Suicide Express

In an intriguing post on migration and ‘expressive voting’ in Alsace-Lorraine  after the 1871 annexation, Bryan Caplan notes that although “over 90% of the new citizens of the Second Reich voted for … anti-Prussian regional parties” only 5% decided to emigrate back to France. Clearly in this case, migration patterns revealed genuine commitments — based perhaps on economic opportunity — while elections were merely an occasion to express ethnic emotionalism without consequence. As usual in human affairs, microeconomics was aligned with approximate reason, whilst politics was possessed by destructive irrationality, redeemed only by its impotence.

It’s hard to imagine what Caplan is seeing as the politically-correct take-away from this example. What it demonstrates starkly is that even populations characterized by scrupulous rationality in their private economic affairs will exploit electoral opportunities to vote for insanity — as judged by their own revealed preferences. Expect even model immigrant workers to expend their votes signalling an adherence to ethnic zealotry and ruinous economic populism — and in particular, the reproduction of exactly those social pathologies they have migrated away from. Like the French in post-1871 Alsace-Lorraine, they’ll probably vote as if they want to live somewhere they manifestly don’t want to be. (But that’s not supposed to be the message, is it?)

August 19, 2013admin 12 Comments »
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12 Responses to this entry

  • Vladimir Says:

    This, however, also provides a counterargument to your thesis about the coming end of USG’s push for global democratization due to its recent blatantly catastrophic failures.

    Clearly, the policy of USG is determined to a very significant degree by expressive ideological signaling. This is true for all participants in its political system, and not just when it comes to voting, but also in exercising all kinds of bureaucratic and propagandist functions. However, the proporton of expressive signaling versus hard realism will be obviously much higher in foreign than domestic policy, since the latter hits much closer to home for everyone involved. Therefore, USG’s level of domestic craziness will likely remain high, but still far lower than the level of its foreign craziness.

    In particular, when it comes to attitudes towards democracy, USG’s mangerial bureaucratic elites will take a much more realistic position domestically: keep the sacred rituals and formulas in place while making sure they have no practical relevance — just like Augustus left the SPQR standards in place while establishing de facto autocracy over a people that had by that time lost its capacity for political liberty and self-government. However, when it comes to foreign meddling, the reality checks will be much weaker — even the most horrid news can always be met with the response that we just haven’t tried hard enough and need to double down. There is no way that a realistic appraisal of events in remote and otherwise insignificant places, however bad, can be a sufficient counterweight to expressive signaling motivations.


    admin Reply:

    My ‘thesis’ needs to be supple enough to accommodate your argument, which is obviously right. I don’t think that’s difficult. As US foreign policy degenerates into pure signalling, its effectiveness decays, in a vicious circle. That is what we are seeing right now (since the current US administration sees the world as a theater for emotional gesticulation). Democratization most decidedly hits the buffers as a serious policy, even as its rhetorical substitute becomes ever more feverish.
    One sign that these things go together easily — and as a dynamic system — is the growth of ‘isolationism’ in the US. No one seriously imagines spilling American blood for overseas ‘democracy’ anymore, because everyone knows that dying for gaseous propaganda would be a mistake. Gaseous propaganda is cheap, though, so there’s no need to discontinue it, just because it’s not being paid for anymore.


    Posted on August 19th, 2013 at 3:44 pm Reply | Quote
  • Henri Purschell Says:

    The prevalence of signalling also explains some of the most perverse, yet not obviously Machiavellian domestic policies. If a certain behaviour is low-status and repulsive, and minimally susceptible to the charge that it is socially harmful, it is liable to be punished in disproportion to its harm, since the usual signalling gains from possession of an undervalued truth or political lobby are not accessible. Recreational drug use is one instance. A counterexample to this hypothesis would consist of somewhere in which politics is or was not characterised by ideological signalling, yet moral crusades occurred and victimless crimes were prosecuted.

    The above observation on the quality of USG’s foreign policy also contradicts the Moldbuggian claim that “self-government” is meaningless, which is popular in these circles although perhaps not universally. Evidently, even suffrage, and certainly the ability to riot or constitute a military and police force in the geographic location of the most salient political elite, is an important privilege.


    Posted on August 19th, 2013 at 6:23 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    I read the results differently. ‘Emigrating as a German-Speaker to non-German-Speaking regions of France, a weak country which just lost a war’ seems completely qualitatively different from ‘Wanting to remain in the German-speaking region of my birth and forbears, and the people and culture which inhabit that area, but not under the control of the Prussian Empire’. That major distinction neutralizes our ability to analyze any supposed difference between ‘revealed preferences’ and ‘signalling, cost-less, emotive voting’.

    I doubt we can do such simple analysis even in the absence of such a distinction. Preferring to only a follow a rule (perhaps at some personal cost) when it is compulsory on the entire community (with related compensatory network-effect / externality gains) would yield voting for zoning rules, but not restricting one’s own building in the absence of such rules. There is no paradox, contradiction, or otherwise revealed in such a rational voting strategy.

    The idioms ‘over-egging the pudding’ and ‘gilding the lillies’ were invented for folks like Caplan.


    admin Reply:

    OK, but by getting sophisticated about thinking this through, you’re defending Caplan from the consequences of his own argument (which is no fun at all).


    Handle Reply:

    See Spandrell below – there are much better examples of false-signal or cost-born-by-others voting that this I imagine, and the free-riding / coordination problem of collective action is non-negligible when analyzing the question.

    The weakness and easy-deconstruction of Caplan’s example is revealing though. Since the level-headed, clear-thinking, mostly-balanced Arnold Kling left, he’s become increasingly untethered from reality – a hammer to every nail, even when it’s not a nail. The same thing seems to have happened to Yglesias (free of Think Progress) and Robin Hanson (free of the Less Wrong crowd) since the beginning of the year.

    All of these have gone farther, not closer, to things resembling sense lately. It’s almost like you can take ‘skepticism’ of ‘common sense’ too far, into something pathological, and that animosity ripples over into pulling up the stakes of the ropes to your own hot air balloon. They’ve all gone free-floating, drifting, drifting …


    Henri Reply:

    An interesting thought, but I submit that increasingly facile and sensationalist writing is a natural failure mode of highly ambitious blogs.

    Blog authors like Bryan Caplan or Robin Hanson are expected to produce short and appetising essays over a period of years. After having used up their reservoir of professional knowledge and impactful personal notions, they cannot resort to a more humble form of scholarship, in which insight develops only through long, detailed case studies. Hence, Caplan’s strained interpretation of random historical anecdotes to fuel transparently ideological posts.

    This raises the question whether blogs are a good feature of the political web, or merely the default in the absence of serious collective intent to learn or achieve something. (This is not to criticise the sterling efforts of any particular blog author or milieu, of course.)

    spandrell Reply:

    Of course when people are given the choice, they will all vote for non immigrating, staying in the land of their birth and forefathers, being totally independent of any foreign power, not having military forces, given an unconditional stipend of 5k a month per person, and establishing a park full of unicorns in every town of more than 100 inhabitants.

    The problem is what they’re willing to do about it. Not much, it seems.


    Posted on August 19th, 2013 at 10:17 pm Reply | Quote
  • Lesser Bull Says:

    Every state that borders California is familiar with people fleeing ruin voting to import that ruin.


    admin Reply:

    “ruin voting” is definitely a keeper
    (I realize it’s the side-product of glitchy parsing on my part)


    Lesser Bull Reply:

    All the better. I only wish I’d meant to say it.


    Posted on August 19th, 2013 at 10:35 pm Reply | Quote
  • Alrenous Says:

    I wonder how much of ‘black twitter’ is the same sort of thing.


    Posted on August 20th, 2013 at 1:12 pm Reply | Quote

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