For the last four summers, I have run a four day seminar for journalists co-sponsored by the Department of Economics at George Mason University and the Weidenbaum Center at Washington Univerisity exploring the economic way of thinking. We look at the seen and the unseen, the law of unintended consequences, how markets work and fail, how to be skeptical about statistics and so on. Some of the participants find these ideas useful. Some, alas, find them abhorrent, seeing them as part of a secret "pro-business" agenda, an agenda I find abhorrent. But of all the ideas I’ve mentioned at these seminars, by far the most controversial was when, in passing, during a discussion of public choice, I mentioned that it’s irrational to vote.
Why people vote has long fascinated both economists and political scientists. The fascination is straightforward. Voting is costly, it takes time. The probability that your vote will influence the outcome of an election is basically zero or very close. So why vote?
The journalists reacted to my claim with a mixture of outrage and laughter. They couldn’t decide on whether I was a monster or simply a fool. I tried to explain the argument. No luck. I tried again. I might as well have been saying but ours goes to 11. I gave up and we moved on.
Dubner and Levitt in this week’s New York Times Magazine (rr) explore the issue here. After outlining the logic for why voting is irrational, they provide a counterpoint:
But wait a minute, you say. If everyone thought about voting the way
economists do, we might have no elections at all. No voter goes to the
polls actually believing that her single vote will affect the outcome,
does she? And isn’t it cruel to even suggest that her vote is not worth
This is indeed a slippery slope – the seemingly
meaningless behavior of an individual, which, in aggregate, becomes
quite meaningful. Here’s a similar example in reverse. Imagine that you
and your 8-year-old daughter are taking a walk through a botanical
garden when she suddenly pulls a bright blossom off a tree.
"You shouldn’t do that," you find yourself saying.
"Why not?" she asks.
"Well," you reason, "because if everyone picked one, there wouldn’t be any flowers left at all."
"Yeah, but everybody isn’t picking them," she says with a look. "Only me."
The kid’s right on practical grounds. But the kid’s wrong on moral grounds, at least according to Kant. Kant’s categorical imperative says basically that you should act assuming that others will act the same way. And Kant is right. It’s a very good moral principle that rules out all kinds of negative externalities.
We should vote because it’s the right thing to do, like tipping in a restaurant that you will never visit again and giving blood. These are not "rational" in the narrow sense of providing net benefits. And such activities require cultural norms of various kinds to succeed. But if you have a conscience, such activities do become rational.
Dubner and Levitt argue that voting can be rational because of stigma–the stick of shame as opposed to the carrot of conscience. In Switzerland, voting by mail reduced turnout because perhaps because people could shirk without stigma. But conscience operates best when both the carrot and stick go together–when we take pride in doing what’s right and avoid the raised eyebrows and glares of our friends and neighbors to not do what is wrong.
Kant can be tricky. When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I was showering at the gym when I overheard two students who appeared to be either undergrads or even high-schoolers from the University’s celebrated Lab School discussing the categorical imperative. It was a perfect U of C moment–only at Chicago could "locker room talk" consist of German philosophy. "Yeah, I know what that is," one kid said when the other mentioned Kant’s moral principle, "that’s what happens if you try to go to the movies and if everyone tries to go, you won’t get a seat." Not quite, I thought, shampooing in silence. But you’re on the right track.