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Why do people vote?

In his column yesterday in the New York Times, Paul Krugman presents the most intellectually honest attempt at urging people to vote that I've seen (in my admittedly limited exposure to such things, albeit). Your single vote is just about never going to affect an election involving millions of voters, Krugman observes, so no matter how much you care, you may as well stay home. "Yet," Krugman argues,

"democracy depends on your ability to rise above that calculation. If citizens want good government, they must do what they want others with the same concerns to do — namely, vote. ... America's future depends on your irrationality."

It's an honest attempt, but flawed. I mean, if an act is irrational, then there's no good reason to do it. By definition. The fact is, it's hard to see any good reason why you, yourself, should spend your time on such an inconsequential act. (But, yes, I'm going to try.)

For starters, there is some reason to. Your single vote doesn't have zero value, it simply has a very, very small one. This has some interesting consequences. For instance, it's perfectly rational for you to tell other people who sympathize with your views to vote (even if you don't intend to bother, yourself) — it's a very efficient way for you to increase the chances that those views will get represented. (It costs you only a few breaths, or maybe the time to send an email, and may result in any number of additional votes. Going and voting yourself, on the other hand, costs you half an hour or more and only results in one measly vote.)

This suggests another perfectly rational reason to vote — and it's exactly the sort of thing an economist like Krugman would neglect to consider. In some cases, the act of voting can have a greater value than the vote itself. Consider the obvious alternative to Krugman's scenario — when you act not as an individual, but as part of a (somewhat organized) group. If you and a number of other people have all agreed to vote, there are two sorts of perfectly rational reasons for you to actually do it: First, your following through on the agreement encourages the other members of the group to do so as well; and, second, it may (though it may not) be consistent with your own personal values to follow through on such an agreement.

This kind of agreement, of course, most likely requires a more-than-typical level of political involvement. It's a cruel twist, I think: The people you'd imagine would be best served by a democratic form of government — individual citizens who think for themselves — turn out, by dint of basic human psychology, to be the ones least likely to have any good reason to participate in it.

And perhaps it helps explain why political parties and special interest groups are so dominant today. A political party, after all, is a group of people who do their best to meet each other half way and then all agree to vote together.

Of course, some people who think for themselves will go and vote anyway, for their own personal reasons, or for no good reason at all. But the larger the number of people involved, the more likely it seems that elections will be decided by voters acting not for themselves individually but as part of a group. And, given the nature of large groups (an open topic for ongoing research to be sure, but one about which some generalizations seem safe), the less likely it is that elections will be decided by rational, thoughtful voters, and the more likely that they'll be won by those who appeal to those emotions that better unite large masses of people: fear, anger, ambition and pride. It's a sort of mob democracy.

Not that I see these as absolutes; it's an empirical question whether, and to what extent, any of this might be true. Nor, even if it's true, is it hopeless: It's simply an argument for small government, where individual voters are involved as directly as possible in deciding the issues that most affect their daily lives. And, if it is true, perhaps the relative peace and prosperity of the past half century are even an indication that Americans as a whole, and the peoples of other modern democracies as well, are in fact good and peace-loving by nature, after all.

November 6, 2002 12:45 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

this is so kool i luv ya have a nice day

Posted by j on October 28, 2003 2:50 PM

this is so kool i luv ya have a nice day

Posted by j on October 28, 2003 2:50 PM

this is so kool i luv ya have a nice day :P

Posted by Anonymous on February 9, 2004 8:27 PM

fuck you and your stupid resason why you think people should vote your opinion stinks like the peace of shit you look in the mirror at everyday

Posted by boosia on March 18, 2004 4:24 PM

fuck u boosia or what ever the hell ur name is u fuckin idiot it is our first civic duty to vote if u dont vote u are abandoning the biblical obligation to being a responsible citezen bitch so kissmyasssowhat

Posted by Anonymous on June 15, 2004 10:49 PM

This is so so important.... I find this very interesting and that everyone should read this...This is so cool

Posted by Laura on June 20, 2004 2:33 PM

i think all people should vote no matter if you feel that the right candidate will win. your vote is important.

Posted by by irene on September 13, 2004 8:18 PM


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