The economics of voting – or why it make sense for most people not to

One of the great things about economics is that it allows you to think clearly and logically about subjects that are usually shrouded in sentiment. When you hear “economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing”, you are hearing sentiment complaining about being told to take a back seat to logic.

Take your ‘democratic duty’ to vote. There is, of course, nothing of the kind. The many people who struggled to win the right to vote in Britain (and the United States and elsewhere) were fighting so that they could vote, not so that you had to. Indeed, in many cases voting is more trouble than it’s worth. Literally.

You might have a vote but it is not free. In terms of time and effort voting has a cost – getting registered, reading all the manifestos if you really want to do it properly, and walking to and from the polling station.

And what is the pay off – the reward times your contribution to the probability of that party winning?

Start with the reward. If one party offers huge benefits (not necessarily in a welfare state or social security sense) the reward for voting will be increased. Conversely, if another party promises unimaginable hardship, the cost of not voting rises.

But now consider your contribution to the probability of that party winning. One person has one vote, but how many elections have ever come down to that one vote? None. That one person, even in a tight race, would have made no difference to the outcome by staying home or going for coffee instead of voting.

To give you a concrete example, I live in a constituency which is bound to be won by the Silver Party but I want the Gold Party to win. I incur the cost of voting but with no expectation of a pay off. Why would I do that? I suppose I could think of myself as making a contribution to the national, aggregate total for the Gold Party, but does it really make much difference if they get 10,768,594 votes as opposed to 10,768,593?

Is this not the fallacy of composition? The erroneous idea that what makes sense for me makes sense for everyone which would lead to nobody voting, apparently a sub-optimal outcome?

Well no, not really, because everybody is not me. If you live in a marginal constituency where your vote carries a higher probability of contributing to your favoured party winning, it might make perfect sense for you to incur the cost of voting and, so, you would. And margins, as economists have known much longer than political scientists, are where decisions are made.

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