My own thoughts--for me.
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Sunday, January 25, 2004

Cover Guys 

Presidential politics is a beauty contest, in more ways than one. I'm not thinking of how much focus groups like a thick head of hair. I'm thinking about John Maynard Keynes famous remark about the stock market: "Speculation is like being a judge in a beauty contest where the objective is not to pick the prettiest girl, but the girl the other judges pick." Funny and important about stock markets, it's not generally applicable to politics. We each have an interest in affecting the outcome in our direction, less on guessing what will win. On the other hand, in primary elections such as those in the U.S., there is a bit of the Keynes beauty contest too.

Suppose, hypothetically, that I would much rather have any of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination become president than George W. Bush being reelected. I can best promote that result by promoting the chances of whichever Democratic seems to me likely to seem loveliest to the voters in the general election. And to do that I would need to put aside my own preferences (once I had settled on preferring all Democrats to Bush) and concentrate on the preferences of other people: Which of these Democrats is most likely to win against Bush? Suddenly, even if, hypothetically, I am strongly against our involvement in Iraq, Kerry and Clark talking tough suits my purposes. Even if I am against the increased role of religion in public discourse, suddenly Lieberman's moderate Bible thumping is an advantage. In fact, if the general election seemed likely to favor a little racism, then I would best promote the Dems victory by promoting a candidate with the effective amount of racism. OK, now you're scaring me.

This raises a few questions in my mind. One is whether it is always permissible to vote in whatever way will best promote your candidate (even assuming there is nothing wrong with your candidate). One example I like here is the case where I could legally vote in the primary of the party I oppose, in which case my own party's interests are best served if I do my best to get the nomination for a candidate my party can beat in the general election. Call me puritanical, but I think this is unethical, even if it violates no institutional or legal rules. If so, there are cases where promoting the best political outcome (philosophers: I mean best in the agent-neutral sense) is nevertheless wrong. And then it's not at all obvious that the beauty contest approach to the primary is ethical, even if it is the most effective way to oppose Bush. I'm not sure, but it's not obvious.

Another question about the beauty contest approach is whether we, the voters, have any real competence on the question of what is likely to succeed in the general election This is a very different question from the question of which candidate is likely to be the best president. I'm not saying that we voters are really very good at either of those questions (I'm avoiding that issue), but the difference between those two questions still seems to me to be important in thinking about how people ought to use their votes.

My family and I recently played a game in an art museum. In each room we take some time to look around, then gather in the center. On the count of three we each point to the painting we expect to be the most popular amongst us. Then, again on the count of three, we each point to our own favorite. (This is a great game, slightly modified from one my sister's family plays. It stimulates better thought and conversation about the art, at least in a group with ages ranging from 10 to 45, then you're otherwise likely to get.) The game is relevant here for at least this observation: we were all terrible at guessing what would be the most popular. Good thing nothing much hung on our predictions. For example, our errors weren't responsible for eliminating the best work from consideration for no good reason. Can we say the same for the beauty contest approach to voting in primaries?

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