November 4, 2003

Civic Duty Or Irrational Waste of Time?

POST #    546

JK here performing guest blogging duties, thanks to Tien's gracious willingness to share the little read stage.

Today is Election Day, and with that comes frequent calls to go vote and perform one's "civic duty" (see a couple posts below for an example). Without denying the symbolic power of voting and the importance of the franchise in U.S. history, is it really a civic duty? More precisely, does an individual lose anything by not voting?

Deciding whether to vote is essentially a cost-benefit analysis: If the benefits of voting outweigh the costs, you go vote. What are the costs? The time to register, find a polling place, wait in line, and vote. What are the benefits? The utility you derive from having your preferred candidate or initiative win over another. But when does your vote result in you gaining this utility (or losing it)? Only if you cast the deciding vote in an election. In any New York City election, for example, where turnout is at least in the hundreds of thousands, what is the chance of one person casting the deciding vote? Basically zero. So unless voting is costless, the costs will always outweigh the benefits. Voting, then, would seem to be irrational.

Of course, if everyone thought like this, then nobody would vote, and we wouldn't have a democracy. But of course most people don't seem to think like this. Instead, most people seem to derive benefits beyond the slim chance they will cast the pivotal vote. In short, they seem just to like the act of voting. (I, for example, like pulling the lever in the voting booths). Which is fine and great. But the next time someone tells you he or she didn't vote, think about whether that really is such the bad thing that often it is made out to be.

-- JK

Posted by JK in Politics at 1:01 PM



who let this non-voting commie in the door? oh, wait, that was me.

if you don't vote, how are you supposed to criticize the elected officials? sure, you can still criticize, but is it your place to do that?

get a bunch of people like you together, and bush wins florida. and that got us in a great position. damn voter apathy.

and is it really that much effort to register? no. you fill out a short form. find your polling place? they send you a notification. wait in line and vote? 15 minutes. whole process has got to be about 20-25 minutes.

Posted by: tien at November 4, 2003 2:08 PM

One, you assume that with higher turnout Gore would have won Florida. But who's to say more Republicans wouldn't have turned out as well?

Two, shouldn't paying taxes be a good enough basis to criticize elected officials.

Three, one of the main reasons the US has low turnout compared to other democracies is that registration is much harder here. (Many countries have automatic registration, eg). So the costs of voting do have tangible effects. For a single mother with three kids, for example, taking the time to find out how to register, actually doing it, and then going voting may not be worth it for her.

Posted by: JK at November 4, 2003 2:44 PM

have to side with john on this one. I would derive absolutely no benefit from voting, so even if it took only 1 minute of my time, it's not a rational act.

Perhaps more importantly, I have absolutely no idea who is running and what their positions are. Furthermore, I (along with everyone else) have no knowledge of the policies they will actually implement if elected. The value of my vote to society, therefore, is quite low.

Indeed, most people vote according to their party affilation with little or no knowledge of the candidates themselves. The voting process merely reflects the demographic breakdown along party lines, combined with the effectiveness of campaign strategies and media involvement. If the better candidate is elected, it is purely coincidence. The very notion of a "better" or "best" candidate itself is flawed, since this relates to 51% of voter opinion, a constantly moving target. If you say that 52% of americans today believe bush is doing a better job than gore would, as is probably the case, then we elected the better candidate. Are you satisfied with that?

Considering all this, as I rarely do, why the hell would i spend 25 minutes participating in this silly process? the world will be exactly the same tomorrow, no worse for my apathy/cynicism.

Posted by: dan at November 4, 2003 4:08 PM

so if the mayor of philly turns out to be the republican guy that wants to change the taxes, would that not have an impact on you? would that not be a benefit? and you seemed to know something about that issue when we talked about it.

Posted by: tien at November 4, 2003 5:54 PM

Here you go again. Having witnessed people in South Africa standing in line, in the sun, for hours on end to vote, I think there is much more at stake in voting than a hope to benefit by casting the pivotal vote--it is a recognition of your role in a process. There is something to be said for the "civic duty" that you scoff at--and I'm sure millions around the world would agree with me. We need to encourage more people to vote, not less. Think less like an individual and more like a member of a community. (I bet today in New York less than 15% of the voters will turn out.) Now get your ass to the polls!

Posted by: katie at November 4, 2003 6:29 PM

tien, how would dan voting make a difference? it wouldn't unless he was pivotal, which is about as likely as you going 14 for 14 in your football pool (oh, wait -- remember to delete last line).

Katie (who sounds pretty feisty, good thing I'm not dating her or anything), I never told anyone not to vote. In fact, I said if it makes them happy, they should. And as I commented earlier, if you want more people to vote, lower the costs.

Posted by: JK at November 4, 2003 6:44 PM

When I was an undergraduate, I walked into a philosophy class, and on the board was written the question for the take-home exam, which was really a paper - I'll never forget it as long as I live, it was: "'If everyone behaved like you, things would be in a reall mess.' Is this cogent moral criticism?"

Yup, I'll never forget that question. Trouble is, I have no idea what I wrote for an answer. Oh well, a few tens of thousands of bucks down the sewer ...

Posted by: Oscar at November 4, 2003 8:21 PM

I thought his ideas were stupid, yes. And the morons who thought lower wage taxes would be a good thing are short-sighted and irrational. That said, my vote would be worthless. Therefore, there is no benefit to me. If they knocked on my door last night and said, "hey dan, we have a problem. the city is deadlocked 50/50. we need your vote to elect the next mayor," then yes, i'd probably head down there and pull a lever or what not.

As far as people in South Africa waiting in line, its apples and oranges. Those people do realize substantial tangible benefits from voting, since they were denied government representation for so long, and they make up an overwhelming majority. I'm still represented in my government, and therefore my lack of voting does not deny my anything. Add the intangible benefit to them of the significanceof having a voice, the suffering of those before them, yada yada yada, and its a no brainer for them to go through hell to vote. They've already done it, for that matter. To equate my vote, or yours, with theirs is laughable, no matter how feisty you are.

Posted by: dan at November 5, 2003 11:11 AM

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