Long Division: The Next Big Threat to Democracy

This video, which features Gordon Tullock, does a pretty good job of explaining the irrationality of voting. It falls back into romantic democratism towards the end, though, suggesting (I think) that it is instrumentally rational to vote in order to maintain a system of democracy. Could be a  useful teaching resource, both for its decent explanation and its basic error.

6 Responses

  1. Tullock’s cool! And so right on this point.

  2. But aren’t the benefits from voting more to do with what you might get out of it politically rather than your vote having a direct influence on the outcome, plus the fact that at an aggregate level – people do have considerable influence? If no one bothered to vote in the last election – Labour would still be in power and you can only imagine what our level of tax and debt might now be – I’m not that keen on National but surely in this case – making a quick trip to the voting both was worth it?

    • At the aggregate level votes matter, but no individual ever votes at the aggregate level. There is a big difference between nobody voting and everybody voting, but (unless you’re a very influential person) you can only control whether you vote. You are faced with the choice between ‘x people vote’ and ‘x+1 people vote,’ and in an electorate of any decent size that’s not going to make a difference.Unless an election is otherwise tied, a single vote never makes a difference.

      It can be rational to vote in order to express yourself or get warm fuzzies, but not to influence who wins an election or the policy they choose. Of course, if very few other people vote, it would become increasingly rational to vote on instrumental grounds, as the probability that your vote has an effect increases.

      • I guess I’m not a very rational homo economicus but I’m mainly thinking of the past election where is was obvious for many people that they were going to the polls along with many others in order to change the government – they knew their vote was going to make a difference and indeed it did. On the other hand there were lots of Labour / Greens supporters who also knew the inevitable outcome and didn’t bother.

        I’m still glad I voted for Bill & Ben – the recession would be cowering in a cave in Pakistan by now. My vote didn’t make a difference but the moral superiority I feel is well worth it.

      • The point is that any one (or even a few hundred) of those voters could have stayed home and the outcome would have been the same. They may have got a feeling of camaraderie from voting which justified their effort, but if they were solely concerned with who won the election and the cost of getting to polling booth was above zero, they shouldn’t have bothered.

        I got a lot of expressive value from selling my vote last year, and also $32. Voting was definitely a rational decision for me.

    • In other words, it’s a collective action problem. Assume that everyone would be better off if we all took the time to carefully weigh the merits of alternative policy bundles and voted accordingly. Since one vote never makes a difference, though, each person has an incentive to free-ride on the effort of others. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, the only way to get good aggregate outcomes is for everyone to ignore their self-interest.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think most people do that. Most people take the effort to vote, but do so for the expressive benefits they get from the act itself without taking the effort to become politically informed or carefully consider the effects of proposed policies.

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