David R. Henderson  

The Case for Voting

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As I noted in "My Case for Activism," I found co-blogger Byran Caplan's objection to voting underwhelming. To be fair, he wasn't saying that other people shouldn't vote; rather, he was saying that he found voting "traumatizing."

Six days after Bryan's post, commenter GregS made an important point that I fear will get lost in the shuffle but is important enough to share. It expresses my view of voting. Here it is:

Suppose that by not voting you're setting a bad example for your audience. A number of young, impressionable people see your talks or read your blog and are convinced by your arguments. But they are then put off by your refusal to vote. Some of them remain fully convinced of your arguments, but you persuade them not to vote. And some decide that you're just not serious if you're not putting forth the tiny effort required to vote, so you lose them completely. I want to ask how many such people would there need to be to convince you to vote? Is there a number? A single vote is small, but a room full of voters could sway an election, particularly at the local and state level.

In this same vein, consider "Don't vote but tell people you do" as an irrelevant third option, one of those tricks from behavioral economics where nobody really wants the third option but it makes the chooser flip their selection. (The other options being "vote and tell people you vote" or "don't vote and tell people you don't vote.") You'd nudge policy in the libertarian direction if your "example" convinced a few hundred libertarians to vote, but I suspect your conscience would nag you. I think you'd like to have the example-setting benefits of voting along with the "trauma"-sparing benefits of not voting, but your conscience wouldn't allow you to be that dishonest.

If you're an influential opinion leader, voting isn't just about your single vote. It's about setting an example.


When I posted about my view of voting on Facebook, there followed an interesting discussion in which one FB "friend" (I don't actually know him but we are friendly) suggested that I actively try to get out the vote, for reasons GregS discusses above, but that, if asked whether I vote, say Yes even if it's a lie. I told him that I refuse to lie. Not in all cases. (SS man: Are the Jews in your basement? DRH: No.) But in the vast majority of cases. If you think voting is traumatizing, try lying. So GregS's comment above is a propos.

Incidentally, I spent a large part of my day yesterday shooting a couple of 30-second ads that ideally will be used in California on a particular proposition on the ballot. (I would name the proposition but I don't want to use EconLog to appear to be advocating one way or another on a particular vote.) In one of the alternate endings--I don't know which one will be used--I said "Join me in voting No on . . ." It would be weird, and really pretty awful, to say that and then not vote.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)

Your ideas as expressed here, David (and also I believe Bryan's ideas previously expressed) entirely overlook a crucial issue.

What is the source of beneficial social order?
Do you believe the good things that we have in America came about because of votes cast in a democracy? I do not believe such a thing. The best of social orders have grown spontaneously, guided perhaps by an invisible hand, for reasons unknown to the 99.99%. And even for the 0.01%, which would include me of course, I can't be sure that we have figured it out.

In American history as I cast it, the colonies started out with tiny governments. Those governments grew — as seems to be the nearly universal habit of governments — but overall the economy grew faster than the state. That's why America is still a pretty good place. We are blessed by a relative absence of state. We are not blessed by ability to vote on rules which will be imposed upon others.

If you care about the example you set, show that you believe in voluntary order. Do not vote, and try to help other people start to see the invisible hand.

Don Boudreaux writes:

I wrote this blog-post at Cafe Hayek before seeing Richard Hammer's comment above - which makes a point (and does so better) that I make in my post.

Philo writes:

I am not an opinion leader, so I needn't worry about my influence on others. (Even my wife pays no attention to my political actions.). But the effort required to vote is minuscule, so I will do it if I think there will be even a very small benefit. Contrary to Richard Hammer (above), I think my best course is to vote for the Libertarian Party; but, I admit, it's a close call whether to vote at all (in national elections).

Yaakov writes:

1) There is an enormous difference between voting people into office and voting for a specific proposition. I totally agree we should vote on the specific propositions, despite the bad feelings (when I vote as a Wikipedia editor I find myself too involved in the outcome and very disappointed if I lose). In voting into office people we can't trust, it does not matter.

2) One things politicians fret is low voting rates. I assume this is partly because somebody could come one day and get all these people to vote in a manner disrupting their cushy system. So not voting is also voting.

Khodge writes:

Richard and Don both presume that David, were he to discourage voting in general, would be heard by all parties who would, thus, be identically influenced to not vote. The end result is more likely that the economically literate voice is unduly suppressed because the illiterate voice is not the econlog audience thus moving the margin away from libertarian preferences.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Richard O. Hammer,
I find your comment strange. It’s as if you haven’t been reading my approximately 2500 posts, and I know you have. The things you recommend I do are things I’m doing. That has precisely zero to do with whether or not to vote.
@Khodge,
Good point.

Mike Long writes:

It may be worthwhile separating local from state or national elections. In local elections such as for a school board or city council, voting and active participation in the political process can have a significant influence on local government policies and quality of life. And in such elections one vote can make a difference. That would seem to me to be a worthwhile effort. Not so much state and national elections. Of course, local politicians eventually seek higher office. But perhaps the earlier efforts will provide a better pool of candidates.

@David Henderson
Thank you for pointing out that from your viewpoint my reasoning jumps over an unfathomable gap. Both you and GregS, whom you quote at length, seem to believe that voting is something done by a responsible citizen. I do not believe that. I feel allegiance — not to a democratic state — but to the larger and better future of humanity. I would love an opportunity to discuss at sufficient length with you whatever differences make up this gap between our views.

If you have both spare time for reading and motivation to probe our gap, I suggest you read my 2003 paper The History of Free Nations. I will welcome and answer your questions. Then read the books by Oppenheimer, Benson (Part I especially), Paterson, and Kuhn listed in the bibliography of that paper. Then more of my papers.

I have been reading your posts. I admire the work you do as you usher many people from the margins into the values of liberty and self responsibility. But I do not aim to join you in that valuable undertaking. I admit that I am trolling, not for democrats and republicans to lead toward libertarianism, but for leaders such as you David to join me in a separate valuable undertaking: improving the theory which underlies libertarianism. I feel lonesome in the intellectual outpost which I have homesteaded.

But, if as I must expect you have no inclination to launch now on a new career, I will continue to appreciate the good work you do in leading hundreds to the entrance to a good path. In addition to all the good which must result from your work, one or more of those travelers may eventually find interest in my project.

John Goodman writes:

Years ago I didn’t vote because of the Public Choice reasoning we all are familiar with.

But when I explained my reasoning to non-economists, rather than thank me for my brilliant insightfulness they reacted as if I were a pariah.

The way to think about this is in terms of private production of public goods. I live in a city (Dallas) where millions of dollars have been spent on institutions – from museums to parks to historic buildings – all produced privately. It is a city in which people are expected to contribute to the public goods in order to be a member in good standing in the community.

Similarly, the election of a candidate is a public good. Admitting that you didn’t bother to vote at all because the cost exceeded the expected benefit to you is an admission that you have no obligation to others in your political affinity group. You are free to do it. But don’t expect to have any friends – except maybe some economists.

So today, in important elections I vote. And I let like-minded people know that I expect them to vote as well.

Roger McKinney writes:

Mises wrote that even dictators must give in to the will of the majority. That's even more the case in a democracy. The majority will have its way whether I vote or not.

If only a tiny minority voted but voters came from a random sample of the nation, the majority would still win.

If I agree with the majority there is no reason to vote and if I disagree I can never win.

I'm mostly against voting because of the social pressure to do so and because of the ridiculous importance society places on it. Voting is a ritual of statolatry.

Vasilis Kostelidis writes:

Is this the major argument?: "Your vote will not change the result of the election, but we must vote and we must also say that we vote, because if we don't do it, people might get influenced and bad things may happen".

Please correct me if I am wrong.
If I am not wrong, then:

I don't want to sound extreme, but this reminds me of the following: "I believe it is perfectly OK to show the face of Muhammad in a satirical way, but we should not do it because people may make wrong decisions" (discussions following the 2006 cartoon crisis).

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