The paradox of voting in national elections is that, since a single vote is almost certain to have no effect on the outcome (in a Presidential election, it will merely add one digit to an eight-figure number), there seems to be no benefit from voting. The cost is small enough (if it’s high for a person, he is unlikely to vote), but it’s positive, so that if the benefit of voting is zero the voter is being irrational. Yet, as Becker points out, more than 100 million people bothered to vote in the recent Presidential election.
Some people vote because the political campaigns make it costly for them not to vote—one technique in “get out the vote” drives is pestering people to vote so that they will feel uncomfortable not voting. Some vote because they think that it will encourage others to do so. Some vote because they consider it a civic duty. Some voting is purely expressive—a way of expressing strong feelings pro or con a candidate (or pro one and con his opponent); certainly anger played a role in votes against Romney by members of groups that he or his party seemed to disrespect, and anger at Obama played a role in the large number of votes that Romney received. In this respect voting is like booing or cheering at an athletic event or other entertainment. One person’s applause at a concert is inaudible to the performers, yet people applaud, and not mainly I think because others in the audience would look askance at them if they did not. And finally people interested in politics like to vote to convince themselves and others that their interest is serious—they are willing to put their money (not money exactly, but the cost in time and bother of voting) where their mouth is.
No one thinks that applauding is irrational, even though like voting it has no instrumental value, and has some, though very slight, cost.
Campaign advertising and other politicking—debates, the party conventions, etc.—try to excite voters about the election and induce them to vote for particular candidates, and in this respect closely resemble the advertising of consumer products and services. As Becker points out, much campaign rhetoric has little intellectual content, conveys little information, plays on the audience’s emotions, and so on, but in these respects it doesn’t differ much from the marketing of consumer products and services.
What is wasteful is not the time people spend voting, since they vote only if on balance it is a more valuable use of their time than the alternatives; what may be wasteful is the amount of money that is spent on electioneering, and the amount of candidate time spent on money raising. As with product advertising, so with political advertising, much of the expenditure is offsetting, so that if collusion were permitted there might be a net social benefit. (That is the rationale for campaign expenditure limits.) But there might not be, because of the consumption value of the political advertising and its contribution to the value that people derive from voting.