Two Nice Experiments on Democracy and Altruism

post by zdgroff · 2020-12-30T18:56:27.745Z · EA · GW · 8 comments

Cross-posted from

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.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Ramiro · 2021-01-03T18:46:42.019Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this great post. I really appreciated both papers. However, they made me think about the anti-populist literature in economics (some technocratic checks on majority rule are usually well accepted for fiscal and monetary policies), political science and philosophy - like the Federalist Papers, or, more recently, Garrett Jones's 10% Less Democracy. Of course, I'm pretty sure democracy is better for the unrepresented than individual decisions made in a market, even if you have some altruistic actors advocating for selfless considerations... but I'm still quite puzzled about under what conditions does collective deliberation bend towards (or away from) altruistic or long-term reasoning.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-01-03T19:12:37.039Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The constitution and supreme courts are also important. For example, the first few Muslim bans by Trump were found unconstitutional: these decisions represented the interests of non-voting foreigners.

On the other hand, a woman in Switzerland was denied citizenship through a vote:

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-12-31T09:44:41.008Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great post! The results aren't super surprising, but it's nice to see them anyway. Has there been much empirical evidence on this before?

Milton Friedman argued for welfare on similar grounds:

Friedman’s argument comes in chapter 9 of his Capitalism and Freedom , and is based on the idea that private attempts at relieving poverty involve what he called “neighborhood effects” or positive externalities. Such externalities, Friedman argues, mean that private charity will be undersupplied by voluntary action.

[W]e might all of us be willing to contribute to the relief of poverty, provided everyone else did. We might not be willing to contribute the same amount without such assurance.

Paul Christiano also wrote a blog post titled Moral public goods.


For what it's worth, we might also want to consider harms of democracy. With democracy that better represents voters, we might expect higher taxes and therefore less money for the Gates Foundation and the Open Philanthropy Project, and it may or may not be worth that loss.

Also, you need to be signed into Google to open the links; it might be better to replace them with the original links.

Replies from: zdgroff
comment by zdgroff · 2020-12-31T18:14:47.338Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Links should be fixed! Thanks for pointing this out.

comment by kbog · 2020-12-31T07:58:59.969Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

the environmental success of democracies relative to autocracies

I want to read this but the link doesn't work

Replies from: zdgroff
comment by zdgroff · 2020-12-31T18:14:27.792Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for pointing this out. It should work now.

Replies from: Ramiro
comment by Ramiro · 2021-01-04T02:55:57.953Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Btw, what really caught my attention in this reference, more than the "success of democracies relative to autocracies" (which seems sort of assumed by the model), was that other factors (such as income inequality and education) may have an impact, too.

comment by Ramiro · 2021-01-06T13:18:35.583Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

And if you allow me a conjecture, I wonder if the observed increase in altruistic behavior in collective decision making could be explained by voters applying some non-causal decision theory (either EDT or FDT or whatever) when it comes to elections and social norms.