David R. Henderson  

Robert Murphy on Voting

Random thoughts on globalizati... Ozimek on Hanauer...

A few days after I posted my critique of Jim Harper's post advocating voting, Bob Murphy posted an excellent critique that affirms my point and goes further.

Recall Jim Harper's statement that even though your vote is highly unlikely to affect who's elected in an election with lots of voters, it still matters for the margin of victory or defeat. I pointed out that your vote has no noticeable effect on the margin either. I wrote:

If you find yourself persuaded by Jim's point about margin of victory, ask yourself this: Think of a candidate, candidate A, whose views you liked a lot more than those of his opponent, candidate B. To make it real think about an actual candidate A whom you voted for. Now ask yourself, without checking data, by what number of votes did he/she win?

Bob puts it this way:
Do you really think anybody cares whether a sitting president won by a margin of 2,321,210 as opposed to 2,321,211? Since that type of miniscule difference will affect the behavior of precisely ZERO people-including the policymakers in DC whom Harper said respond to margins of victory-it follows that casting a vote in a presidential election confers basically no benefits, on the margin, if we are thinking in purely instrumental terms.

But he has a further critique. Here's how he starts his hypothetical situation:
I have been trying for a while to get even my economist friends to "think like an economist on the margin" when it comes to casting votes for president. I think I've finally got it! Suppose the rules are tweaked so that (for some reason) the government approaches Jim Smith and tells him, "Every other eligible voter still gets one vote, just like before, but we've got a deal for you, Jim. You get your first vote for free, like before, but after that, you can cast as many additional votes for president as you want, but you have to pay $100 per additional vote. So how many do you want to buy?"

Read his piece and see where he goes with it.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Yaakov writes:

That is a lovely post by Bob Murphy. Thanks for giving us the link.

Brandon Berg writes:

I can understand why someone would choose not to vote due to the low probability of a single vote changing the outcome. But why are so many libertarians so keen on convincing as many other libertarians as possible not to vote? If you convince enough people, maybe it will change the outcome---just not in the way you want.

anomdebus writes:

It seems like a factor in the decision is at least partially based on the effort required to vote.

If you were able to vote with a minimum of effort (for example, just thinking of your preference some time before the final tally), would that make a difference in your opinion of the value of voting?

If so, then the issue with with the method of voting, not voting itself.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brandon Berg,
I can understand why someone would choose not to vote due to the low probability of a single vote changing the outcome. But why are so many libertarians so keen on convincing as many other libertarians as possible not to vote?
Good question. I can’t answer for them. I’m not trying to convince anyone not to vote, and, as I said in my original post, I myself vote. The people I would like to persuade not to vote, especially on initiatives and referenda in California, are those who would vote opposite from me.
So what I am doing with these posts, if not trying to persuade people not to vote? Analyzing bad arguments, something I tend to do. In class, I have heard people make bad arguments for bottom lines I agree with. I challenge them.

Martin G writes:

Mr. Henderson, a question --

While a agree with the argument that "at the margins voting is meaningless", especially with a large voter pool like a national election, I wonder whether there is another reason to encourage voting among libertarians. What if we think of voting as one of many interrelated political behaviors that politically successful groups share, and that encouraging or discouraging voting will have ripple effects on these other behaviors. So, by convincing your readers not to vote for president, that also affects the likelihood of those people handing out pamphlets, writing letters to the editor, organizing town hall meetings, libertarian meet-ups, and (importantly) trying to convince other libertarians to vote. In this scenario, each of these political activities reinforces the others, voting included.

When viewed this way, the n-thousands of people who read libertarian blogs and are convinced by these arguments may end up not using valuable political energy to influence many many more people of the value of their ideas. In response, it could be argues that people could simply not vote (because it is pointless) and still engage in the other useful activities. But my concern is that psychologically people may not do that. Perhaps political activity is, for those in the "core" of a movement, a "package deal", and voting is a necessary part of that.

Thoughts? Does this make any sense?

Bill Woolsey writes:

I thought that Harper's argument is that voting for a good candidate who won't get many voters is more effective than voting for a lesser evil candidate who will get many votes.

The proportional effect on the losing margin for the good candidate is larger than the proportional effect on the lesser evil candidate's margin. Whether the lesser evil candidate wins or not is beside the point for this argument.

This is correct and a good reason to vote for the good candidate receiving a few votes rather than a lesser evil candidate receiving many votes.

Of course, the point that the proportionately larger effect on the good candidate's margin is close to nil does suggest that this is not much of a reason to vote as opposed to not voting at all.

Worse, the admittedly tiny probability that your (and everyone else's) vote will be decisive in some election creates a tiny expected benefit that is a reason to both vote and for the lesser evil.

If you vote for the lesser evil, it just could be the vote that makes the difference and it adds to the margin whether your vote was futile or unneeded. The proportionally greater addition to vote total of the good candidate weighs in the other direction.

It is seems unlikely it would be decisive.

So, did Johnson get 1,000,000 or 1,000,001 votes in 2012. Such a tiny effect.

Frankly, I really dislike it when free market economists use the "irrationality of voting" as a reason not to vote. If an economist explained that he would not contribute to any other public good because it is rational to free ride, I would have the same view. While we are at it, isn't it "rational" for economists to provide ourselves a concentrated benefit by developing some licensing procedure? The costs will be diffused over many students or business clients or what have you. They probably will be rationally ignorant of the whole thing.

Isn't that what economics is about, how to rationally promote your self interest?

Sure, stealing isn't the same thing as free riding. Failing to vote isn't the same thing as dropping cigarette butts on the street. But then, I not only vote, I pick up litter too.

And I don't think economics is about learning to promote anyone's self interest.

ZC writes:

I really like @anomdebus highlighting that the effort required to vote alters the equation. I can pay my taxes online (far more important to the continuation of this great republic than my voting in a national election), so why can't I vote. Companies allow me to submit proxy votes (where, in many cases, I have far greater influence than I do in a national election), why can't the feds figure out how to lower the barriers to voting (I know, I know, because the way they'd go about it would cost waaay too much money and wouldn't work well...but I digress).

I think an important factor in the voting cost/value calculation which is often overlooked by ardent proponents of voting as a civil duty is that the US is NOT a democracy, as is so often touted by many. It's a republic, which means the value of your vote is further impacted by electoral math and things like the electoral college. Your vote doesn't could directly, but rather, is filtered through some formula which may or may not influence how someone else who's vote actually counts votes.

Now, if we went to proportional representation...then the calculus of the value of an individual vote would change dramatically.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Martin G,
Yes, it does make sense. I don’t know if you noticed, but I don’t try to persuade people not to vote and I vote myself. What I do is go after bad arguments.
When I talk to people, though, I never try to persuade them to vote. If they ask me, and it turns out it’s convenient for them, then I say “Sure, why not?” But what I try to do is get them to write those letters to the editor and go to talks, especially the ones I give. :-) I want to help more people become leaders.

Chris Wegener writes:

Whereas the initial thesis is correct that any individual vote in a large sample is in and of itself unimportant what about the vote that delivers victory?

One vote in each election moves your candidate from being behind to being tied. And one vote moves your candidate from being tied to being ahead. Further during the voting process it may indeed take many votes to push the candidate ahead as others vote for you other candidates.

It reminds me of the story of the man at the bar who finds out that the person next to them will vote for a different candidate. They agree, that since their vote will cancel each others that they can agree to not vote. The second person leaves and the first man sits there looking guilty. The bartender asks him why and he says because that is the seventh person I have made that deal with.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Voting is useful in at least one other way. Much like betting on results in an argument, it forces you to actually decide something concretely based on the information you currently have access to.

You can waver all you want about candidates and resolutions, but to actually vote for one you have to actually decide. For me, that leads to a focused increase in my knowledge of (especially) local politics needed to make an intelligent decision about matters I'd otherwise likely ignore.

On the other hand, I'd prefer people with only preferences based on superficial/fashionable reasons decide not to vote.

For a similar reason, I'd prefer anyone who reads and understands the arguments mentioned above around not voting to actually vote, as that shifts the odds towards a better informed electorate.

Is it rational not to vote if you believe you have a better appreciation of the candidates and issues than the average person likely to vote? No, just like it's not rational to just graze your sheep on the commons, rather than work to convince others to use private property rules for sheep grazing instead.

I find not voting because one vote doesn't matter in the specific election count is shortsighted and only considers the utility of one event in one moment, not its influence on a broader set of events occurring both at the same time and over time.

Thomas Sewell writes:

In the terms of Bob Murphy's post, the price of your special "extra" votes cast would fluctuate based on the expected existing margin of victory for each candidate on the ballot. Saying the cost to you is $100 is arbitrarily putting a fixed price on what would inevitably be a varied price if you were to resell it.

With say 20 candidates on the ballot in a particular election, I'm sure many of their representatives would be more than willing to underwrite your voting for them enough extra to switch the election results based on their polling/exit-polling data.

I can easily see both situations where your "extra" votes would be priced anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, depending on how close the race is expected to be and how much certain billionaires desire a particular candidate to win.

So $100/extra vote may or may not be worth paying, just like any other arbitrary price point. In this artificial case (where the government has set you up as the monopoly provider of "extra" votes), it depends on the demand in the market for those votes.

A school board candidate projected to lose by 1,000 votes (not an unusual margin locally) might be willing to pay $10/vote for 1200 votes if it effectively assures them of the win. All you need is 10 more candidates like that on your ballot and suddenly you're making more than the $100/vote you're being charged for filling out those extra ballots. So again, the postulated fixed price all depends on the market for extra votes.
The most recent election here had a statewide ballot initiative about spending $3.5 Billion out of a state fund or not pass by 20,000 votes. $10 million was spent to influence the outcome. At even $100/vote, they would have spent $3,000,000 more for 30,000 votes in a heartbeat to ensure the victory flipped sides.

Greg G writes:


What are the reasons why you do choose to vote?

David S writes:

I agree that this particular explanation seems unlikely, but in general human instincts are pretty good on these things.

I think it is pretty close to the prisoner's dilemma - if any one person "defects" by failing to vote, not much happens and so they ride free. If too many people fail to vote then the special interest voting blocks completely overrun the country. A typical human solution is to denigrate defectors (non voters in this case).

Still not the whole story though - if I could legally buy extra votes for $0.10 each, I would definitely do that. I wouldn't, if all I was worried about was being shunned by society. I wouldn't spend $100 to buy an extra vote, though. (And to level-set, I do not play the lottery...)

Khodge writes:

If a large number of people are persuaded to "vote like an economist," at what point is the election lost to the person most appealing to economists?

David O'Rear writes:

For every person in my district or state who doesn't vote, my vote increases in value by some margin.

My typical ballot will have a dozen or more seats up for grabs, and a similar number of propositions. Every time someone else doesn't vote, the value of my vote increases, for every item straight down the ballot.

I am humbled by the trust shown to me by those who allow me to have such responsibility. I won't promise not to abuse it.

Hasdrubal writes:

The margin of victory doesn't seem to have an effect on the President's action. After all, wasn't it George W Bush who started using the "We have a mandate from the people" rhetoric (which President Obama has also used) after he won the election but probably lot the popular vote? Tactically, aren't presidential campaigns focused exclusively on getting 270 electoral votes? That's their strategy, it's not about getting as many votes as possible, it's not about winning the popular vote, it's about getting 270 electoral votes. Anything else is is secondary.

Doing nothing other than voting really doesn't make much of a difference, especially voting for President. The best chance you have to make a difference by simply voting is to vote on the small races like local elections and contested house seats. If it makes you feel good, if it makes you feel like you're doing your civic duty, if it's something to hold up as a status symbol in your social circle, of course go vote. But you're not influencing the course our nation is taking by doing so.

The Tea Party movement has been the most successful group at getting their policies implemented recently. But they did a heck of a lot more than just voting: They held rallies to gain prominence and members, they campaigned, they ran their own candidates. The takeaway should be that voting alone isn't really impactful, if you want to participate in our democracy, you have to actively participate.

Charley Hooper writes:

I see two reasons to vote: to swing an election and to have a say.

I once calculated that a California voter would need to vote in 57.5 million elections to be the swing voter that decides a U.S. presidential race. Even if this voter was willing to spend $10,000 to determine the winner, the expected value of his/her vote is only $0.00017, which is clearly less than Murphy's $100. Voting does not make sense in this expected-value way.

The other reason to vote is to have a say. If I'm given a chance to speak my mind and I don't, then I have reduced my moral authority. This is why I vote.

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