The Debate Over Voting: Helping Jim Harper Count for Something

On November 2nd, Cato will host a debate over whether libertarians should vote. On the “no” side will be me and my colleague Aaron Ross Powell. On the losing side will be our colleagues Jim Harper and Michael F. Cannon. You should come, that is, of course, unless you’re sensitive to the sight of public executions.

But Jim wants to start the debate early. Yesterday, he criticized the standard economist’s argument for why people (including libertarians) shouldn’t vote. “Given the exceedingly low likelihood that one person’s vote will sway the outcome,” as Jim describes the argument, “the time and effort spent on voting is pure waste.”

This is true under most circumstances: if you’re voting solely to change an election, then your voting is irrational. If you get no pleasure out of voting, if casting a vote gives you no sense of a duty fulfilled, yet you still wake up, stand in line on a cold November morning, and cast your vote merely because you want to change the outcome of the election, then you are behaving irrationally.

In nearly every circumstance, your vote doesn’t matter. It won’t change things. Every election that you’ve ever voted in or not voted in would have come out exactly the same if you had done the opposite. This is not an opinion, it is an inescapable mathematical truth.

Jim argues that this is only half the story. What the standard, voting-is-irrational model “really fails to account for is the effect that margins of victory have on the many, many political and social actors that will consume vote information after election day.” This is still wrong, and for the same reasons.

At the risk of creating a more difficult debate opponent on November 2nd, I must inform Jim that he’s consistently equating two fundamentally different concepts: 1) the trivially true idea that voting, en masse, matters; and 2) the idea that a single vote matters. Aaron and I will not be arguing that voting, en masse, doesn’t matter in the sense that it affects the world. Of course it does. And we will not be arguing that margins of victory, which are just an emergent phenomenon of en masse voting, don’t matter. That would be silly. But, under most circumstances, a single vote doesn’t meaningfully contribute to either an electoral victory or to the margin of victory. No winning politician has ever said, “well, I won by 4.000006 percent, but if I won by 4.000007 percent, that would have really been a mandate for action.”  

Finally, I told Jim in an email that I could refute him in a single sentence. Here it is:

A single vote’s contribution to a margin of victory is nearly as infinitesimal as its contribution to a victory, and, if margins of victory have consumable value as “vote information,” then so does voter turnout, so you’re better off staying home in order to marginally contribute to that data point.

Maybe that’s all Jim needed to soothe his troubled soul: a reason to not vote that will make him feel he is contributing to the system. Apparently Jim has a deep-seated need to be a part of a percentage, to be counted by some egg-head political data consultant. So stay home Jim, but do it with gusto rather than apathy. Know that you’re making a marginal contribution to the voter turnout numbers. On November 8th, stand up—or sit down, or sleep in—and get counted!

Come to the debate, or watch it online. It’ll be fun.