Voters' Preferences are Not One-Dimensional

by Don Boudreaux on July 29, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics

Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Wall Street Journal:

John Fund’s review of Alvin Stephen Felzenberg’s “The Leaders We Deserved” is superb (July 29).  But it’s not quite correct to say that “In November, we will definitively rank our two presidential candidates.”  This chestnut of conventional wisdom mistakenly presumes that each voter’s order of preference – for example, “I prefer Obama over McCain” – is the only relevant part of each voter’s preferences.  In fact, however, each voter also has intensities of preference – for example, “I prefer Obama enormously over McCain.”

In November, each voter will be able to express his or her preference order, but not his or her preference intensity.  This fact is important.  Suppose John McCain wins with 51 percent of the vote.  Would he truly be the most-preferred candidate if the great majority of persons who vote for him prefer him over Barack Obama only very slightly, while the great majority of persons who vote for Obama fiercely and deeply loathe the prospect of a McCain presidency?

Because the intensity with which each of us prefers one thing to another is as much a part of our preferences as is the ordering of those preferences, casting ballots in elections does less than we typically suppose to reveal the inherently elusive ‘will of the people.’

Of course, the reality is a bit richer than can be expressed in a single letter-to-the-editor.  Because in the U.S. citizens are not obliged to vote, it’s reasonable to suppose that the greater any citizen’s intensity of preference for (or against) a candidate, the more likely that citizen is to vote.  Likewise, less-intense preferences are less likely than are more-intense preferences to inspire a citizen to vote.  So our freedom to vote or not to vote provides some mechanism for registering the intensity of voters’ preferences.  This fact, in turn, is an argument against mandatory voting, or even against efforts to instill in citizens a sense that voting is a civic duty.  Mandatory voting, or a widespread sense of civic obligation to vote, takes away from the voting process whatever ability it has to register voters’ preference intensities.

Question: what would the inclusion of “None of the Above” on each ballot do to voting’s ability to register voters’ intensity of preference?


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