Another Proud Non-Voter

29 October 2010 at 1:55 pm 11 comments

| Peter Klein |

It’s Larry Ribstein. Will he get the same treatment I received a few years ago?

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Scott Masten  |  2 November 2010 at 8:51 am

    Having voted this morning and feeling the need to rationalize my effort, I would note that, as New Institutional Economists, we should be pointing out that the polities and organizations that survive and prosper will be those that figure out ways to overcome the collective action problem. After all, if it is individually irrational to vote, it is individually irrational to participate in revolutions (e.g., the American one) and to fight in a war (e.g., WWII). And societies that cannot assemble armies to defend themselves won’t last long. So rather than pointing out the irrationality of voting, might we not be pointing out the rationality of promoting voting norms?

  • 2. Jim  |  2 November 2010 at 11:08 am


    So you’re saying that if people would just behave more rationally, not only would they not vote, but we could also have avoided at least two unjust and horribly destructive wars?

  • 3. Scott Masten  |  2 November 2010 at 11:16 am

    No. I’m saying we’d all be speaking German, Japanese, or Russian. Dictators know how to solve collective action problems.

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  2 November 2010 at 11:21 am

    “So rather than pointing out the irrationality of voting, might we not be pointing out the rationality of promoting voting norms?”

    Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?

    Seriously, I think it’s worth distinguishing between the free-rider problem per se and the paradox of voting more specifically. First, the marginal effect of one revolutionary or one soldier can be positive, and could even represent a positive NPV project from the perspective of the individual. This is certainly true for the revolutionary cadre, the military leaders, etc. But, more important, participation in revolution and war has a strong ideological component. If only public-choice considerations were in play, there’d be far fewer revolutions. Of course, voting is also an ideological act — indeed, it’s the main sacrament of the civil religion. For some, however, this is even more of a reason *not* to vote* (i.e., it one views the process as inherently illegitimate, withholding consent has an important symbolic value).

  • 5. Scott Masten  |  2 November 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Peter, Let’s get empirical! The number of U.S. soldiers during World War II peaked at about 8 million. Now compare the costs and benefits of voting and enlisting. Even if the marginal effect of one soldier (out of 8 million) on the outcome of the war exceeds the probability that a citizen’s vote will be determinative of the outcome of an election, the costs of military service are ever so slightly greater (or so I hear) than the costs of voting.

    Whenever I hear the standard economic “voting is irrational” argument, I keep thinking that it is part of a secret conspiracy to convince the rubes not to vote so that the really clever economists’ votes will be worth more. But I hesitate to make this argument for fear the response will either be “duh” or “shh.”

  • 6. Peter Klein  |  2 November 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Yes, but war and revolution involve a series of discrete engagements with heterogeneous participants. What’s true for an infrantryman or a member of the revolutionary mob might not apply to the pilot of the Enola Gay or someone in the inner cadre. It’s not a one-time, winner-take-all, everyone-counts-the-same event like a national election

    Even so, you’re simply saying that participation in war and revolution may not meet the neoclassical cost-benefit calculus. I agree! To me this just shows that public choice ignores ideology.

  • 7. Scott Masten  |  2 November 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Which is back to my original point that successful states and organizations (including political parties) figure out ways of overcoming narrow individual rationality. Instead of telling students/readers that it is irrational to vote — which is true in the same sense that is rational to confess in a PD — shouldn’t we be emphasizing the role of norms (ideology, if you will) as either a coordinating device or as a means of altering the payoff structure of the game.

    But I’m glad at least that you didn’t respond “duh” or “shh.”

  • 8. Peter Klein  |  2 November 2010 at 2:57 pm


    Can’t we also address your question with Mancur Olson 101? E.g., if you think participating in elections is a public good, then tie contributions to the public good with an excludable private good — maybe like those little “I voted” stickers people wear around the office to demonstrate their civic virtue.

  • 9. Scott Masten  |  2 November 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Olson, stickers, whatever. Democracies rest on extraordinarily fragile equilibria (historically speaking). Economists emphasizing the optimal within-game strategy without pointing out the broader game within which that little game is played is not helpful to preserving the larger equilibrium. Unless, as I said, the aim is to fool the rubes into not voting … and the rubes are more likely on net to vote in undesirable ways.

    And not to be contrary or anything, but I think the correct form is Shhduh.

  • 10. Peter Klein  |  3 November 2010 at 3:04 am

    Or the aim is to subvert, rather than preserve, that larger equilibrium. :)

  • 11. Darwyyn  |  26 September 2012 at 11:30 am

    Nice idea, but he’s got a double negative there. No non-voter, basically.

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