Who are you voting for? I hear this question nearly every day as the national election approaches. Often people look to me for advice on this issue because I am the president of George Mason University’s Economics Society, expecting a reasoned response why one candidate is better than another on economic issues.
What answer do I give? I simply respond: “I don’t vote.”
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Am I apathetic about economic, international, or other policy? No; in fact I hold very strong opinions about public policy. What I am apathetic about is the impact of my vote.
The reason I feel this way is mainly because of the public choice school of economics. This school of thought was founded by two of Mason’s greatest scholars, Gordon Tullock and Nobel laureate James Buchanan, who revolutionized the way the world looks at politics. Public Choice says that if we assume people act relatively self-interested in their personal lives we should assume they will act self-interested in their public lives. Just as regular citizens act to increase their benefits, politicians act to increase their own gains.
In a democratic election process, the winner must win at least 51 percent of the vote. To get the 51 percent, the candidate must not only sway the fringe party members but they must seek to satisfy the preferences of the moderates. It is more likely to get your own hardcore party members to vote for you, but much harder to get the moderates and independents. It is no surprise then that politicians aim to formulate policies based upon the wants of these moderate, or median, voters.
Since both presidential candidates are fighting over the same wants of the median voter, one would expect to see very similar policies from each. This tends to be the case throughout history—President George W. Bush’s policies were more leftist than his critics would let on and former President Bill Clinton was much more conservative than pundits would admit.
The takeaway is that whether Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. wins, the policies they are offering must be very similar if they are rational and want the most votes. You may still not be convinced though, saying perhaps the slight changes in implementation or experience matter as to voting for one or the other. Public choice economics has an excellent response to this argument: the Returns to Voting Model.
Most people recognize that the probability of their vote mattering in a national election, even with the Electoral College system, is infinitesimally small. You have a higher probability of dying in a car crash on the way to vote than you have of your vote individually deciding the election. The benefit to you of voting then is a small number multiplied by a very tiny number. Add on the cost of voting—missing school, work, or reading a book—and most likely you have a negative return from voting.
Despite these statistical truths, many millions of Americans will still go out and vote on Nov. 4. These voters are not irrational; they get their pleasure out of participating in the democratic process that has been passed down from our founding fathers. Voting “for fun” in this way is in fact very rational. Voting for change in policy is not. If you want to make the world better off, you’ll do much better by volunteering, educating others, or just yourself, on important issues. But if you are still planning on voting next Tuesday, by all means, enjoy yourself.
Kevin R. Hilferty
President, GMU Economics Society