The Booth and Consequences

Do voters get what they want?


You're cordially invited, courtesy of the Constitution of the United States of America, to cast a ballot on the first Tuesday in November. If the readers of REASON are representative of the total population, about half of you will decline. Those abstentions elicit regular comment and rebuke from the professional pundits.

It is noteworthy that half of the eligible population chooses not to vote. But even more noteworthy is that the other half does cast a ballot. For it is by no means obvious what reason they can have to do so. This year we face the task of electing a president. Something in the neighborhood of 90 million ballots will be cast. A voter will, if rational, realize that the chance of her vote swinging the election to her preferred candidate is so close to zero as to be negligible. "Your vote matters!" the pre-election propaganda solemnly intones. The plain fact, though, is that it doesn't.

However plain the fact may be, it is something of an embarrassment to political scientists and economists who study voter behavior. The hard-headed assumption that these analysts bring to their investigations is that voters are self-interest maximizers, that what they attempt to secure in polling booths is essentially the same as what they seek in markets. When they purchase a VCR or select among job opportunities or invest in pork-belly futures, they are understood to be choosing so as to best advance their overall well-being. Similarly, as rational voters they will cast a ballot for the candidate or policy whose victory they expect to make them best off.

Sophisticated statistical analysis of vote distributions offers at least prima facie support for this hypothesis. But its logic is thoroughly undercut by the observation that rational maximizers will vote neither for the Republican nor the Democrat but instead abstain. Time and energy are, for all of us, scarce resources. Since the chance of one's own vote proving decisive is less by several orders of magnitude than the likelihood of being maimed in an auto accident while on the way to the polls, it would seem that a truly rational person will instead devote the half hour in question to reading a good book, drinking whiskey sours, or pursuing some other end that yields a perceptible positive return.

A typical response of orthodox political theory is to posit a kind of voter schizophrenia. According to this model, individuals are motivated to vote by a sense of civic duty; they want to "do the right thing," and that desire moves them by the millions out of their easy chairs to the electoral precincts. But once the curtains of the voting booths close behind them, self-interest once again assumes control and dictates which levers to pull.

The schizophrenia theory does, in a sense, fit the facts. It is consistent with the evident fact that many people do vote, and it offers an explanation of why, when they vote, the ballots they cast tend to be in line with their interests. But the fit of theory and observation comes at a high price. The alleged shift that takes place after the curtain is drawn undercuts the idea that individuals are always trying to maximize their self-interest. Even worse, the schizophrenic-voter hypothesis fails to explain why the transformation takes place. If we genuinely want to understand electoral behavior, we have to do better.

One tempting alternative to the standard theory maintains that self-interest isn't ubiquitous but is instead largely confined to activity in the market. When an individual turns from the business of making a living and consuming goods to engaging in political behavior, a different persona emerges, that of citizen. Civics-book injunctions concerning how he should act become a reasonably close approximation to how he does act: Setting aside his narrow, selfish interests, he is energized to display concern for the public weal.

This alternative account is also problematic. It too posits a split within the motivational structure of individuals. And it disregards the considerable evidence that political behavior is not distinctly selfless. Students of politics, especially those identified with the Public Choice school, have assembled a very persuasive case that political activity can largely be explained by the same wealth-maximizing hypothesis that is central to ordinary economic analysis. Of this the civics-book model is oblivious.

Both theories go wrong for essentially the same reason: Each fails to attend adequately to the nature of the opportunities provided by elections. Casting a vote is importantly unlike both purchasing a commodity in the market and altruistic giving. Why that is so deserves a closer look.

When I purchase a can of beans at the supermarket, my choice is costly in the sense that I thereby relinquish other valued options. We can define the opportunity cost of that can as the next most highly valued use of the money spent. To put a dollar in the street-corner Santa's kettle is also costly; that's a dollar that I cannot use to satisfy my other desires. But votes are not similarly costly. When I vote for Alfred E. Neuman rather than Pat Paulsen, I do not thereby give up the opportunity to select Paulsen instead. That is because I am not in a position to choose between Neuman and Paulsen. Rather, my choice is between a vote for Neuman and one for Paulsen. The difference may seem to be merely semantic, but in fact it is crucial.

What I give up with the Neuman vote is the expected return to a vote for Paulsen. To lapse into technicalities for a moment, that is equal to the value I assign to Paulsen's election multiplied by the probability that my vote will indeed swing the election (i.e., the probability that exactly half of all the other voters will vote for Neuman and exactly half for Paulsen). When the number of voters is even moderately large, that probability is close to zero. So too, then, is the expected return to my vote. That will be true even if the value I assign to my preferred candidate's winning is quite substantial. A vote for Neuman is, for all practical purposes, costless in terms of political outcomes thereby forgone.

Here's another way to understand the difference between electoral and market behavior: Private activity, whether motivated by narrow concerns of self-interest or by altruism, is consequential. By choosing to buy beans I give up the opportunity instead to indulge in charitable relief—and vice versa. By way of contrast, voting is largely inconsequential. What I relinquish through my vote is only an infinitesimally small expectation of affecting outcomes. Since that is so, the logic of voting itself militates against the assumption that voting behavior marches to the beat of the same drummer as behavior in markets and other contexts of private activity.

Because voters are unlikely to "get anything" from the direction of their votes, they have reason to indulge incentives that are not oriented toward outcomes. In the context of electoral behavior, these incentives loom very much larger than they do in arenas of private choice. Thus, even if it is reasonable for the theorist examining ordinary economic exchanges to discount incentives that are not oriented toward outcomes, it is not similarly reasonable to do so when trying to understand how democracies function.

But what sort of considerations other than the deliberate attempt to bring about the preferred outcome might dictate the casting of a particular ballot? A simple analogy may help. On any given autumnal Saturday collegiate stadiums across America are packed with fans cheering on their favored football team. "Go Troglodytes!" the fan cheers. How are we to understand this activity? Well, we could hypothesize that the fan yells if and only if he judges that the value he assigns to the Troglodytes' winning multiplied by the probability that the marginal effect of one more cheer will tip the balance between victory and defeat exceeds the cost to his lungpower of emitting the shout. But that image is awfully farfetched. It depicts the fan as making a kind of investment in football outcomes. It's much more plausible to suppose that the fan values cheering for its own sake; the expression of support for the Trogs is better viewed as a consumption good than as an investment good.

Or consider this similar case. Your friend is hospitalized and you send her a "Get Well Quick!" card. That courtesy may be motivated by a calculation that the probability of some therapeutic effect thereby derived times the value you assign to that result exceeds the cost to you of the card (and associated expenses). But again that doesn't adequately express the usual incentive for sending cards. Rather, one values the expressive act as such, not simply the putative benefits that may result from it. (And that is so even if it turns out that there is some detectable difference in prognosis between those who receive cards and those who do not.)

I propose that voting, like cheering at a football game or sending a get-well card, should be understood as primarily an expressive rather than an instrumental activity. One votes for Alfred E. Neuman rather than Pat Paulsen as an act of expressing support for Neuman rather than as a deliberate attempt to raise the likelihood of Neuman's victory. Rational individuals will indeed vote provided that the value they assign to the expressive returns obtained through a vote is greater than the costs thereby incurred. Despite the exceedingly remote chance of swinging the election, voting is as rational as attending football games and cheering lustily for one's team (and sitting out an election is as rational as spending one's Saturday gardening if one prefers flowers to football).

This expressive theory of voting avoids the schizophrenia of the standard self-interest theory of politics. But is it any better at predicting actual behavior? Don't people invariably "express support" for the candidate or policy that best fits their interests? If so, for all practical purposes, we might as well adopt the hypothesis that says voters are motivated by narrow self-interest.

Such congruence can indeed be expected to occur over much of the range of voting behavior—but not all. An important implication of the expressive theory is that voters may be systematically induced to vote for policies they would not select were they in a position to act decisively. They will be led to bring about outcomes that the majority does not prefer, that would be resoundingly rejected by a given voter were he in a position to choose decisively. That is because they confront what rational-decision theorists call a "multiperson Prisoner's Dilemma." This may seem forbiddingly arcane, so let me offer a simplified example.

Most of us subscribe in some measure to the principle that those who are relatively well off have a moral duty to devote some appreciable proportion of their assets to the relief of those less fortunate. For many of us, the chief service we pay to that principle is lip service. That is not necessarily because we are hypocrites.

We may genuinely believe that relief of indigence is a good thing; we may assign to it some positive value. But not enough to pry our wallets open wide. Giving to the poor is, alas, costly. Each dollar donated is a dollar of personal consumption forgone. Because we value the latter, we may donate little or nothing.

But if the cost of a dollar's charitable relief were, say, only 10 cents, we might allocate our resources differently. That is because failing to give is also costly. It is not pleasant to think of oneself as lukewarm in one's professed convictions, as morally subpar. Wouldn't it be nice, we might muse, to be able to come down on the right side of moral principles and also have the money to spend?

A pipe dream? No, an invitation to politics. For voting can be a low-cost way to indulge one's altruistic impulses. To see how this is so, imagine a referendum on the proposal that each person be taxed $100, the proceeds to be used for relief of the indigent. (In order to avoid complications of self-interested voting, suppose this is a foreign-aid measure.) Let's assume that the probability of a representative voter tipping the balance is 1 in 10,000, a relatively high decisiveness level. If the tax passes, the voter's wealth will be diminished by $100. Elementary arithmetical calculation reveals that the expected cost of a vote in favor of the measure is only one cent. If each elector values the activity of "expressing support for the poor" at, say, $1.00, then each will be induced to vote in favor of the measure. It will pass unanimously although each individual, if in a position to act decisively, would have rejected it.

The example is, of course, stylized. But despite its manufactured quality, it illustrates an important feature of democratic collective choice—and, not entirely incidentally, affords an important clue as to why public budgets continue to soar despite the palpable harm done to the average citizen. The point is that individuals can and will generate outcomes substantially different from those that they really wish to see obtain. Note that it is the institutional structure itself that is crucial here, not some implausible change of persona alleged to occur on election day.

The implication of the preceding example might seem to be that democratic structures will induce individuals to "vote more morally" than they act in private contexts. Prisoner's Dilemma caveats aside, this result may be welcomed by the enthusiast for democracy. All the more reason, he may insist, to remove decisions whenever feasible from the private arena to that of collective choice. The ghost of Rousseau nods approvingly.

Although that inference conceals some dubious assumptions about the content of morality, I shall not pause to examine them here. But it is important to observe that the preceding example is ambiguous. It does not directly show that individuals will vote more altruistically than they act when making private decisions. It does suggest that they will behave less consequentially when casting ballots.

That tarnishes the moral patina displayed above because it is not only altruism that is costly in private contexts; so too is malice. The bigoted shopkeeper who will not trade with blacks thereby forgoes the income he could otherwise obtain. If I stomp on your toes because I hate you, you might retaliate by stomping on mine. Thus the shopkeeper might continue to do business with blacks and I might leave your toes alone. On the other hand, if the costs of malice were lowered, we might be led to increase our consumption of it.

Just as voting lowers the cost of expressing altruistic impulses, so too does it lower the cost of indulging malice. Consider a representative voter in 1933 Weimar Germany. Let us suppose, not unrealistically, that he bears some antipathy toward the Jews but would be unwilling in private activity to bear the costs of launching a pogrom or otherwise seeking their destruction. However, by casting a ballot for the National Socialists, he can economically indulge his anti-Semitic impulses. The result of an entire electorate doing similarly is Hitler in the chancellorship. Again the result is a multiperson Prisoner's Dilemma, but this time one considerably less comforting to the democratic moralist.

The point to be drawn from these examples is not that voting is distinctly conducive to altruism or to malice but rather that, in comparison to private activity, it favors extremes of each. For one who is risk-averse, that is a reason to prefer private rather than collective decision making. But there's also reason to believe that voting may favor malice over altruism. This is due to the anonymity of the vote. One who "casts a moral ballot" may thereby secure expressive returns from the vote, but she does not receive the gratitude of beneficiaries. This is a disadvantage of electoral as opposed to private altruism. But for one inclined toward malice, anonymity will typically be a benefit rather than a cost. The veiled vote shields her from the reproach or retaliation of her targets. So the inducement toward malice afforded by secret balloting is greater than that favoring altruism. All this is speculative, but it should at least be a caution for the advocate who says the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Sometimes, instead, it is less.

Although the civics books urge us to "vote responsibly," one of the most noteworthy features about voting choices as opposed to ordinary economic choices is that the former are an open invitation to irresponsibility. Since how I vote is virtually certain not to make any difference whatsoever to political outcomes, I'm freed to indulge any whimsical, voyeuristic, half-baked impulse that happens to come into my head. And when we observe the actual conduct of political campaigns, we see that the candidates pursue their Holy Grail by inviting us to do just that.

Are elections fought on "the issues"? Well, perhaps—but they're hardly the sort on which conventional political theories focus. What issue was it that made Willie Horton the second most important black political figure in the country in 1988? Why during the past several months were Americans wrought up over the question of whether a Texas billionaire and sometimes-talk-show guest was or was not an "outsider"? Does it really matter whether an aspirant to high office occasionally shares his bed with bimbos or another one can't spell potato?

Yes, these do matter to many of our fellow citizens—just as baseball pennant standings or Princess Diana's marital tribulations do. For better or worse, these quasi-issues capture people's attention, fix in their minds an impression of the candidates, and attract them to the polls. They may be the stuff of soap opera, but to a considerable extent they determine who will be afforded the privilege of leading the nation. In a democracy, grabbing and holding on to the fleeting attention of voters isn't everything—it's the only thing.

You may be tempted to respond, "That's not the basis on which I form my political views." And that probably is true. But for every reader of REASON who ponders free-market waste-disposal alternatives, a thousand compatriots avidly scan each week's National Enquirer to get the scoop on Oprah's weight problem or the latest sightings of space aliens. In a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, they are the ones whose voices and votes are decisive. For politicians as with other celebrities, it's glitz, glamour, and image that keep the fans entertained and buying tickets. To understand the election, then, just keep in mind what the Bush and Clinton handlers know in their bones and will reveal in their every ploy and counterploy: Because elections are fundamentally expressive free-for-alls, not substance but rather sanctimony, sleaze, and sound bites will determine who gets to spend the next four years in the White House and who slinks off into an unwelcome retirement.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky, a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, is co-author (with Geoffrey Brennan) of Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.