Myth of the Rational Better

Alex Tabarrok comments on a cool new study, as explained by Dylan Matthews:

But when there was money on the line, the size of the gaps shrank by 55 percent. The researchers ran another experiment, in which they increased the odds of winning for those who answered the questions correctly but also offered a smaller reward to those who answered “don’t know” rather than answering falsely. The partisan gaps narrowed by 80 percent.


The authors conclude that false answers — like Democrats saying that casualties in Iraq increased from 2007 to 2008 — are just cheap talk, a way to signal a party affiliation rather than a sincere belief.

“Persistent partisan gaps, if sincere, suggest important limitations to democratic accountability. If Democrats and Republicans perceive different realities, then the incentives for incumbent politicians to pursue policies that generate objectively good policies may be reduced,” they write. “Our results imply that such concerns are overstated. Democrats and Republicans may diverge in their survey reports of facts, but such responses should not be taken at face value as sincere expressions of partisan worldviews.”

Here’s Tabarrok:

The paper also has implications for democracy. Voting is just another survey without individual consequence so voting encourages expressions of rational irrationality and it’s no surprise why democracies choose bad policies.

Excluding all the other evidence that democracies choose bad policies, I think Tabarrok here is the  brilliant defender of an untenable argument. Voting is not “another survey without individual consequence” – at least not to our electorate. A lot of America does not vote, presumably because they feel the expected gain from voting for the “least bad” candidate is outweighed by the opportunity costs of voting. If you are in the electorate you, ipso facto, do not feel this way.

Actually, there’s a caveat. (Hitherto) I’ve not been an eligible, but when I do vote it’s not because I feel any compelling reason that it will count, but more a reflection of “my duty as a citizen”. It’s simple Kantian universalism: if everybody decided it was against selfish interest to vote, we’d live in a broken society dictated by the most opinionated.

Part of that duty is voting for who I feel is the most competent, regardless of my countenance thereof. Voting, unlike all surveys, is usually a secretive endeavor. I do not need to signal my party affiliation. Therefore the incentive for “cheap talk” is already non-existent.

But there’s another more subtle reason at play. The questions surveyors asked related to the very mechanical and narrow questions of “inflation” and “unemployment”. Let’s take the premise that “Republicans were more likely to believe Iraq possessed WMDs”. Let’s further stipulate (broadly from empirics) that 30% of said Republicans changed their opinion given sufficient incentive to reveal their true beliefs. But that doesn’t translate into anything as far as voting is concerned. The implicit stipulation is that said surveyed individuals are Republican to begin with.

And to the extent that this tautology holds, they have rational reason to be Republican. So they might cloud out the unfortunate lies of Iraq, but they still believe in other, less measurable, Republican principles: hard law enforcement, social conservatism, etc. At this point “media cocoon” theories become very relevant (“Democrats are in their own flawed MSNBC bubble”), but this is a different argument all together.

Tabarrok’s claim rests on the assumption that:

  • Voting is like a survey. (People are incentivized towards “cheap talk”).
  • Voters are not incentivized.

Neither is true. People are not incentivized towards cheap talk on a secret ballot (they can tell their friends and family whatever else later) and if they are voters they are incentivized to reveal their true beliefs.

Democracy might have many problems. But this isn’t one.


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