I have always been fascinated by the subject of rationality. Do people make rational life decisions? Do people make rational money and investing decisions? Do people make rational voting decisions even?
The traditional assumption of rationality is that people will want to maximise their utility. It baffles me why people would readily admit that the PAP is the better party and yet vote opposition. By doing so, they are hardly maximizing utility at all!
It bothered me so much that I decided to do some reading up. I found my answer in behavioral economist Richard Thaler’s theory on two forms of utility. On top of the regular form of economic utility we are so familiar with, he proposes another form called the transaction utility. This in essence means how good we perceive a deal to be.
I wrote an article to suggest some reasons why voting for the PAP would result in negative transactional utility. The explanation satisfied me greatly but did me no favours with my friends. After reading, my friends called me a sycophant for the PAP, a die hard opposition supporter and a spineless fence sitter – all in the same breathe.
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I did not really care, because I have gotten my answers. For a while at least.
Are rational voters really rational?
It did not take long for the little gremlins in my head to start acting up again. The conundrum this time round is this – Are voters who claim that they are rational really rational? Are they trying to suppress and denounce their emotions when it comes to the voting game?
Or is it a case whereby when they give their very rational justifications for voting either party, they are in fact transposing their emotions, both hopes and fears, onto the reasons?
Plato and the Chariot Allegory
For this I turn to Plato and his Chariot Allegory. He paints the picture of a charioteer driving two winged horses. One of the horses is of a noble breed. The other is the exact opposite in character and temperament. The horses are emotions, one positive and one negative.
The charioteer represents intellect and reason. His role is to cut them enough slack so that the chariot makes good progress but yet rein them in when they start to wander off the chosen path. It is an almost impossible job, because the horses were made to go in opposing directions.
In this General Elections, the horses take on the names of Hope and Fear.
Managing emotions is an integral part of winning votes. Most voters deny it but all politicians know it. Not only do politicians know it, they live it and breathe it and they position themselves to take very good advantage of the situation.
Politics of Fear
The PAP being the dominant ruling party operates on a strategy of fear. Human beings are afraid of the unknown. They want certainty. They believe in track records. Uncertainty and unfamiliarity makes people uncomfortable.
Look at the messages the PAP sends out. Messages that play on people’s fear of losing the majority in parliament. Messages that dwell on terrorism, ISIS, and how vulnerable we are in the big scheme of things. Messages that drive home the urgent need for new capable hands to be bought on deck to ensure there is a new leadership in place to take over.
Messages that get people to start thinking about how damaging it will be for the economy, country and its people should PAP lose its power.
Minister Khaw Boon Wan even went as far as to suggest that the PAP could possible be booted out of power after the General Elections – the ultimate in fear mongering.
These messages are carefully crafted to play on people’s fears.
Politics of hope
The opposition, on the other hand, peddles hope.
The Workers’ Party message slogan – Empower Your Future is the best manifestation of this.
Empower is a very powerful (pun intended) word. It is uplifting and encourages people to look beyond their fears and take control of their lives. It is a refreshing change from the negativity that has come to be associated with the PAP.
The SDP this time round is also pulling all stops at the hope game. Secretary General Chee Soon Juan, who has sat out the past two General Elections is now back with a bang. Not only is he an excellent communicator who connects with his rally speeches, he is also shown that there is more to him as a person than what the mainstream media and his political opponents have made him out to be.
It is clear that he wants to give the voting population hope; hope that voting for his team and sending them into parliament would not result in the confrontational and antagonistic form of political engagement he was best known for.
The message of hope is even more pronounced amongst the lesser political parties. Promises were made to help lower income workers, cut the influx of foreign labour, return our CPF, reduce the defense budget, fix the hospital crunch, fix the transportation issue.
These messages are carefully crafted to play on people’s hopes.
So what is the right-rational way to vote?
Judging from the conversations I am having with my friends, few care about the right way. Most have all but made up our minds and they will be voting for their candidates not because it is the right way, but because it is what they want and it is what they believe in.
I will go as far as to say that there is no right way. If any, it is to accept that we are but creatures of emotion and stop denouncing the role of hope and fear in our voting considerations.
We cannot operate based purely on hope. We end up chasing an unattainable utopia. We also should not be overcome by fear – it paralyses us and makes us dysfunctional.
The inner charioteer in us has to balance out the fear and hope. Vote Wisely Singapore!