Jan 24, 2011

The fallacy of the deciding vote

There is an obvious fallacy that is repeated by people who should really know better, including political philosophers:  the fallacy of the deciding vote.

For example, Thomas Christiano writes in Rule of the Many (25-26): "In the democratic case I am free to choose between two outcomes when my vote is the deciding one. The trouble with this argument is that this condition is virtually never satisfied. In large democratic societies, the winning option almost never wins by less than a thousand votes or so. In those cases, my vote does not decide the issue. Since I rarely, if ever, cast the deciding vote I will virtually never be free to choose the outcome."

Do you see the fallacy? The fallacious reasoning looks like this:
(1) There is an election in which the margin of victory is, say, one vote.
(2) There is one particular vote (e.g. "my" vote) that decided the election.

But (2) doesn't follow from (1) at all! (1) only implies that for any vote given to the winning side, subtracting that vote would change the outcome. But there is no one vote such that it is true of it and only it that removing it would change the outcome. (The only exceptions are votes of 1-1 or 1-0.)

No matter how large or small the election, with the two exceptions just noted, no one casts the deciding vote. You see the fallacy of the deciding vote from academic works on political philosophy to Hollywood films like Swing Vote, in which Kevin Costner's character "decides" the election. It's a popular fallacy, but not less the fallacious for being so.

As for why people are tempted by the fallacy, I think media coverage of elections in recent years plays a part. Turn on CNN during an election and you find exit polling data-- e.g., with 95% of districts reporting, Obama is favored 52% to 48%-- suggesting that the earlier votes somehow matter less than the later votes, with the later votes "deciding" the election. I imagine it'd be less tempting to perpetrate this fallacy in an age where elections were simply reported in the newspaper.

Democracy: Intrinsically or instrumentally valuable?

When we distinguish political activity narrowly construed from political activity in a broad sense, we can give an interesting argument that democracy lacks intrinsic value. Or so I will argue in this post.

First, a quick recap of my last post. I gave an argument against the view that a policy's being democratically selected by a majority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy. The argument left open an instrumental view of democracy's value, however: on this view, democracy is valuable insofar as it instantiates goods such as justice, equality, or liberty, promotes the common good, etc., and any other system that did so just as well would be just as valuable and give citizens just as much reason to follow the policies enacted by the system. It also left open a view on which a supermajoritarian democracy has intrinsic value.

Now I want to suggest that we should doubt any view, majoritarian or supermajoritarian, according to which democracy has intrinsic value. We begin by distinguishing what I will call narrow political activity from political activity in a broad sense. I'm involved in narrow political activity when I do things like vote, run for office, and exercise the official capacities of an elected position. Broad political activity, on the other hand, includes the whole panoply of ways in which citizens exert influence in the civic realm: writing op-ed pieces, spouting off on talk radio shows or in town hall meetings, arguing with neighbors, helping one's children learn virtues of justice and prudence, being a good (or bad) example for others in one's community, and so on. All these things, and many more besides, are in a sense political activity, but they go far beyond narrow political activity. 

I can now introduce a dilemma. Either the intrinsic value of democracy includes only narrow political activity, or it also includes broad political activity. (The normative significance of a majority or supermajority selecting a policy has to come from somewhere. Does it come from the fact that citizens voted for it? Or do other ways in which they influence the choice of policy matter?) The first option draws a sharp normative boundary between narrow and broad political activity: the former is valuable in a way the latter is not. I cannot begin to imagine an argument that could justify this, especially when one considers that it's very often the case that broad political activity is more influential than narrow political activity. Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat have far more political influence through their New York Times columns than by voting in presidential elections. A similar point probably holds for most of us as well. We have more influence by just talking with friends and neighbors than we do by marking a ballot. So much, then, for the first option.

The second option is also problematic. Suppose that both narrow and broad political activity are intrinsically valuable. This in itself does not seem problematic to me, but it does seem to loosen the connection between the value of political activity and the value of democracy. Broad political activity is of course possible in any political system, provided it allows a sufficient degree of First Amendment type freedoms. Maybe democracies are better at protecting such freedoms, but that's irrelevant since we're asking about the intrinsic value of democracy. If broad political activity is intrinsically valuable and (in principle) possible in any political system, its value does not in any way ground the intrinsic value of democracy. The sole ground for democracy's intrinsic value must then be narrow political activity. As I argued above, however, that position is indefensible given that it draws an inexplicable contrast between broad political activity as intrinsically valueless and narrow political activity as intrinsically valued. 

Both options, then, have been found wanting. Whether the democracy is question is majoritarian or supermajoritarian, the claim that such a system has intrinsic value must be rejected. We thus have an even stronger argument than given in the last post. If democracy has value, it must have it instrumentally.