Voting is irrational!

But do it anyway.

Some people argue that if everyone acted rationally out of enlightened self-interest,  society would function best.   In such a view problems are only the result of misplaced altruism, a lack of understanding of reality, or notions of self-interest which violate the rights of others (e.g., theft or murder).   However, voting is one behavior which shows that rational self-interest on the individual level could lead to societal results which are harmful.

Rational behavior occurs when a person acts in a way which maximizes expected utility (EU).   Utility simply means the result is beneficial to the individual.   Expected utility takes into account that the individual has to predict what the outcome of action might be (positive and negative), and thus has uncertainty built in.  This means, of course, that a person can be rational but wrong.  Saddam Hussein may have thought that invading Kuwait would be accepted by the US and make Iraq stronger.  He was wrong, but not necessarily irrational.   Calculations of expected utility are rational if they are based on an interpretation of evidence not twisted by some kind of psychological bias or erratic guess.   So let’s take voting.

First, what benefit does one get from voting?   In terms of the election itself, there is a possibility that a candidate one supports will tie or win by one vote.  In such a case, a person’s vote has real value, he or she has determined the winner.   However, in all other cases the individual vote was irrelevant — if the person stayed home, the result would be the same.  One calculates the odds of a race being decided by one vote by considering the historical record of elections, and how often that happens, as well as polls and the dynamics of a given race.   In some local elections it may happen none and then, but in most elections it’s exceedingly rare.

Second, what disadvantage does one get from voting?   It could be monetary (stamp for an absentee ballot), an opportunity cost for time spent voting, and even risks that a car accident or some other  problem might be caused by the actions needed to go vote.    Compare the costs with the exceedingly low probability one’s vote will matter in the outcome, and there is very little reason for anyone to vote.   Staying home and watching The Simpsons would likely yield greater personal benefit.  Thus the expected utility of voting is negative, and the rational thing to do is stay home.

A common retort to such an argument is “what if everyone did that.”   But there is no reason to think an individual’s refusal to vote (especially if they don’t tell anyone, or even lie and say they did) affects what others do.   If one calculates the probability that other people didn’t vote as a result of one person’s refusal to vote, it would be extremely low.  Nonetheless, if ‘everyone did that,’ democracy would perish.   If most people did that, a small minority would have the power to impose their will.

So we really need most people to vote.   It isn’t in their individual rational interest to do so, it is in their collective rational interest. Voting, like so many social activities, is based on societal rather than individual rationality.  We do things because what ever personal cost we pay, we know it’s our duty to our community.    Often these are things we could choose not to do without any consequence.   Stopping to pick up some litter when nobody’s around, contributing to a charity, or volunteering are all aspects of social rationality.

Social rationality is different than individual rationality because one doesn’t calculate expected individual utility, but rather expected collective utility.   If everyone did X, then what would the result be?   The to get away with free loading is not relevant in a calculation of collective utility.  It’s assumed others will do the same thing.

Societies act with collective rationality if there is a strong measure of group cohesion and loyalty, if people feel like they are part of something greater than themselves and thus have a subjective sense of happiness or satisfaction when they adhere to the collective action.   One could argue that the individual benefits by feeling good about voting, or meeting friends at the polling center, but the reason those subjective values carry weight is because the individual is thinking in terms of collective utility.   They know that their own self-interest is tied up in social responsibilities and connections; the self-interest is meaningless outside the collective interest.  It is shaped by ones’ culture, and the actions of others are fundamental to subjective well being.

Societies only work when there is a strong sense of community.  In Communist Russia the state tried to force a collective mentality on people, but the opposite emerged.  People felt no responsibility for community or the collective because that was the realm of the state.  Instead people tried to get away with what they could and saw collective responsibility as outside themselves, a duty for the government, not citizens.  The result was a breakdown of social cohesion and the functioning of society.

Ironically, for democracy and individual rights to thrive, there must be a strong sense of collective utility and social responsibility.   Societies with a strong sense of collective utility will have less conflict and more cooperation, thereby yielding the possibility for greater individual freedom.    You have more liberty as an individual if you see yourself bound up with society.

Voting is the classic example of that apparent paradox.   Individual rationality would lead to actions that destroy democracy and could allow tyranny.   A sense of responsibility and societal cohesion leads one to feel the duty vote.   It is that sense of community which also provides one with positive feelings about the act, of being part of the greater whole, and doing something for the good of society.

So next time someone posits individual liberty as being somehow opposed to a strong sense of community, or tries to claim society is made up solely of individuals acting in terms of their own individual self-interest, remember the importance of collective rational interest.  Without a strong sense of collective rationality, individuals will not act in ways that benefit the entire community, and would thereby endanger democracy and freedom.

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