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Jankowski: Buying a lottery ticket to help the poor

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Jankowski. 2002. Buying a lottery ticket to help the poor: Altruism, civic duty, and self-interest in the decision t. Rationality and Society 14 (1): 55-77.

In Brief

According to Jankowski, any theory of voting should explain five empirical facts about voting observed in the literature:

  1. There is a difference in turn-out between types of elections (presidential, mid-term and local).
  2. There is a correlation between education and voting.
  3. Voting costs can be important.
  4. Voters, once at the polls, often skip voting in certain contests. (The roll-off phenomenon)
  5. Individuals often vote strategically.

We know that the pure (egocentric) rational choice account has failed to explain turnout. Three theories have been advanced to "fix" rational choice: A "duty" term (Riker and Ordeshook 1968), warm-glow (i.e. selfish) altruism, and pure altruism. Jankowski argues that a model of voting with pure altruism as the central component is best at explaining the five empirical facts, and the "duty" argument is worst.


Of the three different conceptions of non-self-interested behavior (duty, warm-glow altruism, and pure altruism), an account based on pure altruism is the best at explaining these facts. (He also dismisses a purely expressive account like Brennan and Lomasky's because it cannot explain why education affects turnout and because the expressive account explains at most 5% or so of the variation in voting.)

Rebutting "Duty" Arguments

Duty arguments come in two flavors. "Strong duty" arguments suggest that we vote regardless of the costs, and "weak duty" suggests that we vote if the costs aren't excessive. According to Jankowski, "strong duty" fails because we know that turnout diminishes when costs increase, thus people are not acting out of a duty independent of the costs. Weak duty, he argues, will explain why cost matters to voting but not why turnout is lower in less prominent (i.e. state and local) elections.

Some of the advocates of a "duty" interpretation have suggested that information costs are what keep voters from the polls in less prominent elections. Jankowski rejects this, claiming that a "duty to vote" does not require people to become informed; they could just vote randomly. (Jankowski might be attacking a straw-man version of the duty hypothesis, though; he does not consider that a "duty to vote" might be part of a larger duty to be a good, informed citizen. And if this is a weak duty, then information costs could sure matter.)

Warm Glow vs Pure Altruism

He emphasizes the difference between warm glow (or egoistic) altruism and pure altruism. Pure altruists reap utility whenever the downtrodden benefit--it does not matter who provides the benefit, only that the needy receive it. In contrast, warm-glow altruists reap utility from the act of helping others; they enjoy altruism only if they are the ones performing it, and their utility increases in proportion to the amount of aid they render.

The most crucial distinction between the two is that the pure altruist will have perfect substitutability with regard to public goods; if someone else gives more, the pure altruist can give less, while the warm-glow altruist will gain utility only from his own contribution. Thus, pure altruism affects voting in proportion to the classic "p" term, but warm-glow altruism does not account for the "p" term.

Under pure altruism, an individual will value larger contributions to the public good. Jankowski argues that since the president is more decisive than congressmen with determining the status of public goods, a pure altruist should be more willing to vote in presidential elections than midterm ones, and still less so in local elections; it is in these elections when his actions are likely to produce the greatest good. In the end, Jankowski's model makes turnout contingent on three variables: the proportion of altruists, the altruistic benefit of the election, and the probability of being decisive.


Jankowski concedes that there seems to be no direct way to test pure altruism as it stands but he argues that it explains the features of turnout well. He also argues that the limits of altruism help explain why turnout is so low in the US, given the importance of self-interest as well (though the turnout elsewhere is much higher, which should be explained)

Comments and Criticism

The dismissal of weak duty because of the information example seemed flawed. We often hear that it is the duty of an individual to be an "informed citizen," so his dismissal of duty requiring even a minimum of preparation before voting may be unreasonable. His later accounts using information and roll-off voting may be problematic because by using party as a heuristic, I may be able to vote close to my actual preferences without making much if any effort before the polls. This is exactly what I did this past election, and there are likely many who did the same. Only on issues where I don't have a heuristic would I abstain.

I will sound like a broken record on this issue, but having the chance of an individual being decisive in the model as a key variable is highly problematic, even if more variables are added. This term is so close to zero that we would expect wild swings in turnout of orders of several magnitudes if it is a factor; 1 in a billion is 100 times less than 1 in ten million. Integrating the altruistic account into the same term as this problematic variable does not seem helpful for rescuing the model for voting.