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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “To vote or not to vote”

In my column for the February 27th, 2008, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I pondered the question: “To vote or not to vote?” You can read my ponderings beneath the fold.

To vote or not to vote

Unlike almost everyone else who comments on Americans’ voting habits, economists never shake their heads and wonder “why do so few Americans vote?” Instead, economists shake their heads and wonder “why do so many Americans vote?”

As a matter of economics, voting makes little sense. Because the outcome of any election will never turn on any one voter’s vote — and because voting consumes valuable time and effort — the prediction is that very few people will vote.

Obviously, each of the millions of people who do vote do so for a reason — and a reason that, for him or her, is sound. I, however, do not vote. Here’s why.

First is the standard economic reason that my vote will never determine an election’s outcome. So by not voting I avoid spending my time having no effect and instead spend time engaging in activities in which I can truly “make a difference,” such as preparing for the classes I teach or helping my son with his homework.

And because my refusal to vote changes nothing, the cost to others of my not voting is zero. So my not voting enables me to better help others (for example, my students and my son) without hurting anyone.

The second reason I don’t vote is that, unlike choices made in private markets, voting is excessively imprecise. If a shopper in a supermarket fills her grocery cart with a bottle of merlot, two chickens, six oranges, and two dozen diapers, you can be certain that she wants each of those items and does not now want any of the many other items for sale in the supermarket.

The situation is decidedly different in political elections. If the same woman votes for candidate Smith, you cannot legitimately conclude that she wants all of the positions taken by Smith. Perhaps this person voted for Smith despite Smith’s promise to cut taxes.

I have never encountered a candidate with a serious chance of winning office who did not take positions on many major issues that I find to be objectionable. So rather than make a choice laden with unsavory compromises, I choose not to vote.

My third reason for not voting is that I disapprove of the political process. If I vote, I give some legitimacy to this process. If my candidate wins, then surely I sacrifice my moral right to complain about him pursuing policies that he promised during the campaign to pursue but which I find deplorable.

Even if my candidate loses, I implicitly agree — by voting — that the process of selecting people to exercise power over me is legitimate. So if I vote I have much weaker grounds for complaining than I have if I don’t vote.

I’m both saddened and miffed by the number of people who tell me that if I don’t vote I have no right to complain about government. This familiar refrain is baloney. My rights — as recognized, of course, by the signers of the Declaration of Independence — exist because I am a human being. They are not created by government. Because I am a person who respects the rights of all other persons, my rights should be respected even if (or particularly if!) I don’t participate in politics.

Especially today with governments at all levels recognizing few constitutional restraints — that is, with government itself barely even pretending to play by the rules — why should any individual, peaceful person be obliged to vote in order to retain his or her natural rights to life, liberty and property?

Finally, even the practical justification for voting — that it lets your “voice be heard” — is wrong. Forget that no one vote will ever swing an election. Forget that it matters not one whit if your preferred candidate wins (or loses) by 69,433 votes instead of by 69,432 votes. The relevant fact is that there are many better ways to get your voice heard.

Writing this column is one way that I get my voice heard. Also, by buying brand X breakfast cereal rather than brand Y (or by buying neither) is another way that I, and most other Americans, “speak.”

Voting in political elections is not the only way to get your voice heard politically and, more importantly, politics is not the only venue in which our voices are or should be heard. Literal conversation, writing and even participating in markets as workers, sellers and buyers are legitimate and real ways that each of us every day — and more loudly than in any voting booth — get our voices heard.