Economists and Voting

It is the time of year when economists like to remind the unwashed that voting is a waste of time. A classic of the genre appeared seven years ago, in the form of  “Why Vote?,” by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (of Freakonomics fame). Here are some relevant passages:

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim. This was documented by the economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, who analyzed more than 56,000 Congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898. For all the attention paid in the media to close elections, it turns out that they are exceedingly rare. The median margin of victory in the Congressional elections was 22 percent; in the state-legislature elections, it was 25 percent. Even in the closest elections, it is almost never the case that a single vote is pivotal. Of the more than 40,000 elections for state legislator that Mulligan and Hunter analyzed, comprising nearly 1 billion votes, only 7 elections were decided by a single vote, with 2 others tied. Of the more than 16,000 Congressional elections, in which many more people vote, only one election in the past 100 years – a 1910 race in Buffalo – was decided by a single vote….

Still, people do continue to vote, in the millions. Why? Here are three possibilities:

1. Perhaps we are just not very bright and therefore wrongly believe that our votes will affect the outcome.

2. Perhaps we vote in the same spirit in which we buy lottery tickets. After all, your chances of winning a lottery and of affecting an election are pretty similar. From a financial perspective, playing the lottery is a bad investment. But it’s fun and relatively cheap: for the price of a ticket, you buy the right to fantasize how you’d spend the winnings – much as you get to fantasize that your vote will have some impact on policy.

3. Perhaps we have been socialized into the voting-as-civic-duty idea, believing that it’s a good thing for society if people vote, even if it’s not particularly good for the individual. And thus we feel guilty for not voting. [The New York Times Magazine, November 6, 2005]

In true economistic fashion, Dubner and Levitt omit a key reason for voting: It makes a person feel good. Even if one’s vote will not change the outcome of an election, one attains a degree of satisfaction from taking an official (even if secret) stand in favor of or in opposition to a certain candidate, bond issue, or other item on a ballot.

Dubner and Levitt (and their ilk) seem to inhabit a world in which a thing is not worth doing unless the payoff can be measured with some precision and compared with other, similarly quantifiable, uses of one’s time and money. I doubt they govern their own lives accordingly. If they do, they must be missing out on a lot of life’s pleasures: sex and ice cream, to name only two.

Their article continues on a different tack:

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 casting?

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.”

Clever, what? Too clever by half. This argument overlooks the powerful effect of exemplary behavior — where “exemplary,” as used here, does not imply “laudable.” By Dubner and Levitt’s account, allowing a vandal to deface a public building would not encourage other vandals to do the same thing, and would not lead to the widespread defacement of buildings and other anti-social acts. (I refer, of course, to James Q. Wilson’s widely accepted Broken Windows Theory, which Levitt and Dubner tried to cast doubt on in Freakonomics. They wrongly suggested that the onset of legalized abortion was instrumental in the reduction of crime rates.)

Dubner and Levitt’s argument also overlooks the key fact that when economists preach against voting, they are not just preaching to themselves. Dubner and Levitt’s sermon appeared in the pages of one of the country’s most widely read and influential publications. It was not addressed to an individual, but to thousands and thousands of individuals. And I doubt that they would have objected if the article had appeared in every newspaper and magazine in the country. In effect, the Dubner-Levitt argument is not just an argument that the marginal vote makes little difference — it is advice to millions of Americans that they should abstain from voting.

In that respect, Levitt and Dubner are guilty of paternalism as well as economism. Thus the many links to posts about paternalism in the following list of related posts:
The Rationality Fallacy
Libertarian Paternalism
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Back-Door Paternalism
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
Slippery Paternalists
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Externalities and Statism
Extreme Economism
Irrational Rationality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (III) (third item)
Obesity and Statism