If anybody knows those Freakonomics people . . .

. . . could you please ask them to stop saying, “We know that voting doesn’t make good economic sense.” I recognize that “Freakonomics” is intended to be entertainment, not scholarship, but I don’t think these dudes are doing economics any favors by spreading this kind of misconception. Voting isn’t a good way to make money, but that doesn’t mean it “doesn’t make good economic sense.” The full story is here (based on an article by an economist and two political scientists). I’ll repeat here for convenience, but I recommend going to the original entry to see some of the give-and-take in the comments:

With only a year to the next election, and with the publicity starting up already, now is a good time to ask, is it rational for you to vote? And, by extension, is it worth your while to pay attention to what Hillary, Rudy, and all the others will be saying for the next year or so? With a chance of casting a decisive vote that is comparable to the chance of winning the lottery, what is the gain from being a good citizen and casting your vote?

The short answer is, quite a lot. First the bad news. With 100 million voters, your chance that your vote will be decisive–even if the national election is predicted to be reasonably close–is, at best, 1 in a million in a battleground state such as Ohio and less than 1 in 10 million or less in a less closely-fought state such as New York. (The calculation is based on the chance that your state’s vote will be exactly tied, along with the chance that your state’s electoral vote is necessary for one candidate or the other to win the Electoral College. Both these conditions are necessary for your vote to be decisive.) So voting doesn’t seem like such a good investment.

But here’s the good news. If your vote is decisive, it will make a difference for 300 million people. If you think your preferred candidate could bring the equivalent of a $50 improvement in the quality of life to the average American–not an implausible hope, given the size of the Federal budget and the impact of decisions in foreign policy, health, the courts, and other areas–you’re now buying a $1.5 billion lottery ticket. With this payoff, a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive isn’t bad odds.

And many people do see it that way. Surveys show that voters choose based on who they think will do better for the country as a whole, rather than their personal betterment. Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish, but if you care how others are affected, it’s a smart calculation to cast your ballot, because the returns to voting are so high for everyone if you are decisive. Voting and vote choice (including related actions such as the decision to gather information in order to make an informed vote) are rational in large elections only to the extent that voters are not selfish.

That’s also the reason for contributing money to a candidate: Large contributions, or contributions to local elections, could conceivably be justified as providing access or the opportunity to directly influence policy. But small-dollar contributions to national elections, like voting, can be better motivated by the possibility of large social benefit than by any direct benefit to you. Such civically motivated behavior is consistent with both small and large anonymous contributions to charity.

The social benefit from voting also explains the declining response rates in opinion polls. In the 1950s, when mass opinion polling was rare, we would argue that it was more rational to respond to a survey than to vote in an election: for example, as one of 1000 respondents to a Gallup poll, there was a real chance that your response could noticeably affect the poll numbers (for example, changing a poll result from 49% to 50%). Nowadays, polls are so common that a telephone poll was done recently to estimate how often individuals are surveyed (the answer was about once per year). It is thus unlikely that a response to a single survey will have much impact.

So, yes, Virginia–and Ohio, and Florida, and Pennsylvania, and New Jersey–it is rational to vote. Utah, Wyoming, and Massachusetts: maybe it’s not worth your time. On the other hand, there’s a chance you could swing the national popular vote (which can affect the perception of a mandate) and in any case you’re likely to have close local races that can ultimately affect policies from schools to taxes to crime and punishment, so if you have any preferences there, it might very well be worth your time to cast your ballot and have a small chance of making a big difference.

Here’s our research article in the journal Rationality and Society spelling out the reasoning and evidence in more detail.

P.S. No, I didn’t vote today. I don’t think any of the local elections were close. I doubt there was serious opposition to any of the candidates.

P.P.S. I was motivated to post this by this Freakonomics article which brings up the old argument that it’s irrational to vote because the probability of your vote being decisive is so low. Stephen Dubner writes, “The irony is that the typical voter is more likely to have an impact in a smaller election than in a larger one, but it’s the bigger elections that draw far more voters.” Actually, it’s not such an irony at all: bigger elections have bigger effects, thus more motivation to vote. It all becomes clear when you realize that most people vote because of what they think will be good for the country, not for their own personal benefit. It’s fine for individual people to disagree with this–maybe Dubner and Levitt vote for other reasons–but it’s an unfortunate blind spot for them to identify rationality with selfishness.

I don’t mind that Levitt, Dubner, and Hagen don’t want to vote, or that they present arguments against voting, but I don’t think it’s so great for them to use their wide influence to spread the notion that “voting doesn’t make good economic sense” as if this is some sort of absolute truth. In all seriousness, I think it is far more consistent with the principles of Freakanomics to try to understand people’s behavior, not to snarkily dismiss it as not making sense.

Anyway, if any of youall know the Freakanomics people, please pass this message along to them. I recognize there are legitimate differences of opinion about the rationality of voting, but, as a person who’s thought a lot about these issues, I don’t think it’s a good idea for these misleading messages to be spread.

P.S. I expect the Freakanomists are not aware of our article. I know that even in my scholarly work, I’ve missed important references (in fact, we joke that one reason to send a paper out to review is to catch all the literature we missed). I hope this entry (if someone sends it to them!) will alert the Freakanomists to the literature on rational sociotropic voting.

14 thoughts on “If anybody knows those Freakonomics people . . .

  1. You talk as if the issue is resolved. It clearly isn't. I am not persuaded (and I know I am not the only one), and will soon elaborate more fully why.

  2. Jenny: Thanks.

    Anonymous: The issue is resolved to my satisfaction, but I'm happy to admit that there are legitimate differences of opinion (that is, lots of knowledgeable people disagree with me on this one). What I object to is the Freakanomists' nonacknoweldgment of viewpoints other than theirs; as they put it, "We all know that . . ." That's where I don't think they're using their position of authority wisely.

  3. I am also not persuaded. Suppose I am altruistic and care about the welfare of 100m voters. It would then be rational for me to vote only if I believe that I know what is likely to be better for them than they do. While it may be rational for some people to believe that they are smarter and more well-informed than the mass of voters, it can't be rational for everyone to believe this.

  4. I remember telling my students at Columbia when I was a TA not to vote (sorry Andrew, I hadn't read your paper back then), primarily as a way to get them thinking about the turnout decision beyond "we all have to do our part!".

  5. I like the theory you develop in the Rationality and Society paper to rationalize voting, but I'm troubled by the fact that the approach seems to explain variation in turnout across elections (and countries) better than it does the significant variation in turnout within a particular country and election.

    I'm curious whether you think your approach can explain this within-election variation, perhaps through individual variaiton in the concern for others. Proof of this would strengthen your rational social preferences assertion. The idea has a strong amount of intuitive appeal, and could catch on with such proof.

    Also potentially relevent is the anthropological and evolutionary biology literature that suggests we care most about the people in our close circle, and less about them as social and biological distance increases. It strikes me that this would be straightforward to incorporate in your approach (and has fascinating testable implications).

  6. … such cheer-leading for 'voting' is extremely naive; sounds like something from a junior high school civics class.

    Real world American political elections are a very dark and dirty business. The fundamental concepts of government and republican democracy are also matters invisible to the naive.

    Name the last American President who took office with a majority of the popular vote by eligible American citizens.

  7. Daniel,

    See the discussion at the linked blog entry for my answer to your question.


    It's great to take a provocative stance to get the students to think. That's what I think the Freakanomics people are doing too. My problem with the Freakanomists here is that they speak from a position of authority, and I don't know that their readers can appropriately distinguish between their serious statements and their purposely provocative statements.


    I agree with your points. There's certainly some evidence that people vote more in close elections, but clearly there are a lot of gaps between theory and reality. One gap is that people are more likely to vote for a candidate they like than to vote against a candidate they don't like (or, at least, that's what's generally believed). Rationally, though, all that should matter is the difference between best and worst. I once met a Republican who was a registered Democrat so he could vote in the Democratic primary: he told me that, in his opinion, the difference between the worst and best Democrat was greater than the difference between the worst and best Republican, hence his choice of registration. But I assume such behavior is rare.


    Well, they do say that teaching junior high is tougher than teaching college. Our actual article has a bit more math than the junior high kids are used to, but maybe they learn more then they used to.


    Yes, you're probably right. I modified the entry accordingly.

  8. "While it may be rational for some people to believe that they are smarter and more well-informed than the mass of voters, it can't be rational for everyone to believe this." Why not? There are whole literatures devoted to this (e.g., belief bias in cognitive psychology; self-appraisal in social psychology and so on). The flip side is: would it be rational to hold beliefs that large numbers of people more intelligent and more knowledgeable than you insist is correct? Most people think they are smarter than average, better drivers than average and son. There are also sorts of potential 'rational' explanations for this (e.g., in terms of its adaptive value, protection in the form of psychological health and so on).


  9. I think that you should do the calculations without the assumption that the only important outcome is being the decisive vote (win/lose). Sure the final outcome is win/lose, but in most election systems there is value in having a "large" victory rather than a "marginal" victory.

    If the margin of winning is small, there will almost certainly be recounts and possible legal challenges which may change the outcome arbitrarily (eg some votes disallowed on technicalities) as well as involving real direct costs for "your" side.

    Also, a representative with a "large" majority may feel more secure and thus more prepared to push for the principles of his/her "side" rather than tending towards the middle (to keep those marginal voters onside).

    And not to forget that the margin of winning will impact on the costs of defending subsequent elections – the opposition may put less effort into trying to take a seat that they perceive as being "impossible" than one that is more closely balanced.

    If you're on the "side" that is likely to lose, the same arguments apply in reverse.

    So the simplistic Freakonomics analysis is flawed on multiple levels, in my opinion.

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