FREAK-TV: Why Economists Don’t Vote


Today is Election Day, albeit a quiet one. There isn’t much at stake in New York. There’s more action in New Jersey, though voter turnout is expected to be low, as it is in California. 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.

In this new installment of FREAK-TV, Levitt explains why many economists don’t bother to vote — but why you should, if you really feel like it. If you find this viewpoint depressing, and want to become even further depressed, you should read this article we wrote a couple years ago about the utility of voting.

See you at the polls.

Or not.

Daniel Reeves

Your vote won't matter but convincing your friends to vote will (because converts will win more converts who will in turn win more converts). But you can't with a straight face convince people to do something you aren't doing yourself.


Adina Cappell

There is a huge reason for economists to vote- if not, other educated people will feel like chumps for trudging over to the voting booth to cast a useless ballot. All we economist-wannabes will stop voting and the only winners will be voters who've never heard of the economists' brilliant reasoning. Economists must at least enter the voting booth to give the semblence of having voted. Electing oneself to be the person "whose vote doesn't matter anyway" can inspire a lot of jealous copycats. Likewise, it probably won't matter if a few people excuse themselves from receiving vaccinations- from whom would the disease spread?- but no individual should be the one to avail him or herself of that privelege, and we should all just get the shot.

Christian Bieck

I am an economist (at least I have a degree in economics) and I do vote. Voting does raise my utility, so while it may not be rational in the philosophical sense of rationalism, IMO it is economically rational - i.e. every behaviour that raises personal utility is economically rational.


i bet immanuel kant would have a thing or two to say about the rationality of not voting... then he'd imperitively bop you over the head with his categorical club.


just had a different thought about this: the situation seems to be that the economist typically doesn't vote, but might for the fun of it on rare occaisions. the economist does this because no single vote has all that much impact.

what if we turn the tables and say that an economist is a regular voter, and wondering about how much is lost on the rare occurance of not-votng. i think most of us can agree that if a regular voter gets a cold or such and would prefer to stay home, then no biggie.

* never voting for low utility = bad
* not feeling bad about the odd missed vote since any vote has low utility = OK
shows us something about how we perceive voting, kind of simmilar to the fear of rare events more than predictable ones (at least in that the events sit in some sort of a frame, and that frame really impacts how we view the events).
turn of phrase:
one vote has little value, but a *voter* is worth something...


Beerzie Boy

Voting gives people the illusion that they are participating in democracy without actually doing any meaningful. It is only useful in that it makes some people feel better; it is, judging by the passionate responses here, merely a salve for the emotions.


Two elections in metro Detroit ended in a tie.


So you don't vote. Do you donate to political campaigns?


The argument runs: marginal vote(s) do not effect outcomes, therefore, voting is irrational. Yet large numbers of people vote. This requires explanation.

1. people are stupid. There are two versions of this explanation: people mistakenly believe their marginal vote matters; or people mistakenly believe voting has utility even though their marginal vote does not matter. Unfortunately, economics is predicated on the idea that individual action, added up produces accurate results. So the people are stupid hypothesis has to be a last resort--it destroys most of economics.

2. Something is wrong with the marginal vote value analysis. There are a number of versions of this proposed in the comments:
a. externalities (either voting has positive externalities, or not voting has negative externalities and therefore, like showering before going on an airplane, or refraining from littering, it is something one should do even if the market fails to grant the actor the marginal benefit of the action)
b. Weight--the size of the victors victory impacts political events of importance to the voter such as "mandate" or strength of opposition in future elections. EG every extra Reagan voter in his landslide victory marginally increased the size of the tax cut he caused.
c. Probability--two versions of this:
x. close elections where the marginal vote counts are more common than one thinks (which gets down to economists who don't vote misreading their data, which seems unlikely) or
y. the vote casting and counting process is a probabilistic rather than deterministic process. i.e. there is plenty of error in casting and counting ballots so for a given population of potential voters the outcome is not determinable with 100% certainty but a probability of x% that A will win and 1-x% that A will lose. In that analysis, a marginal person deciding to vote or skip voting does have a marginal impact on the probabilities of the outcomes.

I think it is fairly obvious that all four viable explanations have something to do with why voting is rational. The last, (2.c.y) is my favorite, because it highlights the risks run when an expert mistakes a process with a significant random element for a deterministic process.



I love your blog, but.... it's funny how economists insist that every possible aspect of life is governed by their little rules. It reminds me of a chiropractor who insists that every possible medical problem can be fixed by him. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Guys, when you wander too far from comfortable topics like taxes, income, savings etc you risk looking like an incredible dweep. That's what happened when you try to apply economics to a bar scene and it's flirtatious behavior (there was a freak-est link related to this recently). That's also what happens when you try to argue it makes sense not to vote. Do you really argue with yourselves for every 5 or 10 minutes you spend on *anything* in *any* day whether it's worth the time from an economic perspective? (Since it costs you about 10 minutes out of your day to vote). How would your spouse feel if you've calculated the optimum amount of time spent on foreplay (let's say you've applied some nifty game-theory math there). Try bringing your spreadsheet into the bedroom and let me know how that goes.

Back to voting: I would say it makes little sense to vote only if your desired outcome already has a very safe and comfortable margin according to reliable polls. Say your state is bright bright red and you would have voted republican (for a gubernatorial election). There'd be not much of a point to vote, unless you like the fuzzy feeling. If your candidate is down, I'd go vote anyway. If anything, you'll have earned the right to complain.



I forgot to mention another reason not to vote:

Policy barely changes according to who wins the election (especially at local levels of government, there was a freak-est link about this recently). In other words I don't really believe Bush is truly in charge of this country or truly involved with every little decision that is made during his tenure. You could argue that Gore wouldn't have gone to war, but I think that sooner or later (probably later, after Gore was replaced by a republican) we would have found some dirthole to wage war on. The economic and political forces to have ourselves a war about every generation are strong and reliable.


It's funny how, even among Freakonomics readers, many people will rush with their knee-jerk reaction and try to make their point as cogently as they can without trying to understand what their opponent is trying to explain.

For example, Cartman, your point ("I would say it makes little sense to vote only if your desired outcome already has a very safe and comfortable margin ... There'd be not much of a point to vote, unless you like the fuzzy feeling") has been proven wrong: in the article itself and in posts 45,40,29, etc.

Many posts here are just to show how clever, morally superior, etc. the authors thinks he is and has nothing to do with finding an answer to the original question.

And its also funny how the people with the weaker logical arguments are the most agressive in their arguments (e.g. Cartman,or the reader that ends his "demonstration" with a ludicrous "QED" ...)

Anyway, some of the arguments here are very clever and I guess the solution to all that is that everyone should drive a bus on election day to bring people to the booths, make other people vote and feel fantastic about it (while knowing that one single vote is pretty much useless).


That Guy

How did the world get so gullible?

LaRae Meadows

The best way to prove your vote has no value is to not vote.


Where are the data showing that Economists don't vote. Since when was voting about making a choice? It's about having power over who is in office. The ability to threaten political parties with a passion and a group of potential voters is power enough to make voting worth it. Stop making voting as simple as statistics and arithmetic. Obviously if there are 500 people who have voted for one candidates and there are 499 left who haven't voted for anyone, you might as well not vote. This is essentially what you are saying in a more mutable sense. Obviously elections aren't like that as numbers change constantly and actual voter turnout varies. But I think you're incredibly wrong, Stephen, for assuming voting is as simple as simple math. Shame, Shame.


This post shows that our fair bloggers are just as prone to stupidity and intellectual laziness as the rest of us. Of COURSE an individual vote won't decide an election, but that doesn't mean voting isn't important. Several people here have done a great job of illustrating why, so I won't belabor the point, but really... for shame.

If you are too lazy/self-absorbed/nihilistic to vote, fine - but don't try to prop up some lame excuse that doesn't even make logical sense.


It's one thing to talk about utility to the individual, but can we analyze the utility to a society of having an involved citizenry? I don't need any particular synapse, but I'm glad my synapses don't sit out of important decisions due to their not being THE deciding synapse. Perhaps society is an organism too, and we vote because we realize that.Or maybe I'm just feeling some utility in feeling myself to be part of something bigger than myself.


Voting has only one redeeming quality in a large nation: the right to complain about whoever wins.


The "wisdom of crowds"


I'm in NJ and I shall vote.
I just wish I was in Monmouth or Mercer county so I could vote for anyone other than Karcher and Beck. What a sickening campaign.