstaining from voting isn’t like accepting Christ’s blood. It does nothing to wash away the moral consequences of our political actions, which include acts of commission and omission.

On Gary Johnson

What I’ve said above applies to voting libertarians as well as nonvoting anarchists. There are really good reasons to vote for Gary Johnson, especially in a vacuum. On foreign policy and immigration especially, I think a Johnson administration would be far and away superior (especially if minimizing dead bodies is your thing). But we’re not in a vacuum. We’re in a two-party system where the chance of Johnson winning is infinitesimal and depends on fanciful scenarios like winning a single state (already improbable) that prevents either Trump or Clinton from getting to 270 electoral college votes (still more improbable) and then further depends on the House of Representatives (where there are no libertarians I can think of) to conclude Johnson is the best option.

Even in this case, voting for Johnson could be laudable as a protest vote—thus signaling both your dissatisfaction with the two parties and your desire to see more libertarian political options—but only if you genuinely see no substantive differences between the two major party candidates. But at the risk of imputing bad motives, if you see no substantive differences between Clinton and Trump, then you might have fallen victim to the reflexive, feel-good rational irrationality you so often decry in Republicans and Democrats.

It didn’t have to be this way. There was a window of time where it was conceivable that the anti-Trump voices within the Republican party might have loudly coalesced around Johnson/Weld as the best option for Republicans, and it might have been a very interesting three-way race where Republicans could have lost to Clinton while maintaining their dignity and libertarians could have set the stage for future campaigns as a serious political party. But this window has closed, and it’s pure fantasy to pretend otherwise. Johnson voters too will bear the moral remainder of protest-voting on the edge of the abyss.

Polluting the polls

Some libertarians aren’t hostile to democracy outright, but caution against demanding that people vote, or making voting morally mandatory. Voting is beset by problems of rational ignorance and rational irrationality. Why encourage voting when we can expect most voters to bring nothing but their biases into the booth with them? I accept this argument, and in general I don’t encourage people who aren’t otherwise inclined to go out of their way to vote. It’s far better to encourage other kinds of civic behavior. If you aren’t going to vote well, don’t vote.

That said, the libertarians I have in mind throughout this piece are politically inclined, and they are politically informed, and they’re already engaged in political dialogue. These are people who could vote well, but they choose not to. By conscientiously (sanctimoniously?) not voting, or voting for a third party candidate who can realistically only nudge the electoral outcome to one major party candidate or the other, these libertarians are themselves at risk of polluting the political process.


Two kinds of trust

In pre-modern, small scale societies, trust was multi-lateral: Everyone knew everyone. This was robust to any one individual being untrustworthy, but had real trouble scaling. If someone new came to town she would have to earn the trust of every node in the network—a problem that grew in proportion to the population.

So in the modern era (and long before it as well—the modern era is just when we mastered it) we replaced multi-lateral networks of trust with bi-lateral trusted intermediaries. This was an incredible innovation from the perspective of scaling cooperation. Persons A and B could trade and borrow from one and other while being total strangers, given their mutual, bi-lateral trust of C.


Who or what is C? C has represented many different things throughout history. The state. Markets. Banks. MasterCard. Uber. With the help of lots and lots of Cs we were able to scale from simple gift economies to the complex and deeply integrated society we have today.

This change occurred must faster than our brains could adapt. As apes evolved for smaller scale society we have therefore not extricated our craving for microcosms of multi-lateral trust: family, friends, community, and so forth. This seems to be what social scientists are measuring when they report some countries as “higher trust” than others. These are societies that have, to varying degrees, decentralized the bilateral institutions in order to promote greater multilateralism. In doing so, these societies trade-off some scale efficiency and assimilative capacity in exchange for greater robustness and, presumably, reduced feelings of social-alienation.

Yet if this is right it is incredibly misleading to call such societies “high trust” as if the others are not. Rather, they are high in a particular kind of trust. It’s only the bilateral model that lets two complete strangers engage in a multi-phase, high stakes project without having to trust each another one bit. Instead, each trusts the underwriting of the intermediary institutions. There is the same amount of effective trust, as manifest in productive cooperation, but it comes with much less cognitive burden. You don’t have to keep mental track of your colleague’s reputation, or whether their ideological and cultural preferences match yours. Nor do you have to worry about collecting debts or punishing bad behavior. That’s all been offloaded and outsourced. The trust, in other words, still exists, but is embodied in the environment and institutions, rather than in our heads.

Even in so-called high trust societies, this latter sort of trust is still doing most of the work in the background. We just don’t notice it by design. Conversely, many societies measured as low trust may in fact be quite high in multilateral trust, but in a way that is localized to pockets without the bilateral institutions needed for effective interfacing.

Thus when a country is described as low trust I stop and ask myself “what sort of trust?” There may be a lot of virtue in an, as measured, low trust society if it better facilitates the rapid integration of newcomers, a greater diversity of lifestyles, and larger scale cooperation. After all, impersonal interactions are not a bad thing. They’re the stuff of civilization.

Praise for the Judgmental

Featured image is a self-portrait of Joseph Ducreaux

Let’s talk about courage for a spell. Here are a few scenarios that require courage:

  • Going into a battle
  • Standing up to a bully, especially a physically larger one
  • Highballing a salary requirement for a job you are emotionally invested in getting
  • Lowballing your offer on the house you’ve fallen absolutely in love with

There are degrees, and there are qualitative differences, but it is still appropriate to speak of courage in each case.

Here are two ways you might take this:

  1. The word “courage” can mean many things—indeed, it can be used to mean just about anything, because words only mean what we use them to mean. Therefore it isn’t inappropriate, but the use in each case means something entirely different.
  2. Using “courage” across all of them points to some sense in which there is a true unity. Within this perspective, we can agree or disagree on whether a given scenario ought to be included, while still agreeing that a big plurality of types of scenarios can be unified in just this way.

Whether or not he means to, it seems to me that Akiva is committed to a version of the first one, whereas I am committed to the second. Most of the problems we see in one another’s perspectives flows from this fundamental disagreement.

Continue reading “Praise for the Judgmental”