Altruism and Political Participation

Posted by Peter Loewen

Understanding why people vote is a central concern of political science and democracy. Since elections are the central institution of a democratic society and since voting is the most widespread way of participating in an election, this centrality is quite sensible, obvious, and well-deserved. Despite this, we still don’t know a lot about why people vote.

I wanted to flag two new publications that go a little ways to explaining this better. The first is a paper I’ve just had come out in the CJPS. It’s largely derivative of Fowler’s early work (some of it with Kam) on the relationship between altruism and voter turnout. The second is a joint work with Fowler and Dawes (who else?!?).

James’ argument in those earlier papers (which is in turn pretty similar to Jankowski and Edlin et al) says that if you are concerned about other people (and you are not concerned about everybody equally), then you can be motivated to vote. Even though your vote is a very marginal contribution to any party’s winning, it is a marginal contribution that accrues to potentially millions of people. In other words, altruists should vote. However, three qualifications are important (and possibly obvious). First, you have to be willing to incur a cost to help those people. Second, the group about whom you are concerned has to be large enough for the act to be worthwhile. Third, you have to think that your vote will make those people better off. In other words, the party for which you cast your ballot has to intend to help those for whom you are concerned.
These two papers contribute to this literature in a few ways. First, the Canadian paper shows that altruism interacts with group size to increase turnout. This speaks to the second qualification above. The second paper, coming out in the Journal of Politics, shows that the type of social preference an individual has matters for whether they will participate in politics. Specifically, we argue and show that those who have utilitarian preferences have an increased likelihood of participating in politics, but those who have Rawlsian preferences do not. The reasoning is pretty simple: voters recognize that modern politics is most often about maximizing general welfare rather than bettering the lot of the worst off. See the third qualification above.
A final note: both papers use dictator games, behaviour in which has been shown to be heritable. So perhaps what we’re really doing is tracking down more mechanisms for the genopolitics end of the enterprise.

One response to “Altruism and Political Participation

  1. The “whys” concerning a person’s motivation to vote are many. One of the predominant reasons would be out of duty or even obligation. In such a case, their choice to vote, evidenced by their “I voted!” badge of honor sticker, might be conspicuous evidence that they have earned their right to belong to their community, social creatures that we are. This of course is tied in to the larger phenomenon of belonging to some political party, their community, and their motivation to vote is again fueled by their desire for acceptance by their purported political community Another reason to vote would be to support one’s vested interests. Peace officers will be inclined to vote for the office of sheriff that best accords their interests. In my opinion, and sadly so, people do not vote for the best interests of their country and seem to tow a more parochial line when it comes to getting out their vote.

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