Is it worth voting?

With the opinion polls pointing to a close result and the prospect of a hung parliament, turnout is expected to be relatively high in today’s election. Yet for economists this presents a bit of a puzzle.

Given that the chance of any single vote being decisive is so small, particularly outside a handful of highly marginal seats, the individual act of voting is arguably irrational – especially since costs are incurred, such as time and effort wasted on the trip to the polling station.

Moreover, one can only vote for a crude package of proposals, which in practice is likely to be changed significantly when it comes to implementation. The political process is extremely inefficient at responding to individual preferences compared with the fine differentiation of markets.

Worse still, various authors from the rational choice school (for example, Olson and Stigler) have shown that policy tends to be determined by special interests rather than the preferences of voters. The “logic of collective action” means that small concentrated groups have a far stronger incentive to commit resources to lobbying politicians and bureaucrats than large dispersed groups such as general taxpayers.

Special interests also engage in “agenda manipulation” to frame policy debates in particular ways and exclude perspectives that are detrimental to their cause. Indeed, Schumpeter went as far as to suggest that politicians and interest groups “are able to fashion and, within very wide limits, even to create the will of the people.” While this may be going too far, a strong case can certainly be made that such strategies further undermine the notion that voting “makes a difference.” (And in some cases, elite interests may simply ignore the wishes of voters, as with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty).

So why do people continue to vote in large numbers? One hypothesis is that voters find it difficult to calculate probabilities and therefore don’t realise their individual vote is unlikely to make any difference. Another idea is that people vote because they value the preservation of the wider democratic process – they act out of duty and/or altruism. Neither explanation is very satisfactory from a rational choice perspective.

8 thoughts on “Is it worth voting?”

  1. Posted 06/05/2010 at 11:42 | Permalink

    Could there not be a similar mechanism as with playing lotto, where the perceived probability of winning is a lot higher than the statistical probability? I know people who vote in very roundabout ways, arguing something like “I actually prefer party A, but I’ll vote for party B to strengthen those within party A who want to move their party a bit into the B-direction, and also to strengthen the likelihood of an A-B coalition instead of an A-C coalition.’ Surely, that’s the kind of calculation you make when you perceive your vote to be much more decisive than it is.

  2. Posted 06/05/2010 at 11:45 | Permalink

    This blind desire to impose homo economicus onto all problems is, I’m afraid, why economists are listened to less and less in public discourse.

  3. Posted 06/05/2010 at 12:11 | Permalink

    I think many people gain utility from their voting greater than their costs. People like to feel involved in something big and feel as though they’ve had ‘their say’, so whilst they know that their vote will not decide the election, they still gain a benefit greater than the cost of voting from participated. Perfectly rational.

  4. Posted 06/05/2010 at 13:22 | Permalink

    Richard, I tend to agree with Will here: why should the justification for voting be driven by economics? There are moral reasons to vote, in that we might see it as a duty. Others might vote to feel part of something or because of what it means (remember South Africa in 1992).

    The argument I always use on my kids’ generation is a version of the old anarchist cliche: whether you vote or not, the government will get in and will have just as much power to control your life. Therefore you might as well do what you can to influence it.

  5. Posted 06/05/2010 at 13:40 | Permalink

    I regard it as a civic duty to vote. That is a habit I’ve acquired, and I don’t expect ever to lose it. I certainly don’t ‘re-calculate’ whether it’s worth while voting every time there’s a boundary change, or according to shifting results within my constituency. Nor do I waste time looking at the fine details of a party’s manifesto — but after all, one does have a general sense of a party’s philosophy. (Not that there’s very much difference between them!)

    I think it’s a bit like a public footpath: people need to walk along it every now and again to preserve their right of way. To coin a phrase, ‘we’re all in this together’.

  6. Posted 07/05/2010 at 18:28 | Permalink

    Ironically, perhaps, Anonymous and D. R. Myddelton both provide rationales for voting in terms of the personal benefits outweighing the personal costs, in line with a rational choice approach, though the benefits are ‘expressive’, in terms of ‘doing one’s duty’. Rational choice theorists would argue, however, that if people cast ‘expressive’ rather than ‘decisive’ ballots they are unlikely to invest much time learning about the parties’ policies and therefore may vote for policies they do not actually support. In other words, an expressive vote is unlikely to be a ‘clever’ vote. This is said to be a reason why people vote for style over substance in democratic elections.

  7. Posted 08/05/2010 at 15:59 | Permalink

    Man can only act within his own subjective world. Therefore as a living being he is always a kind of egoist.
    Voting is, not without reason, seen as a cultural achievement. As Mr. Sam said voting can be seen as participating in something that’s bigger than the individual – in an idea, a cultural construction, participating in the social lifeworld. As we are social creatures it can be subjectively satisfying – and therefore subjectively rational – to vote (or intentionally not to vote), if you look at human action in its entirety.

  8. Posted 08/05/2010 at 21:54 | Permalink

    I suppose there are two rational reasons that I can rationalise (sorry for the confusion of language). One would be if there were an infinitesimal probability of influencing an issue of infinite importance that may not simply be of economic consequence (so for some it might be abortion issues, for others it might be the last chance to stop sovereignty transferring to the EU). Secondly, one might simply be pleased to be part of a movement that (say) defeated a particular party or elected a political party. There is a subjective value to being part of such a movement even if it is a small part.

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