Alberto Mingardi  

Non-voting is a right too

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I can't recommend enough this blog post by Jason Brennan. Brennan, who authored The Ethics of Voting, a truly illuminating book, deals here with the silliest argument people use to convince others to go the ballot box: if you don't vote, you have no right to complain.

The idea behind this often heard phrase is that you shouldn't complain about the political situation if "you didn't do something that could influence government in the way you want it to go", which apparently includes voting. But, Brennan argues, individual votes do not make any difference: "On the most optimistic assessment of the efficacy of individual votes, votes in, say, the US presidential election can have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if you vote in a swing state and vote for one of the two major candidates".

Brennan sees the "if you don't vote, don't complain" rhetoric as a signal of the still widely held view that people actually have a duty to vote in elections.

Among the few, passionate preachers of the right to abstain from voting, people tend to think differently: that is, non voting signals an understanding of the substantial powerlessness of political process per se to change things for the better. The non voter is thus somebody endowed with a far more realistic view of politics, who calls himself out of it because he finds it either immoral or plainly useless. Of course, there are nuances of this view: you can find democratic elections just a fa├žade covering up the reality of power inequalities between the political class and anybody else, you may be frustrated with pork and special interests, et cetera. I think this is an exaggeration as well. It could well be that non voters are by and large people disinterested in politics, who do not properly appreciate how vast an influence Washington or Rome can have on their lives. But if they do not deserve unqualified praise and glorification (well, does any social group deserve unqualified praise?), they certainly do not deserve to be despised just because they do not vote.

Going to the ballot box is a choice: it is too bad so many democracy enthusiasts do not understand this rather simple point.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
DJ writes:

I like to respond to the "don't vote / can't complain" trope with "So I suppose that means you're not allowed to complain about any other state government's policies?"

MikeP writes:

If anyone doesn't have a right to complain about government, it's those who voted for the winner. They got what they wanted.

MikeP writes:

The non voter is thus somebody endowed with a far more realistic view of politics, who calls himself out of it because he finds it either immoral or plainly useless.

Quoting from a comment six years ago...

I enjoy voting, and doing it at the polling place. Where else do you feel the boot of the government so viscerally? You stand in your little booth, doing your little part by voting against every pro-government proposition and for candidates who will never win. And the whole time you see the people of your community around you. And you recognize that those people believe at the bottom of their hearts that they really do have the right to choose your rulers for you -- that doing so is actually their civic duty.

The combination of amusement, sadness, and dreams of lost possibilities cannot be equaled. It's really quite cathartic.

Rob writes:
"On the most optimistic assessment of the efficacy of individual votes, votes in, say, the US presidential election can have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if you vote in a swing state and vote for one of the two major candidates".

That is not the same thing as saying individual votes don't make any difference.

Let's say hypothetically that you believe once candidate's win will lead to a 0.1% smaller chance of nuclear war in the next 3 decades than the other.

Then you would have a 1 in 10 million chance of reducing the probability of nuclear war by 0.1%, that is, you can effectively reduce the probability of nuclear war by 1 in 10 billion.

Assume also that you think nuclear war would be very significant for the far future (e.g. because of a 2% probability reduction that humanity makes it to the stars). Then you have a 1 in 500 billion chance to decide whether humanity colonizes space or not - just by going to the voting booth! (Remember that space is big and the future is long)

Fcajrkc writes:

I always thought an interesting voting procedure would be that a candidate had to receive not only the majority of the vote but that the overall number of voters had to be greater than x% of the registered voters. If that threshold wasn't reached, neither candidate would win. Call it the "None of the Above" voting procedure. I'd love to hear some debate on this concept.

ThomasH writes:

I have not heard too many "democracy enthusiasts" dispute the right not to vote. They are more concerned with state legislatures which are making it more difficult for people to vote, a kind of costly government regulation not much worried about here.

Hopaulius writes:

I agree with Rob and add this: a lone protestor could not have brought down the Berlin Wall. But tens of thousands of individuals could. A single vote cannot determine the outcome of an election, but thousands or millions can. We are governed not by a single voter, but by the people, the collective expression of many individuals. Yes, each has the right not to vote. But individual votes cast are not meaningless.

Pajser writes:

Noble Jason Brennan's claim that one cannot influence the outcome of election so he shouldn't vote is similar to "betray" move in Prisoner's dilemma. It works well only if very few people apply it. If many people apply it, it is losing move.

Back on original claim that abstainers have no right to complain. Imagine simple society: five friends go to dinner. They vote for place. Two vote for pizza, one vote for barbecue, and two abstain. After pizza was elected, abstainers complain that barbecue is better decision. Do you think their non-voting and complain is reasonable strategy? Of course, there are other reasons not to vote. But I think almost all of them are bad.

Tom West writes:

I find that not voting is usually (not always, but usually) a short-hand for not being engaged enough to make any effort whatsoever to change society.

Instead, there's an expectation that somehow society should magically adjust to fit the needs and desires of the non-voter.

Often this is framed as "I just want to do my own thing", as if there's a magical right to be left alone, when there's no magical right to *anything*.

Every aspect of our existence is because people persuaded (and sometimes forced) others to adopt certain precepts. Somehow assuming that they can be achieved without someone doing the work is mere childishness.

(Of course, there are those who work hard for change who don't vote. But pretty darn few.)

So, no, I don't pay a lot of attention to those who don't vote unless they show themselves willing to at least put in the equivalent minor effort in some other facet of societal change. Otherwise it's like a child complaining that his parents didn't work hard enough to leave him a large enough inheritance.

MikeP writes:

Tom West,

I live in California. This November I am completely disenfranchised by the top-two primary. There are no Libertarians on my ballot, and no write-ins are allowed.

Yet I will dutifully go in tomorrow and vote for absolutely nobody in my efforts to get my right to be left alone recognized.

I fail to understand how I have any higher standing than someone else who wants to be left alone but who does not vote tomorrow.

Don Geddis writes:

Tom West wrote:

I don't pay a lot of attention to those who don't vote unless they show themselves willing to at least put in the equivalent minor effort in some other facet of societal change. Otherwise it's like a child complaining that his parents didn't work hard enough to leave him a large enough inheritance.

I enjoyed that quote so much, I just wanted to highlight it an additional time. :-)

James writes:

Tom West:

Why might I as a non-voter want your attention? I want less attention, but more freedom to make decisions rather than have voters make those decisions for me.

I'm guessing none of us voted to decide what our city or state would have for dinner yesterday. Since we have the freedom to make that decision for ourselves, we don't need to vote. Voting is for when you have already lost your freedom.

Rob writes:

James:

Voting is for when you have already lost your freedom.

This is where you are wrong. In order to have lost such freedom, you have to have had it first. The idealized freedom you envision has never existed in any society except perhaps hunter-gatherers, and they had their fair share of individual violence to make up for it.

I think everyone here can agree that less government intrusion in private choices would be better, but you still have to show us how to get there.

Nathan W writes:

I think we should have a mandatory vote and the right to select "none of the above".

Pajser writes:

"Why might I as a non-voter want your attention? I want less attention, but more freedom to make decisions rather than have voters make those decisions for me."

Decisions, in general case, do not influence only individual or group who made decision. Decisions influence whole universe. As we have many wills - and only one universe - we will end with fight. Voting is the method of making decisions that allow us to avoid the fight. If we do not accept voting, we'll have to fight. It is very fundamental justification of the democracy.

Market is sometimes presented as alternative. It reduces the need for collective decisions (although influence on those who do not make decisions still exist - externalities), but it has one large collective decision under the hood: legitimacy of private property. As it is now, support for private property rights is only limited and even libertarians can find their interest in democracy: advocating stronger property rights.

If libertarian assumes that private property is natural right, not the result of human decision, he can see "statists" - no matter of way they make decisions - as his enemy. It is unfortunate, since it leads us back toward the right of the strongest. Although "unfortunate," it doesn't mean yet that radical libertarians are wrong. Argument against absolute private property is needed for that.

Scott Scheule writes:

Rob is absolutely correct. Everyone who only looks at the chance of the individual vote swinging the election is missing a significant part of the argument: the payoff. The reason (rational) people don't play the lottery is you can monetize both the cost of playing and the payoff, and then, looking at the odds, easily see it doesn't pay off.

That's not so easy with political contests. What value results from picking one guy over another? I don't know, but it's possibly a very large amount. If it's large enough, voting becomes a worthwhile strategy.

I still don't vote, because I just don't know what will lead to the better payoff. I allow that it might be huge, massive enough to make voting worthwhile IF I knew what the result of choosing one guy over another was. But I just find the world way too complicated to predict one way or another. See Tetlock.

MikeP writes:

I still don't vote, because I just don't know what will lead to the better payoff.

Then it's good that you don't vote: your vote would dilute the vote of the person who is certain that his vote has a 1 in 500 billion chance to decide whether humanity colonizes space or not.

Hjens writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. --Econlib Ed.]

Tom West writes:

The reason (rational) people don't play the lottery is you can monetize both the cost of playing and the payoff, and then, looking at the odds, easily see it doesn't pay off.

Nonsense. I'm fairly rational, and I occasionally play the lottery. I buy a ticket, and that gives me license to day-dream for a week or two.

Admittedly, I don't usually bother to check if I won, as the time spent to check doesn't match the expected pay-off. I've already got what I paid for.

Of course, I can't understand buying *two* tickets :-).

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