I know it when I see it

~Potter Stewart, 1964

Can it really make sense to vote for the opposite party just because the economy happens to be bad?

Kevin Drum notes the particular oddity that Americans think the poor economy is George Bush’s fault yet plan to vote for Republicans anyway. Will Wilkinson says that just might be him

I might count myself among this 10%. (I say, "I might", because I do not really know myself. Who does?) The "kick the bums out" mechanism leaves a great deal to be desired, though. It is not obviously better to exchange our current bums for new bums as a response to the behaviour of past bums. In this case, however, it is likely that a bum-swap will deliver divided government, a prospect that warms my anti-partisan heart.

That’s one explanation. Another is this. Voter’s don’t really know what they want. Indeed the one’s that matter – swing voters – don’t know even know what it is that they might want. That is, they are ignorant of the policy choice set. Whatever they want, however, they know this ain’t it.

Now, broadly speaking there are two possibilities

1) The horrible state that we are in today is unrelated to government policy

2) The horrible state that we are in today is related to government policy

Suppose that the world is in state (1). Then switching parties does nothing to relieve the horrible state we are in. However, its also fairly low cost, because government policy isn’t related to the horrible state we are in. It might be related to other stuff, but by assumption that stuff is second order.

Suppose the world is in state (2). Then there is a good chance that switching parties will switch policies, which in turn might result in an improvement in the horrible state that we are in.

Thus regardless of the true state of nature I should switch parties.

Now, my democratic readers will be quick to chime in that this analysis is incomplete. It could be the case that the government policy is related to the horrible state that we are in, but that in fact our current policies are making it less horrible.

This is just another way of saying things would be even worse if Republicans were in power. I can easily see why partisan democrats would be inclined to believe that.

However, suppose that I am just a regular voter who hears Dems say things would be even worse without them and the GOP say that things are as bad as they are because of the Dems. What am I to think?

Well that depends on how bad things are compared to the worst they could possibly be. The closer things are to the worst things can possibly be the less likely it seems that the Democrat’s argument is correct.

Note that I don’t have to believe that the Republican argument is correct in order to vote for them. State of nature (1) makes a vote for the GOP low cost. I only need to believe that the Dem argument is likely wrong.

Now lets check the tape



The current state certainly looks worst than anything ever before. At least anything any of us are old enough to remember.

That makes it hard to buy the Democrat’s argument. And, if you don’t buy the Democrat’s argument then you should vote Republican, regardless of whether you buy the Republican argument.

This is of great interest to me because I am fascinated by the fact that Democracy seems to be a highly effective form of government despite an almost necessary implication that policy will be determined, or at least largely influenced, by the least knowledgeable and indeed least policy interested people in society – swing voters.

So my instinct is that there is an invisible hand at work. A mechanism that leads people towards decent policy even when they have no idea where they are going. Throwing the bums out just might be it.