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.


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.


I actually find this update rather funny. If we theorize that this blog is mainly read by middle to upperclass citizens and they at the same time contitute a substantial number of voters. Wouldn't this post make the polls shift in favor of candidates whose politics favor the the lowest classes in society, due to the now lacking votes from the middle to upperclasses of society?


Who made the "No vote. No right to complain" rule?

The rule should be, "if you voted for the person who won, you have no right to complain."

The person who didn't vote has all the right to complain that he wants.


I'll second #2's notion.


So from what you say in your linked article, these "economists" are only interested in their immediate self interest, they can't spare 30 minutes for voting on the sole premise that it is statistically unlikely to be a close election. These "economists" don't care about fundamentals of democracy, they don't care about participating in society, they don't care about taxes and wars, they dont care about whether the government increases or decreases the fiscal deficits.

I don't know about you, but to me these "economists" seem terribly stupid.


RIDICULOUS!!!! Absolutely RIDICULOUS! For the first time I think you finally made an argument in which I lost some respect for you. There are billions of people on this planet that have no right to vote and perhaps even millions that have died fighting for the chance to have a say in who and how the rules of society are created.

You talk of utility of voting to the individual??? Your argument is like saying the penny has no value but you neglect the proposition that 100 pennies make a dollar and so on and so forth. Without the penny though it is not possible to make up a dollar and there for there is no value and the system becomes pointless. Every vote counts and several elections last year came down to hundreds of votes, so please do not say individual votes do not matter. ALL VOTES COUNT and no bit of statistics or individual utility should be used to justify laziness and and self importantness.

And although in a free nation ALL people are free to vote or not, what a fantastic right (first time in history that ALL people get this right), it should never be taken for granted and every citizen that has that right should be honored to participate. People should be reminded about the history of people's right to vote and maybe then they would take it for granted.

Sorry for the long comment but this post is just horrible.



"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."

Huh? Isn't that by definition of "small" and "big" elections.


Every vote has value, but the larger the population of votes, the less that value becomes. I think that's basically the point.


Well, assume the electorate is split half-way between Party A and Party B. If members of Party A are the more idealistic, or just less economically educated of the two, and only 10% of them feel that their vote is not important, while 20% of Party B know that their vote is useless because of their superior education in the intricacies of cost/benefit analysis, 45% of the population will vote Party A, 40% will vote Party B, and 15% will abstain.

The irony of the above scenario is that Party A wins, precisely because Party A doesn't know anything about economics. Is this really a situation we would like to foster?

It seems that while voting does not bring a high utility to the individual, the utility to the rest of society is actually pretty high, which makes voting a public good. Therefore, rather than making videos explaining why no one's vote counts, economists should try to impose other, social costs on those who don't go to the polls: throwing parties for voting, shunning of non-voters, and a general disdain for the politically non-conscious are a few simple ways. And unlike just going to the polls yourself, you are helping win the election by fostering a healthy turnout for your candidates.



cgarlandj and James - I agree 100% with you.

I will add:
The reason healthcare and taxes are such an issue with each election? It is well recognized that senior citizens' votes matter. Whoever as a group has a large voting influence will have their issues at least addressed. The remainder can and do rest assured that their lives in this great, thriving democracy will be largely unaffected by whoever governs them politically.


But if nobody voted, then all elections could be decided by a single vote. So the utility from voting increases as fewer people vote.

There appears to be statistical evidence that people do think their vote matters (i.e., a correlation between voter turnout and competitiveness of Congressional elections):


For me, the problem isn't that too few people vote. The problem is that too few people pay attention to what's going on in their community, or know anything about who's controlling their tax dollars. I think low voter turnout is just a symptom of that condition.

In other words, if someone is politically engaged and knowledgeable, but decides not to vote, I'm fine with that. And perhaps that's the case with most economists. But it isn't the case with most non-voters.

And with that, Indiana has municipal elections today, so I'm off to vote.


The simple fact that 'voting day' isn't a national holiday shows how little the US values voting. Think about it we can't even achieve one day off every two years to choose our representatives and to vote on issues. Quite sad if you ask me.

geoff v

Of course one vote almost never decides and election. Just like one persons tax dollars do not make or break a system like public schools. However, voting is probably something that falls under Kant's categorical imperative,

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

We know that a lot of things don't fall under this statement; like gender, if everyone was the same gender we wouldn't get very far. But, sometimes the converse of the categorical imperative can be true, i.e,

Always (try) to act according to that maxim whereby if it should NOT become a universal law, the whole world would fall apart.

I want to know, are economists commonly ''litter bugs''? Any one person's trash doesn't really cause much of a problem (although it can in some cases, e.g., like dumping motor oil in someone's drinking water). Voting is one of those things like *not* littering. The world would suck if a lot of people *didn't* do it; just like Law and Order, or Taxes, or No Littering. Would more economists feel warn and fuzzy about voting if it were required like taxes, or jury duty? If we imposed a small punishment for *not* voting the world would likely be a very different place. Imagine a $100 ticket for not showing up to vote. Wealthy people might just be willing to forget the voting and take the ticket, poor folks who could not afford the fine would show up much more often that they do. What would happen to this country if poor folks voted and rich folks didn't?



I'm an economist (faculty at an ivy league institution) and I vote.

Economists get a bad reputation, I think, by choosing to ignore all but the most narrow interpretations of utilitarianism.

History -- and daily life -- is full of examples of people doing things out of moral commitments to ideas that extend beyond themselves.

One can argue, of course, that this is just preferences at work, and that all those commitments are best viewed as arguments in a utility function.

I would argue, however, that these are fundamentally different modes of motivation, and that economists do society a disservice by declining to acknowledge that morals both can and *should* affect behavior.


Great blurb on not voting. Why does everyone get so bent out of shape if someone they know doesn't vote. First of all I wholeheartedly support #6 Baltimark's point of view. Also, as citizens you can expect more of a direct impact from writing or visiting your local, state, or federally elected officials than casting an almost meaningless vote. The amount of people that have such great peace of mind from casting a vote every two or four years while refraining from other aspects of 'civic' duty is laughable.