It is a genuine fact that humans are selfish by nature. Richard Dawkins compared humans as a robotic vehicle with an utmost motive to preserve the selfish genes they are made of as he mentioned in his book The Selfish Gene, “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes…. a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior…. Anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish.1 ”
However, people often consider selfishness as an immoral attitude and many behavioral scientists have tried to establish altruism as the basic cause of human development. To some extent behavioral scientists have succeeded in establishing the idea of cooperation and reciprocal altruism which is nothing but the philosophical idea of rational self-interest that can also be explained as Tit for Tat2 . Basically, there is no contradiction between the selfish behavior of human beings and the idea of cooperation, reciprocal altruism, loyalty, honesty, and compassion. However, all this doesn’t approve the notion that altruism is moral superiority, nor altruism can be accepted as moral obligation.
While explaining the idea of altruism as a moral obligation being followed in daily life, Herbert Gintis3 mentioned the following in his article:
“In large democratic elections, the selfish individual will not vote because the costs of voting are positive and significant, but the probability that one vote will alter the outcome of the election is vanishingly small. Thus the personal gain from voting is vanishingly small. The cost, however, is a significant amount of time and energy that could have been devoted to other, materially rewarding, purposes. It follows also that a selfish individual will generally not bother to form opinions on political issues, because these opinions cannot affect the outcome of elections. Yet people do vote, and many do expend time and energy in forming political opinions. This behavior does not conform to the selfish gene model.4 ”
He is obviously wrong on many accounts yet, the worst thing he has tried to establish is that politicians are somehow selfless and they tend to work for betterment of society which is false as explained in Psychology of Politicians5 . Another issue is that voting is not against selfish gene model. Human political culture has made it almost impossible for a person to remain apolitical without hurting himself and to protect oneself against the probable harm suggests rational self-interest.
During the last Indian general election of 2009, the average voter turnout was around 59%, obviously, 41% people still decided to not to vote and they really considered it as a fruitless game that will change nothing.
The idea of voting for the lesser evil:
Many people claim that government is necessary evil; and democracy offers them a choice to choose the lesser evil. To protect themselves against the greater harm or greater evil, they vote accordingly and they assume it profitable. Yet, Gintis is right in assessing that cost of voting is significantly higher than the probability of one vote altering the outcome of the election. So why do people still vote and why do people form opinions on political issues?
Forming a political opinion is not just like voting. Having a political opinion is a voluntary action, on the other hand; voting is certainly not voluntary and hence, it is not legitimate. I would like to quote Murray Rothbard about the issue of voting in political elections;
Many anarchist libertarians claim it immoral to vote or to engage in political action–the argument being that by participating in this way in State activity, the libertarian places his moral imprimatur upon the State apparatus itself. But a moral decision must be a free decision, and the State has placed individuals in society in an unfree environment, in a general matrix of coercion. As Lysander Spooner pointed out, in an environment of State coercion, voting does not imply voluntary consent. –Murray N. Rothbard. The Ethics of Liberty
Obviously, for libertarians, morality is based on the idea of voluntary consent and self-ownership that leads to non-coercion or Non Aggression Principle which is justifiably in general self-interest of every individual of the society. On the other hand, behavioural scientists such as Herbert Gintis himself stress more on obligatory altruism as the base of morality or lack of it, which is wrong. Neither altruism, nor selfishness can be considered as a moral scale because morality or the sense of right or wrong is strictly based on individual’s freedom to think, to express and to act freely and hence, the scale of morality should be voluntary consent and self-ownership which can be concluded to non-aggression principle. Any voluntary act which breaches the non-aggression principle is obviously immoral, while any voluntary act which is in accordance with non-aggression is morally correct. Furthermore, one cannot act voluntarily and hence, morally; under the duress of aggression. Since voting in an environment of State coercion is not voluntary consent, as Spooner pointed out, it is immoral. On the other hand, forming a political opinion isn’t an act under duress or coercion, it is a voluntary decision which can be moral (if it supports non-aggression principle as in case of Libertarianism), or it can be immoral (as in case of various forms of state coercion).
Costly Signalling Theory of Voting
Having and expressing a political opinion is like offering a signal to others about your views and intentions. It often proves to be helpful for the signaller because by signalling their opinions, they tend to change the behaviour of recipients of their signals towards them in a positive manner. Signalling6 that you are concerned about the society in general and want to uplift the situations and well being of normal individual makes you appear responsible and trustworthy and that proves to be profitable to spread your idea. I guess this was the reason why many of my libertarian friends tried their best to create a positive vibe in favour of Ron Paul; obviously, it wasn’t an altruistic effort, rather; their endeavours were for their own self interest. People often like to boast about their political positions and to appear consistent with their opinions and motives, they vote.
Voting may prove to be beneficial
Irrespective of very thin probability of actually succeeding in making a difference, professing their political opinions and voting accordingly helps a person to create a group of like-minded people and it may help in converting the importance of their single vote to many votes; which may prove to be beneficial. I guess this is the reason why many libertarians not only professed their support for Ron Paul, a known libertarian contestant for upcoming presidential elections of the U.S., they were determined too to vote for Ron Paul if he wins the nomination. Now when there is no hope for Ron Paul, many of them have decided to not to vote at all, or to vote for another libertarian politician Gary Johnson. Both of these decisions may appear to be consistent with their political opinions that they have enthusiastically signalled or professed7 . It should also be noted that while voters, in general, express honest signals8 and try to be consistent about their political positions, politicians often tend to express dishonest signals9 and more than often, their policies after gaining voters trust proves to be contradictory to their original political promises they profess.
Manipulation Theory of Voting
Another important aspect of human behaviour that prompts voting has been mentioned by Tim Tyler, a blogger devoted to spread information about memes and memetics as a science10 . He suggests that while voting doesn’t help the voters, but it is significantly important for politicians to attain as much votes as they can and hence; they manipulate voters and make them feel that every single voter is actually able and responsible to bring the desired change. According to Tim Tyler, politicians use memetic engineering to create political memes that acts as viruses to hijack brain of individuals. These virulent political memes manipulate individuals to not only change their political positions, but also to vote in favour of them. Tyler has named this idea as ‘manipulation theory’11 of voting and he stresses that it is a vital explanation of why people vote. While I am just beginning to explore the world of memes and to understand memetics as a science, I feel that Tyler is correct and his idea of ‘manipulation theory’ of voting isn’t new, rather it has been broadly practiced by the politicians. Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, strongly supported the idea of public manipulation because he felt that it was necessary in societies which according to him were dangerous and irrational. The idea of manipulation theory obviously explains everything about the stupendous support Obama attained during the last Presidential elections with his call for ‘Yes, we can.’ The phenomenon of Obama further explains the practice of dishonest signalling by politicians in general.
- The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976 [↩]
- Tit for Tat, Example of Play, Implementations, Wikipedia [↩]
- Herbert Gintis is an ex-Marxist, a behavioural scientist, educator and author who has written a number of books to represent his idea of fundamental altruism. He is a well known critic of Austrian economics and free market and believes in strict governmental interventions, Crony Capitalism, and Fiat Currency which is clear from his review of the book ‘Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse’ written by Thomas E. Woods, a known Austrian Economist and founder of Liberty Classroom. [↩]
- Herbert Gintis, On the Evolution of Human Morality, a Comment on Steven Pinker, Social Evolution Forum [↩]
- Herbert Gintis has specifically supported Keynesian politicians and their ways of economic control, inflation, and economic control in comment section of his review of the book by Thoman E. Woods claiming, “At least political leaders have the incentive to get re-elected, or feel an altruistic duty to help the country.” [↩]
- Signalling Theory as explained by geneticists can be a good explanation of why people vote, Sigalling Theory, Wikipedia [↩]
- Murray Rothbard actually supported the idea of voting for the least evil or for the contestant in presidential elections who will help in bringing the idea of libertarianism in mainstream the most in an Interview which has been mentioned in the article Why Even Anarchists Should Vote for Ron Paul [↩]
- What are Honest Signals of Signalling theory, Wikipedia [↩]
- What are Dishonest Signals, Wikipedia [↩]
- Tim Tyler’s Blog On Memetics [↩]
- Manipulation Theory of Voting as suggested by Tim Tyler in his post Why Vote? [↩]