Another election day is upon us. We’re told that we have a duty to vote because so many Americans gave their lives for that right. But perhaps it ought to be spelled R-I-T-E, as in a religious ritual.
Is it a duty or a right? Let’s make up our minds. In 21 countries voting is mandatory — although the law is not always enforced — but that absurd idea has never had traction here. There is something weird about an alleged right that one is compelled to exercise. It certainly would be unique.
And did Americans really fight wars for the vote? Many who were killed in wars that the government tricked them into fighting might have thought they were risking their lives for freedom, but the freedom to vote probably didn’t rank high on the list. Americans certainly died in the domestic struggle for full citizenship — civil rights– which includes the vote, and I don’t mean to disparage that struggle.
I’m saying that the freedom to govern one’s own life is more important than the vote, and deep down people know it. In our private lives individual action really counts: we tend to reap the lion’s share of the benefits and pay the price of our actions. When I go to the supermarket to buy eggs, I am confident that I’ll bring home eggs. Virtually all the costs, both in time and money, and the benefits are mine; thinking about them is how I decide if going to the supermarket is worthwhile in the first place.
Voting is different. Individual action is almost always indecisive — each person has only one vote, and the costs and benefits of each person’s decision are widely and thinly dispersed throughout society. That disconnect breeds irresponsibility.
Imagine if we shopped for groceries the way we pick rulers. On Shopping Day you would walk into the supermarket and see before you two (maybe three or four) sealed pre-filled shopping carts. Each cart has a different selection of products. Your task is to vote for a cart from among the candidates. That may not be easy. Undoubtedly, you would like some of each cart’s contents and dislike others. You would have to decide which one has more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. And no, you would not be to able exchange items with other people.
So you would mark your ballot and then return home to watch the election returns. The cart that you get to bring home is the one that wins 50 percent plus 1 of the votes or perhaps a plurality. Of course, it may not be the one you voted for. Oh well. (To make this even more like politics, the cart you bring home isn’t exactly like the one you saw in the supermarket. Campaign promises are notoriously ephemeral.)
I submit that that would be a stupid way to shop for groceries. But that’s the system we use to pick the people who are empowered to meddle in our lives, embroil us in war, and do other foolish things that no one has any business doing. I acknowledge that voting is preferable to violence for selecting rulers, but when Churchill said democracy beat any alternative, he overlooked a contender: consistent liberalism (libertarianism), which does not allow majorities to negate individual rights.
Mathematically, one vote is rarely decisive and that’s only in the smallest jurisdictions. As the late public-choice economist Gordon Tullock pointed out (watch the video “Voting Schmoting”): “It’s more likely that you’ll get killed driving to the polling booth than it is that your vote will change the outcome of the election.”
No election in my adult lifetime would have turned out differently had I done something other than I did on election day. Not one. While the smaller the vote pool, the greater the chance of a tie, greater is not the same as great. In most places that chance is insignificant. People still talk about how close the 2000 Bush-Gore vote for president was in Florida. But the margin there was 537 out of nearly six million votes. As far as I’ve been able to determine, no individual Floridian cast or declined to cast 537 votes that day.
So when the good-government types tell you to get to the polls because “every vote counts,” you know not true. It is certainly true that the winner by definition must have more votes than the loser. (Presidential elections are more complicated, of course.) But each person has only one vote, and it will make no difference. The only action you can control will not decide the outcome.
Someone might object that although your chance of casting the decisive vote is typically only the tiniest bit above zero, you won’t know for certain how things will turn out until the votes are counted — so you’d better vote. But if that were the right way to look at it, playing the lottery would be a good financial strategy because your chance of winning, no matter how small, is greater than zero. But it’s not a good strategy. Except in truly desperate circumstances, we don’t usually undertake a course of action unless we see a reasonable chance of success. That’s how we avoid wasting scarce time, energy, and resources. Instead of voting, perhaps your time would be better spent doing something that has a reasonable chance of making a difference in some way that matters to you. Every action — including voting — has opportunity costs.
Tullock wasn’t telling people to stay home on election day. He pointed out that many people vote because they like to vote, and he meant no criticism of them. Voters can have many reasons for liking that activity, such as feeling part of a like-minded group of people. Tullock simply thought that aiming to determine the outcome of an election is a bad reason to vote.
People can also have good reasons to dislike voting. They may not want to participate in a civic religious-style rite, which apologists for the government power will invoke in order to blame the voters and excuse the politicians and bureaucrats for bureaucratic incompetence and misconduct. If “we are the government,” as we are often told, then the fault must lie in ourselves. But are we the government? Or is popular sovereignty the secular equivalent of the divine right of kings — a fiction to rationalize an elite’s power over us? (See the section titled “The Fiction of Representative Government” in my article “The Misrepresentation of Health Care Reform.”)
One last thing: we are also told that if we don’t vote we have no grounds to complain. That fallacy was put to rest in 1851 when the classical liberal Herbert Spencer pointed out that, apparently, voters have no grounds to complain either because those who voted for the winner got what they wanted and those who voted for the loser accepted the rules of the game. So everyone must shut up and obey. How convenient.