Today it’s appropriate for me to summarize my reasons for not voting. To put it in a nutshell, democracy is a repugnant and ridiculous system, and so I have no ethical duty to vote. And then, my vote by itself will almost certainly have no effect on the election, and hence I have no pragmatic interest in voting. So why would I do something morally dubious if it won’t even make a difference?
Even though I’m sure you’ve heard this before, let’s review just why your individual vote does NOT count. In order for your vote to make a difference (in the presidential race), your state would have to be decided by a margin of exactly one. In other words, suppose you don’t vote. So long as the candidate who wins your state does so by a margin of two or more people, then your decision to abstain meant absolutely nothing.
But it gets worse. Suppose against all odds that it works out that the popular vote in your state is a dead tie, considering everybody else who votes, and then you cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of your candidate. (We already know this would never ever happen.) Even so, your vote still only affects the identity of the next president, if the margin in the Electoral College is close enough such that your state decides the outcome.
OK, now I should dispose of some of the obligatory objections.
* “That doesn’t make sense. If you’re saying it’s rational to not vote, then nobody should vote. But then you get to write yourself in as president. So then everybody should vote. Duh, you economists are stupid.”
—> No, there is nothing wrong with cost/benefit analysis, so long as you are framing the costs and benefits correctly. The reason I am virtually certain my vote won’t affect the outcome, is that I am virtually certain that millions of Americans will stupidly vote. When Free Advice gains 10 million daily readers, perhaps I will revise my forecasts of voter turnout.
(Technically, if you do a formal model the symmetric Nash equilibrium is a “mixed strategy” where everybody is indifferent between voting or not, and so everyone is willing to pick a strategy of voting with probability x, where x is really small. So x times the whole population means you expect a certain amount of people to show up and vote, and that expectation is just enough to render you indifferent. But in the real world, we’re not in a Nash equilibrium–at least, not if everyone just gets utility from influencing the outcome of the election–and so I get strictly more utility by not voting. Also, I should add that I don’t really view the world as if I’m “in” a game theoretic model, I’m just showing how there’s nothing contradictory about the analytical framework.)
* “What if everyone thought like you?”
—> If everyone thought like me that would be great. Nobody would vote, and so 535 people in Washington DC saying, “Send us half your income so we can bomb people and bail out bankers” would be a funny joke. If you want to do a Kantian deal, and pick the action you wish everyone else would, then why in the world are you voting for a guy you yourself admit is the “lesser of two evils”? That makes no sense at all. It’s one thing to do a morally odious action because it provides tangible utilitarian benefits; e.g. making the bus swerve so it hits 3 people instead of 30. But why participate in voting in a guy you think will do evil, when your participation doesn’t do anything to limit the evil? If you think Obama/McCain is the worse candidate, your vote for McCain/Obama doesn’t do anything to contain him. Obama/McCain would win/lose with or without your vote, with about 99.9999% certainty.
* “If you don’t vote, then you have no right to complain about our government.”
—> This is just about the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard, and there is stiff competition in this category. We all agree that our government is run by thieves and liars, right? OK, so how do they get in there? Because voters put them there. So you’re telling me that I’m responsible for the horrible people in DC, rather than the people who actually voted for them?
* “It’s because of the apathy of people like you that our system isn’t working properly.”
—> This is related to the above objection. I really would like people who believe this, to just think through the implications of this type of statement. It means that the people who actually vote are (in general) morons and/or evil, whereas the people who don’t vote are (in general) wise and virtuous. You have to believe that, if you claim that increasing voter turnout will improve the politicians we end up getting. I thank you for the kind words, but I think you are mistaken. If (as in some countries) the government forced people to vote, I don’t think our politicians would suddenly become honest statesmen (and women). The reason democracy yields awful results is that it’s a repugnant, ridiculous system, not because we’re too lazy to “make it work.”
WHY DEMOCRACY IS A REPUGNANT, RIDICULOUS SYSTEM
I’ll close by defending those strong words. Imagine if you had to get your brakes fixed, but you weren’t allowed to pick the company to do the work. Instead, there was an election for city mechanic, and everyone in your city had the option to cast a vote deciding which person got to fix your brakes. Also, that person could then decide how much to charge you, and, you didn’t even have the option of switching to riding the bus–you had to get in your car everyday after the work was done. Would you like that system?
If you are a parent, I’ve got an even better one. Suppose you didn’t get to choose who babysits your kid(s), but instead the position is decided by majority rule. If you are just skimming this it probably isn’t sinking in. Seriously, imagine that you couldn’t control who watches your kid(s), but that perfect strangers had just as much individual say as you did. And not only that, but that the pool of eligible candidates would be restricted, to those potential babysitters who didn’t mind enduring a year-long investigation into their lives, with the backers of other potential babysitters starting nasty rumors and so on. Do you think the outcome would be good? Or would you rather the freedom to pick your own babysitter, using your own criteria?
Well, I hope you can see now what I mean when I say democracy is a repugnant and ridiculous system. It’s true, you could argue that there are some things like national defense or the legal system, where it is practically impossible to have the freedom that we all agree is ideal in cases like fixing your brakes or hiring a babysitter. If that’s your view, I encourage you to check out this pamphlet [pdf].
In conclusion, I don’t vote because I see no reason to participate in the collective anointing of someone who will violate property rights and end up killing innocent people, when my vote doesn’t even have the slightest chance of influencing the outcome.