Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Non-conventional rationality and social choice in a referendum

Most of the Theory of Social Choice is based on the assumption of the exogenous nature of the preferences of rational voters acting in a consistent way. However, modern behavioral economics suggests that the presentation of options ("framing") plays a crucial role in determining people's choices. In this sense, the traditional sequence in the Social Choice Theory (exogenous preference formation, election of a voting system, final vote) does not have to be fulfilled, and the choice of details of the voting system can influence the formation of preferences. This raises the neverendum issue: the campaign for a referendum or the referendum campaign, even if secessionists lose the referendum (as in Scotland), they succeed in convincing the electorate to pay attention to what they want. That is, they are part of the battle for the attention of the electorate. The more plebiscitarian campaigns there are, the better. If the battle of the referendum demos is implicitly and cognitively won as a symbolic manifestation of the nation itself, democratic standards and international recognition are secondary to those who have nationalistic preferences. In this sense, the questions and the exact words of the questions are not innocent. In Catalonia, the referendum questions in ilegal plebiscites are barely innocent. Voter opinions can fluctuate greatly depending on how exactly the questions are asked. For example, before the 1991 Gulf War, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were willing to "use military force," but less than 30 percent wanted to "go to war."
Our preferences are more vague and incomplete than the traditional theory assumes, and co-evolve with the institutions that claim to aggregate them. Hence the importance for Amartya Sen of the reasoned discussion and of being able to make a decision with the maximum possible information, something that according to this economist and many other observers did not facilitate the dichotomous character of the campaign of the Brexit referendum, where even the more neutral and respected media organizations had to treat both opinions and facts equally to comply with an appearance of neutrality. The objective of making decisions after reasoned discussions, negotiating taking into account the multidimensionality of problems, links with a tradition somewhat forgotten in economics and political science, due to the Swedish economists Wicksell and Lindahl, pointing to the virtues in terms of social harmony and efficiency of unanimity. In addition, as Amartya Sen reminds us, the perspective view of people from other latitudes should be welcomed in any debate to avoid the excesses of "parochialism": sometimes passions and emotions prevent us from facing the pros and cons of a decision, and observers from other latitudes can help us broaden the angle of observation and decide with more perspective.Research on these issues, insofar as it departs from the assumption of absolute rationality, should prioritize the study of conditions or interventions that facilitate cooperative solutions to social dilemmas (as is done with experiments on the voluntary provision of public goods) by adapting the study to the typical situations of this type of conflicts of sovereignty. For those involved in advocating one or another option, consideration of behavioral issues may also be important. For example, Matt Qvortup has pointed out that for Brexit supporters in the UK, Brexit was a commodity with inelastic demand (the perception of a high "price" did not alter preferences) while those who might be in favor of staying in the European Union did have more elastic behavior. By focusing on economic issues (although the economic debate was objectively won),  remainers focused on the price of exit, which did not guarantee them the vote of their potential "elastic" voters and did not allow them to conquer the vote of the "inelastic" and hyper-mobilized a priori supporters of Brexit.

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