Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why I Don't Vote (in national elections)

Given all the attention around campus about voting recently, I decided to weigh in on the election and write to the editor of GMU's newspaper the Broadside. Here is what was published:

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.”

CLICK READ MORE for the rest of the post.

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.

Sincerely,

Kevin R. Hilferty

President, GMU Economics Society

9 comments:

Adam Gurri said...

"No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little."
-Edmund Burke

The contributions of Tullock and Buchanan to positive theory aside, I find the moral theories that tend to underly their work to be both the typical frivolousness of any consequentialist doctrine, and at the same time pernicious in the effect it has on those who believe it.

Would you say that donating to charity is the right thing to do? Even though one contribution, even if relatively substantial compared to others, cannot alone be sufficient to raise the kind of funds required to achieve a goal?

The Public Choicers have made some great contributions, but they and those who follow them today entwine instrumental analysis with normative--they continue to act as though the "is" is somehow relevant to the "ought".

I believe one ought to vote. I don't believe this the same way I believe one ought to be punished for committing murder; abstaining from voting is just as much your right. But the fact that it is your right, does not make it the right thing to do.

What I find particularly troubling is the ideology that is born from this. For if you, individually, decide not to vote, then as you say, the effect is infinitesimal. But as people buy into the ideology you have here expressed, more people who on the whole believe in liberty and limited government will simply opt out of the democratic process altogether.

Ideology helps us economize on the information required to make decisions; it is an important component of "rational ignorance" you might say. The ideology here espoused is one that makes an instrumental observation--your individual vote cannot determine the outcome of an election--and ends with a normative conclusion--voting is simply something meaningless done "for fun", understandable, but to be sneered at when people get self-righteous about it.

Personally, I would like as many people who believe in property rights and free markets to get out and vote as possible. I realize my own vote will not determine whether or not that occurs, but as someone who believes that voting is a civic duty, I would prefer it if others who shared my perspective would join me! That we might one day see the moderate center shift, even a little, in our direction.

Kevin Hilferty said...

Adam,

It seems to me that you are very focused on your ends of private property rights, and are willing to do anything to reach them no matter how personally costly to you.

To me it is all about ends and finding efficient means to reach those ends. I agree with your ends of secure private property rights and other freedoms. I disagree though on whether or not voting is a good and efficient way to reach those ends, even for large groups.

I will agree that large groups voting can make a difference, but what is the cost of getting a large group to all vote together? Is this efficient as other means of voicing opinions?

Hayek's The Intellectuals and Socialism shows that it only takes a small group of people to influence national policy. This can be done through writing, teaching, volunteering, or just interaction with others. I think these are more effective means for reaching our ends of private property rights.

A vote may have some small impact, but doesn't say exactly what part of the bundle of policies the politician proposes you support. Wouldn't you rather just convince people why private property rights are important?

Adam Gurri said...

To me it is all about ends and finding efficient means to reach those ends.

Then you will lead a frustrated life, since the only thing that is good and worthwhile are ends, and the ends you have chosen are unlikely to be reached within your lifetime, if ever. The odds that they will be reached, and that your efforts in teaching, writing, and persuading generally, will have been any more significant in making the shift than your vote would have been in making the difference between who is elected--are slim.

You ask whether I would "rather" just convince people, as if that were among the options on the table. You mention that it "only" takes a small group to influence policy, without considering the odds that one might ever find themselves in a group positioned to effect such a change.

I make a case for what I believe to be right and wrong, and that includes defending the people's rights to make their own decisions about how to use their private property. I do not do it because I believe it is "an efficient means" to reach a desired end, because I frankly do not believe that I can have much more of an impact on the public debate than my vote can have on the outcome of elections.

All we can do is make our contributions to something much larger than we are. Those contributions are not without their value, but that value does not come from their effectiveness to influence the whole. If that was the criteria by which we judged merit, then all human actions would be worthless.

Ian Dunois said...

Adam, you have to define what is a right. By joining a group you don't receive rights but privileges. Privileges are granted and taken away, in this manner voting is a privilege as the permission to vote is granted or denied.

Opportunity cost is a big factor among voting. How many voters really know what they are voting on? How many vote upon one issue foregoing all the rest as long as the one they wish to strive succeeds?

It seems I have been advocating this point for a few weeks now, but it fits well here. In a situation between individuals one moral and the other immoral, the immoral individual is usually the more successful. In an immoral world, the immoral would be willing to change his own views in order to achieve his desired end while the moral individual would not. In a moral world, the immoral person would bend his actions to reflect that of the moral in order to reach his end. In the moral world, the moral individual has a greater chance of reaching promotions or other ends than in the immoral world.
Is the world of politics immoral or moral? If moral, at least there is the chance of voting for the moral individual. If immoral, then we expect at the higher levels in politics, that most moral individuals have already been lost to the moral.

Through this view, we can confidently assume that those running for presidency are hardly moral and do we want to surrounder our vote to an immoral individual who has no quips about lying, cheating, or stealing?

Adam Gurri said...

In a situation between individuals one moral and the other immoral, the immoral individual is usually the more successful.

I'd love to see you attempt to defend this one.

So if I am willing to buy things that I want, from people who are willing to give them to me (because I believe that it is moral to respect their right to choose whether or not to sell their property, and to choose the price they ask for it), I will be less successful than someone who takes the immoral course of murdering people in order to take what they want?

When you use vague terms like "immoral" and "succeed", you are taking the effort to make a serious and focused argument.

I believe that human morality is something that emerged, the same way that markets do and the same way that species in general do.

As David Hume argued centuries ago, we feel that things are right or wrong because morality is, on the whole, very useful to mankind. It is also useful in very specific situations for very specific individuals to try to cheat it, which is why immoral behavior can never be done away with.

Moreover, there are people who I actually believe are morally good that nevertheless believe things I think are dangerous. I think that McCain is a good man--but his economic views I find to be backwards and counterproductive (unfortunately I fear the alternative isn't any better in this regard).

Unlike your convenient reduction of the world, I happen to think that much of the time presidential candidates are more than just "hardly moral". Whether or not I think they're the best men for the job is another issue.

Your talk of "rights" vs. "priviliges" and "immoral worlds" where "immoral individuals" are more successful is frankly incoherent to me. I believe that it is wrong to interfere with an individual's freedom to make certain decisions, but recognize that the world wasn't created with my preferences in mind.

All I can try to do is what is right; though it may make very little "difference" it is still am ambitious enough task for me.

Ian Dunois said...

You say, "All I can try to do is what is right; though it may make very little "difference" it is still am ambitious enough task for me."

Yet before you say to Kevin, "you will lead a frustrated life, since the only thing that is good and worthwhile are ends, and the ends you have chosen are unlikely to be reached within your lifetime, if ever. The odds that they will be reached, and that your efforts in teaching, writing, and persuading generally, will have been any more significant in making the shift than your vote would have been in making the difference between who is elected--are slim."

Isn't he advocating the same end through a different action and yet you frown at him for it when you admit that both are slim chances at making a difference?

As for immoral and moral, I am not advocating to rid the world of immorality only that politics is an institution that does not promote those with morals. You define it for me as "It is also useful in very specific situations for very specific individuals to try to cheat it, which is why immoral behavior can never be done away with." The immoral individual is willing to do what benefits themselves and hurt others. The moral individual would not be willing to take advantage of others in order to get ahead.

Adam Gurri said...

Isn't he advocating the same end through a different action and yet you frown at him for it when you admit that both are slim chances at making a difference?

We're talking past one another here. My point is that what the consequences of an action are, and whether or not that action was the right thing to do, are entirely separate issues.

He was making the case for seeking "efficient means" to "achieving ends"; my point was that it is no less delusional to think that discussion and teaching are "efficient means" that actually have a chance of achieving a desired end, than to think that voting is.

Which is to say--neither are "efficient means" to anything. If being "efficient means" is what you need to justify taking an action, then you will never take any action outside of the basic tactics for keeping yourself alive. For when your ends deal with a gigantic entity like a political system, your efforts will never amount to much of anything when compared against the vast sea of other people's efforts into which it must be pooled.

My argument, in other words, is that one should not make one's decisions based on presumptions of an instrumentalist justification, because no such justification exists. I vote and I make a case for what I believe to be right, not because I seek to make a difference or effect a change, but because I believe it is the right thing to do.

The immoral individual is willing to do what benefits themselves and hurt others. The moral individual would not be willing to take advantage of others in order to get ahead.

Your story is simple and bears little resemblance to reality. Someone can succeed in politics and still be a genuinely good person who really believes in what they advocate; if what they advocate is politically popular. And someone can be a genuinely bad person advocating something I think would be more practical, because they think it would be more popular--and simply miscalculate, and end up losing.

Morality and success are two separate questions. It's true that in some circumstances a bad person will gain an advantage because he is willing to do what the good person is not; but there are many circumstances where the opposite is true--that by generally preferring to pay for my goods legally, I will end up better off than the petty thief who might end up brushing into the law, or robbing a store in which the clerk is experienced with firearms and has one handy.

Stories like "bad people will succeed over good people" are analytical shortcuts that are intellectually bankrupt. They tell us nothing useful.

Joseph said...

Kevin, Great Post! You should think about writing a book - Public Choice in one lesson!

Anton said...

I'm a certified non-voter... well, I suppose since I am a non-voter, I'm not really certified at all.

The reason I don't vote is simple:

The cost of voting outweighs the benefit.

Here's a recommendation:

I move to make voting less of a hassle. If somehow voting could be as simple as logging on to my home computer, typing in my social security number and other personally identifiable information, and clicking [send], the cost of voting would approach an equilibrium with regards to the benefit of that vote. I belive many individuals who don't vote share this opinion. The practical benefits simply pale in comparison to the practical costs.

(Sure, there are ideological, moral, philosophical, logical, and emotional arguments to why one should vote.. but most people just want to live life uninterrupted. "Sure, the implications of modern theoretical physics are interesting, but I'd rather just chill... but, I'll watch some Nova if nothing else is on TV...")

Some arguments to Internet voting will be logistical in nature. I'm not really here to argue that point; however, I will make concessions to the fact that voting on the Internet poses some interesting challenges. But, that shouldn't stop us from moving voting to the Internet--it should force us to figure out how it can best be done. People have a right to vote... but, a more free society will move the costs of voting closer to the benefits. The Internet plan seems at least a step in that direction.

Additionally, people may argue that the argument to move voting to the Internet is an argument in support of mere laziness and that American's on the whole are already too lazy so why should the American people accept MORE laziness--especially when it comes to voting.

"Why don't we just put the voting ballots in Big Macs? Those fat lazy Americans will be happy then."

Eh, whatever... If making voting easier causes more people to vote I don't see how this is a step in the WRONG direction... do you?

It would be interesting to, at the very least, do an experiment during the next election. Conduct voting as usual... and conduct a pseudo election online. Combine the regular voting results with the online results to obtain results from the entire voter pool and see how different the results are... this will likely answer a lot of questions... least of which, how many people are too lazy to get in their car to vote yet motivated enough to click [send]?

~Anton