Sunday, May 14, 2006

8 Reasons Voting is Stupid

If law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder - is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise? If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote? - Frederic Bastiat, 1850
1. Mathematics

One vote makes an infinitesimal amount of difference. That’s just a mathematical inevitability. The number of voters in the 2000 national election was over 104 million; therefore a single vote counted about 0.0000000096%.

Given that, taking time out of your day to vote is a profoundly irrational thing to do. People stood in line in the 2004 national elections often for as long as 5 hours to cast their votes. Assume that their time was worth approximately $20/hour (a value reasonably close to the 2004 US median income). That means that each person stuck in line for 5 hours spent around $100 to cast a vote that made, effectively, zero difference in the outcome of the election. The opportunity cost is obviously far too high for a rational person to waste his time with such a process. This remains true even if your time is only worth $1 per hour!

Most people are less profligate about the lottery! Very few are crazy enough to spend $100 on lottery tickets, even when the potential winnings are in the hundreds of millions of dollars—interestingly, such a strategy, it could be argued, might actually be smarter in the lottery’s case, because each additional dollar you spend increases your odds of winning. With voting, on the other hand, each additional minute in line is entirely additional, uncompensated, cost.

2. Voter Fraud

Reason #1 makes the assumption that your vote is going to actually be counted correctly. However, given the frequency of news reports about things like the willful destruction of voter registration records, numerous electronic voting machine errors—such as coming pre-programmed with votes for a particular candidate, security holes, or other “glitches” (real or intentional)—the “miscounting” of paper ballots, unexplained but statistically significant discrepancies between exit polls and “actual” vote totals—the list could go on—it is far from clear that your vote will actually be heard. Thus, can it really be said with confidence that “the will of the people” is actually followed in any given election?



3. Rational Ignorance of the Electorate

Supporters of voting may argue that reason 2 is not an aspect of voting, per se--that voter fraud, in modern parlance, "is a bug and not a feature". Fair enough. But even if we could ensure that all votes are always counted correctly, we're left to wonder if there really is such a thing as "the will of the people".

Every day we must make choices about how to spend our time. Learning the substance of all of the political issues of the day is usually at the bottom of the list. Given the huge difference in ratings between, say, C-SPAN and Monday Night Football I believe that such a claim is far from unreasonable.

Research studies show that only around 4 percent of the population can accurately describe the differences between a liberal and a conservative. That means that the other 96 percent of the population is using something other than an intelligent and informed understanding of the issues to decide how they’re going to vote. How often have we seen the late night talk show “man on the street” interview repeated where the interviewee is unable to answer seemingly obvious questions, like the name of the vice president, or how many senators there are in Congress?

In fact, most people don't vote from a dispassionate and intellectual place. Instead, they vote based on feelings they have about the candidates­-their analysis goes no deeper than “I don’t trust him,” or “he cares for people like me.” This is not to say that voters are all stupid or irrational. The problem of rational ignorance would exist even if everyone were a genius. We’re all busy and need to (and should!) focus on things that are going on in our immediate lives­-not keep tabs on what’s going on in Washington.

Appeals to people to not expect positive change unless they are "willing to invest the time" to learn about the issues are a hopeless waste, because they can't bypass the fundamental economic reality of opportunity cost.

Further appeals to “get out the vote”—to whatever extent they manage to be effective—accomplish nothing more than ensuring that the outcome of any election will be random in nature, and not due to any real factor, such as a candidate's legitimately better platform (assuming there is such a thing). In what sense are we any better off because “Rock The Vote” might manage to generate a 10% higher turnout among 18- to 22-year-olds?

Click To Enlarge4. Special Interests

Reason #3 fails to consider that people might sometimes have selfish reasons for voting a particular way. Our government has the power to redistribute wealth. Thus, politicians have an often irresistible incentive to buy votes with this power. Voters, in turn, see an opportunity to obtain unearned wealth at the public trough. The result is the growth of the special interest lobbies and a further erosion of government that is legitimately in the public interest.

There is an insidious nature to this redistribution that makes it self-perpetuating and nearly irreversible: the benefits are concentrated while the costs are diffuse. Any one voter’s share in farming subsidies, for example, may be only a few dollars, but the farmers’ benefits are often in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hence, the typical taxpayer is not likely to spend more than a few dollars complaining about it, whereas farmers are willing to spend thousands of dollars to ensure that the subsidies continue, regardless of whether the actual effects of the policy are, on net, good or bad.

5. Package Deal

As “our representatives,” politicians are necessarily a package deal. It’s extremely unlikely that any voter will agree completely with the political platform of any candidate (assuming that the voter even knows the candidate’s actual platform. See point #3). Unfortunately, when you cast your vote for any single candidate, if he is elected, you have to take the bad with the good.

As an aside, I find it an interesting and disturbing fact that Hitler was initially voted into power—and except for the part about wanting to exterminate Jews and Gypsies, his platform is remarkably similar to many politicians in the U.S. today.

6. Corrupt, Ignorant, or Incompetent Politicians

Even if by some stroke of wonderful good luck you actually found a politician with whose platform you agreed 100%, there’s nothing to guarantee that this person will live up to his or her campaign promises (“Read my lips: No new Taxes”—Bush the Elder). In fact there is overwhelming historical evidence that they won't.

We are told that are destinies depend on the election of this or that man to office! Why? This shows that it is men and not laws that govern society. - Josiah Warren, 1833Admittedly the contention that all politicians are corrupt is a simplistic one. However, even the most honest and idealistic politician can be simply misguided. Whether the problem is dishonesty or lack of knowledge, it remains that there is no coherent and reliable basis for determining whether or not a given candidate is the “right” one.

Of course all of this assumes—unrealistically—that “your candidate” would even be able to effect his or her entire platform while in office.

7. Lack of Legitimacy

Engaging in the process of registering and voting is an implicit acceptance of its legitimacy for effecting social change (hopefully by now you’re starting to question such a belief!). I submit that this acceptance precludes complaint about both the outcome and any effects of the outcome — regardless of who wins. By participating in the system, you are tacitly accepting the rules of the game. If your candidate wins, would it not be rude of you to say, “nyah nyah!” to the losers? By the same token, aren’t you a sore loser if you whine about what the winner does?

A simple example (hat tip to Marc Victor) may serve to illustrate my point. Imagine that you are with a group of friends at a restaurant, eating dinner. The meal is almost over. However, the night is still young and you all are enjoying each other's company and would like to continue. Some of the party suggest going to get coffee, while others would like to go get ice cream. As there is not enough time to do both, everyone agrees to decide via a vote. If the ice cream contingent wins, is it then good manners for the coffee contingent to make a stink about the outcome?

In other words, as Andrew Galambos once said, “If you vote, don’t complain.”

8. Coercion

As I hope I made clear in reason #7 above, a vote is not only a vote for a particular candidate, but also a vote for the political process in general. Chairman Mao once said that government comes out of the barrel of a gun — meaning that the basic function of the political process is the coercion of others. Done in self-defense, this presents little difficulty. The state, however, long ago abandoned its role as a provider of justice and safety. Thus, the act of voting is an aggressive act, regardless of the insulating effects that the voting booth provides.

Can it really be said that coercion is an effective means of improving the world? Is your participation in the extortion and murder of others made okay because your only connection to these acts is punching a hole in a ballot? Is Hitler not guilty of genocide because he didn’t physically pour the Zyklon-B into the gas chambers? What, then, of the guilt of the voters who put him in office? Are they completely free of blame?

Join the ranks of those who can proudly proclaim, "Don't blame me! I didn't vote!"

More non-voting articles can be found here.

23 comments:

steve said...

Ha ha! I'm still not too convinced that it's stupid, though I have to skim this over again. Sure, plenty of stupid people vote and we voted in a supremely stupid moron as our President. Granted, Kerry wasn't exactly an ideal choice, but I always go with the whole "greater of two evils" school of thought. While things suck horribly with Bush in office, I'd imagine things would just kind of suck somewhat with Kerry around. despite the mathematic findings here, I still believe that every vote counts 9the phrase shouldn't be taken literally, but looked at in a broader sense). I know too many people who bitch because of W being in office, but didn't vote. I'm sure that was common all across the nation and if you add it up, those votes would have made a difference. Would things be better with Kerry? I wouldn't doubt it. I don't think he'd be funding evangelical organizations like W does. I also think our military would be out of Iraq by now and we'd be tackling real security issues here in the states. Plus, Kerry was much more progressive with environmental issues which is enormously crucial right now.

Einzige said...

Sure, plenty of stupid people vote and we voted in a supremely stupid moron as our President.

Don't blame me! I didn't vote.

While things suck horribly with Bush in office, I'd imagine things would just kind of suck somewhat with Kerry around.

No way to know for sure (see point #6 above).

...I still believe that every vote counts...

In a sense I do, too, which is why I recommend against it (see points 7 and 8).

I know too many people who bitch because of W being in office, but didn't vote.

I am one of them, and I'm sure I would have bitched if Kerry had won, too. But I didn't vote, so I get to bitch (see point #7).

I'm sure that was common all across the nation and if you add it up, those votes would have made a difference.

I believe that's a dubious assumption and basically amounts to wishful thinking. The percentage of the population who voted was high enough that it should be counted as an accurate proxy for the nation as a whole. Therefore, if you increased the absolute number of voters, it's extremely likely that the percentages for each candidate would not have changed in a significant manner.

More importantly, though, your vote, and my vote (had I voted) made [or would have made] no difference (see point #1).

Jon Swift said...

Thank you for this post. I think it will go a long way to fixing what I think is the greatest problem in our electoral system today, too many people voting.

Einzige said...

"reasonable conservative," huh?

Thanks for the laugh!

Nenad said...

I only skimmed the article, sos sorry if you brought up this point already.

Voting takes time (I know its only about a minute for the actual vote, but there is also the time to get to the voting station, and the waiting time).

Given how little influence a single vote has, if you really want to improve things, you might be better off using that time to do something more worthwhile.

Andrew said...

Um...

Yeah...

This all sounds perfectly rational, until you consider that (apropos of point 1) that the fewer people that vote, the more valuable the votes of those who do. And those who do will be...guess who! The special interests you so rightly deplore.

As to point 7, exactly what vehicle of "social change" (whence the assumption that such is needed?) are you advocating? What system would have this "legitimacy" you speak of? How is it to be established, if not by each citizen recording his opinion? Divine Right? Revolutionary Vanguard? Racial Purity? Whoever Has the Most Guns?

Because whether you vote or not, the laws and the taxes apply to you. Opting yourself out because the system conforms not to your wishes screws nobody but yourself.

Voting may have minimum returns. But I'll take them over the (unspoken) alternative.

Jim Lippard said...

It's more rational to spend time persuading others to vote the way you want than it is to take the time to vote yourself.

However, that also probably means that it's not rational to try to persuade like-minded people not to vote.

Personally, I vote as part of a process of persuading others to vote the way I do...

Einzige said...

This all sounds perfectly rational, until you consider that (apropos of point 1) that the fewer people that vote, the more valuable the votes of those who do. And those who do will be...guess who! The special interests you so rightly deplore.

Firstly, the decision to vote or not to vote is necessarily made on the margin, so if it looked like, in the next election, there were only going to be 25 people voting then I might consider throwing in. Unfortunately that’s not likely to be the case, so I won’t be holding my breath.

Secondly, this “objection” simply ignores the reality of several of my other points — e.g., there’s no guarantee your vote will be counted correctly, people aren’t rational or intelligent when it comes to politics, etc.

It also ignores the empirical reality that, in spite of the fact that you have (presumably) voted in the past, it clearly did nothing to stave off our march down the road to serfdom and the encroachment of the special interests. So, the argument to “use voting to fight the special interests” fails on its face.

[E]xactly what vehicle of "social change" (whence the assumption that such is needed?) are you advocating?

This is not a fair question. It faults my article for staying within its stated scope, which was 8 criticisms of voting. There’s no assumption of a “need” for social change. The “social change” referenced is that supposedly accomplished by the process of voting. If that’s not what voting is for, then, pray tell, what is its function? Why are we constantly bombarded with fear-mongering demagoguery by our “political leaders” if they don’t think “social change” is necessary?

What system would have this "legitimacy" you speak of?

A fair question, I suppose, since I brought it up. I think a system, to be legitimate, requires being explicitly agreed to by its members, rather than being simply forced upon them - and it requires that they be able to rescind the agreement in the future, should they so desire.

How is it to be established, if not by each citizen recording his opinion?

That’s another topic, for another time — and probably best left for the utopians and ideologues of the world. I'll be the first to admit that I see serious problems with pretty much every idea out there.

But, just off the top of my head, how about: “You be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you”? Overly simplistic, I’ll admit — but it’s a good starting place. More importantly, voting isn’t “being nice” — it’s “do what I tell you, or else.” Such does not a peaceful civilization make.

Again, though, this goes beyond the scope of my post and, in any case, is not an effective rejoinder to my criticisms of voting.

If this is something that you are sincerely interested in (and somehow I doubt it is), then I recommend you read some Lysander Spooner, and particularly his essay No Treason.

Because whether you vote or not, the laws and the taxes apply to you. Opting yourself out because the system conforms not to your wishes screws nobody but yourself. Voting may have minimum returns. But I'll take them over the (unspoken) alternative.

Now you’re behaving as if you didn’t understand a word of my post—the point of which was that voting has zero returns (unless you get pleasure out of the actual process of standing in line, standing in a curtained booth, and putting marks on paper and suchlike)… the point of which was that you’re screwed even when you vote… the point of which was that convincing yourself that your vote somehow makes a difference is the pinnacle of wishful thinking.

Andrew said...

Your response is fair, and I'd like to respond at length. Forgive me my epithet.

Einzige said...

However, that also probably means that it's not rational to try to persuade like-minded people not to vote.

Personally, I vote as part of a process of persuading others to vote the way I do...


Speaking empirically, it seems that neither of our methods are particularly "rational".

Einzige said...

Andrew,

Your response is fair, and I'd like to respond at length. Forgive me my epithet.

By all means!

Please allow me to also take back anything I have said that might have given offense!

I look forward to your thoughtful reply.

steve said...

I wouldn't equate a Presidency with a Dictatorship, which is what I'm assuming you perceive it to be, only under another name Einzige. Granted, it seems that way under W's failing leadership (and unfortunately, there are many self-appointed "patriots" who wave their flags like "true Americans" yet would love nothing more than to see imposed states of religion, sexuality, and anything else under the sun). I sympathize with the be whole "be nice to me and I'll be nice to you" thing but that squarely would fall under a utopian state which by basic human nature, is impossible. Many people, as a result of their own weakness and opportunistic tendancies unfortunately perceive kindness as weakness and will prey upon those people in however fashion suits them in an attempt to gain power. In a sense, like a pack of wolves, or many other species in the animal kingdom, our more evolved human race still needs some type of leader and Government. Granted the electoral system and Governmant is riddled with flaws, however the alternative (I assume you're calling for a non-Governmental state), while in theory and on paper seems ideal, in reality, given to human nature, would be even more disasterous than what we're currently experiencing. Perhaps I'm being the cynic in this case and need to be further enlightened on these issues.

Einzige said...

I wouldn't equate a Presidency with a Dictatorship, which is what I'm assuming you perceive it to be, only under another name Einzige.

I grant there is a marked difference in degree, but not a difference in kind. I believe that this is a non-trivial distinction. You are either sovereign or you are a serf – maybe a part-time serf, and maybe the conditions are pretty good, on net, and not really much to complain about… When you have no say over what happens to 40% of your earnings, though, doesn’t that make you 40% a serf?

Granted, it seems that way under W's failing leadership (and unfortunately, there are many self-appointed "patriots" who wave their flags like "true Americans" yet would love nothing more than to see imposed states of religion, sexuality, and anything else under the sun).

The point is that a change of masters still means you have a master, doesn’t it? I’m sure that slaves in the antebellum South preferred working indoors in household serving jobs to being whipped while picking cotton in the fields, but, certainly, they all disdained their condition as slaves.

You might object that I’m simply engaging in hyperbole and attacking a strawman, here. Perhaps there’s an element of that, but my intent is to point out what I think is a disturbing aspect of our relationship with our government. As Proudhon put it so eloquently, many years ago:

To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

I sympathize with the whole "be nice to me and I'll be nice to you" thing but that squarely would fall under a utopian state which by basic human nature, is impossible.

I agree that it’s an oversimplification, but consider the alternative. Are you proposing that we take, as our starting point, “Do as I say or I’m going to kill you!”? What alternative to voluntary association is there, if it isn’t involuntary association? Don’t misinterpret, here. I’m no pacifist. If someone attacks me I have no problem with defending myself – even to the point of using deadly force. But that’s a different thing that telling others to live their lives according to my values – or else!

Many people, as a result of their own weakness and opportunistic tendancies unfortunately perceive kindness as weakness and will prey upon those people in however fashion suits them in an attempt to gain power. In a sense, like a pack of wolves, or many other species in the animal kingdom, our more evolved human race still needs some type of leader and Government.

So, you propose, as a remedy to this, that we put in place a system that creates an open invitation for every sleazy, power-hungry goon who ever dreamed of lording it over others to take the reigns of an already overly-centralized power base? Who is attracted to power, except the power-hungry wolves you disparage (and rightly so, mind you!)?

Government, it seems, is the primary example of the thing you’re complaining about. In the 20th Century alone, 169 million people died at the hands of the state – with a majority of those killed by their own governments – their supposed protectors. That figure doesn't even include military deaths! Talk about disastrous.

It is precisely where governments are weakest that people are safest and most prosperous.

I’m no utopian. I look at the track record of the state and want to get as far away from it as possible. In a world full of opportunists and predators, government – especially of the large, powerful, centralized variety, like the US – is the problem, not the solution.

steve said...

Good point--our current President and many before him are obviously corrupt. Personally I'm all for a state without Government, that's if I could only trust in the general public being able to handle such a situation.

Einzige said...

Good point--our current President and many before him are obviously corrupt.

Just to clarify: My point was not simply that politicians are all pond scum - though it's likely that many of them are.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Bush is completely sincere, and entirely well-meaning.

What does that mean?

I can't recommend highly enough the Jeffrey Friedman article that I linked to in the main post. It is a thought-provoking and rewarding read, I promise you.

Allow me to quote from it at length, here, as what he says applies directly to the topic at hand, as well as to the epistemological theme of this blog as a whole:

"I will call the attribution of bad motives to those with whom one disagrees the “cynic’s heuristic.” It is one reason that, in politics, people close their minds to other points of view, regardless of the content of those points of view. Anyone can use the cynic’s heuristic to dismiss challenges to their own beliefs, no matter what those beliefs are. But the focus on motives that is so pervasive in politics does not stop at this general level, which would be bad enough—since the prevalence of cynicism about one’s interlocutor’s motives renders the ideals of rational political “discourse” and even rational political “thought” hopelessly optimistic. People’s focus on motives has a similarly lethal effect on the ideal of rational political policy making (which is, after all, supposed to be the end product of rational political discourse and thought) when it takes the specific form of what I will call the “intentions heuristic.” This is the assumption that from good intentions flow good results, and from bad intentions, bad results. Like all heuristics, the intentions heuristic is unstated “common sense,” but it is sound only if one ignores the possibility that the world is complicated enough to produce unintended consequences. The intentions heuristic is not a rational response to ignorance: nobody would want to ignore the unintended negative consequences of the policies they favor, or the unintended positive consequences of the policies they oppose. The intentions heuristic, far from being a deliberately chosen method of coping with ignorance, is itself an unwitting manifestation of ignorance."

I encourage you to read the rest of the article. It is enlightening, to say the least.

Einzige said...

Sorry, Steve!

I was so focused on discussing your first sentence that I didn't remember that I had something to say about your second sentence as well...

...that's if I could only trust in the general public being able to handle such a situation.

...However, since this will be going fairly far afield of the subject of voting, I think I'll create a new post to address this topic directly. Keep an eye out!

Matthew said...

I may have missed the memo on this one. How much a vote "counts" may be statistically irrelevant, but it is the involvement in the political process in one way or another that changes things. Whether it's voting for the lesser of two evils, or a ballot initiative that directly effects the voters themselves. The fact that people fought so hard just to have the right to vote makes it nothing to scoff at. I understand the grievances with the system in place, but doing nothing won't accomplish well,... anything. And if you think you're time is more valuable, like you could really accomplish more in a few hours then also consider you could suffer from a slightly inflated sense of self worth.
I give kudos for the list of why many people don't vote. I'm sure it rings true for a lot of people, and is interesting commentary either way.

Time for me to go vote... have fun reading blogs all morning.

Einzige said...

I have never understood why people equate not voting with "doing nothing".

Perhaps you can explain why those two things are equivalent.

The fact that people fought so hard just to have the right to vote makes it nothing to scoff at.

Religious people fight hard for their views of God and religion. Does that make those views inherently worthy of consideration?

Also, I don't believe I am "scoffing" at voting. Where is the mockery in this post? I am, instead (I hope), giving a thoughtful criticism of voting.

...like you could really accomplish more in a few hours...

I can, and do. You seemed to have missed my point on that score.

Matthew said...

I'm glad to hear that you remain active. I could have missed some of your points. I think the post could persuade some not to vote, and possibly for the wrong reasons. The extent to which it's corrupt is hard to determine, therefore shouldn't solely be the reason to convince someone to change their habits. The extent to which your vote doesn't count isn't constant in every election, therefore shouldn't be taken for granted as fact.
People fighting for their views on God- haha, good point. (People do fight for some ridiculous things.)

I enjoyed the thoughtful criticism part, but if you can't find that "scoffing" part of the post, just look at the title. Voting isn't stupid, it is problematic. In fact, that may have been the only part that put me on edge in the first place.

Einzige said...

Touché... Though, in my defense, a provocative headline is more likely to catch one's attention.

The extent to which it's corrupt is hard to determine, therefore shouldn't solely be the reason to convince someone to change their habits.

Please note that I gave 7 additional reasons.

Matthew said...

I'm interested in seeing a follow-up article on how you suggest we fix these problems. You have certainly brought my attention to what ails the voting system in place in our country, but that's only the beginning. Any suggestions?

William said...

Please, don't vote then. We dont need fucking pieces of shit like you spreading this kind of information. Dont fucking vote you jackoff!

name said...

You forgot the most important reason of all:

"You are not represented by your vote"

If 51% of the nation wants one person president, and 49% of the nation wants the other person president... the only logical recourse is to make BOTH people president!


That's like voting on whether we exterminate the Jews. Of course the Nazi's and the Germans who don't want to die will vote FOR the extermination of the Jews; and of course the Jews will vote against their own extermination... but majority rules so go hop on that train.


Now, people argue "but we can't have two people who can't get along with each other and work together to make our nation a better place." My question to them is "then why the hell are you electing them into office!"

The NECESSITY of the cabinet makes matters worse; the president becomes more of a manager than an actual inspector (and this is not even including the denial of the line-item veto)...

Why are we not electing INDIVIDUAL cabinet members instead of a president? If we think education is stupid because we have the Internet; why not elect a "President of Education" who vows to cut needless education spending? But of course we want a "President of Finance" who vows to tax the poor even harder so that the rich and middle class can live easier.


Who is actually represented when you lump everyone into 2 groups? No one. Who is represented when you use "majority rules" strategies? No one (not even the so called majority, as they recognize the futility of voting third party.) What should we do? Stop paying taxes!

No Taxation Without Representation! The representative I voted for was not elected, therefore -- under the creed of our founding fathers -- I have the right to stop paying taxes!