Voting Schmoting


I'm going to spend that time working and then rather than voting I will donate money to the don't vote campaign, and the go vote campaign.

Hopefully the MR staff will refrain from voting and will convince many fellow libertarian/Republican friends to do the same.

It's not as if Virginia is a battleground state or anything.

HA! Virginia IS a battleground state, you goof!


I am 95% sure that dead serious is being sarcastic.

I am 80% sure that Andrew realizes that dead serious is being sarcastic, and is joking in turn.

But I am only 30% sure that Jacob realizes that Andrew realizes that dead serious is being sarcastic.

Or is everyone joking and now the joke is on me?

Jacob doesn't know Andrew' as it seems he's being dead serious.

Ryan, do you have any idea what you just did?

Yes, and I even did it on a Monday!

The importance of the swing state is perhaps the most frustrating part of all the nonsense that surrounds elections.

If you vote in a state that is decided by a million votes, your vote is worth .000001 of the margin. If you vote in a state where the margin is decided by ten thousand votes, your vote is worth .0001 of the margin. Notice that those two numbers are the same.

There are more elections than the race for President happening tomorrow.

It's much better to look at voting as just one part of a ritual: a ritual that involves convincing other people about the obvious right choice and incidentally also includes going to the voting booth.

The real problem is that there little connection between the actions taken during this ritual and good policy -- and part of the reason for this lack of connection is that personal votes rarely have personal consequences.

If your vote is absolutely trivial for mathematical reasons, then so should your nonvoting be. That's not what I see from several economists though. They'll go to exasperating lengths to defend not voting to the it's-your-civic-duty crowd who absolutely and obviously are not open to your reasoning.

Except that voting comes with significant costs, both in terms of cost to the government, cost to the individual voting, and externalities on others, whereas not-voting has no costs involved.

yeah but the cost of an individual voter is mathematically inconsequential. Just like when people tell me "why don't you go vote" and I say because the benefit would be mathematically inconsequential. Although ususally I just say I did vote because why the hell would I defend something that's inconsequential?

One vote is only meaningless conditional on many other people voting. If you convince everyone that their vote is trivial, then no one will vote. At that point one single vote ceases to be meaningless. Realizing this, others decide to vote. So what's the equilibrium where any less voters would induce a new person to vote, but more voters would induce someone to conclude that their vote is trivial enough to stay home?

To complicate that, consider that there are local elections, so ascribe the above number to every "local" election and assume that the marginal cost of voting in the national election (conditional on already voting in the local one) is zero. From there, total it up to get the national answer. The point being, a total that make a vote trivial on a national (or even state level) may still be sustainable if, on the local level, the vote is still non-trivial.

Personally though, I love the law of large numbers, so I'm all in favor of huge vote totals.

Do right-wing libertarians even gesture in the direction of refuting Gelman (2007), and his dead-simple explanation of why voting is in fact, for non-sociopaths, highly rational? Or is this particular story just "too good to check?"

Or is the "for non-sociopaths" part more relevant than it ought to be?


Gelman's definition of a non-selfish voter is someone whose utility of voting is proportional to the probability of affecting the election multiplied by the number of people affected by the election. (It seems slightly idiotic to label those who do not vote this way "sociopaths" -- indeed, it is probably indicative of sociopathic behavior to actually make such a multiplication.)

Gelman's reasoning seems highly artificial. For instance, it does not account for the fact that the process that selects the actual choices that you have when voting is NOT a process conductive to the good of the population at large. If you care about say, reducing the cost of medical care and medical insurance, none of the candidates present viable choices, so why would I multiply the benefit of the entire population with the probability of influencing the election when computing my voting utility?

Why not just say that voting is a ritual -- a ritual that can be perfectly rational -- a ritual that works well in eliminating truly pathological governmental behavior, but works very poorly in micromanaging just about anything? Why use bullshit decorated with mathematics instead?

What you have to remember is that implied in his model half the population's vote each causes a DETRIMENT of $250.

You are as likely to be a -$250 voter as a +$250 voter.

So, what you are saying we should vote because a statistician wrote a paper?

In the abstract turnout should be 50%. So, I should vote. You shouldn't.

Okay, I can barely believe I did it, but I read the paper.

1. What we are talking about is when we know there is essentially no likelihood the vote will affect the outcome. Tullock says the same ("as the number of voters goes down my likelihood of voting goes up"). Most of us are in an even better informed position as we can predict that our states are not battleground states. Their model is based on a probability of decisiveness. Most of us refer to examples where the p = 0. This is incidentally why I never see ads for president on TV. The candidates realize the p = 0 for me. In fact, there are some states where I suspect the electoral votes make them utterly irrelevant regardless of which candidate they go for.
2. You don't know if their model is correct. The authors basically assert that social benefit is proportional to the number of citizens, thus cancelling out the denominator in the probability of decisiveness, thus making it mathematically possible to keep the total expected benefit voting greater than zero. However, if p=0.0 then their model cancels down to the "selfish" model, which should more accurately be named the "non-proportional to population benefit model" but I realize people can't help themselves.
3. They conveniently neglect that half the people minus one have to be wrong in order to make it worth your while. You are probably wrong if you think you know what is best for others. The evidence for this is that you are a voter, and worse, a do-gooder.
4. We think on net selfishness is good for others. There are costs in addition to voting costs for do-gooder policies. In fact, their "selfish" (or sociopathic as you call it) and "social" are mis-named. Most of the irrational voters who think they are being social are hurting people.
5. The model rests on the size of the population for whom the policy or candidate will rule. Thus, for a large electorate getting the vote wrong will have a likewise large negative effect and require a high cost on voters, not to mention a high learning curve. They define the size of the electorate as proportional to the expected benefit. I define one-size-fits-all policies as the proportional to the expected damage. What the model may in fact argue for is smaller voting districts, i.e. federalism. Thus most of us "non-voters" talk about voting down-ballot.
6. Is the expected benefit really directly proportional to population? It's basically an asserted model to make it work out to the mathematical conclusion that voting in bigger elections is rational. Does more people being affected by a policy or candidate really affect the benefit linearly? I'm not sure. I'll have to ponder that one.
7. Probability is K/n where K is competitiveness. When we don't see a dimes worth of difference (e.g. this time) then this term is dominated by the denominator, the population size that militates against voting.
8. Math is a model. They define the alpha as the social factor, but it could be something else entirely. You could define it as the national defense factor. It's basically any factor that you suspect should increase your propensity to vote proportional to the electorate. When you criticize libertarians for not voting you are assuming that we adhere to Gelman's model and achieve a zero and thus his model is correct which corroborates our sociopathy. That's not the case. Tullock makes clear that he is referring only to the probability that voting will decide the election. Gelman's model doesn't change that. In fact, Tullock's model of benefit never reaches zero and when you add the costs Gelman's model can reach zero assuming a low expected benefit.
9. A Republic in the first place is a system where we reduce the number of voting entities.

Why are people only looking at this as a presidential election? If you care about your local election, your vote is more significant. According to this logic, the only election worth voting in is the presidential election, but because of statistical reasons, it is also not worth voting in.

And also: I bet many of you do everything you can to maximize your investments' percentage of returns and reduce your administrative fees. Because with money, somehow, every fraction of a percentage counts. You think the effects of an election are not compounding? Because they are!

Why are successful people more likely to vote and also to pursue active rather than passive buy and hold investing? They follow the heuristic that effort and action generally pay off in life.

It just turns out that in these two areas the heuristic fails.

That was funny, and I laughed out loud, but I don't really agree with it. I thought the research about investing showed that it was men vs. women. For example:

Also, if you believe in the research about social networks summarized in the book Connected, then you're also wrong about voting.

Tom, I think we agree. The article you cited says men follow the "Don't just stand there, do something" approach to investing. "We came at this with the hypothesis that overconfidence leads (investors) to trade too much and to their detriment. We went in with the prediction that men will trade more, and that will hurt their performance, and that is exactly what we found."

I'm suggesting that overconfidence in the effect of their vote is similar to the overconfidence (or what I call a heuristic that effort and action generally pay off) that leads people to trade too often.

I fundamentally believe that most people vote because they know that their collective effort, not individual effort, compose the core of the democracy. Economists seem biased toward individual reward, which may be true in many decision-making cases, but can cause an undue bias when it's only economists in the conversation. People like Caplan and Levitt sound like assholes to average Americans when they start calling people stupid for voting.

Fun video. Thanks, Alex. I hadn't seen this before. Not surprisingly, I found it totally convincing--and I usually vote.

Proudhon gave 63 reasons not to vote.

I vote for local races, in my county each party has a horrible candidate, one for sheriff and one for DA

The Republican for sheriff was previously fired for "official oppression" and is backed by the strip club industry

The Democrat for DA is far FA far more entertaining

I also have a very close state house seat up, with some clear alternatives.

Vote on local issues and you will be far more motivated to vote. Also you will learn far more about what is actually going on. And for the sake of everything, just don't vote straight ticket.

That DA candidate sounds like a Texan version of my black-sheep great uncle, down to the hair and mustache and almost the exact age.

A lot of good quotes in that one.

My vote only counts if I believe in a metaphysical influence on others. I have to believe my commitment to vote positively affects others who think like me. I think I believe that. . .

G. Tullock is old and doesn't get it. No one votes because they think it will change the outcome! As your colleague Tyler understands well, it has to do with signalling group/ideological affiliation and indirectly signaling that you are educated because you are interested in politics enough to want to vote. Professors don't vote because their incentives are to signal something different, mainly disaffectedness (everyone already knows that they are educated so there is no incentive to indirectly signal that). Both groups, voters and non-voters, are just signaling. They are just signaling different things to different crowds. So believing that you are smarter than other people because you understand that your vote won't change the outcome is the height of concept. And voting is pretty easy these days with the internet and all, so the cost saving argument for not voting is weak. All the matters is which strategy is more optimal for the crowd you run with, and it all relates back to different strategies for signalling sexual fitness.

This analysis seems born from over-dependence on theory. Civil rights movements are anchored by voting because if you can get enough people from a population group to vote, and their votes are counted, then you can change the candidate in office. Thus setting an example by voting is paramount. This is obvious and yet it's been lost in theories about social signaling. I think most people vote because it does matter, but because it's so common and relatively fraud-free, it can be possible to lose perspective.

Anyone who has ever worked in a state legislator's constituent affairs office will confirm that a person's voting record ('how often', not 'for whom') is often the first thing checked when a citizen requests something or makes a complaint. Regular voters get the attention. Non-voters get ignored. (votes in party primaries count equally, or more!)

THIS is what we should teach in civics class. Selfish people should vote because it gives them more personal influence with their elected representatives.

And we should vote for policies that require little constituent services.

It's not hard to imagine a system where politicians create laws that require constituents to ask for favors so that these constituents feel obliged. "Some day I'll ask you for a favor in return...that will be election day."

I don't have too much going on tomorrow. If I were pitching game 7 of the world series... maybe I wouldn't be worried about voting, but the costs to me are low compared to the expected benefits.

I'm not convinced by Tullock's argument (which I've heard before). He's correct, that in a large election, one vote almost never makes the difference. However, I'm having trouble reconciling that fact with the idea that groups of people can collectively change outcomes. For example, if Tullock convinced a million people not to vote because their vote didn't matter alone, he may have changed the election (depending on the makeup of those non-voters).

If I'm playing in a baseball game, and my team's down 5-0, even if I hit a home-run we'll be down 5-1. Therefore I have no incentive to hit a home-run, correct, I have no incentive to even get on base? (I'm ignoring personal incentives of padding my stats) I believe this is the same logic. What am I getting wrong?

You're not a group, even if you feel like a member of a group. If you're a member of group X and exit polls show that your favored candidate only won because that group, your odds of affecting the outcome of the election were the same regardless of your membership of group X. Group X would have had the same effect even if you stayed home that day, or even if you had voted for the dreaded other candidate. While a group, taken together, might have some plausible chance of affecting the outcome, you as an individual do not. If Tullock convinced a million people not to vote he may have changed the outcome of the election, but none of the individuals he convinced (or the tens of millions he failed to) did so.

Also, Jeremy, what you're getting wrong is your analogy doesn't fit very well. In that baseball game the game continues on after you make your action (your home run). If your teammates keep scoring you may win the game 6-5 and you did indeed contribute to that win.

In an election the 'game' is a discrete, one-time event. Your action (your vote) contributes to the outcome only at that very moment, the same as every other vote contributes in the same moment. The winner is determined right then (more or less).

In other words, baseball is cumulative until the game is over, elections are a one shot deal. The better analogy is to look at the election as the months leading up to it, you can contribute more effectively by contributing to your candidate, helping get out the vote, volunterring for the campaign, etc...those all help more than your actual vote.

It's more like you are playing in a baseball game that is thousands of innings long and each team has a roster of thousands of players. Historically, the margin of victory in similar contests has been in the hundreds of runs. You get one at-bat and you don't know the score when that at-bat comes up.

Should you try to get a hit? Is there a substantial likelihood your hit will matter?

And in most cases, one team has a much, much better team and will virtually certainly win.

I note that you are getting killed on the technicalities in the response comments, but the principle holds.

Voting isn't important until it is. It was 12 short years ago that pretty much every vote made a difference in one state.

Virginia could well be that state this time around.

But go ahead and refrain from voting. What I don't understand is expending effort and time trying to convince others not to.

By the way, my state is not going to be contested so I'm not voting.

Is the vote for president the only thing on the ballot in your state?

This "look at me and how passionless and rational I am, above these political skirmishes* thing is so boring.

It is a really shallow vision of the election, the political process and life in general. Usually that's the part economists say "we don't actually believe the world works like this, it is just a logic exercise", but some actually guys get caught on this mechanic simplistic world.

And Tullock feels so witty talking about division and all, as if the ignorant people who vote never taught about that.

Whole lotta Aspies here.

This is a very fantastic tlneat show not only for dance lovers but everyone who wants to get inspired. The routines, the outfits, the lights, and all the dancers are just amazing.

This is so stupid, especially for an economist.

My vote doesn't make a difference in an election any more than my tax rate does on the Federal deficit. But in aggregate there are a lot of people who are pretty similar to me - I know because we buy the same shit on Amazon - so the aggregate behavior of a bunch of me's can be quite important. So if some guy comes along and convinces a bunch of me's that my vote doesn't matter, there's a good change the election outcome will be different.

Thing is, he couldn't convince all those me's unless he had a scalable platform for delivering that message, which is why videos like this are a disservice. It's fine for him to share this little bon mot at cocktail parties, but by making the case in mass (okay, micro) media, he might have disproportionate influence and by doing so nullify his core agrument.

I heard that Tullock actually did vote in 2008.

Really? Your post here is now the top relevant google result for that now, btw

The key assumption here is that the goal in voting is to directly decide the outcome of an election. This is not the case. Where the probability of decisiveness is ~zero, the probability of signalling preferences is 1.

That conclusion doesn't hold where a private, singular effort is watched by exactly zero of your peers, friends, family, neighbors, etc.

If I don't vote but tell my friends that I did, I achieve the same thing.

It's true that one can more easily do their signalling with lies, until the get caught.

The marginal contribution is watched by policy makers, who in turn effect measures that influence my private life.

Comments for this post are closed