The other day I tweeted that “‘voting is irrational’ is the worst argument smart and reasonable people routinely make” after seeing smart and reasonable Matt Dickinson reference it as an aside when making what I think is a different-but-also-bad argument about why people in certain positions should abstain from voting, and got at least one request to flesh out why I think the argument is in fact so bad. Rather than cite to all the people who make the argument (though also not to single out Matt per se, his was just the reference that led to the tweet that led to this post) , since I think it’s fairly well-established both in terms of its contours (that the odds of any individual vote affecting the outcome of an election is tiny ) and that it’s widely made, but here in only some order is a laundry list of all the reasons this argument is bad and I hate it.
Derek Parfit’s “Harmless Torturers” argument – In “Reasons and Persons” Parfit creates a thought experiment summarizes as succinctly as possible as so – if you have 1,000 people each controlling a single machine that each tortures a single person (say with electric shocks), it is clear that electing to activate the machine is wrong. But if each of those persons controls 1/1000th of a single machine that distributes 1/1000th of that torturous shock to each of 1,000 people connected to the single machine, would we still consider the choice of each to flip their switch wrong even if the marginal torture being distributed is at most barely perceptible? The intuitive, and also correct, answer, is “yes” and this is a very potent argument in the context of many cultural problems as well as climate change. It is similarly potent here as well; so long as we accept that collectively high participating in voting is good, it follows that each individual decision to vote is good. I leave it to the reader to note that, in the absence of substantial counter-forces, that doing good is rational.
Anthropology and sociology hugely militate against the narrow economic view of adjudicating individual actions on a narrow benefit-cost of marginal action – Human societies are vastly complex networks bound together as much as or more by norms and custom than formal rules, and rather than seeing collective action as the sum of individual action it often makes more sense to see individual action as a note in a multidimensional matrix of complex social, economic, familial, and communal networks. This, BTW, is why the whole quest to “microfound” macroeconomics is fundamentally dumb but that’s another blog post.
There’s no reason not to vote – the costs to voting are extremely small, and declining as time in transit or in queue can be spent in communication with others or playing Hoplite which I just discovered and is super fun. It can obviously be irrational to do the ethical thing in a context where that leaves one likely to be harmed or exploited; this is related, in some ways, to the theoretical finding that won George Akerlof a Nobel Prize, as well as just being obvious. If nobody’s paying taxes don’t pay taxes, etc. But in a general equilibrium that is either positive or near a tipping point, especially given the prior point, if the costs of doing the socially beneficial and ethically sound thing are low or negligible, it is absolutely rational to do it. Plus, the time-money equivalence isn’t purely scalar on the margins, most people distribute their time in lumpy ways that don’t make marginal time-use decisions, especially on the scale of “an hour every two years” costly in a way that can be easily quantified.
Voting is fun – I like voting! It is rational to do things one likes to do!
Voting is empowering on an individual and communal level – making one’s voice heard in the formal political process has a two-way legitimation effect, legitimizing one’s own equal right to be a part of the civic process as well as legitimating that civic process as the correct channel for making one’s voice heard. It is rational to pursue this, which also leads into the next argument…
This argument mitigates against all public and civic participation – if voting is irrational, so is signing a petition, joining a protest, donating to a candidate, or even voicing one’s opinion. Unless one takes actions so drastic that purely in isolation they affect political outcomes – and, without getting too much into it, one can clearly extrapolate that most such actions are violent or otherwise bad – this argument mitigates in favor of total non-participation in anything civic or even communal.
This argument is particular to first-past-the-post elections on a very large scale – in a proportional voting system, or in elections for mayor, city council, or even Congress it can be clear that much smaller numbers of votes can affect substantial political outcomes. A ~36,000-28,000 vote in suburban Virginia deposed the second-most-powerful House Republican. But if you’re going to vote for everything, the marginal cost of voting for everything on the ballot is so vanishingly small that even the narrow, economic argument against voting is thin as straw.
Making this argument is immoral from a consequentialist standpoint – even if you think individual voting decisions are irrational, so long as you think high participation in voting generally is good then by making this argument you are helping to damage that. Maybe you think that making the argument is damaging it so slightly it barely matters, but then why are you bothering to make the argument at all? It is clearly irrational to do so since it’s not having any impact.
Making this argument is immoral from an anthropological standpoint – of course, I do think it has an impact, especially as more people make it, and I think it corrodes the necessary normative construct of individual obligation to the collective and civic well-being that makes our society and similar societies function well. Promoting cynicism and non-participating is bad.
Making this argument makes you look like a smug, dislikeable cynic – this is self-explanatory. Seriously, doing this just makes you look like a narrow-minded pedant who wants to prove their intellectual superiority by making an obnoxious debator’s point at the expense of, like, you know, democracy, and people will dislike you for doing it.
And all that without referencing Florida c. 2000, and without referencing the many counter-arguments for voting that play somewhat more on the turf of the original argument for irrationality; for those see Andrew Gelman who is good on this issue (paper here, posts here here and here).
All that being said we should vote less, for less, and on the weekend, and maybe it should even be mandatory, but that’s a different story.