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Voice, Voting, and Choice

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 9.41.44 AMThis Wall Street Journal report on elections in Nigeria features this photo of voters holding their “new electoral cards.”  This photo reminds me of the many photos of Iraqis who have voted displaying their purple fingers as a proud sign of their participation in political elections.

images The reaction that we western readers are expected to have to such photos (and to the accompanying reports of more or less successful elections that such photos are meant to signify) is one of satisfaction and applause and happiness for the citizens of those places.  “See, people who have long not known the joys of democracy are now experiencing democracy!  How wonderful for them – and for the rest of the world now that these former backwaters are coming closer to joining the ranks of enlightened nations!”  (Americans’ sense of satisfaction and applause is even greater if the democratic elections are traceable to U.S. military interventions in the now-voting countries. “See, the altruistic and brave use of U.S. troops and weapons is a civilizing force for freedom!”)

I believe that most westerners who see such photos and read such stories of people in places such as Nigeria and Iraq voting do indeed feel happy and optimistic for those people.

Yet I never feel all that happy or optimistic when I encounter such photos and reports.

Of course, genuine, open, and non-corrurpt elections are better than rule by tyrants-for-life.  But what’s missed when westerners see photos of non-westerners voting for the first time is the reality that democracy is not, contrary to popular myth, synonymous with freedom or civilization or even ‘choice’ or ‘voice.’  Interventions into people’s private affairs are no less freedom-denying and prosperity-threatening when done by democratically elected governments than when done by tyrants-for-life.  And as my colleague Bryan Caplan shows, the notion – held as a sacred article of faith by many, especially in the west – that voters are rational and prudent and sensible and wise is a myth as crazy and baseless as it is widespread.

The photos that I would most like to see are photos of Nigerians or Iraqis (or even of Americans!) holding up packages or wheeling carts filled with consumer goods or giving cash or credit cards to store clerks – symbols not of the right to vote for politicians but of the right to choose freely in markets.

Eager Retailers Greet Crowds Of Shoppers On "Black Friday"

A Iraqi with a purple finger, after all, exercised merely his or her right to cast a ballot for a candidate who will win political office only if enough other voting Iraqis cast their ballots in the same way.  As said many times here (and elsewhere), no single vote will ever determine the outcome of a political election.  Period.  It won’t happen in any open election with more than a few dozen people voting.  For each individual, therefore, the vote is useless (which is not to say that the institution of open and non-corrupt democracy with a wide franchise is useless for each individual).

Far more useful to each individual – and to society at large – is each person’s right to buy, produce, and sell as one wishes in markets.  In free markets, each chooser actually gets (and must pay for) that which he or she chooses, and is not obliged to consume (or to pay for) that which he or she does not choose.  Relatedly, each chooser gets what he or she chooses without having to persuade hundreds or millions or tens of millions of other people to choose similarly.

If I like a certain kind of yogurt, I can choose to buy that yogurt – and I actually, with near 100 percent reliability, get that kind of yogurt regardless of how many other supermarket shoppers that day choose to buy that kind of yogurt.  (Yes, yes, yes: this claim isn’t strictly true always.  If too many other shoppers buy that yogurt, the supermarket will run out of it by the time I arrive, and if too few other shoppers don’t like this particular kind of yogurt, the supplier will not find it profitable to continue to supply this particular kind of yogurt.  These are details that the reader will surely see do not undermine the point of this post.)

In the market I get what I want and not what other people want, and each of the hundreds of millions of my fellow Americans get what each of them wants and not what I and other Americans want for ourselves (or arrogantly believe other Americans ‘should’ get).  Choice in markets is far more real, responsive, continuous, and reliable (because it reflects the spending of each choosers’ own money) than is choice in political settings.

The myth is that choice in political settings is somehow more real, more noble, more sacred, more meaningful, more civilized, and more genuinely expressive of people’s desires than is choice in markets.  The reality is that, compared to choice in markets, choice in political markets is, if not a complete sham, mostly imaginary, largely irresponsible, highly unrevealing of people’s desires, and of virtually no real use to individuals.

So if you want to inspire me, show me pictures of people leaving, for the first time in their lives and with their arms full of filled shopping bags, a newly opened Wal-Mart.  Show me photos of people newly able to apply for jobs in a new shoe or textile factory – jobs that enable such people to quit working on farms or at producing handcrafts.  Show me pictures of people choosing groceries as they shop in shelf-stuffed supermarkets.  Show me pictures of people swarming, each to spend his or her own money as he or she chooses, into stores at shopping malls.  Show me people whose fingers are sore because they just completed on-line shopping sprees at Amazon.com.

In short, show me pictures, not of people each casting an occasional ballot for one of a limited number of candidates for political office, but of people each daily making a series of meaningful choices in the market.

Note also that, unlike in private markets, the dissatisfied customer of a politician cannot quickly return that politician to exchange him or her for a superior model.

UPDATE: When I write above that it’s a myth to suppose that voters are wise, sensible, and prudent, I mean voters as such – people in voting booths or at ballot boxes, casting ballots.  The people who vote are far more prudent, wise, and sensible when going about their own business than when voting.  It’s a matter of incentives: the incentive for any individual voter to behave sensibly as a voter are virtually non-existent; the incentive for any individual voter to vote foolishly, romantically, thoughtlessly, and with too little information as a voter are intense.  But it’s the incentives that bring forth this foolish behavior of voters, not anything about the individuals who vote.