Since we do have an election coming along here in far Amurikey, I do feel that as a responsible public intellectual I should make some kind of an endorsement.
First, I feel that before voting, it is absolutely essential that everyone read this essay, and then watch this video. (Please do not reverse the order.) This process may take half an hour or so, but I feel it will put you in the correct mood for democratic contemplation.
What is your goal in voting? Your goal in voting is to affect the real world in a real way. This is the same for any concerted collective action—e.g., enlisting in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, writing letters to your congressman, going to Cuba to cut sugar cane, etc. Your logic is a matter of probability, not of plausibility. The tiny influence exerted by your action may, very improbably, sway some large-scale event in some meaningful direction.
Think of it literally as a sort of ethical calculus. You have some linear function G, normalized to the range (0 1), whose domain is a real, imaginary, or possible future state of any planet P. If you are choosing between politicians A and B, consider the possible future in which you voted for A, versus the possible future in which you voted for B, versus the future in which you didn’t vote at all. Which is higher? G(Pa), G(Pb), or G(Pn)?
Distributed among all possible outcomes, these differences may be very small. But these small differences in probability nonetheless generate a slope, and you can vote by the slope.
In many elections, however, there is only one possible outcome. For example, it is clear that John McCain will win the Republican primary tomorrow. (E.g., a news blackout has already been imposed on his main competitor. These guys certainly don’t play with Wiffle bats, do they, kids?)
Therefore, the probability that your vote will change the winner of the Republican primary tomorrow is trivial, because the official press’s guess of the outcome is trustworthy. Not that its predictions are always reliable, but this kind of thing is what it eats for lunch.
Therefore, G(Pa) and G(Pn) are pretty much equivalent for McCain. If your only reason to vote is to support or oppose McCain, you need not vote.
But wait, you say. What about Kantian effects? Isn’t my goal in voting to produce a result, not just by myself, but in concert with others? Lots of people joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Very few started their own Abraham Lincoln Brigade. It was Operation Venceremos, not Operation Venceré. And so on.
To a limited extent, yes: it may be appropriate to calculate G(Pa), G(Pb) and G(Pn), not just for your own decision to vote for A or B or not at all, but for the decision of everyone who is thinking like you. Moreover, whatever your beliefs may be, propagating them along with this neat little replicative package certainly helps them spread, at least if one of your vectors is the political system.
However, this logic cannot apply to tomorrow’s election, because there is no way this meme can transmit itself virally before tomorrow. Most people believe that when you vote your goal is to compare G(Pa) versus G(Pb), where Pa is the planet on which A is President and Pb is the planet on which B is President. And if you don’t really see any difference between Pa and Pb, you shouldn’t bother. Obviously this is because they have not devoted any serious dental attention to the problem of how to vote. While hardly surprising, this hardly suggests that these same folks will both receive and transmit some new explanation of the problem.
Moreover, the people who know how the Republican election will come out tomorrow are the press. It is their business to know. It is essential to their continued existence in their present professions. They get it right. They keep a close eye on what the people think today, and today the people are for McCain. How they got that way is not of any concern to anyone.
And most important, for the Kantian theory of what people like you will do to work, their polls have to be wrong. If their polls are not wrong, it just means you are a major weirdo. Ergo: don’t vote for McCain, not because McCain is evil or whatever, but just because voting for McCain is a waste of your own weird time. And so is voting for anyone else, if your only goal is to affect the winner of the primary.
Therefore, the only reason to vote in the Republican primary is to produce some nonelectoral consequence. Simply putting the opinions of a large number of motivated people on record has enormous relevance to our political system. Obviously, the capture of agencies by political minorities of every size, shape and trade is a major feature of Washington as it is today. So what if only 1% of Americans are Paulistas? While opposing the State is a very different thing from getting your gums on its tit, it never hurts to make any amount of muscle known.
This of course is the old “send a message” theory, which I endorse fully and will follow myself. Not everything here on UR needs to be surprising and new.
The problem in the Democratic primary is much more interesting. Your choice is between candidate H, who would stand out as colorful in the Brezhnev administration and is famous primarily for her devious bureaucratic ruthlessness, and candidate O, who comes to us as if born full-grown, like Aphrodite at Paphos, from the baths at Esalen, but is somewhat notable for his connections to racist gangsters and religious freaks, and is also the first American politician in over sixty years whose supporters sound exactly as if they were praying to Hitler. How can we even begin to react to this tasty smorgasbord?
We can begin by noting that, since the race is officially undecided, our votes may actually help determine the winner. Therefore, we must simply answer the default question: whose election is most likely to improve the world?
I would go with Obama, and here’s why. First, the election of Obama makes the transformation of the President into the pontifex maximus of the Potomac much clearer. The Democrats are the party of the professional civil service. Under their administration, Washington basically runs itself. A world in which Obama does what he is obviously good at, delivering sermons, and does not pretend to be in some sense managing or governing, is a more honest world and thus a better one.
Second, as a good formalist I believe that power and responsibility should be as close to each other as possible. Ideally, they should be identical. I think that if you could turn the management of Washcorp over to the news desk of the New York Times, we would see a remarkable improvement in the quality of government. And probably in the quality of the Gray Lady as well. As Kipling put it, power without responsibility is the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, and the Lady’s knees are hardly smudgeless. If she offers us Barabbas, we should demand him. And Barack Obama is no Barabbas.
However, none of this answers the really important question, which is how we should vote in November. There may be no time for a proper viral campaign before tomorrow. But surely we can think of something clever for the general election.
My initial suggestion for 2008 is that, unless the election is actually close and perhaps even then, we write in David Petraeus for President and Steve Sailer for VP. These individuals are not running for anything, as far as I’m aware. And I’m sure they disagree on quite a few substantive points. But why let that stop us? Perhaps I’ll elaborate more on the Petraeus-Sailer ticket in another post.
(Update: commenters have convinced me that Petraeus is not a good choice. While he is an actual winning general, a bizarre phenomenon whose like Plainland has not since MacArthur seen, he has spent a little too much time on campus. You wouldn’t want another Eisenhower, and you wouldn’t want to be seen as asking for one, either. So let’s swap him out for an all-blogger ticket with Bill Whittle.)