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Voting is Rational, but People Don’t Vote Rationally

By Chris | November 20, 2008

I’m about a month later than most to ponder the workings of our democracy.  But, given that a few elections are still up in the air, the topic is still somewhat timely.  The book I learned the most from this year, was “The Myth of the Rational Voter” by Bryan Caplan, which I reviewed last winter here.  Caplan argues that because the marginal impact of a single vote is almost zero, people vote to indulge their biases and satisfy their consciouses.  Mainstream economists often note that from an individual’s perspective, it is irrational to vote.  If there is a 1/100,000,000 chance of deciding an election that might increase my wealth by 10,000 dollars, the expected value of voting is a fraction of a penny.  However, such analysis ignores the positive externality of a well-informed vote.  If your vote has a 1/100,000,000 chance of deciding an election that will save the country 1 billion dollars, the expected value of your vote to the country is $10.  I want other informed people to vote.  Other informed people want me to vote.  If we all act strictly rationally and stay home, we are all worse off.  There is a reason people call voting a civic duty.  By voting and expecting other intelligent, informed people to the same, I marginally increase the social pressure to vote.  It is rational for a society to want it’s informed citizens to vote.  And it is rational for individual citizens to want to encourage that norm.  Sure, as an individual I can stay home from the polls and free ride on the social norms that motivate informed citizens to vote.  However, social norms aren’t decided by a majority.  And, my individual decision is much more likely to shift social norms in an expected way than it is to influence the election.  This is particularly true if my sphere of influence is quite large.  And, even if it is rational to free ride on everyone else’s civic duty, humans seem hard wired to follow  social contracts.  Most people don’t run red lights.  Even if it is 4:00 in the morning and no one is around and the chance of being caught is almost nil.  We know we’re being irrational, and yet something inside us says we shouldn’t do it.  We’ve agreed to a social contract and undermining that norm is scary enough that we patiently wait for the light to turn green.

So it is rational to vote, or at least to encourage other informed people to do so.  However, people don’t vote rationally.  Bryan Caplan argued that people fall victim to common biases such as the anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias.  What confused me is why so many people insist on voting for a one of the two major parties?  Why not just vote (to encourage the social norm) and then secretly vote for whoever you like best?  It’s not as though voting for Nader over Obama will swing the election one way or the other.  I voted for a third-party this election and found it to be personally gratifying.  I get to voice my principles, avoid the disappointment of voting for the loser, and dodge the need to defend the actions of the person I helped vote into office.  And yet,  people overwhelmingly vote for one of the two major parties.  There is something alluring about one’s vote have meaning, even if it will almost certainly be inconsequential.

Topics: College, Economics, Political Science | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Voting is Rational, but People Don’t Vote Rationally”

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