Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voting and Not Voting Are Both Rational Activities

According to public choice theory, voting is an irrational act because the costs of voting for a single individual inevitably exceed the influence that individual's one vote can have on any particular election outcome (see here). This calculation is based on a restrictive definition of "rationality," which only counts material costs and benefits. But many people gain significant psychic benefits from voting, believing that they are contributing, however marginally, to some candidate's victory or defeat. If those psychic benefits are incorporated into our cost-benefit calculations, then it's easy to understand why so many of us take the time and effort to vote, even if our votes do not significantly affect outcomes. Voting certainly is rational for people who feel good enough about voting (whether because they consider it a social obligation or just enjoy participating in the process) that it offsets their costs of doing so. And that remains true even if they are making cognitive mistakes about the extent to which their votes count. After all, we remain only boundedly rational creatures.

The real "paradox of voting" seems to me to be an integral part of the public choice argument itself. If voting is irrational, then no one should vote. But if no one votes, then it certainly becomes rational to vote because chances of effecting outcomes is then very high. In other words, the more people pay attention to the public choice theory of irrational voting, the more rational voting would become.

Finally, not everyone gets much of a thrill from voting, including those who don't like the choices on offer, those who feel they have better things to do with their time than wait in line to vote, and those who are convinced that their vote cannot make a difference. Those individuals comprise the majority of Americans who do not, in fact, vote. For them, it is certainly rational not to vote based on their subjective valuations of the costs and benefits of voting.

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