Democracy and Altruism (Toward Non-Voters)

Does democracy help people who don't get to vote? Democracy has a strong track record of peace and prosperity, but it's not obvious that it would help those who, as a class, do not participate in the political process, such as future generations and nonhuman animals.

Two nice economics experiments suggest that democracy may help those who don't vote. (Specifically, elections help relative to everyone deciding for themselves.)

The first is Hauser et al. (2014), "Cooperating with the Future" (I'm working with the first author on a new project):

What mechanisms can maintain cooperation with the future? To answer this question, we devise a new experimental paradigm, the ‘Intergenerational Goods Game’. A line-up of successive groups (generations) can each either extract a resource to exhaustion or leave something for the next group. Exhausting the resource maximizes the payoff for the present generation, but leaves all future generations empty-handed. Here we show that the resource is almost always destroyed if extraction decisions are made individually. This failure to cooperate with the future is driven primarily by a minority of individuals who extract far more than what is sustainable. In contrast, when extractions are democratically decided by vote, the resource is consistently sustained. Voting is effective for two reasons. First, it allows a majority of cooperators to restrain defectors. Second, it reassures conditional cooperators that their efforts are not futile. Voting, however, only promotes sustainability if it is binding for all involved. Our results have implications for policy interventions designed to sustain intergenerational public goods.

The second is Paul et al., "An Experiment on the Vote-Buy Gap with Application to Cage-Free Eggs":

Why would people vote to ban a product they regularly consume? This question is at the crux of the controversies over a variety of ballot initiatives restricting certain agricultural production practices. This research moves the question to a controlled laboratory setting with real food and real money to explore the underlying causes of the so-called vote-buy gap. Respondents first made a shopping choice between snack options, some of which included eggs from caged hens as an ingredient. After selecting a snack, participants then voted on a proposition to ban snack options that utilized eggs from caged hens. We show that the vote-buy gap can be replicated in the lab: in the control condition, approximately 80% of the individuals who chose snacks with caged eggs when shopping subsequently voted to ban snacks with caged eggs. The finding rules out the suggestion that the vote-buy gap is an illusion or statistical artifact, as it can be re-created in an experimental lab setting at an individual level. A number of experimental treatments were conducted to test hypotheses related to the underlying causes of the vote-buy gap. We found qualified support for the hypothesis that the vote-buy gap is a result of information asymmetries, but little evidence that it results from public good or expressive voting phenomena.

Both papers find, in a controlled setting, that when people vote on everyone having to do an altruistic act, more of them vote for it than would do it on their own. Though the second paper does not use the same words as the first, it's consistent with the same two-part explanation. Giving people an opportunity to vote allows the altruists to restrain the egoists, and some of the egoists become altruists in that context.

This phenomenon of "conditional cooperation" is worth underlining: people are more inclined to vote for cage-free eggs when told others are voting that way. Conditional cooperation is one of the most common forms of prosocial behavior in economics experiments. Democracy (at least a small, controlled one) seems to prompt it.

Of course, these findings do not imply that any particular version of democracy is the best one. Many reforms to democracies are promising, like Kymlicka and Donaldson's proposal to give animals representation, and Tyler John and Will MacAskill's set of proposals to reform democracy to benefit future generations. But it does offer some empirical evidence and, more credibly, a theoretical picture of how democracy can benefit the unrepresented.

There's plenty of real-world evidence to corroborate this story. Note the environmental wreckage of the Soviet Union and the environmental success of democracies relative to autocracies. Note more broadly the growth of human rights in democracies. Politically, human rights grow in democracies because exclusionary democracies decide—by voting— to expand democracy to those currently excluded.

Nevertheless, there are alternative stories that can be told for the real-world cases of non-voting entities benefiting from democracy: they can put pressure on their family members or (in the case of climate) impose economic costs. For this reason it's useful to see, in a controlled setting, that democracy really does help the altruists win.


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