In his little book ‘Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction‘ Ken Binmore writes:
Real people seldom think rational thoughts about whether to vote or not. Even if they did, they might feel that going to the polling booth is a pleasure rather than a pain. But…the pundits who denounce the large minority of people who fail to vote in presidential elections as irrational are talking through their hats. If we want more people to vote, we need to move to a more decentralized system in which every vote really does count enough to outweigh the lack of enthusiasm for voting which so many people obviously feel. If we can’t persuade such folk that they like to vote and we don’t want to change our political system, we will just have to put up with their staying at home on election night. Simply repeating the slogan that ‘every vote counts’ isn’t ever going to work, because it isn’t true.
Later in the book Binmore returns to this topic when he discusses the “myth of the wasted vote”:
If a wasted vote is one that doesn’t affect the outcome of an election, then the only time that your vote can count is when only one vote separates the winner and the runner-up. If they are separated by two or more votes, then a change in your vote would make no difference at all to who is elected. However, an election for a seat in a national assembly is almost never settled by a margin of only one vote….Naive folk imagine that to accept this argument is to precipitate the downfall of democracy. We are therefore told that you are wrong to count only the effect of your vote alone – you should instead count the total number of votes cast by all those people who think and feel as you think and feel, and hence will vote as you vote…This argument is faulty for the same reason that the twins fallacy fails in the Prisoner’s Dilemma . There may be large numbers of people who think and feel like you, but their decisions on whether to go out and vote won’t change if you stay home and watch the television.
Faced with the criticism that game theorists who openly disseminate such observations lack “public spirit” he responds by drawing an analogy between voting and cheering at a football game.
“No single voice can make an appreciable difference to how much noise is being made when a crowd of people is cheering. But nobody cheers at a football game because they want to increase the general noise level. They shout words of wisdom and advice at their team even when they are at home in front of a television set. The same goes for voting. You are kidding yourself if you vote because your vote has a significant chance of being pivotal. But it makes perfectly good sense to vote for the same reason that football fans yell advice at their teams.”
Whether this analogy is accurate or not, it is doubtful that such explanations of voting can salvage the idea that participation in an election is a meaningful public activity, let alone a civic duty. A recent Reason article, ‘Your Vote Doesn’t Count,’ is a good survey of this topic and the desperate attempts to rehabilitate the case for voting. With the exception of economist Gordon Tullock, few scholars are known for publicly admitting to the futility of voting, let alone admitting to not voting themselves.
One explanation why people vote is that many do not explicitly recognize that they are no longer deciding an issue in a small hunter gatherer tribe. The fact that the scale of our decision making has changed substantially throughout the history of mankind is increasingly being discussed though. For example, one presentation at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium reads as follows:
Richard Nikoley, B.S. – Paleo Epistemology and Sociology
Primitive peoples evolved to account for the values and actions of a relatively small tribe of family and close acquaintances comprising of 30-60 members whereby, every individual had a critical role and opportunity to influence the behavior and actions of the group or tribe as a whole. This is far removed from the unhealthy social trends in modern society where individuals are fooled into believing that they have real power at the voting booth and other activism when in reality, their influence is insignificant and pales in comparison to the social power a primitive hunter-gatherer would have wielded.
A more sophisticated argument about conditions under which which it would be rational to vote was recently expressed by the social philosopher Anthony de Jasay in a 2011 interview:
It is in fact widely held that because millions vote, no voter can rationally expect to influence the result. Millions nevertheless keep on voting, which looks a bit strange. Many parapsychological stories have been written to explain why they do so. I am not sure that we need them. In a well-oiled democracy, the perfect election result yields a wafer-thin majority because that outcome maximizes the size of the losing coalition ready to be exploited and minimizes the size of the winning coalition whose members share the spoils. This idea, of course, is the well-known median voter theorem. When the majority is literally wafer thin, the displacement of a single vote turns the majority into a minority, and vice versa. Thus, the perfectly oiled democratic mechanism produces outcomes with a majority of one vote; a single vote is decisive; and, hence, the voter is quite rational to cast it. In a less perfectly oiled democracy, where the majority is thicker than a wafer, the probability of a single vote’s being decisive is less than unity (the median voter theorem does not quite hold), but it need not be negligible. Because voting is not very costly, to affirm that it is irrational to vote is much too strong a claim.
Jasay’s explanation why people vote, or under which conditions it would be rational to vote, deserves closer scrutiny because it aims to do more than coming up with a “feel-good” story about voting. What Jasay is saying here is that in elections that are purely distributive in nature, it can be rational to vote. Real-world elections, however, do not take place in such “well-oiled” democracies and virtually all large elections are decided by majorities much thicker than a wafer.
The problem with Jasay’s argument about the rationality of voting is not just that it has little relevance for actual existing democracies but it also raises questions about whether such a cynical form of democracy could be viable at all. Although most people recognize the redistributive component in politics, it is doubtful that a democracy in which politicians operate without any illusion about serving the general interest could persist. Just like it is doubtful whether voting would survive widespread recognition that it is just another form of cheering (or signalling), it is also doubtful that a democracy that would function in the way that Jasay describes it would be able to secure stable compliance, especially from its victims.
Public choice scholars often praise themselves as doing politics without romance by stripping the political process of all its lofty rhetoric and just analyzing it in terms of interest. But if people would actually recognize public institutions solely as vehicles to form coalitions to exploit others, the resulting governments would have little resemblance to the Western governments scholars and philosophers currently analyze. In other words, it may be a mistake to assume a distinctly different view of human nature and social interaction but keep political institutions unchanged.
While economists sometimes recognize the futility of voting in technical works, Bryan Caplan has been one of the few scholars who has developed this fact (and its implications for public policy) into a general theory about the microfoundations of political failure. In two excellent blog entries for EconLog he further reflects on the illusion of choice in American elections and how politics discourages self-correction (as opposed to markets).