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‘If You Don’t Vote, You Can’t Complain’
For someone who complains about politics, policy, and politicians for a living, the prohibition on complaining by nonvoters strikes close to home. Again, this Election Day cliché is intuitively appealing. If someone invests in an enterprise, we generally recognize that he has more right than an outsider to determine the course of that enterprise. And voting feels like an investment: It takes time and perhaps costs money.
In his 1851 book Social Statics, the English radical Herbert Spencer neatly describes the rhetorical jujitsu surrounding voting, consent, and complaint, then demolishes the argument. Say a man votes and his candidate wins. The voter is then “understood to have assented” to the acts of his representative. But what if he voted for the other guy? Well, then, the argument goes, “by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.” And what if he abstained? “Why then he cannot justly complain…seeing that he made no protest.” Spencer tidily sums up: “Curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted—whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this.” Indeed.
Whether there is a duty to be civically engaged, to act as a good citizen, is a separate question from the issue of voting. But if such a duty exists, there are many ways to perform it, including (perhaps especially) complaining. According to Mankiw’s argument, the ignorant voter is a far less admirable citizen than the serial-letter-writing Tea Partier who can’t be bothered to show up on Election Day.
The right to complain is, mercifully, unrelated to any hypothetical duty to vote. It was ensured, instead, by the Founders, all of whom were extraordinary bellyachers themselves.
‘Voting Is Fun’
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe people vote not because of what voting can accomplish, but because they like to vote. They like the message that voting sends about who they are (e.g., the kind of person who cares about poverty, or fiscal responsibility, or what his neighbors think).
Many people like to be perceived as altruists, for example. Voting is one of the cheapest forms of altruism. If you (rightly) believe that the expected material payoff of your vote is near zero, then it’s easy enough to vote in a way that maximizes your halo rather than your bottom line. “Voting sociotropically,” Jason Brennan writes, “is cheaper and easier than volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving money to Oxfam.”
A 2009 survey of 569 professors conducted by philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California at Riverside and Josh Rust of Stetson University reinforces this view: 88 percent said they considered voting in public elections to be morally good. In fact, when asked to rank different acts, the professors reported that they considered voting to be on par with regularly donating blood and giving 10 percent of one’s income to charity.
Loren Lomasky and Geoffrey Brennan theorize that voting is best understood as an expressive act. Communicating preferences at the ballot box is something people do for its own sake, not a duty they perform or a selfish bid for material gain.
So maybe voting is like going to a football game decked out in team colors and cheering as loudly as you can. The chance that your individual voice will sway the outcome of the game is vanishingly small. (Acts can be both instrumental and expressive, of course.) But you are communicating to the other people at the game: I am one of you. I value the system in which we each participate. I am loyal.
Bryan Caplan takes the idea a step further. Perhaps, he suggests, voting is more like cheering while watching the same game from your recliner in a darkened living room. If you really try, you can still tell an (ultimately unsatisfying) story about why your actions matter in the rest of the world. After all, your viewership of the game might show up in the television ratings, which boosts the team’s advertising revenue. Of course, you’re probably not a Nielsen household, so you may not show up at all in the metrics that the team’s owners can see. Which leaves solitary game watchers right there with the voters: The main payoff is that you can show up at work the next day and say you did it.
So what’s wrong with that? Individual cases of expressive voting in large elections are just as unlikely to affect the outcome of the election as other kinds of voting. But the fact of widespread expressive voting explains why elections are silly season. Politicians offer themselves up as opportunities for expressive voting, as aggregations of easily comprehensible slogans rather than as avatars of sensible policy. Ignorant expressive voters, even rationally ignorant ones, may be committing immoral acts, as Jason Brennan argues.
All of which is a pretty steep price for an “I Voted” sticker. Maybe better to stay home and watch the game instead.