Friday, July 06, 2007

Why bother to vote?

Having spent the last four years immersed in voting issues as a citizen activist, I was upset by the dissing of voting that I read in the July 9 New Yorker book review, Fractured Franchise - Are the wrong people voting? by Louis Menand. The reviewed book is The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics, by an economist, Bryan Caplan, who is a self-described as “A well-known libertarian/anarchist professor” and, according to my Google search, supports Ayn Rand’s legacy.

I have to ask myself if I’m upset because what I read is largely true and I’m out of touch and have wasted four years of my life and jeopardized my health by caring so much about voting? Or is Caplan just plain wrong or at least partially wrong?

As an economist, Caplan focuses on financial gain as the main motivator for everything we do, and from that standpoint, voting is a waste of time.

From Menaud’s review: “For fifty years, it has been standard to explain voter ignorance in economic terms. Caplan cites Anthony Downs’s ‘An Economic Theory of Democracy’ (1957): 'It is irrational to be politically well-informed because the low returns from data simply do not justify their cost in time and other resources.” In other words, it isn’t worth my while to spend time and energy acquiring information about candidates and issues, because my vote can’t change the outcome. I would not buy a car or a house without doing due diligence, because I pay a price if I make the wrong choice. But if I had voted for the candidate I did not prefer in every Presidential election since I began voting, it would have made no difference to me (or to anyone else). It would have made no difference if I had not voted at all. This doesn’t mean that I won’t vote, or that, when I do vote, I won’t care about the outcome. It only means that I have no incentive to learn more about the candidates or the issues, because the price of my ignorance is essentially zero. According to this economic model, people aren’t ignorant about politics because they’re stupid; they’re ignorant because they’re rational. If everyone doesn’t vote, then the system doesn’t work. But if I don’t vote, the system works just fine. So I find more productive ways to spend my time.'” [bolding mine]

In my humble opinion as a citizen, voter, and with my closely-held belief that there are non-economic reasons for living, I’m wondering why economic terms control. I don’t disagree with Caplan’s point that voters are ignorant, but I’ve found that the reasons aren’t related to the lack of a financial pay-off. My work on public funding of campaigns with the California Clean Money Campaign and on vote counting accuracy with Election Defense Alliance has convinced me that many citizens in this country, unlike the citizens in Scandinavian countries where a very high percentage of people vote, don’t vote because:

1. They aren’t getting accurate information about issues and candidates from the mainstream media or meaningful debates;

2. They don’t feel their vote counts, not because their one vote is meaningless but because they don’t believe elected officials listen to the average voter. Wealthy people and corporations fund their campaigns, so they are listened to;

3. An increasing number of voters wonder if their votes are correctly counted as an increasing percentage of the ballots are counted on secret software with no opportunity for citizens to observe the vote counting process. With 83% of the votes in this country counted by two voting machine vendors with known ties to one party, this is not an unreasonable concern.

(cartoon –


Anonymous said...

Caplan's belief that economists will vote rationally is silly. Economists, like the rest of us, are creatures of emotion, for the most part. In philosophical terms, Caplan is a rationalist:that is, he greatly exaggerates the influence and usefulness of rational thought. Caplan also seems to be, from the review I read, a follower of Ayn Rand, who was foolish and third-rate.

Economists differ in their views of the economy (and in their views of everything else).

It is a fact that one vote will not influence a national election.

When you vote, what you are doing is accepting the governance system. You agree to be part of it. Voting is optimistic.

I suspect that people don't vote because they lack optimism about the system and don't want to endorse it. And for many other reasons. There is no one reason.

It is clearly better to decide issues by voting than to decide them by brute force. That is the strength of democracy. The central weakness is that 51% of the voters can mistreat the other 49%--and so on. Another weakness is that voters can be confused by manipulative leaders. You can fool some of the people.

We need something better than democracy, but I have no idea what that would be.


Art Hofmann said...

I read the article last night, and must confess that it is very disturbing. The reason for that is that I fear he may right to some degree. In the film Sicko there are two segments, one w. Tony Benn, the old man of the left in Britain, and with some Americans living in France, both of whom said essentially the same thing: Americans are afraid of their government. In England and France, the government is afraid of the people. Put that together with this inability to think of the larger picture, the larger good, and you have a powerful disincentive for voting. It doesn't look good.

Chris Borland said...

I think most people don't vote becuase they're lazy and have "better" things to do with their day (they don't value civil rights, don't think about them, and really couldn't care less -- unless the sky is falling, at which point they would have to take notice). To them, it's not important to vote.

A substantial number would vote, if there was actually somebody running for high office who was inspiring and charismatic and had an uplifting message (this is almost never the case, since most candidates compromise their values too much to generate this kind of interest among people; often, people feel they're choosing between the "least of two evils," and that's just not very interesting).

I believe some people on the far left or the far right don't vote because it's so painful to be reminded how hopelessly corrupt our country and "democracy" is, and how disappointing it is to try to change the system but yet to be utterly unable to make even the slightest real difference. Better to pretend it's all not happening, Just ignore reality. Forget it. Think about other things. It's not worth it; the pain is too acute. The same reason people become addicted to drugs, etc. -- the pain of being unable to change their unhappy reality is too great, so it's better to go into denial where at least there's temporary relief.

Anonymous said...

I always vote (okay once I didn't vote in a local election in Washington, D.C. where the ever-entertaining but corrupt Marion Barry was the Democratic candidate and the other a Republican who was a spokesperson for the business community, but otherwise I have ALWAYS voted).

So why do I? I think it's because voting makes me feel part of the community, the state, and the country in which I live. I like figuring out which state initiatives to vote for and which to vote against.

I have worked in the polls since 1998 and I also love chatting with the people who come to vote. It was a sad day when so many polls were closed and I didn't see my neighbors.

Reflecting on what I have written leads me to conclude that because I like feeling connected I vote.


Roland Jacopetti said...

Voting has become just about a 100% media event, and the voting public is part of an immense conglomeration of extras in an updated "Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington", and we don't even get extra scale pay.
Issues? Who cares? Issues aren't what stimulate people to vote one way or another. It's personalities and spin and marketing. For quite some time, I've been telling my friends that the ideal Democratic candidate for the presidency is Martin Sheen. They laugh, but I'm not joking. Actually, Martin Sheen IS ALREADY the president, with years of experience. He looks right, he's part Hispanic, he's extremely likeable and he's an excellent actor. Ideal!
And, increasingly, the whole construct of electoral politics in the U.S. just seems like a huge scam. Spend the most money on a campaign, and emerge victorious. Will I continue to vote? Probably, until someone suggests an even faintly viable alternative.
Roland Jacopetti

Jeff Strahl said...

1. It's a travesty for someone who is a follower of Ayn Rand to call himself an anarchist, anarchists have always considered the capitalist market (worshipped by Randists as the source of all good) the highest form of coercion, constructed and propped up as it was by the Enclosures, which continue to this day, wider than ever.
2. I have made it a point to not vote for candidates, only for ballot measures. The people that you vote for make up a facade, a layer of officials whose job is basically to ensure the continued functioning of the state machinery, whose job is to facilitate capital accumulation. The real levers of power are wielded by the owners of capital, regardless of which party is in office. The deliberations of groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations are far more important than those of Congress, you can usually see congressional proposals first as policy papers drafted by Council task forces. This whole "representative government" business has been a swindle from day one, a way to convince people that they are participating in a democracy which is actually an economic dictatorship, as admitted openly by the likes of James Madison.

Anonymous said...

My opinion why people don't vote:

They think they can't make a difference(especially young people)

They think their vote doesn't count

Our media sensationalizes politics and people are turned off by it.

Of, course there's past election issues which are depressing for most and prefer to not partake in the process.

Anonymous said...

Re Martin Sheen for President . . .

For a few years I had a homemade bumper sticker on my car that had a picture of Martin Sheen along with the words "My President is Martin Sheen!"


John in Cincinnati said...

The comment, "they’re ignorant because they’re rational," is absurd.

It's a truism to say one vote doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but blocks of votes do, and blocks of individuals often vote irrationally and against their self-interest--economic self-interest to keep this in Caplan's terms.

Think of the low SES worker whose factory just closed due to our trade policy, yet he voted for Bush. Or, the middle class couple who were thrilled to get a few hundred backs back on taxes while their kids' tuition went up $2K.

No, voters vote irrationally and often against their own best interest due to a misinformed and misguided allegiance born of their ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Earlier today I sent Lynn Woolsey a letter describing an interaction with three young adults who do not vote. “Yesterday while collecting signatures for impeachment I met three young adults alienated from the political process. I spent some extended time with them. They feel powerless because they view, rightly I believe, their government as acting only in the interest of the rich and powerful. ... I was able to get them to sign the petition after a conversation of their options, despair or action. I suggested that an impeachment action in our House would signal a change in the balance of power as it should be towards WE THE PEOPLE.”

As for the economists’ argument that voting doesn’t affect individuals’ financial status their analysis is based on the assumption that individually we can let others do the heavy lifting and still benefit from a job well done. The fact that we work three times as much as we did thirty years ago, and much harder than other industrialized nations do, is a result of that type of thinking. My parents lived during the two World Wars and the Great Depression. They had a strong identity as a member of a societal group. Our generation had that through the Carter administration, but with the end of the Viet Nam war and the onset of adult responsibilities, children, I believe that we lost that view. Well some of us did and others did not.
Not Very Anonymous, dan

Gail Jonas said...

To all of you who posted comments or sent me a personal e-mail:
Thank you very much for taking time to respond and for responding so thoughtfully.

I really do wonder if I've been wasting my time working on voting issues; however, that a dozen comments were posted tells me that voting matters.

Even though many of you, like me, are bothered by the reasons people don't vote, I'm not reading/hearing that what's going on is hopeless.

Besides blogging, I'm working on creating videos using a camcorder with the goal of creating short videoclips that I can upload to YouTube. If I can get filming, editing and uploading skills under my belt, I think I'll head out and start asking people about why they vote or don't vote.

Ann said...

Okay, Gail, you've brought me back into the fold of commentary...

I vote because I think it is important to exercise my right to vote, because if I don't use it (exercise the right) I just may lose it (the right to vote) to dictatorial sons of b****** like Bush and Cheney.

We have lost much of the activist community due to economic considerations—it used to be that one did not have to work 70 hours a week to subsist. However, with the permeation of consumerism into every portion of society (which began to be heavily promoted, advertised, and rewarded post-WWII) people are working harder to simply survive (the cost of living is so steep that it takes two people to support a family, even without buying into the consumer ethic). This sharp change from the potentials of subsistence living came about sharply during the oil embargo in the 70s, regulation of much of our lives for various purposes to “increase” our standard of living, as well as other changes (i.e. deregulation—which helped deregulate affordability and guarantee big profits to big businesses) in both our government and our values.

We have lost much of the idealism that stirred us during the Civil Rights Movement and the early environmental movement, and have found it very hard to instill that idealism in our children, to make them aware that principles are far more important than they think and that voting, protesting, and activism are important civil liberties within a (purportedly) democratic republic. Not voting, protesting, or being politically active are the best ways to become defeatist and pessimistic, and the path to losing those very rights they refuse to exercise (does anyone know where Habeas corpus went?).

Yes, I get angry with my “fellow Americans” when they blindly follow corrupt leaders (by saying, “they are our leaders and of course they have more information and that is why they make the decisions they do”). I am angry that the leaders we so strongly sent that message to in November, failed to “get it.” I strongly support impeachment of Bush and Cheney et al because to NOT bring the articles of impeachment to the floor is to silently condone the lies and misrepresentations we have been given. Sometimes the ideal is more important than the actual outcome, and this is a clearly time for promoting human values and ideals that reach beyond our borders and that encompass not just humanity, but the very important right of ecosystems to exist without threat by unconscious “development” that may drive all of us to the brink of extinction.

We MUST tell the world that the United States is still filled with compassionate, intelligent, thoughtful people who believe in those ideals so clearly written into our the Bill of Rights, and that these ideals apply to ALL not just to those lucky enough to be “born American.”

This leads us to the fact that economics is NOT life—there are many more important things than the consumerism that drives us. A walk in nature, holding a loved one's hand, kissing your grandchild's precious little neck, hugging your dog...these are all very special important parts of LIVING.

So, as long as I breathe, I will hold the right to vote precious and dear, and I will exercise that right (whether or not it “counts,”) because in the big picture my right to voice and protect my opinions, even if I am in the minority, COUNTS.

Weedgardener said...

"As an economist, Caplan focuses on financial gain as the main motivator for everything we do, and from that standpoint, voting is a waste of time."

Huh. Why read any further? No sane person believes this.

Ayn Rand wasn't just a bad writer; she was completely ignorant of human nature, as are her followers, however fanatical. Almost everything we do is for reasons much richer and more complex than financial gain.

Do you walk in the mountains or eat a ripe peach for financial gain? What is that tug at your heart when your child stumbles--the profit motive?

Rand appears to be clueless about the emotional makeup of ordinary humans.

Anonymous said...

Weedgardener--I love your list of 3 non-economic motivations in life. How poetic. I just smiled and thought weedgardener has captured the essence of life.

Now, if we could just make that leap from mountains, peaches and children to the franchise. . . the United States would be a better country.


mnuez said...

You gotta love economists (almost as much as you gotta love lawyers, politicians and casino owners). They have full and complete faith in the ability of the individual human being to engage in his most responsible, self-benefiting behavior when he engages in the market (despite the few measley trillions of dollars spent in psychological/marketing studies designed to fool people into spending money in ways that do not serve their best self-interests) yet they have zero trust in the same small human unit when it comes to his knowing how to vote his self-interests.

Wonderful human beings, these economists. Let’s put them in charge. (I’m joking of course, they already are in charge.)

Update: Wow. I wrote the above when only about a third of the way through the linked-to article. Having a fascination with the science of economics though I continued reading the piece in the assumption that – though I might disagree with and dislike the beliefs and goals of the economists of the piece (the economist written about and the economic-minded fellow doing the writing) – I would probably learn something interesting nonetheless.

Well, I’ve read further and the learning has yet to have taken place. What I have come across however are patronizingly disgusting biases disguised as honest reporting.

Here for example, the article’s author offers a few theories he considers to be silly and naive as to why allowing everyone to vote might be something less than a tragedy. Among these naive theories that silly people might grasp at so as to rationalize the allowance of universal voting, the author offers...

"Then, there is the theory that people vote the same way that they act in the marketplace: they pursue their self-interest. In the market, selfish behavior conduces to the general good, and the same should be true for elections."

But of course that isn’t the case. In the market, you see, every guy who buys a fifty thousand dollar car because well-designed ads have convinced his subconscious that he needs this cars lest he be emasculated – is of course benefiting and serving his truest “self-interest” with this debt-inducing purchase. With regards to voting, by contrast, people might stupidly support policies that well respected Objectivists know to be contrary to Randian philosophy.

And here’s the article’s offering of the “four main areas” where people have terribly “irrational” misunderstandings regarding economic policies that “differ from [those of] the economic expert”.

"The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy)."

So in short, being suspicious of the profit motive is silly, being employed is less important than ensuring that good “productivity” is taking place and strawmen (xenophobia and alarmist fears as having anything to do with people’s interest in some protectionism and governmental intervention) are always fun.

Then there’s some more mockery of people’s silly interest in survival (“people really believe that the country would be better off if profits were regulated, if foreign goods were taxed, and if companies were prevented from downsizing”), some school-mistressly scare-mongering of the silly little boys (“politicians who pander to these beliefs are more likely to be elected, and the special interests that lobby for protectionism and anticompetitive legislation are the beneficiaries—not the public. The result, over time, is a decline in the standard of living”) and the inevitable coup de grace of suggesting as reasonable that none but Economics Orthodoxists be allowed to vote in elections.

But really now, why concern ourselves with matters such as these when somewhere in Wyoming there may be a crazy on the loose?