Should you vote?

Jordan Ellenberg says yes and offers some mathematics in response to Steve Landsburg. He sees a voter in a swing state as having a very real chance of being decisive. Economists, of course, are known for their long-standing insistence that your vote has virtually no chance of swaying an election.

My take:

This entire debate goes down the wrong lines. Let us start with a simpler question. Should you always make decisions by considering your marginal product alone?

Let’s say you were asked to join a firing squad of ten expert marksmen, all shooting at an innocent man, and so good they never miss. Still, they want a louder execution with eleven bullets instead of ten. In return they will donate five dollars to your favorite charity. Should you join and shoot?

Most of us would say no, even though your bullet has no chance of changing the final outcome. Once you buy this conclusion, it is easy to see why people might vote. Most moral judgments reflect some mix of estimated marginal and average products, not just marginal products alone. In part morality means the ability to take a longer-run, universalizable, or more rules-based perspective. So you need not feel guilty if the economist tells you not to vote. Maybe you are not rational in one sense of the word, but surely having a disposition to be moral can be justified.

That being said, voting may still be a mistake.

The best argument for not voting is the following: in lieu of voting you should earn extra income and donate it to the very poor. Or perhaps take the day off and work at the soup kitchen. After all, why should voting be the most important collective good you can contribute to? And even if voting has a special importance, maybe you should work harder, earn more money, and use the funds and your time to get other people to vote. Spend a day driving people to the polls rather than voting, for instance. [Or donate to the poor in India and write a blog? Alex]

It does not suffice to talk about doing both voting and charity; substitution at the margin is always possible. You might think that voting is relatively cheap, but so is helping Indian beggars.

Another argument against voting involves holding the meta-rational belief that you are unlikely to improve upon the collective wisdom of others. Your chance of figuring out how to help the poor probably exceeds your chance of picking the right candidate. Of course few people will admit this.

Overall I view voting as a selfish act, usually done for purposes of self-image. But this has some altruistic and some non-altruistic ramifications.

I fondly recall Gordon Tullock’s point: “The paradox is not why people vote, but why everyone doesn’t vote for himself.”


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