Over 132 million people voted in the 2008 US Presidential election. Why did they do that? Are they just plain stupid?

There is a nagging worry that voting is a bad bet, like buying lottery tickets. Even when the Powerball jackpot is huge, the expected utility of buying a ticket is negative—the ticket costs more than its expected payoff. Many economists and political scientists worry this holds true even more strongly for votes. Most models of the probability of being decisive indicate that your chances are vanishingly small. (Andrew Gelman famously disagrees, and thinks everyone who uses these models is innumerate, apparently.)

Some people say they vote to “change the mandate”, but that’s bogus, too. First, political scientists are pretty sure there’s no such thing as an electoral mandate. That is, winning by a large margin doesn’t improve your effectiveness or efficacy in office. (There’s even a question on the AP Government exam asking why political scientists are skeptical of mandates.) Second, there’s no reason to think one vote would affect this mythical mandate significantly, especially given diminishing marginal returns.

So, is voting just plain insane, according to rational choice theory? Nope. Rational choice theory says that an action is rational if it sufficiently satisfies your preferences, given the costs, and given your other options. Voting can satisfy all sorts of preferences, enough that the act of voting outweighs the costs (including opportunity costs).

Many of us have a strong desire to participate in group activities or to do things with other people. For instance, on October 7, 2009, over a million people worldwide read Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. They wanted to set a world record for the number of people who read the same book in its entirety on the same day. My partner, son, and I participated as well. For me, participation was not about getting a book read, setting a record, or making a pivotal difference. Rather, the point was to participate in a collective activity. It was to read the book with others all across the world. Trying to set a record gave us all a focal goal—we weren’t just reading together, but reading together at a certain level. Still, the point of reading The Hungry Caterpillar was to do it with others. It’s the same reason we like to “do the wave” at sports stadiums, or why we like to listen to music with others at a concert.

Also, many of us have a preference specifically for engaging in political activities or exercise our small degree of political power. Voting is one of many ways to satisfy the first preference, and for most of us, it is the only way to satisfy the second preference.

More importantly, as I argue in the Ethics of Voting, voting well is supererogatory. (That is, it’s a good thing, but it goes above and beyond the call of duty.) We all have a duty not to vote badly—and this means that most Americans have a duty not to vote. However, this means that abstention and voting well are both morally optional. Voting well is generally supererogatory. It is also one way to act benevolently (if you do it properly). By voting well, one participates in a group activity of attempting to provide good government to others. That’s a praiseworthy thing to do.

If you are a moral being, you will have preferences for doing moral actions, including a preference to at least sometimes do something supererogatory.

You might think it makes no sense to have such a preference, especially with regard to voting, given how little efficacy individual votes have. But, as David Gauthier, Greg Kavka, and David Schmidtz, among others, have already shown, it makes sense for a rational being to develop preferences or dispositions to participate in such activities. I won’t rehearse the argument here, since it’s well-worn.

So, if you have the potential to be a good voter, tomorrow is a excellent opportunity to do something that goes above and beyond the call of duty.


Print Friendly
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=734905386 Chris Burkhardt

    > It is also one way to act benevolently.

    Except isn’t that one thing it is not? Like you said, voting is rational because it is fun (or socially engaging or satisfies some other preference), not because it is efficacious. Although maybe one benefit people derive from voting is *feeling* as if they acted benevolently?

    For a negative view of voting (or not voting) as a duty which fulfills some sense of morality, see my essay “Why I Don’t Vote“. In that essay I relegate the rational-choice argument to a footnote:

    “Since the chance of any single vote being pivotal in the election is nearly zero, and there are non-zero costs (like the time it takes to register and fill out and mail in a ballot) involved, it is necessary to posit some kind of consumption benefit beyond choosing a winner to explain why so many people turnout to vote. As I explain in this section, I believe at least a large part of that consumption benefit for many people can be explained as the religious-like duties they satisfy by voting. In their article “Why Vote?,” Dubner and Levitt (the Freakonomics authors) interpret a Swiss study to suggest that one consumption benefit of voting is the social recognition received just by being seen fulfilling the civic duty of voting. This is reminiscent of the vainly religious who attend church or otherwise flaunt their religiosity for the sake of being seen acting piously. Two good reviews of the academic literature on this “paradox of (non) voting” are Feddersen, Timothy J. 2004. “Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(1): 99–112, and Geys, B. (2006), ‘Rational’ Theories of Voter Turnout: A Review. Political Studies Review, 4: 16–35.

  • Anantharaman Muralidharan

    Jason, why not just cash out the morality of voting well in terms of abiding by the formula of universal law?

  • Svedingo

    How do I know if I have the “potential to be a good voter”? I’m pretty sure almost everyone who votes think they are a world champion voter :)

  • martinbrock

    At best, it’s a comforting ritual, like reciting the Rosary, but like reciting the Rosary, it’s more comforting if you don’t know too much, like the fact that Jesus disliked vain repetition.

    I’ll be comfortably at home tomorrow dreaming of libertopia.

  • D. Silver

    Hi Jason. I know that you’re, to put it mildly, not a fan of Amy Gutmann but might her ridiculous civic republicanism not be slightly useful in this particular situation? In other words, the benefits don’t come from voting per se but from the elevation some of the norms of voting? I’m particularly thinking of the entire charade that we go through when we try to persuade our fellow citizens (thereby showing our mutual respect and toleration, etc., etc.) instead of just clubbing them into a pulp-like consistency.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.