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The Goal Is to Change Minds

A very smart, very wise, and very market-oriented friend asked by e-mail, after reading my letter to Virginia state senator Dave Marsden, if I vote.  I answered “no.”  My friend then asked what incentive Sen. Marsden has to pay attention to my letter.  The point of my friend’s follow-up question is to suggest that, because I don’t vote, Sen. Marsden has no incentive to pay attention to my opinions.

I respectfully disagree with my friend’s suggestion.  Although the local state senate district represented in Richmond by Dave Marsden has a much smaller population than does the entire United States, or even the entire state of Virginia, it’s still a large-population district.  It’s in the densely populated northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.  Dave Marsden surely knows that even if I did regularly vote, the chances of my one vote determining the election are practically zero.  (If Dave doesn’t understand this simple mathematical reality, then we have larger problems on hand than him ignoring the opinion of a non-voting constituent.)  Therefore, whether I vote or not is itself irrelevant in affecting his narrow self-interested political calculation of whether it’s worth his political while to heed my opinion or to ignore it.

More generally, voting is not the only way to exercise political voice.  Indeed, from the perspective of each individual, voting is perhaps the least effective way of affecting political outcomes.

Time and effort are scarce – including, of course, the time and effort spent to vote, and the time and effort spent to write and blog.  Jones (like every other person on the planet) must choose how best to allocate his or her time.  This choice involves not only deciding how much time and effort to devote to political and policy matters, but also deciding the particular ways to spend whatever time and effort are devoted to political and policy matters.

Suppose that Jones votes regularly.  But that’s all that Jones does politically.  He or she spends little time discussing politics and policy matters with others; Jones never writes anything for public consumption; indeed, Jones seldom even reads any sections of newspapers and websites beyond those parts devoted to sports and entertainment.  But, again, Jones does vote.

Jones’s neighbor, Smith, is very different than Jones.  Smith never, ever votes – and he make it credibly known (even to politicians) that he never votes and has no intention of ever doing so.  Yet Smith talks about political and policy matters constantly, both privately with family, friends, and co-workers, as well as in public talks.  Smith also writes and blogs a lot about political and policy matters.  And Smith spends a great deal of time pondering the relevant issues.

If you were a candidate for political office, which of these two people in your district, Jones or Smith, do you believe will be more influential in determining your prospects of being elected or of winning re-election?  Surely it’s Smith.  No matter how absolutely small are Smith’s prospects of swinging the election with his public advocacy, those prospects are much larger than are Jones’s prospects of swinging the election with his lone vote.

Because speaking and writing about political and policy matters can potentially change the minds of multiple voters, it’s quite likely that someone who truly wishes to maximize his or her personal impact on electoral outcomes can better achieve that outcome by taking whatever time and effort he or she would spend voting and reallocating that time and effort to speaking and writing for public consumption.


The above says nothing about the morality or immorality of voting versus not voting.  The above is instead merely an exercise in positive economics: the marginal impact on political outcomes of spending time v voting is almost surely smaller than is the marginal impact of instead spending that v amount time writing or speaking to the public about political and policy matters.  Therefore, it’s odd that so many people believe that Jones has a greater ‘right’ or sturdier moral standing than does Smith to express opinions on political matters.  Why is voting considered to be the chief, or even the only, legitimate way for a citizen to exercise his or her political voice?  Why do so many people think that the Joneses of the world have earned a right superior to the Smiths to complain about or to applaud or otherwise to opine on political matters?

In my view, changing tomorrow’s minds is more important than changing today’s vote count.


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