Economic Theory

The opportunity cost of explaining opportunity costs


Government and Institutions
It is around about this time in the electoral cycle that free market economists and libertarians start talking about their rational decision not to vote. Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute set out the standard case against voting in 2012, saying ‘If your aim is to affect policy, voting is irrational. If you want to act ethically, voting is irrelevant. Mathematically, the chances of a single vote actually determining the outcome of an election in a meaningful way (that will affect policy outcomes) is infinitesimally small.’

Economists have speculated for years about why people bear the opportunity cost of going out to vote when they could spend their time doing something useful and have the same effect on the outcome, ie. none. Some, like Sam, argue that people vote to feel good about themselves. Others say that they are conforming to social pressure. Still others argue that people dramatically overestimate their odds of deciding the election.

Perhaps people just think that voting is fun. Not a lot of fun, I grant you, but then the opportunity cost is hardly enormous either. If I decide to vote on May 7th, for example, I will have to walk 100 metres, probably in the sunshine, to a social club which has a bar and snooker table. This is no great sacrifice. If it is raining, the chances of me voting will decline, as they will for everybody else in the country. This is why elections are rarely held in winter: politicians know they have to keep the cost of voting close to zero. They generally succeed. The cost of voting is trivial.

Nevertheless, it remains true that some effort is required to vote and that your vote almost certainly won’t make any difference to the result. Therefore you, as a rational and well-informed reader of the IEA blog, shouldn’t vote, right? If you’ve ever wondered why free market liberalism struggles to get parliamentary representation, there is a little clue here. If rational people aren’t voting, it’s little wonder Britain is ruled by one irrational government after another.

The truth is that justifying non-voting on the basis of opportunity cost is fine if it’s confined to one individual, but it doesn’t work if you start proselytising, and the more effectively you proselytise, the less it works. Unless you are talking to somebody who is likely to vote for an unsound party, it is information best kept to oneself. One vote foregone doesn’t matter, but if you convince thousands of economically sound, reasonable people to abstain, the odds of you deciding the election in favour of an economically illiterate, unreasonable party become significantly shorter.

My real problem with the opportunity cost argument is not so much that it is counter-productive, but that it doesn’t actually save you any time. Since using it as my reason/excuse for not voting, I have spent much more time explaining it and arguing about it than I would have spent going to the polling station. A lot of people really do believe that voting is a civic duty and, as I have found, are likely to become irritable if you cite self-interest as a reason for not ‘engaging in the democratic process’. You can talk about the microscopic odds of one vote affecting the result until you’re blue in the face, but you are wasting your time in every sense.

You could lie and say that you vote when you don’t, but I assume, gentle reader, that you do not want to start lying to your friends. No, honestly is the best policy and so it is more efficient to spend a trivial amount of time voting than to spend the next five years explaining what an opportunity cost is. Of course, it is possible that voting will create new opportunities for time-sapping arguments if people ask you who you voted for, but thanks to an unwritten rule of electoral etiquette, such enquiries are rarely made in casual conversation.

Come May 7th, you should set an example to your peers by announcing when and where you went to the polling booth. Assuming that your friends are reasonably rational, this will encourage sensible people to vote and, at the least, cancel out a few irrational voters. What you don’t need to mention is that when you got to the polling station you took the advice of Eamonn Butler, also of the Adam Smith Institute, and wrote a message to the candidates, knowing that there is a reasonable chance they will inspect the spoiled ballots. This is the most effective way for an individual to have an impact, however tiny, on politics, but for goodness sake don’t tell anybody.

Head of Lifestyle Economics, IEA

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of papers, including "Sock Puppets", "Euro Puppets", "The Proof of the Pudding", "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling" and "Free Market Solutions in Health".

2 thoughts on “The opportunity cost of explaining opportunity costs”

  1. Posted 05/05/2015 at 18:50 | Permalink

    So it’s Eamonn we should be blaming for the mediocre quality (and quantity) of our governments?

  2. Posted 06/05/2015 at 15:17 | Permalink

    There is of course the additional pleasure obtained from letting certain individuals know how one has voted. Noting that one has vote for a fringe party – UKIP comes to mind – is a given in terms of generating the requisite response. I suspect in Uttlesford this can be the only rational reason for voting.

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