(This post is an ad for the upcoming debate: Should Libertarians Vote? It’s sure to rock the world of liberty. Sign up at the link.)
The first and second parts of my “Economics Will Be Our Ruination” series highlighted how putatively neutral economic analysis often subtly embeds non-neutral values. Economists tend to prefer human activity that’s measurable using dollars over non-monetary trade or leisure, for example. An economic model of the Fourth Amendment can easily place group interests ahead of individual rights. In this installment I’ll highlight weaknesses in the practice of economic modeling, using the example of voting.
Creating a theoretical construct to depict common transactions or interactions, then assessing such activity as abstracted, is essential to economics. But it is also a profound weakness of that form of analysis, because failing to model accurately will send one’s economic assessment off the rails.
An example of this is economic assessment of voting. Many economists, both professional and amateur, are ineluctably drawn to modeling voting as a process solely for selecting the officials that will serve in a representative government. Given the exceedingly low likelihood that one person’s vote will sway the outcome, the time and effort spent on voting is pure waste. So economists conclude that voting is irrational.
That model of voting is hugely over-simplified, omitting even down-ballot electoral and initiative races, which somewhat increase the still-small odds of casting a decisive vote. But what the 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. As I wrote a few months ago in a piece called Don’t Not Vote, “Votes are a dazzling roman candle of information supplied to elected officials, their staffs, political parties, journalists, opinion leaders, and future candidates, to name a few. All these witnesses to elections incorporate vote information—not just outcome, but win/loss margins—into their actions and assessments well beyond election and inauguration day.”
Michael Cannon agrees, adding that the custom of voting signals solidarity and commonality of purpose with your neighbors. If you want to have influence with them, “you obey the local customs.”
The upshot of over-simplified economic modeling of the vote is that it causes libertarian economists and economic thinkers to undercut the adoption of libertarian ideas. If libertarians don’t vote their preferences, their relevance is underweighted by all the election observers noted above, and on top of that they alienate themselves from nearby persuadable audiences, remaining odd political and social separatists instead. Thinking different is fun, but if you want to live in a more libertarian society, you might want to go out and vote.
It’s not economists that will be arguing the wrong side of the voting question at our upcoming debate on the topic. It will be philosophers Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus concocting delightfully amusing but still wrong, ivory-tower reasons why voting is a waste or even a harmful practice. And if present practice is any indication, some debaters are going to be throwing some shade! It should be a good time, followed by adult beverages to “pre-mourn the outcomes of the forthcoming election.” Register now!