Monday, November 5, 2012

Thoughts on Voting

It's time for another presidential election, and as usual the hyperbole and excitement are over-the-top. Everyone is talking about how much your vote matters, and how important it is for you to vote.

Don't believe it. Economists have long been skeptical about the virtues and efficacy of voting.  Here are some things you should consider before you spend your time voting:

1) Your vote doesn't matter. The outcome of a national election, and most state elections, will not be altered by your vote. Your affect on the outcome is effectively zero. Here's a great video (featuring Gordon Tullock) on why your vote doesn't matter. Hat tip to Marginal Revolution. You might object that in some cases, a few votes can determine a national election, like Florida in 2000. I disagree. First, such things almost never happen; to go to the polls purely in the hopes that such an event would occur in your area is like going for a walk in the hopes that you'll find a large pile of money on the sidewalk. Its infrequency is a reason to be skeptical of the power of voting. Second, even in Florida in 2000, the outcome wasn't decided by voting--it was decided by the Supreme Court. Your vote still won't matter. Art Carden has elegantly made this point here. Caveat: Your vote may actually matter in small, local elections, in which very few people are voting. Clearly this is not the case in the presidential election.

2) Why, then do people actually vote? Different people vote for different reasons. Some actually (and incorrectly) believe they will influence the outcome, but I think most people know, at some level, that they do will not. Rather, I think people view voting as a way to enjoy consuming partisanship. That is, people enjoy taking sides and cheering for their side. At a sporting event, people attend and cheer for their team, even though they know that if they, as an individual, did not cheer, the outcome of the event would be the same. Cheering is, for most people, fun (I personally have never enjoyed it, but it's clear that others do). Similarly, voting for your preferred party is fun, and sticking it to the hated other team is fun, too. This strikes me as unhealthy, and it makes political discussions difficult: Instead of trying to determine truth, each side is out to defeat and convert the other. Arguments that are about winning are not productive; arguments should be about learning.

Another likely reason people vote: Social pressure from those who incorrectly believe every vote matters. This especially applies to family. Dealing with angry family members is a cost that few of us want to deal with. It might be better to vote than to have to live with family members who are upset that their candidate lost, and blame you. Then again, maybe you shouldn't care much about what such people think. If they were upset with you for bringing bad luck by, say, letting your black cat walk in front of them, would you take their complaints seriously? Why should you feel any differently about the superstition that your individual vote matters?

3) Voters are often rationally ignorant: most voters are poorly informed, because it is rational to be poorly informed. When I teach intro economics classes, I talk about all sorts of policies--the 25% light truck tariff, sugar tariffs, agricultural price supports, CAFE standards (as opposed to gas taxes)--that are pretty clearly bad ideas. For the most part, students have never even heard of these policies. In fact, people who support a candidate are often unaware of that candidate's policies. Here's a sad video in which supporters of Barack Obama are told about a bunch of policies that are supposedly Mitt Romney's, when in fact they are Barack Obama's. They are initially opposed to the policies, but watch their reactions when told they are actually Barack Obama's policies. This is not something unique to supporters of Barack Obama. Most people do this: They choose a side, and then cast about for justifications to support it.

4) Even worse, voters are biased, or rationally irrational: Bryan Caplan has made a persuasive argument that voters aren't just ignorant. If that were the case, then on average they would get things right. That is, if trade barriers are bad, then half of voters would believe they're really, really bad, and half of them would believe that trade barriers are good, but the median voter would believe the truth: trade barriers are bad. The median voter determines policy, so we should get the efficient outcome: no trade barriers. But in the real world, people are not just ignorant: they are biased. People dislike and distrust foreigners (Caplan calls this "anti-foreign bias"), so they dislike trade and immigration. There are three other interesting biases (read the paper or the book!), but the point is that these biases make policy worse than can be explained by simple ignorance. Voters vote for a policy thinking it will have a particular outcome, when in fact, it will not. Why do they hold these incorrect beliefs? Because it is fun and low-cost. Becoming informed is costly, both in time spent learning and in social costs (the costs of angering all your friends when you point out that a minimum wage probably puts a small number of people out of work). So why become better informed? It's not worth it.

5) If you don't care much, don't vote! Many people remain undecided between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Some people can't make it to the polls, and feel guilty. These people feel it is their duty to vote. They should stop worrying about it and remove unnecessary stress from their lives. If you have something more important to do--work, taking your kids to the doctor, cleaning your house--it will almost certainly add more value to society than giving up on those things to go vote. This is particularly true if you are poorly informed or don't care much about the outcome. In this case, your vote would just be adding noise, rather than signal. Spend your time doing something valuable, rather than voting for voting's sake. Of course, the difficulty is that people who are poorly informed (or biased!) don't know it, and vote anyway. I do not advise you to point out to a friend that they are poorly informed or biased, and therefore shouldn't vote. It won't go well.

6) If you really do want to vote, the fact that your vote doesn't matter can be viewed as a good thing, because it frees you to vote for whoever you really like, without worrying about any strategic consequences. Vote for the candidate you really like, without worrying about whether you are helping or hurting some other candidate's chances of winning. In fact, if you vote for a third party, you might actually be increasing net happiness--not because third party candidates are necessarily better, but because your vote means more to them than it does to a major party candidate. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are not so interested in your one vote, but you can bet Jill Stein and Gary Johnson would be delighted to have it.

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