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Insignificance and Significance

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In my latest column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review [2] I ponder various kinds and degrees of insignificance of individual human choices and actions.

I wrote this column before completing my reading of Russ’s brilliant new book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life [3].  While finishing my reading of Russ’s book hasn’t caused me to change my mind on any matter mentioned in my column, it has caused me to see some additional issues that warrant more careful scrutiny.  Likewise for David Henderson’s recent – and, I hope to show in a future blog post, related – thoughts on Mt. Rushmore [4].

Here’s a slice from my column – a column entitled “Significant Insignificance”:

Our individual choices in markets and personal relationships are significant to us. Every such choice matters to every individual who makes that choice. The reason is that each such choice changes the pattern of the chooser’s life. Sometimes the change is minuscule (as when choosing a brand of toothpaste) and sometimes it’s massive (as when choosing whom to marry). But in all cases each choice matters .

Not so with political choices. Despite oceans of public rhetoric to the contrary, each of those choices truly is insignificant from the perspective of the individual voter.

The typical voter is not stupid. Therefore, you — as a voter — understand that the outcome of the election does not hinge on your vote. If candidate Jones defeats candidate Smith in an election, that outcome would not have changed had you cast your ballot differently — or if you had cast no ballot. From the standpoint of each individual, voting in a political election is truly insignificant. Your individual vote plays no role in determining which candidate you get to represent you.

Nor does your vote have any significant impact on the public’s and politicians’ assessment of the election. Suppose you voted for Smith, who wound up losing to Jones by 20,696 votes. Had you instead voted for Jones, Smith would then have lost by 20,698 votes. Or suppose that you didn’t vote at all: Smith would have lost to Jones by 20,697 votes. Does anyone think that the policies that Smith endorsed are more highly regarded because, due to your vote, Smith lost by only 20,696 votes rather than by 20,698 votes? Surely not.

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