Reflections on Voting, Incentives, and the State

by | Feb 26, 2018

As much as they might want to deny it, I think people recognize–at some level, anyway–that their individual vote has only a fraction of a fraction (of a fraction) of an impact upon the outcome of a given election.  Keeping up with current events, economics, and foreign policy exacts a cost on voters that far outweighs their individual impact.  Sure, we might like to think that our vote “makes a difference,” but the truth is that one-person-one-vote simply doesn’t register individual preference very forcefully.

The upshot of this cost-benefit mismatch is that voters choose to remain ignorant of many critical issues.  Rather than expending the time and energy otherwise necessary to remain informed, voters choose–understandably–to vote on the basis of what sounds good, what feels right, and what gives them a sense of “helping.”  But even if such voting behavior is understandable, it also perpetuates the re-election of very unpopular politicians at shockingly high rates, and, more to the point, the terrible policies of said politicians thrive.  This is one reason why libertarians generally favor strictly limiting the power of governments.

History and economics tell us that perverse incentives seem to have a direct, positive relationship to state power: the more powerful the state, the greater the probability of economic agents responding to perverse incentives like rent-seeking.  A political environment where rights are protected, contracts are upheld, and state power is limited, by contrast, tends to limit perverse incentives.  Voting in such a limited state may not be any more effective at an individual level–the chances that a single vote makes any difference is still limited to the very rare occurrence of a tie–but fewer lousy politicians and myopic policies are likely to stick around.

Matt Knight

Matt Knight

Matt Knight is an economics major at Utah State University and blogs at Ignore This.

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