A New Handbook of Political Science

By Robert E. Goodin; Hans-Dieter Klingemann | Go to book overview

Chapter 30
Political Economy: Downsian Perspectives

Bernard Grofman

ANTHONY Downs An Economic Theory of Democracy ( 1957) is one of the most influential and frequently cited works in social science of the post-World War II period ( Almond 1993; Goodin and Klingemann above: 32). Most students of public choice would agree that the three most important elements of An Economic Theory of Democracy are the argument as to why turnout can be expected to be irrational when viewed from an instrumental perspective, the discussion of forces in (two) party competition leading to convergence to the views of the median voter, and the argument about why political ignorance can be expected to be rational.1 Especially among those critiquing rational choice models of electoral choice, it is common to take Downs as standing for the propositions that rational voters should not vote, that in two-party plurality-based competition parties should converge toward the views of the median voter, and that rational voters should be political ignoramuses. I label this view of Downs's supposed three central propositions as the "Classic comic book" portrait of Downs ( Grofman 1993:1-16) because it does little justice to the subtleties of Downs's own portrait of political competition.

The first proposition is based on the idea that, since voting has a cost, in expected utility terms it is instrumentally rational to vote only if the consequences to you of seeing your preferred candidate elected, discounted by the probability that your vote will be decisive in electing that candidate, exceed the net expected costs. But since the likelihood of any single vote being decisive is so close to zero, then as long as the act of voting has some costs it is very unlikely that these costs will be exceeded by the expected

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1
For other important elements in Downs see discussion in Grofman ( 1993: 1-16) and the various essays in that collection.

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