October 15, 2008

Greetings patriot! Do you wish to do your duty for your country on November 4?  Well, then, just about the last thing you should do on that day is go to the polls and vote.  On the contrary, of all the things you could do this Election Day, voting is surely one of the most useless. 

Mathematically, your vote only makes a difference if an election is either tied or decided by one vote.  If the winning margin turns out to be any greater, the results would have been the same had you not voted at all or voted for the other candidate.  The odds of even the pettiest local race being decided by one vote are vanishingly small.  In a presidential election, they are infinitesimal.  No matter how grave the importance of a particular election, you can depend upon it that your vote will not affect the outcome. 

Now, some argue that it makes sense to vote even despite the slim probability that your vote will make a difference.  Suppose, as seems about right (depending on what state you live in), your vote has only one chance in a billion of deciding a presidential election.  Nevertheless, candidate A’s policies will make everyone in the world on average $1 (or 1 happiness unit) better off.  Multiply that by the world’s 5 billion people, and candidate A will make the world $5 billion better off.  Under these assumptions, your vote has an expected value of $5 (or $5 billion multiplied by one over a billion).  If you can add $5 of wealth to the world at little cost to you, you should do it.  Therefore, perhaps you should vote after all.

The foregoing line of reasoning, however, is misleading.  It makes a number of assumptions that do not hold up. 

First, it assumes that with sufficient information you can predict with reasonable certainty which candidate will do the most good (or the least harm).  But politicians often defy expectations.  Everyone thought Ronald Reagan was a Cold War hawk, for example, but in his second term he negotiated arms reductions with the Soviets and an end to the Cold War.  If you wanted a more hawkish Cold War policy, Mondale may in retrospect have been the better choice.

In other cases, politicians’ policies change in respond to unforeseen events.  In 2000, George Bush not only promised a “humble” foreign policy but chose advisors”€”Cheney, Rice and Powell”€”known at the time for their prudence and moderation.  9/11, as everyone knows, changed all that. If you wanted a more “conservative” approach to foreign policy after 9/11 (“conservative” here being used in its ordinary, lexical sense), Al Gore was in retrospect the better choice. 

Further, even if you can predict what policies a candidate will adopt, you still can’t predict the course of events. Suppose candidate A has better policies on 99 out of 100 issues. Candidate B, by contrast, is right on only a single issue”€”but that issue ends up dwarfing all others in importance. Given the uncertainty of future events, deciding which candidate will outperform the other is largely a matter of arbitrary guesswork.

Second, gathering the information necessary to cast a vote wisely takes far too much time and effort to justify. A voter hoping to make the right choice needs accurate information about (inter alia) the candidates’ platforms, temperaments, advisors, management styles and political effectiveness. Almost nobody, not even the most informed, actually collects all this information.Voters have good reason to be ignorant of political affairs.  The cost of becoming sufficiently informed to vote wisely is enormous. Given the many better ways to spend one’s time, voters should probably not bother to follow politics at all and neglect to vote altogether.

Third, evaluating political information correctly requires superhuman mental ability.  Suppose, for example, you have all of the information out there about a particular candidate’s tax policies. To tell whether those policies are sound, you now need to figure out what the actual consequences of those policies are likely to be. But even economists who study tax policy for a living cannot agree on the effects of competing policies.  Indeed, in every election, some scholars will line up behind one candidate and other scholars behind the other. Nobody on earth has enough cognitive resources to competently evaluate the full range of competing policies offered by any two candidates.

Finally, voters as a whole only decide landslide elections. Close elections, by contrast, invariably get litigated. In other words, if an election were ever close enough for an individual vote to affect the outcome, the election would not be decided by voters but by judges. In contested elections, the courts get to select the remedies they believe will achieve the best outcome. One doesn’t have to be cynic to realize that, in close elections, it almost doesn’t matter how individuals have actually voted. The government will count the votes in the way that the judges deem fit. In the end, the odds of an individual’s vote actually deciding an election the real world are not merely infinitesimal.  They are literally zero.

So there you have it:  Your vote has an expected payoff of exactly zero. Even if your vote does have a non-zero expected payoff, the costs involved in casting a vote intelligently almost certainly outweigh the benefits. Therefore, your vote will not do the world any good”€”or any harm for that matter. Vote if you feel like it. But treat it the same way as a decision to go fishing. Nobody thinks that you do the world a favor by going fishing for an hour. Nor do you do the world a favor by going out and voting.


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