Magazine article The American Conservative

The Public's Choice: What Voters Don't Know Can Hurt Them

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Public's Choice: What Voters Don't Know Can Hurt Them

Article excerpt

AS THAT FATEFUL DAY in November approaches when we must choose between McCain and Obama, the two greatest statesmen since Gladstone and Disraeli, of one thing you can be sure. We shall hear constant reminders of our duty to vote. As the last few days before the election arrive, these appeals will intensify. Surely only a slacker, unfit to live in a free country, could fail to heed them.

Here, though, a problem arises. Not only do many people fail to heed these appeals--in the last presidential election only 60.7 percent of those eligible bothered to vote, and this was considered a high turnout--but those who do vote know very few elementary political facts. Many people do not know the name of their own congressman and are unaware that each state elects two senators.

A recent book by Rick Shenkman, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter notes, "In January 2003, three months before our invasion of Iraq, the survey takers found that a majority of Americans falsely believed that 'Iraq played an important role in 9/11.'" Since the war began, information that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks has been in wide circulation. Yet "in 2006, a Zogby International Poll indicated that 46% of Americans continue to believe that 'there is a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.'"

According to some exponents of public choice theory, an influential movement at the intersection of economics and political science, voter ignorance and apathy are not failings but rational attitudes. Public choice aims to apply the methods of economics to political actors. As Gordon Tullock, coauthor with James Buchanan of The Calculus of Consent (1962), an early classic of the movement, points out in an essay, "People Are People: The Elements of Public Choice":

   Throughout the 19th and well into
   the 20th century, economists
   assumed that individuals are primarily
   concerned with their own
   interest and worked out the consequences
   of that assumption. On the
   other hand, during this same
   period political science largely
   assumed that political actors are
   mainly concerned with the public
   interest.... Economists changed
   this bifurcated view of human
   behavior by applying the theory of
   public choice which amounts, in
   essence, to transplanting the general
   analytical framework of economics
   into political science.

What happens if you follow Tullock's lead and apply economic analysis to the decision to vote? Even if it matters to you very much whether Obama or McCain will become Leader of the Free World, you will be just one of millions of other voters. Even in elections with fewer voters, such as those for statewide or local offices, your vote will still be only a minute fraction of the total. Your vote has virtually no chance of affecting the outcome: if you were to stay home, the election would have the same result as if you voted. Voting, though, involves some cost: you must register and take time to go the polling place. Not much, it is true, but this must be weighed against the fact that your vote will almost certainly achieve nothing. If you do a cost-benefit calculation, then, voting will turn out to be mildly irrational.

But what if everybody thought that way, the counterargument goes. Then no one would vote and we wouldn't have a democracy. Only someone completely lacking in public spirit would reason" in this way. But the public choice advocate will not be fazed. He will point out that however bad the consequences if everyone didn't vote, you cannot, by your decision to vote, change what other people do. If the earlier argument is right, then it is still irrational to vote. Another response to "what if everybody did that?" came from Robert Nozick, who once told me, "If everybody didn't vote, then I would vote!" Then your vote would count decisively. But of course, in the actual world, we know that many people will vote so again we have no reason to join them. …

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