Blog Post - Views on the Economy and the World

Why Vote? Follow-up

| Sep. 29, 2016

My preceding blogpost — “A Radical Solution to the Fundamental Flaws in US Politics: Vote!” — received several objections from readers to the effect that I had failed to address the paradox of voting, or “Downs Paradox” (particularly at the Econbrowser site).

That was a deliberate choice on my part.  I suspect that most people understand this issue instinctively, even the non-academic public who are not familiar with the phrase.

Yes, it is true that it is not rational to take the time to vote… if you are a homo economicusnarrowly defined as someone whose utility function includes solely his or her own economic consumption, i.e., you neither care about the welfare of your neighbors nor derive utility from civic participation.  (If that’s you, then by all means, you are welcome to stay home from the polls.  Please do.)  But most of us are not like this.  If you take the time to write a blog-post or to comment on one, for example, you probably derive utility from civic participation.  Personally, I think that maximization of a function that puts some weight on the welfare of others is perfectly rational, a more realistic description of most people’s behavior, and worthy of an economist’s analysis.

If you are focused on the idea that your vote has only a millionth of a chance of changing the outcome of the presidential contest, I would suggest you consider multiplying that probability by the importance of the outcome, which is a million times more important than the time it takes you to vote.

By the way, if you read my column, you will see that I did not use the language of addressing the concerns of a hypothetical reader who is concerned that “my vote [by itself] doesn’t matter.” Rather I said “Let’s consider only those citizens who are as informed and civic-minded as the rest of us, but are alienated by the system and think that ‘votes of people like them’ don’t make a difference.”   In the aggregate, their votes make a huge difference.  No paradox there.

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For Academic Citation: Frankel, Jeffrey.Why Vote? Follow-up.” Views on the Economy and the World, September 29, 2016, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/why-vote-follow.