Voting, Moral Hazard, and Like Buttons

I was reading Sarah Lacy’s “If You’ve Got Social Media Fatigue, UR DOIN IT WRONG” on TechCrunch and was reminded of a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s seminal essay “Civil Disobedience” that I discuss in chapter 6 of my dissertation.

First the passage from Lacy’s article:

Sometimes metrics can be a bad thing and beware of any so-called “social media consultant” who tells you otherwise. What’s the value of a Retweet or a Like? It’s roughly the equivalent to sitting next to someone during a keynote who nods his head at a salient point. Someone hitting a button in front of them is hardly a heady endorsement—nowhere near the impact of someone calling you to tell you about a story he read. That actually takes more than one-second of attention and work.

This reminded me of the moral hazards of voting in electoral politics and Thoreau’s likening it to a sort of gambling with morality:

All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

With this last sentence Thoreau is no longer really speaking of voting, as becomes clear later on when he writes “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” He is advocating civil disobedience and participatory democracy.1

A moral hazard arises from this gambling aspect of voting and the gulf that the formal, especially representative, democratic process creates between the act of voting and the consequences of said act. Responsibility and costs are diffused among a plurality or majority of voters who do not actually have to carry out or enforce policies themselves. Given the nature of voting, the employment of the coercive power of state agents, and the fact that the benefits of state policies tend to be concentrated while the costs tend to be spread over a large population (including those who did not vote for them), voters have a strong incentive to support policies that they otherwise would not if they had to bear the full cost and risk in money, time, and enforcement themselves.

This moral hazard is compounded by the representative system. A democratic representative cannot identify precisely who his real constituents are (those who voted for him). He is not strictly responsible to them; generally the worst he has to fear is a small chance he will be ousted in the next election, despite frequently broken campaign promises. Nor is he held strictly responsible for his actions while in office. Despite frequently employed social-contract language, this is not a real principal-agent contractual relationship. And the representatives themselves are not the ones who actually have to pay for, carry out, or enforce the policies they enact either. The result of these facts is that both voters and their representatives have strong incentives to support and enact irresponsible legislation, regulations, and policies.

Participatory democracy is not to be confused with statist forms of democracy, like direct democracy and representative democracy. Participatory democracy is extra-governmental and involves discourse and deliberation culminating in direct action; it is decentralized and spontaneous, dynamic and flexible. Both direct democracy and representative democracy transform democratic processes into a rigid, formalized, procedural instrument of the state. The result is a centralization and monopolization of democratic decision-making processes.

Representative democracy distances the bulk of the population from direct moral and political action on important public matters. It encourages the formation of a professional political class. It is conducive to a top-down bureaucratic management of society by a technocratic and plutocratic elite. The masses have every incentive in this system to be increasingly ignorant of their representatives and of important public issues.

In “Do Elections Guarantee Freedom?” libertarian writer James Bovard compared the act of voting in elections to the feudal act of swearing fealty:

French historian Marc Bloch noted that, during the Middle Ages, “the notion arose that freedom was lost when free choice could not be exercised at least once in a lifetime.” The only freedom many people sought was to pick whose “man” they would become. Medieval times included elaborate ceremonies in which the fealty was consecrated. With current elections, people are permitted to choose whose pawns they will be. Voting is becoming more like a medieval act of fealty – with voters bowing down their heads and promising obedience to whoever is proclaimed the winner.

Benjamin Constant anticipated this observation in his classic essay, “On the Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns“:

[T]he individual, independent in his private life, is, even in the freest of states, sovereign only in appearance. His sovereignty is restricted and almost always suspended. If, at fixed and rare intervals, in which he is again surrounded by precautions and obstacles, he exercises this sovereignty, it is always only to renounce it.

Are relatively frequent elections a sufficient safeguard for freedom? And what good are elections when any representative democratic system eventually, and inevitably, becomes rigged to favor incumbents and a class of elites? The present system is dominated by a class of career politicians, increasingly hereditary, who must possess some combination of wealth, influence, insider connections, and official credentials, and who use their offices to acquire more. Generally, the higher the office the more this is the case. It is little wonder that a system such as this would create a mass of passive, easily manipulated citizens and a professional political class increasingly adept at manipulating them.

Even in direct democracy the focus on voting is still vulnerable to the Thoreauvian objection of gambling with morality, i.e., that you must gamble on getting enough votes to get done what you believe to be right. The very existence of this centralized voting system for deciding public matters of moral importance encourages citizens to focus their energies on this formal democratic process, which is to say that it encourages the wasting of time and money on vote getting (or buying), at the expense of getting anything actually productive done in a timely fashion. The result is the incentive increasingly to use the system to centrally plan society from the top-down. And a gulf is opened up between discourse and action. As Benjamin Constant remarks: “Lost in the multitude, the individual can almost never perceive the influence he exercises. Never does his will impress itself upon the whole; nothing confirms in his eyes his own cooperation.” This is not participatory democracy. Participatory democracy is about engaging in (often spontaneous) discourse and deliberation culminating in direct action, in voluntary cooperation with likeminded fellows who are equals (in authority), to do what one can to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a lesser one.

‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ are essentially entry-level activism, which is fine. For many, this is the first step down the path to greater activism in pursuit of a cause. Division and specialization of labor applies here as well; we can’t maintain a high level of activism in every cause in which we are interested. ‘Likes’, ‘Retweets’, ‘Diggs’, and similar uses of social networking features provide a valuable service, signaling to friends, family, and others what we like and don’t like, of what we approve and disapprove. They also help spread the word, sometimes resulting in the cause or news item or what-have-you going viral.

But the differences between these sorts of “head nods” and voting are that they are spontaneous, continuous, bottom-up grassroots-like activities that do not inherently involve  having a monopolist organization violate the rights of others. They are compatible with and expressive of participatory democracy while voting in state elections is antithetical to it. They may not be “casting your whole influence” as Thoreau put it, but that’s okay — so long as they are not all you are doing.

Political and economic freedom is not simply the absence of government controls over the economy and of dictatorial authority. It involves the emergence of alternative and more fragmented notions of “authority” in which participants in effect have to earn the always partial authority they have. It depends on the active participation in the polity and in the economy by diverse people who exercise their own initiative.

—         Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright, Culture and Enterprise, p. 1.2

Radicalizing [democracy] is too often imagined as moving toward “direct democracy,” voting directly for social outcomes. But there is much more to democratic processes than voting, and much more to politics than government. Wherever human beings engage in direct discourse with one another about their mutual rights and responsibilities, there is a politics. I mean politics in the sense of the public sphere in which discourse over rights and responsibilities is carried on.

—         Lavoie, “Democracy, Markets and the Legal Order,” pp. 111-1123

Cross-posted at Is-Ought GAP.

  1. For more on participatory democracy, see chapters 6 & 7 of my dissertation 

  2. Lavoie, Don and Emily Chamlee-Wright. 2000. Culture and Enterprise:  The Development, Representation, and Morality of Business. New York: Routledge, A Cato Institute Book. 

  3. Lavoie, Don. 1993. “Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society.” Social Philosophy and Policy Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer).