Tim Harford’s chapter eight, a contribution from Sahar Akhtar

Harford writes that voters aren’t fooled into thinking their
votes affect the outcome and that most people vote because it makes them feel
good. These ‘expressive’ explanations
help us preserve the idea that people are rational (a great book is by Brennan
and Lomasky).  But is this an actual account of why people
vote? Until we have better survey data, anecdotal evidence will have to do.

Go to a diner, bus stop, retirement home or even a college
campus and almost invariably people will tell you that their vote counts. What
does ‘count’ mean here?  It might mean
they think their vote is important because it satisfies a civic duty to support
democracy (but why would so many think this
is the best way to discharge that duty unless they think their vote counts in
the more literal sense). Or maybe it means they think their vote somehow
encourages more people to vote (but why isn’t lying more efficient? And why
would people get influenced into voting, unless they think it matters? ) Isn’t
it possible to think that people actually believe their votes count?  But if this were true, how could we best make
sense of it? One way is to bite the bullet and accept that (a lot of) people
might just be irrational.

Voting does of course increase with education level, but
this doesn’t defeat the claim that voters might be irrational. Most of our civic/political
education in high school and college centers on the details of how democracy
functions and why voting is important, and not on the trivial impact of our

And remember the way that voting works in the U.S. at least—through some freaking inscrutable thing known as the electoral college.
On my not so good days, I still have no idea how this works and, like most MR
readers, have above average education. Does my vote count more in states with
fewer delegates, or not at all in some locations, or because this is a
republican state does this mean my vote for a democrat wouldn’t matter or would
it matter more, and where is this school? My neuronal synapses die just a little.

Also, without voter irrationality it’s hard to make sense of
the success of campaigns such as “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush” in resonating
with potential voters—the aim of these kinds of slogans is to encourage people
to vote in a particular way. If people don’t believe their votes count,
why would these slogans be effective and why would the slogan designers
anticipate they would be effective? Harford seems to hint at this kind of
problem when he points out that while voters don’t go to the polls to impact
results, they don’t realize that what they do once they get to the booths
doesn’t matter—but I wish he gave us his thoughts on this sort of inconsistency.

The fact that people don’t simply vote, but vote for a
particular candidate, at best suggests that if people feel duty-bound it’s not
to some abstract ideal but to particular parties and groups, which raises another,
and not incompatible, potential motivation for voting.

Some might think that their votes count not individually,
but as part of a group. Harford and other economists aside (including this
one), people don’t always act on their (individual) self-interests.  (for just some examples, see Fehr and Fowler on
altruistic punishment)

There are good evolutionary reasons to think that we
frequently adopt the perspective of “what is good for us”.  You don’t have to believe in the
group-selectionist theories of people like Sober and Wilson.

If that makes you feel dirty—selfish
gene will get you there if there are enough genes shared in common among a
group. And, a la Robert Frank, what
starts out as emotional incentives to act on behalf of a fairly specified,
narrowly defined, and kin-based group gets co-opted and extends (irrationally?)
to larger, less cohesive groups. The group in this case would simply be the
class of people thought to share the same values and beliefs.

Of course, like all evolutionary explanations, this is a
just-so story and needs to be tested, but so does the rational voter idea. We still don’t have very good insight into
the motives of voters, and until we do we should remain skeptical of any one

I’m not a hater–in many (maybe most) areas of life, the rational
choice model makes damn good sense. In
some areas of politics, however, emotions run high and irrationality can be
bliss, and these may be areas where dynamic writers like Harford should resist the
model a little.

Back to TC: Readers, do tell us what you think…


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