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The altruism theory of voting is a model of voter behavior which states that if citizens in a democracy have “social” preferences for the welfare of others, the extremely low probability of a single vote determining an election will be outweighed by the large cumulative benefits society will receive from the voter’s preferred policy being enacted, such that it is rational for an “altruistic” citizen, who receives utility from helping others, to vote.Altruistic voting has been compared to purchasing a lottery ticket, in which the probability of winning is extremely low but the payoff is large enough that the expected benefit outweighs the cost.
Since the failure of standard rational choice models—which assume voters' have "selfish" preferences—to explain voter turnout in large elections, public choice economists and social scientists have increasingly turned to altruism as a way to explain why rational individuals would choose to vote despite its apparent lack of individual benefit, the so-called paradox of voting. The theory suggests that individual voters do, in fact, derive personal utility from influencing the outcome of elections in favor of the candidate that they believe will implement policies for the greater good of the entire population.
Strong and Weak Altruism: Strong altruism requires that obligations be fulfilled regardless of personal cost. This is inconsistent with voting behavior, as evidenced by the effects of voter registration procedures on turnout. The alternative is weak altruism, which allows for the shirking of obligations if personal costs reach some threshold. Utilitarianism is a good example of weak altruism.
Defining Altruism: The article makes a distinction between altruism based upon ethical norms and altruism derived from sympathy. Jankowski favors the latter approach due to the fact that it is the more parsimonious of the two explanations--i.e. it does not require an interpersonal comparison of utilities. It is a weak form of altruism. In sum, "Altruism-as-sympathy entails that the beneficiary's utility from their helping another is some function of the recipient's increased happiness".
Who is Altruistic? Jankowski's model allows for varying levels of altruism among individuals. He notes that "Most human beings fall in between Mother Theresa and Scrooge" .
Altruism and Voting: Altruism allows for a "high B" account of voter behavior, where the expected large-scale consequences of one candidate/party winning the election can offset the very low probability of being decisive. Jankowski provides a game-theoretic model that shows that a high-turnout equilibrium is possible under assumptions of weak altruism.
The expressive theory of voting ( Brennan and Buchanan 1984, Brennan and
Lomasky 1993, Brennan and Hamlin 2000, Brennan 2008, Hamlin and Jennings 2009,
Hillman 2010) is probably the modally endorsed model these days. Brennan and Lomasky
(1993) is the most prominent study, and is my focus.
Market and ballot choices are each
composed of both instrumental and expressive elements, they say. Individuals may value
expression of a preference through a market exchange or a vote, in other words, they desire to
express a desire. The formula becomes pB – C + E > 0, where E is the expressive value of
voting; the instrumental value is
pB ≈ 0, and thus an individual votes if and only if the
expressive value of the act exceeds its cost. The expressive aspect of voting is “action that is
undertaken for its own sake rather than to bring about particular consequences” (Brennan and
Lomasky 1993, 25). The expressive theory holds that there is almost never a causal
connection between an individual’s vote and the associated electoral outcome. Hence, her
vote is not disciplined by opportunity cost, and is rationally suspect compared to market
exchange, which is disciplined by opportunity cost. Expressive valuation can be the irrational
opposite of instrumental valuation, and as a result, an aggregation of individuals’ expressive
preferences could be the opposite of what an aggregation of their rational instrumental
preferences would have been, to the harm of many.
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