Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Compulsory voting fights global warming.

The Freakonomics blog today speaks about voter turnout, and refers to this Slate article, which brings up many of the questions I have about compulsory voting here in Australia.

Presumably, compulsory voting works on the principle that people would rather vote than pay a fine, so that the cost of not voting is greater than the costs involved with taking 10 minutes to go to the local primary school on a Saturday.

But the fine is negligible, and I have a friend who has not voted in 20 years, yet has never been fined (He may go to live in China, where there are no such expectations). I am very sure that most people know the chance of getting caught is negligible, particularly as the truly apathetic won't even register to vote.

So it's hard to say that the fine is a true incentive on voter's behavior.

Meanwhile, there are media reports that people are prepared to pay carbon taxes. If they have a preference for being environmentally friendly, they could simply not drive as much, but it seems people want enforcement to keep their behavior in check, particularly when it impacts on others. This could also lead to fat taxes, and may be behind pushes to ban vice on the fear that one may use it. I am sure we all know "social smokers", who will blame the presence of other smokers for their own relapses.

Obviously community enforcement matters, and the law is apparently a codified version of community values. Afterall, the unquestioned laws (murder, theft) are values that predate government, and those without public support (prohibition, denial of women's suffrage) fade away, albeit with a lag.

The case of compulsory voting seems to imply the mere symbolism of a popular, yet unenforced law, is enough to change voter behavior. Does this mean symbolic laws can fight other externalities? A symbolic law against short car journeys? Against leaving the air conditioner on when you leave the house? I don't know the extent of enforcement of Sydney's recent water restrictions, but I know they are widely obeyed when they must be easy to evade, and they are if not "popular" laws, laws whose necessity is widely recognised.

The costs of giving up some car journeys may be higher than the costs of 15 minutes on a Saturday once or so a year, but it's an interesting question to ask, "just how much can popular symbolic laws fight externalities".


Blogger gtveloce said...

Compulsory voting isn't just a symbolic law... it's real enough that some people (like my mother) will actually have a fear of being penalised. But it's not just the $value of the fine - it's the whole inconvenience of 'maybe' getting a 'please explain' note and then having to grapple with the 'do I or don't I respond' question. Will I get caught and will it be a hassle if I do get caught? Oh bugger it, let's just vote!

Some will vote because it's their 'patriotic duty' and others may - as you say - be tipped over the edge by the symbolism alone. I imagine that some vote because of a form of peer pressure ('you didn't vote? what were you thinking?'); others to teach children that 'this is what you do in a democracy'. It's a thought, anyway.

It's interesting that we put so little value on politicians (or are told so by the media) yet turn out to the polls in droves. If it truly was just symbolic you'd imagine that disaffected voters would cross some threshold and not show at all... in an act of... symbolism!

As for the 'short car trips' law, all road laws are symbolic, aren't they? Most of us break the road laws but most of the time we 'get away with it'. If reinforced enough (by not getting caught) it becomes habitual. Since we can't catch every instance of such lawbreaking our best hope is to make the behavior expensive (ie tax on fuel).

I just had another thought. Breaking some laws - like road laws - is easy when no-one is looking. But the act of not voting is always observed, even if it's not acted upon. Either we are marked off the roll when we vote or we aren't. We know that if "they" want to catch us, they can. Now if we innately want to do the right thing (Theory Y) then it bothers us that we break a law, so we respect it. But with road laws we have a good chance of getting away with it... so Theory X kicks in.

9:50 pm  
Blogger Richard Green said...

You're 100% right on the road rules front. I was thinking of using the fact that people obey rules like using turn indicators all the time when the chance they'll get caught in infinitesimally small.
And some norms like that just work in some countries and not others. Like spitting on the footpath. There's no enforcement here or in Beijing (well, until recently), but here it's uncommon and Beijing it's unavoidable, whereas a bike here has to be chained up and it's wheels removed to avoid theft, whereas in Japan the bikes are all left unchained, and unstolen.

9:57 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home