The calculus of voting
Is it rational to vote? For most people the question may seem absurd but quite a few economists and political scientists have made the claim that it is not. The reasoning is that in large elections the probability that your individual vote will decide the outcome is so small that voting is a futile exercise. A classic statement of the orthodox economic view of voting can be found in David Friedman’s Price Theory: An Intermediate Text:
“…consider someone making two decisions–what car to buy and what politician to vote for. In either case, the person can improve his decision (make it more likely that he acts in his own interest) by investing time and effort in studying the alternatives. In the case of the car, his decision determines with certainty which car he gets. In the case of the politician, his decision (whom to vote for) changes by one ten-millionth the probability that the candidate he votes for will win. If the candidate would be elected without his vote, he is wasting his time; if the candidate would lose even with his vote, he is also wasting his time.”
If the probability of affecting the outcome is negligible, there is no strong incentive to inform oneself of the positions of the candidates. Contrary to respectable opinion, being ignorant about politics can be rational. This stands in stark contrast to the situation of a consumer in the marketplace who is going to get what he chooses. Leaving aside the complicating issue of “public goods,” it might be argued that there is no tension between rationality and choice in the marketplace but there is a serious tension between rationality and participation in (large scale) democratic elections.
Strictly speaking, the negligible probability that one’s vote will decide the outcome of an election itself does not render voting irrational. A voter may place an extremely high value on a particular outcome of the election. So even if the probability of deciding the outcome is very low, a voter may still be motivated to vote. To use an interesting example, if one believes that the probability of resuscitation of cryonics patients is very low, one can still justify the decision to make cryonics arrangements because of the high value placed on being alive. But a contrary position is possible as well. If one does not care about the outcome of an election, the low probability of affecting that outcome will even further undermine the reason to go out and vote.
In his 1971 book for new voters, Why Vote?, the author William C. Mitchell is making this very point. He believes that people who do not care about the value of the outcome in an election where the probability of influencing it is perceived to be very low is a good reason to abstain from voting. In all other scenarios, he recommends voting. He also mentions another reason to vote; voting may be intrinsically rewarding and can be seen as an expression of values, such as the support for democracy. But in 1994, the same William C. Mitchell co-authored a book with Randy T. Simmons called Beyond Politics: Markets, Welfare, and the Failure of Bureaucracy, an introduction to public choice (the economic study of politics) that displays a far more negative vision on government and politics as evidenced by sections such as “In Dispraise of Politics—Some Public Choices,” “The Anatomy of Public Failure,” “In Praise of Property, Profits, and Markets.” The authors revisit the issue of voting as follows:
Voting is a painfully limited way to express one’s values and preferences. It accomplishes its results only indirectly; the vote does not immediately call forth that which is voted for. In fact, if we vote for something but are in the minority we do not get it at all, if we vote against something and are in the minority, we get it and are compelled to pay for the unwanted goods or services.
The authors also address the issue that as more voters participate in an election the individual power of a vote decreases. In light of this, it is hard to make something of campaigns to “get out the vote” that appeal to the power conferred by voting. The more people are persuaded by such a message, the less their votes matter. Perhaps the value of a vote would increase if voters would be able to sell it. But there is a great taboo on selling votes. But this taboo may not be consistent if one considers the fact it only applies to one part of the electoral process. Politicians routinely “buy” votes by promising entitlements to specific groups.
The value one assigns to different election outcomes is informed by one’s views on the relationship between a specific candidate winning and the effects on policy. For example, if one believes that in terms of public policy (not just rhetoric), there is not enough difference between the parties, the value one attaches to a specific outcome will lessen. If one further believes that contemporary democratic politics will generate an endless cycle between slightly different policies (for example, mixed economies with a bias on markets versus mixed economies with a bias on government), and substantial deviations from this generate their own incentive for substantial reversals, the combination of a low chance of affecting the outcome and a decreased interest in a specific outcome of the election, will tip the scales in favor of abstaining from voting again.
The only argument that does not appear to be so vulnerable to considerations about the expected benefits from voting is that which claims that by voting one is expressing support for political democracy and ensures a non-violent transition of power. But there is an important flip-side to this argument because it can also explain why people may decide not to vote. By not voting people can “signal” to others their disapproval of a system that allows one person (or group) to gain at the expense of another. Historically such a perspective has been rare because of the conviction that the existence of government is necessary to solve public goods and coordination problems. But economic and political arguments for the necessity of government have been subjected to increased (technical) scrutiny by some economists and political philosophers, culminating in a school of thought that seeks to substitute markets and private institutions for government.
It may be true that voting is not just about self-interest but about expressing oneself, but so is not voting.
Further reading: Doug Casey – None of the Above
This is part I in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.