« The Paradox of Voting--Posner | Main | Online Courses and the Future of Higher Education-Becker »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

KM Atlanta

The marginal cost of voting in a national election is lower than maybe either of Posner or Becker think. Ballots always have multiple races and issues on which the voter must decide, the national election is just one of the votes to be cast on any given election day. Voters go to the polls for many local reasons and races, and once there, voting in all the races or referenda, as the case may be, spreads the cost of the undertaking among them.

Account Deleted

Deeming a vote as irrelevant is pushing the reasoning a bit too far. We do a lot of things that are as irrelevant,like saving electricity,recycling or donating 10$ to the Red Cross.
Technically the math is also not on 100 mil voters but at state level and even not triggering a recount could be fundamental, so some votes do matter quite a bit and every vote certainly matters quite a bit more than suggested.

"less informative and less honest than is the typical private advertising"
This is quite a shocking statement advertising and marketing are tailored for their audience no matter if you sell a car or a candidate.What might make some easier to be deceiving is the complexity of the product since that's what dictates the time the consumer has to spend researching it.Apple is doing great in the US even if there are a lot of very good reason to never buy anything from them (Apple shines in marketing not in product quality or quality/price). Buying the right parts for a PC require hundreds of hours of research for a novice and a lot more to get the best parts.Deciding on milk or cereals is a lot easier.So you got to factor in the effort required to get informed and how would the advertiser do it's job when the product is very complex.
A second issue you are ignoring is the ability of the voter to understand the product - and here i would also quote Churchill with the equally famous "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." (granted that we don't know if he was talking about a lack of knowledge or the inability to make the right decision but lets assume it was both).
In the end you might be underestimating the effort a voter is willing to put into his decision and how much he values his vote while ignoring the more important truth that the result,in a democracy, can only be the result of the average intelligence.

jim kirby

You might also ask, "Why Do People Pray?" Prayer is even more irrational than voting, both because it takes a lot more time (in a given year) and because nobody is listening. At least no god. And, unlike voting, there is zero chance of effectiveness.

It is probably because a prayer will never be answered by a god that folks prefer to pray in public: it will impress listeners, even some who are in a position to "answer" the prayer. Do people also vote to impress friends, family or strangers?

Jesus famously said in Matthew 6:5, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."

I wonder how many folks would vote if nobody could find out for sure whether or not they'd voted? Perhaps voting, like prayer, may be justified for what it does for appearances, not effect. Prayer also costs a lot in time and money: Roman Catholics can go on all night repeating the rosary, and the Muslims do it 5 times a day, enough to seriously hobble their economy. Of course, Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholics are compelled to pray, or they will be outcast or worse.

By the same token, you might ask, “Why Do People Breed?” Breeding is another irrational activity that people enter into without regard to its cost/benefit. It might once have been both useful and unavoidable; nowadays, it is both avoidable and way below useful. But folks keep doing it anyway, in spite of the great cost and negative benefit, as Ann Landers’survey famously pointed out.


Her survey result was that 70% of breeders regret having bred. Her results have been challenged, but it is evident that whatever high percentage of remorseful breeders would be even higher if the rest of us weren’t subsidizing each of their brood to the tune of well over $10,000 per year!

If there is a "god gene" that leads all men toward religious superstition from a time before they even taste their mother's milk, there may be a "voting gene" and even a "breeding gene."

Steve Malcolm

Quite simply, I or you or any voter represents a demographic which is a group of people with similar preferences. My demographic votes in a certain way. The question is not so much whether my vote will make a difference, but rather whether my demographic votes. If my demographic becomes "too rational to vote because we understand that each of our individual votes is unlikely to affect the outcome", then my demographic is muted.

I currently live in Quebec and am a native English speaker. Here who is elected changes basic things in my life (such as whether speaking English at work becomes illegal). I voted strategically in the last election (i.e. not for my first preference). Why? Because the vote is secret, so I have to guess at what other people in my demographic will do to beat down the "bad outcome", and given our vote is split, we need to intuit how to coalesce around someone who is likely to win my seat. We also look at how large segments outside our demographic is likely to vote in casting ours. Is my vote alone likely to swing it? No. But it is the sum of votes exactly like mine that will.

If we were 7 people trying to decide where to go for dinner tonight, and another person and I want an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, 2 want an Italian restaurant next door, and 3 want Kentucky Fried Chicken, we would look at how each other are voting and I and the other person might decide to compromise on which Italian restaurant to ensure we at least get something palatable. Open vote.

But in a secret vote such as an election, you can see how a sub-optimal outcome can occur if similar demographics don't vote together, and if I am typical of "my demographic" and you figure all the other people with identical preferences are doing the same mental calculations as you, the vote of "my demographic" changes by looking at the opinion polls as we vote for our second preference. This game is in fact completely rational.

Voting is rational.


First off, I think it's important to remind everyone that we live in a Republic, not a Democracy. There is a difference.

Second, a lot of people vote because they want to be involved. Although the fact that most national elections are paired with local and state elections means that more people will most likely participate than they would have if national elections were held on a separate occasion.

Third, most elections are all about propaganda. Whoever has a more catchy, believable message wins--whether or not that message is true or honest. Its unfortunate, but that's the way it is.

The only way to combat propaganda is with better propaganda or education. Most of the electorate doesn't have the time or interest to get educated, and most politicians and political parties are only interested in spinning their message to have the greatest affect for their cause or candidate. It's too bad.

Michael Brophy

The vote of individual Latinos in the last election is likely to be very influential in determining the social structure in which the undocumented worker exists in going forward here in the U.S. If 'their votes may not effectively reflect their interests or much knowledge of the issues,' they, nevertheless, look to have effected something they care about.

jim kirby

Upon entering the "holiday season," I think it useful to point another Amerikan practice as irrational as voting: gift giving.

An economist will tell you that the value of a gift can at best equal the dollar expenditure; mostly, it represents in part a deadweight loss. Like prayer, it presumably makes the giver feel good. It might also make the recipient feel good, now that he has something to "re-gift."

So we have, at least, 4 irrationality genes: god, voting, breeding and gift-giving. Next comes insurance.


In closing another insightful post, Becker states that "in determining which decisions should be made by the political process in a democracy, it is important to remember that individuals have little incentive to be well informed on political issues. As a result, their votes may not effectively reflect their interests or much knowledge of the issues."

Important to whom? Maybe Becker will tell us in a future post.


"If voters mainly want to express moral support for their favorite candidates, why do so many supporters of small parties that are very unlikely to win often vote for candidates of one of the big parties because they do not want to “throw away” their votes?"

I think many voters look at national races much like they watch the Super Bowl, i.e. they want to root for one of the teams and they want that team to win, because everyone enjoys the feeling of being on the winning side.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Become a Fan

May 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31