Is it worth voting?

With the opinion polls pointing to a close result and the prospect of a hung parliament, turnout is expected to be relatively high in today’s election. Yet for economists this presents a bit of a puzzle.

Given that the chance of any single vote being decisive is so small, particularly outside a handful of highly marginal seats, the individual act of voting is arguably irrational – especially since costs are incurred, such as time and effort wasted on the trip to the polling station.

Moreover, one can only vote for a crude package of proposals, which in practice is likely to be changed significantly when it comes to implementation. The political process is extremely inefficient at responding to individual preferences compared with the fine differentiation of markets.

Worse still, various authors from the rational choice school (for example, Olson and Stigler) have shown that policy tends to be determined by special interests rather than the preferences of voters. The “logic of collective action” means that small concentrated groups have a far stronger incentive to commit resources to lobbying politicians and bureaucrats than large dispersed groups such as general taxpayers.

Special interests also engage in “agenda manipulation” to frame policy debates in particular ways and exclude perspectives that are detrimental to their cause. Indeed, Schumpeter went as far as to suggest that politicians and interest groups “are able to fashion and, within very wide limits, even to create the will of the people.” While this may be going too far, a strong case can certainly be made that such strategies further undermine the notion that voting “makes a difference.” (And in some cases, elite interests may simply ignore the wishes of voters, as with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty).

So why do people continue to vote in large numbers? One hypothesis is that voters find it difficult to calculate probabilities and therefore don’t realise their individual vote is unlikely to make any difference. Another idea is that people vote because they value the preservation of the wider democratic process – they act out of duty and/or altruism. Neither explanation is very satisfactory from a rational choice perspective.

6 May 2010, IEA Blog

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