David R. Henderson  

Voting, Public Goods, and Free Riders

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John C. Goodman has an insightful and relatively short post this morning making the case for voting even when you're virtually positive that doing so won't change the outcome of an election. It reminded me of something I wrote in "Market Virtues and Community," Chapter 11 of my The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey. Here it is.

A story from my own experience illustrates the great gulf between what economists claim as rational behavior and what we really believe in our hearts. Before going to UCLA to do graduate work, I had been reading books and articles by Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, and Anthony Downs. They had shown that the probability of affecting the outcome of a typical election was so close to zero that the expected value of voting was substantially less than its cost. Therefore, they concluded, there was no point in voting, no matter which way you would vote, even in a close election. This was even clearer for the 1972 presidential election that was on at the time, because President Nixon was about to trounce George McGovern.

At UCLA that fall, I got into a long, heated argument with another beginning graduate student, in which I laid out Tullock's case for why it made no sense for him to vote. He understood the argument, but wasn't convinced. He said, "But if everyone thought that way and acted on it, the whole system would break down?" "Wrong," I said. "If everyone thought that way, that's exactly when you should vote." We went back and forth, neither of us able to convince the other. I will admit now something that I would not even admit to myself then: Part of my reason for trying to persuade him was that I had just moved from Canada and could not legally vote, and I envied him his right to vote. Three years later, I heard that he had said that now that he was steeped in the UCLA way of thinking, he realized that I was right and he was wrong. I don't know what he thinks now, but I'm convinced that he was right and I was wrong.

What he was articulating was the way he was brought up and, for that matter, the way most of us are brought up. Most of us are taught that when we make decisions, we don't just calculate the effect on our own well-being. We don't necessarily estimate the effect on others' well-being either, because doing so is difficult and often impossible. But we do tend to ask ourselves, "What if everyone acted this way?"

If you have children, you probably raise them to believe that stealing is wrong or that they should not use other people's things without asking. I bet you say something like, "How would you feel if Johnny stole your bicycle?" Why do we say that? Because we are trying to socialize our children, to make them aware that other people count, that other people--to use a formulation from Immanuel Kant that my mentor, Clancy Smith, likes to quote--are ends in themselves also. With such devices and, even more important, with our own modeling, we turn our children into good people.

But think about that. Why should we want our children to be good people? If we totally accepted the economists' model that leads to the free-rider problem, we should want to raise our children to take advantage of other people whenever the cost to our child of doing so--and I use "cost" in the narrowest sense--is less than the child's benefit. I have met hundreds or thousands of economists, and I have yet to meet one who raises his or her child that way. Well, maybe one, but I hope, I pray, for his and his child's sake, that he was kidding me. True, we have lapses. I know one economist who, when the waiter left an item off the bill, told his son not to mention it so that they could pay less. Having lapses is part of being human also. But the overall thrust of how economists raise their children is very much the way noneconomists do it: We teach, and try to model, virtues.


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CATEGORIES: Public Goods



COMMENTS (31 to date)
Greg G writes:

Excellent post David. I am always amused when economists find this to be a big mystery.

We raise our children not to be free-riders because we want them to be happy. It doesn't take a lot of observation of human behavior to realize that the people who go the free-rider route are rarely happy people. The happiest people I know are the ones who consistently pull their own weight and do a little more.
And this is true regardless of economic or political philosophy.

When you do something for someone else, or for your community it adds meaning to your life. When you free-ride it just leaves you feeling empty. Also other people notice what you are doing and that has costs or benefits as well.

Tom West writes:

I fully agree with all you said, of course. But doesn't this somewhat contradict the Randian idea that the greatest human good is achieved by following one's rather more selfish self-interest? (Not stealing, of course, but taking full advantage of 'unforced errors' or public goods, gaming the system, etc.)

At least that's how the Randians I argued with in college put it, and their behaviour had a tendency to lean toward the rather narrow interpretation of self-interest - none had kids, however.

(I don't mean to equate Objectivism with Libertarianism, although there's some overlap.)

magilson writes:

I think you need to draw that line a bit longer to connect these dots. How is voting a marker for a "good person"? Are you saying that voting is the only moral choice? Don't we get into the voting for a candidate accepts all their stances and actions vs. voting for a single issue problem?

Maybe these children will be better adults if they stay home and play a board game with their child rather than participate in mathematical noise. Or is it your argument that it shows your children you made an effort in changing things for the better? Does that still hold true if you rightly admit to yourself that for all purposes you've done the equivalent of sigh at a problem? Couldn't you teach your children to competently address political opponents and thus effect more votes than simply casting their own?

I just feel like this wildly misses the mark.

Tom West writes:

Does that still hold true if you rightly admit to yourself that for all purposes you've done the equivalent of sigh at a problem?

Gestures matter.


How much they matter is usually only apparent once everyone stops making even the gesture.

magilson writes:

I'll be the first to shout from the rooftops that courtesy and decorum are dead.

But is voting now included as a form of manners? It's now disrespectful NOT to vote for a candidate who will surely make 50% of your country happy by angering the other 50%?

I think people need to take a step back. Haven't their been enough Outer Limits episodes to teach us that, with a little perspective, most of our habits and interactions come off as pretty ridiculous?

I'm still not buying it. As I said, I think Mr. Henderson and other who agree with this assertion have a LONG way to go to convince me (and remember, under this premise he's selling it's his duty to do so) that what he's saying holds even a drop of water.

There may be good reasons to vote. But this just ain't one of 'em.

William Barghest writes:

Sure, I can believe that people can cooperate on collectively worthwhile projects for which there is a marginal cost for each person. But why do you think it is obvious that voting is such a project?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
But doesn't this somewhat contradict the Randian idea that the greatest human good is achieved by following one's rather more selfish self-interest? (Not stealing, of course, but taking full advantage of 'unforced errors' or public goods, gaming the system, etc.)
Yes, I think it does.

At least that's how the Randians I argued with in college put it, and their behaviour had a tendency to lean toward the rather narrow interpretation of self-interest - none had kids, however.
When I was a Randian in college, I found myself giving up big parts of my personality that I valued. One can even argue that with a particularly thoughtless comment to my brother--in the last lengthy conversation we had--I helped contribute to his suicide. My comment reflected not what I thought of him but what I thought Ayn Rand would want me to think of him. His death caused me to relook at a number of views I had adopted.

David R. Henderson writes:

@magilson,
As I said, I think Mr. Henderson and other who agree with this assertion have a LONG way to go to convince me (and remember, under this premise he's selling it's his duty to do so) that what he's saying holds even a drop of water.
I probably can't go that LONG way in a short space. I'm not saying everyone should vote. People who mess things up with voting shouldn't vote. See Bryan Caplan's book for more on this. And I don't judge voting by whether it makes some group happy or sad, but by whether one is voting for more or less freedom.
Also, in some elections, when I don't have grounds for favoring this candidate over that, I leave that part of the ballot blank. Let the people who have strong feelings get more of their way.

@William Barghest,
Sure, I can believe that people can cooperate on collectively worthwhile projects for which there is a marginal cost for each person. But why do you think it is obvious that voting is such a project?
I don't think it's obvious either. See my response to magilson directly above.

Tom West writes:

But is voting now included as a form of manners?

Voting is a gesture that indicates to both your fellow citizens and yourself that you actually *care* about the society around you is run and thus, it is a symbol of your care for your fellow citizens.

Of course there are other ways to indicate one's care, and many do contribute is such a fashion, but for most of us, voting and other such voluntary gestures are bricks in house that we build that leads to many small, less symbolic actions to help each other, and occasionally lead to large, very real actions make huge differences in other's lives.

Gestures matter.

magilson writes:

@David R. Henderson

And I don't judge voting by whether it makes some group happy or sad, but by whether one is voting for more or less freedom.

Perhaps you are much better at parsing through the information but I don't feel it's been at all clear for a very long time which candidate will actually increase "freedom" unless one greatly narrows their definition of freedom.

I could not personally stand across from an ideological opponent and tell them to vote because Candidate X is going to increase their freedom over Candidate Y and completely ignore the fact that mathematically their vote is irrelevant simply because their effort in voting is some token gesture.

Also, I don't buy lottery tickets or throw pennies into wishing wells.

John Thacker writes:

I generally think that it is better to vote for a minor party than abstain, if you cannot vote for one of the two major ones. One will usually come closer to your views, a clearer statement is made, and it is much more immune from the charge of "what if everyone did that?"

magilson writes:

@Tom West

Voting is a gesture that indicates to both your fellow citizens and yourself that you actually *care* about the society around you is run and thus, it is a symbol of your care for your fellow citizens.

But it just isn't. It's a gesture that you think 49% of voters have got it completely wrong and you're so sure of it that you'd love nothing more than to force them to understand it.

You can't give a Socialist the freedom they inherently posses without making them really upset over it. Do they believe you "care" about them even if you do?

John Goodman writes:

For what it's worth folks, I believe that Ayn Rnd always voted.

Good post, David.

Bostonian writes:

One reason to vote is to affect the outcome, but another is to strengthen or weaken the mandate of the winner. I was sure that voting for Romney in Massachusetts would not affect that overall outcome, but Obama is in a weaker position with a 50-48 victory in the popular vote than a 60-40 landslide, and I contributed infinitesimally to achieving the former result.

Matt Flipago writes:

One main reason to vote is to affect future candidates. People who vote are the most likely to vote next election, and if your a voter, canidates try to create platforms and policies that are like your view. This has a small but likely real affect on the next election.

So you voting doesn't affect this election, but you can influence future ones. And that's a enough of a reason to vote.

Plus who wants the election that's skewed to the people with the least amount to do, or dumb enough to waist time voting?

egd writes:
When I was a Randian in college, I found myself giving up big parts of my personality that I valued... My comment reflected not what I thought of him but what I thought Ayn Rand would want me to think of him.
I think you missed the point of objectivism then.

Objectivism isn't about making Ayn Rand happy, it's about making yourself happy. If you had to give up big parts of your personality that you valued, then you were sacrificing your own happiness, which is very un-Randian.

Then again, maybe I, as an altruistic Christian objectivist, am wrong about Objectivism. But I'm altruistic because it makes me happy and a games-theory Christian, not because I feel any sense of moral obligation.

Greg G writes:

I would never fail to vote but I do find it easy to believe that the people who think we are better off without them voting are probably right.

Tom West writes:

But it just isn't. It's a gesture that you think 49% of voters have got it completely wrong and you're so sure of it that you'd love nothing more than to force them to understand it.

Well, a gesture's meaning is really only in how it is interpreted by those in the community, and at least in my neck of the words, a high voter turnout is generally interpreted by both the media and my peers as greater civic engagement, with its attendant positive benefits. (Note, for purposes of gesture, your actual reasons for voting don't matter...)

Admittedly that while there are very divergent points of view, at least around here (Toronto, Canada), the divisions between supporters of different candidates aren't nearly deep or bitter as the US media would have me believe exists in the US.

Frankly, I'm rather suspicious that the US is really all that different from here. I think bitterness and rancor probably makes a better media storyline than simple political disagreements that are soon forgotten for another 2 or 4 years. (Does anyone remember which lawn signs that were on their neighbors lawn?)

ColoComment writes:

"I know one economist who, when the waiter left an item off the bill, told his son not to mention it so that they could pay less."

I don't call that a lapse, I call it downright dishonest. If they ate the food, they should have paid for it, error or no.

Shameful conduct.

David R. Henderson writes:

@egd,
Objectivism isn't about making Ayn Rand happy, it's about making yourself happy. If you had to give up big parts of your personality that you valued, then you were sacrificing your own happiness, which is very un-Randian.
First, I didn't ever think it was about making Ayn Rand happy; I thought it was about following her rules. Second, you're making a good point. That's what I came to. I guess one could argue that I'm even more of an Objectivist now. But what I have found is that few Objectivists seem to argue that about me.

Matthew George writes:

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Urstoff writes:

Empathy is the root of morality, not universalizability; we only use the latter to get children to be empathetic in certain situations, and even then, it's only as a stop gap to the real lesson of treating others as moral persons. Outside of Kantian thought experiments, universalizability has little relevance for morality.

magilson writes:

@Tom West

Perhaps Canadians don't step on each other's toes quite as much as Americans seem to want to as of late.

But do you really believe the GLBT community in California and elsewhere interpret an outcome in favor of excluding them from freedom of contract as "positive civic engagement" when a larger than average number of people turn out to vote?

I'm not sure how else to ask this. But you don't really believe what you're saying, do you? It's a romantic, attractive idea. But it falls apart immediately upon literally any examination.

Maybe your media and fellow citizens find themselves sharing the opinion of the majority outcome often enough that you see voting as positive. For the people you disagree with whose lives you dictate, they may swallow their distaste for you. But that's only because of years of being told it's for the best.

Look, I get most of Mr. Henderson's sentiment. Thinking with pure, cold rationality in an economic framework is not the best way to teach a child about "Do Unto Others". But that's a really, really, really long way from you should teach your kids to vote because that's what everyone thinks we should do. Everyone are idiots, by and by. Most of us live amazing lives because of the efforts of a very tiny number of other people. The rest of us float around in that framework super proud of ourselves for no good reason at all.

Not to mention it also leaves a pretty gaping hole in absolutely everything else he's ever believed or asserted. Because if we're supposed to believe that we each should teach our kids our own sense of morality there is literally nothing, not one thing, Mr. Henderson could contradict so long as more people than he believe him to be wrong.

It's just a bizarre argument. I read this blog all the time and rarely comment. But wow is this a doozy. It genuinely caught me off guard.

PrometheeFeu writes:

2 hypothesis:

1) Altruism is the key, not irrationality. I don't steal from other people because I care about them a little bit and stealing from them would be harmful to them. On the other hand, not voting is perfectly rational even if altruistic. If my vote is highly unlikely to change the election, there are much better uses of my time, for myself, my family or even perfect strangers.

2) We act based on heuristics. Maybe your kids should take every opportunity to steal if they won't get caught, but most likely, they will get caught, or at least suspected. This will harm them. So a good heuristic is to not steal or cheat. The vast majority of the time, that will serve you well and looking for the exceptions is an enormous amount of work. On the other hand, voting will almost never change the outcome of the election. A good heuristic is to not vote. And as Daniel Kuehn puts it, heuristics are a maximization method. They're just not calculus.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

"the great gulf between what economists claim as rational behavior and what we really believe in our hearts."

The moral behavior is oriented to the good of the City or the nation (The Greek view)
The moral behavior is oriented to the good of the Neighbor (the Christian view).

The City is nothing but a hierarchical ordering of neighborhoods, thus the Christian and Greek views harmonize.

That the Christian commandment is not to love all but to love one's neighbor is very crucial.

Silas Barta writes:

FYI: Gary Drescher's Good and Real (the latter half) is an extended exposition on the points you make in this post, particularly chapter 7. I drew heavily on it to write this.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Bedarz,

You say, "That the Christian commandment is not to love all but to love one's neighbor is very crucial."

I was not aware of such a distinction. The gospel passage that begins "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29-37) provides an expansion on the definition of "neighbor" in Christian teaching. Also note Jesus' admonition to "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do as much?"

Tom West writes:

I'm not sure how else to ask this. But you don't really believe what you're saying, do you?

Maybe your media and fellow citizens find themselves sharing the opinion of the majority outcome often enough that you see voting as positive. For the people you disagree with whose lives you dictate, they may swallow their distaste for you. But that's only because of years of being told it's for the best.

You are probably correct that if the issues are a huge deal, which they might well be for members of the LGBT community, then winning becomes far more important than anything else. But for the majority, let's face it, the party in power doesn't matter all that much. Rhetoric aside, they're just not all that far apart (especially in Canada.)

This means perceptions of civic engagement usually means more than who won last time.

You do make an interesting point. For those who are completely marginalized in society, voter participation isn't going to be something to celebrate. I suppose that in Canada, we have the courts to deal with the most socially contentious issues (abortion, gay marriage) that would be too divisive for politicians to handle. To be honest, it seems to work better that way, although this is probably because allowing abortion and gay marriage just doesn't seem to be *that* big a deal - even for those who are against it.

I suppose that an interesting question would be: would you prefer a dictatorship that implemented all your preferred policies or the democracy we have today?

A big American/Canadian difference would speak volumes. However, I still have my doubts there'd be a significant difference. Of course, I'm also assuming that democracy would win in a landslide...

Seth writes:

I've always found the argument for judging the benefit of your vote only on the chances of it having an impact on this election unpersuasive and too simple.

As others have mentioned, votes have signaling value. A vote might help weaken or strengthen a candidate's perceived mandate, for example, as someone else mentioned.

Ross Perot attracted 19% of the vote on his fiscal responsibility platform in 1992. That sent a message to the other two parties that fiscal responsibility was important and both parities responded (for awhile) to attract those voters.

There's no reason for a politician to care about what you think if you don't vote. If you do vote, they will care a little more.

David R. Henderson writes:

@magilson,
Because if we're supposed to believe that we each should teach our kids our own sense of morality there is literally nothing, not one thing, Mr. Henderson could contradict so long as more people than he believe him to be wrong.
I'm not clear how you got to this conclusion. I never said that majority opinion determines morality.

mografiorg writes:

I agree with some of the other posters about this articles

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