Election Day

7 November 2006 at 12:40 pm 18 comments

| Peter Klein |

Today is election day in the US and, like a majority of my fellow American citizens, I’m exercising my cherished right not to vote. Unlike most Americans, however — but like Brian Doherty — I’m proud, not ashamed. “Don’t vote,” I say. “It only encourages them.”

Just to show you that economists have a sense of humor, let me share these pictures of my office door, decorated by my colleagues in 2004 in a vain attempt to shame me for not voting. (Don’t miss the Dr. Seuss-inspired poem.)

Some good non-voting resources: this piece in Slate and this archive. I think Tyler Cowen gets it right: “Overall I view voting as a selfish act, usually done for purposes of self-image…. I fondly recall Gordon Tullock’s point: ‘The paradox is not why people vote, but why everyone doesn’t vote for himself.’ “

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Institutions.

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18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. C. Grammich  |  7 November 2006 at 3:28 pm

    I’m guessing “most Americans” won’t vote today as a matter of course, and feel neither pride nor shame in the practice. Dare I say they don’t care about their apathy? I will admit more probably feel shame than pride in not voting, but not the real “silent majority.”

    Good grief, is this the fourth election of the past five that Missourians can vote (or not) for Claire McCaskill? (Auditor in ’98 and ’02, governor in ’04, and US senator in ’06?) The “Show-Me” state, indeed . . .

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  7 November 2006 at 3:30 pm

    Some people seem to think they have a comparative advantage in running for office. :-)

  • 3. C. Grammich  |  7 November 2006 at 3:50 pm

    Touche on McCaskill.

    If Cowen thinks voting for public officeholders is done for self-image, then I wonder what he’d say about running for public office. I’m increasingly staggered by the amounts of money it apparently takes to mount some campaigns, with candidates for more “significant” offices having to raise five-figure sums each and every day of the year to compete successfully for elections sometimes several years away. I know mine is an (increasingly?) naive view of the world, but, if I had that kind of fundraising ability, then I can’t imagine it would best be used electing me to office.

    I hear that even the mayor of my home village of about 46K–who, as yet, has no announced or even prospective opposition for his re-election campaign next spring–is having a fundraiser for 1,000 of his “closest” friends to each honor him with a picture of Ben Franklin. $100K to be the mayor of a Chicago-area suburb? What’s up with that?

  • 4. NCA  |  7 November 2006 at 4:05 pm

    I recall another Tullock gem where he compared voting to cheering a favorite sports team: No one honestly believes their cheer makes the team win, but they’re still compelled to do so.

  • 5. C. Grammich  |  7 November 2006 at 4:41 pm

    NCA–that’s a good one, and one that may, IMHO, best get to the point about why so many persons do indeed vote (or at least provide even more insight than the other good quotes our host has posted). And there may be parallels between voting and spectator sports beyond the mere act of cheering. I hadn’t thought until now to compare the public service announcements to “get out the vote” with the whining of a radio announcer for the Chicago Bears last Sunday that the team’s fans were “sitting on their hands” and thereby apparently allowing those dastardly Dolphins to conquer the hometown heroes . . .

  • 6. Bo  |  8 November 2006 at 6:27 am

    To me it is rather simple: If you don’t vote then you also have no business critizising public policies. I will be looking for instances where you do indeed voice your opinion on public policy and remind you not to…

  • 7. Peter Klein  |  8 November 2006 at 8:32 am

    Bo, I agree with Doherty (in the linked item above) that the truth is precisely the opposite. It is those who _do_ vote who have no right to criticize. By voting, you give explicit consent to be bound by the wishes of the majority. You agreed to play the game, so you must live with the results. By contrast, if you reject the game itself, and express this preference by non-participation, you have every right to complain about the results of the game!

  • 8. Bob V  |  8 November 2006 at 9:57 pm

    How do we know that you aren’t professing the benefits of not voting only to increase the probability that your own vote will be decisive?

  • 9. Peter Klein  |  8 November 2006 at 11:59 pm

    Hee Hee. Actually a similar point is made by Greg Mankiw, in a column he wrote a few years ago that Forbes refused to run:


    Mankiw says that people should not be encouraged to vote, in the sense that people who wouldn’t vote without extra encouragement are people who shouldn’t be voting, as their “noise” votes will simply reduce the effectiveness of votes cast by informed voters.

  • 10. Bo  |  9 November 2006 at 7:50 am

    Strange logic to me – so by not voting you are not playing the “game” and by not playing the game you somehow think you can impact the process? I suspect you must then be against democracy as a concept as well. Let’s all not vote because by voting we give the majority what they want (democracy in some sense) – so it is better not to vote but then what do you rely on for Governance? A high priest nominated by God (or more likely his own family and power)?, A military leader who takes control and thus tilts the “game” in his favour?

    In my opinion, if you want to change the “game” or the process you will have to play it – at least till the extent that you gain enough influence to change it. Sitting at home on the couch bitching about the game being played incorrectly is doing no good – I do this all the time in Baseball with the Mariners and it does not seem to help…

  • 11. Bob V  |  9 November 2006 at 7:51 am

    I wish I knew a cite, but haven’t there been studies that show that the average of an uninformed public’s estimate of something is more accurate than the average of the estimates of a bunch of experts?

    Would our capital markets be more efficient allocators if we only allowed licensed, expert traders to make investments?

  • 12. Peter Klein  |  9 November 2006 at 9:06 am

    Bo, if you want to have an impact — to make the world better — there are many, many ways to do it. Read. Think. Research. Write. Teach. Discuss. Debate. (Like we’re doing now.) Plant a tree. Help a child. Whatever. Any of these has infinitely more impact on society than casting a vote, which has a zero probability of affecting anything.

    Bob, that’s an interesting point. There’s a detailed discussion of this in _The Wisdom of Crowds_ by Surowiecki. However, the analogy to financial markets doesn’t quite hold, because financial-market participants have resources at stake, and therefore strong incentives to utilize their local knowledge, however fragmentary and incomplete it may be. Voters, however, have no such incentives, as their vote has no marginal impact on any individual or collective outcome.

  • 13. Bo  |  9 November 2006 at 2:31 pm

    I wonder if this is an American way of thinking? As a European, I do feel I have impact through voting – infinitely more than sending money to Africa or planting a tree, which will die from polution because the government (which I helped to power by not voting) has increased the admissible Co2 levels etc..

    I do feel a bit what you are saying though – my sense of the EU government is somewhat similar, which is exactly why I prefer local (i.e. country level for Europe) government. I suspect you DO take an interest in local state politics?

  • 14. C. Grammich  |  9 November 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Bob–somewhat off-topic, but Wolfinger and Rosenstone’s seminal work on Who Votes? found that non-voters are largely similar in their political preferences to those who do vote.

    So is there a free-rider problem here, with the non-voting figuring that they don’t have to be bothered with the time of voting, listening to ads, reading oh-so-earnest editorials, etc., because their fellow citizens will do all that work for them and reach the same conclusion they would?

  • 15. Bob V  |  9 November 2006 at 7:07 pm

    Grammich, one reason I rarely vote seems contrary to that. My perception is that there is so much manipulation of people with little relevant information that any attempt to make an informed decision on my part will be swamped.

    As Dr. Klein said, in a financial market, I could benefit if I were one of the smarter participants. In an election, there is no such personal reward.

  • 16. C. Grammich  |  10 November 2006 at 6:26 am

    Bob–Good point. I lived in California for a few years and was surprised at the questions the people were asked to decide through referenda. It made me wonder what the legislature was paid to do (which I suppose others have also wondered about for other reasons).

    To be sure, I was being facetious about the free-rider “problem.” As I indicated in my first post, I’m sure most persons don’t vote as a matter of course, and don’t give much thought to why they don’t do so (or about as much thought as any of us give to most activities we don’t do).

  • 17. Bob V  |  10 November 2006 at 8:32 am

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the free-rider explanation. A sense of futility might be the #1 explanation, but free-riding could be happening as well–there are a lot of reasons not to vote. I mention that a bit here though I am sure I am bastardizing the official definitions of rationality among other minor problems.

  • 18. C. Grammich  |  10 November 2006 at 10:53 am

    Bob–Interesting post. Thanks for the link to it.

    On voting free riders, I’m reminded of a cartoon (first published in thye Chicago Tribune on April 5, 1932) that I saw in Harold Gosnell’s classic on Machine Politics: Chicago Model (which, although it has many claims with which I’d quibble, I recommend to goofs like myself who follow these things). Title and panel excerpts:

    How to Vote Intelligently in the Primary

    First, get a list of the four or five hundred primary candidates, and memorize their names

    Attend all of the political meetings

    Study the pictures and posters of all office speakers

    Tune in on every political address

    Discuss the various candidates with your friends [shown yawning]

    Save and study carefully every political pamphlet [with wife shown leaving in background]

    Weigh the qualifications of each aspirant, during office hours [with boss telling associate, “Give him the air.”]

    By this time you have lost your friends, your wife and your job, but you have the satisfaction of knowing you can vote intelligently, and you’re a good citizen.

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