Sunday, October 19, 2008

Free Riders

Rob has been on my case, rightly, to get more involved in the Obama campaign, to canvass, to make phone calls, to make a pilgrimage to a “battleground” state, to do something, to assert myself politically. Me, I’ve been reluctant to make a commitment of this sort, because I am genuinely busy (I will be away from Rochester the last two campaign weekends) and because something is definitely holding me back , a certain diffidence that I don’t really understand—after all, I have done this in the past, why not now?

I suppose this is a matter that of interest to me and perhaps my therapist, but really isn’t something I need to bother the faithful readers of Greater New York about. However Rob’s eloquent appeal for political participation was on my mind when I read an interesting article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books by David Runciman on the nature of political participation. There is a major school in political science that holds that voting is essentially irrational. In almost all cases, people have a good idea who is going to win and lose before they vote. For instance, it is clear that New York State’s electoral votes will be going to Obama. Therefore, why should any one individual take the trouble to vote for president in New York State. One more vote will not make a difference. Therefore, why not spare yourself the time and the bother of voting, and just stay home, and let others send Obama to his certain victory or McCain to his certain defeat? This is the problem of the so-called “free rider,” the parasite who lets others do their work for her. A school of analysis has developed that views the free rider as a rational political actor, and the voter as essentially irrational, making a “symbolic” statement by voting, knowing all the while that their particular vote is essentially irrelevant and superfluous.

There are standard answers to the problem of the free rider. One is to merely assert that voting is a duty, and that, on Kantian grounds, if everyone followed your examples, no one would vote. But this merely shuts down the question by asserting a moral obligation; and indeed—why work if someone is willing to provide you with a salary without working, and why vote if there will be the same outcome whether or not you vote? Some would argue that you need to vote because you don’t actually know who is going to win the presidential race in New York State, and with a reminder about Florida in 2000, a caution that there are close elections, in which every vote counts. But neither part of this makes sense; some elections will not be close, and everyone knows this before the election is held. Even more than presidential races, there are myriad local elections in which the outcome is absolutely not in doubt, but many people vote nonetheless. And Florida, if anything, proves the reverse, that in close elections what matters is not counting but discounting votes, and in truly dead heat elections, like Florida in 2000, both sides will do whatever they can to disqualify as many questionable ballots as they can to help their cause.

If there is an answer to the free rider question, it lies in questioning the relation of the voter to the candidate. In a consumer society, we of course sell our candidates like soap, as something we don’t have, that we need or we should need. But this is the wrong model; our candidates shouldn’t sell themselves to us, as if there was no prior link between us and the candidate, but we should vote because the candidate already is us, that we share an essential tie, and voting becomes, not a statement of choice, but an exercise of our identity. We are part of a political collective, a union, a volunteer army, a political party, an obligation freely entered into to come to the aid of others. Party identity has become extraordinarily attenuated in modern American life, and few people feel the imperative of party, and those who run parties do all they can to mute or submerge the continuing allegiance of party. But as Hillary Clinton pointed out in her convention speech, the reason to vote for Obama (certainly for many Hillary supporters) was that Obama was the standard bearer of the party that best epitomized and encapsulated our political interests, that, in some fundamental way, we are all Democrats. (Though this argument works equally well for Republicans, Greens, States Righters, whatever.) All of this is to say when politics is reduced to mere individual choice- what is better for me—it does become paradoxical. And working for a candidate establishes the connections we need to remind ourselves that voting is ultimately is collective and therefore a rational act. So, okay Rob, I will make calls for Obama.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your point is well taken by speaking of the free rider phenomenon. But it may be even more risky to emphasize the "candidates r' us" identity argument, since the emotional truth of that leaves little incentive to think through choices.