If you voted in the last election, you probably found yourself making an economic decision in the ballot box. Perhaps you believed a candidate for county commission was more likely to support your business; or maybe you felt that a candidate for Congress was more likely to lower your taxes or raise your benefits. Maybe you had little certain knowledge of the candidates–or distrusted their campaign promises–but voted for a political party that you thought was more likely to help the ailing U.S. economy. Alternatively, maybe you voted against a person or party that you felt was harming the country financially.
Something else might have strongly influenced your vote: your moral, intellectual or religious beliefs, the arguments of family or friends, a specific issue that filled you with passion. Whether or not these factors benefited you financially, they were still economic, because they were valuable to you in some way. You were “buying,” or at least trying to buy, an outcome with your vote.
When political scientists talk about “economics” they don’t just mean money. They are looking at the value you place on things, what a person is willing to do (or pay) to obtain something valuable, and how those two factors influence the people around you and society at large. The way this is usually expressed–in a textbook or an economics class–is something like:
Economics is defined as the study of decision-making under conditions of scarcity.
However, “scarcity” is just one aspect of economics; it is also the study of decision-making under conditions of abundance, and sometimes under conditions where the words “scarcity” and “abundance” are meaningless.
Your decision whether or not to vote is an economic decision: you decide whether the value of your vote is worth the cost of leaving the house. If you only consider your own vote, and you’re a logical person, you should stay at home. The chances that one vote will swing any election are close to zero; you’re more likely to get in a car accident driving to the polls than pull your candidate over the finish line. Nevertheless, a majority of voters come to the polls for major elections. And that is a good thing for democracy, because while the value of any one vote is low, the value of a collection of votes–even just a few hundred–is very high. In fact it may be everything.
Because decisions to vote or become informed are of very low value to individuals, but very high value to society, these types of decisions take on the qualities of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. A Prisoner’s Dilemma is a model used to demonstrate how people’s choices can affect each other. It works like this:
Imagine that two people are arrested for the same crime under identical circumstances. If neither one of confesses, then they’ll both receive 6 months. If one blames the other, and the other remains silent, then the first will be freed, and the latter will receive 10 years. If they both blame each other, they’ll receive 5 years each.
The worst decision an individual prisoner can make is to remain silent while his partner confesses. The best decision he can make is to confess while his partner remains silent. But the prisoner has no influence on whether or not his partner confesses. Between these two individual choices are two moderate group outcomes. The best group outcome is for both to remain loyal; the worst group outcome is for both to confess. First sketched out by think-tank researchers in the 1950s, this dilemma is a common way to discuss decision-making in political science, economics, criminal justice and psychology.
Since the outcomes have a different value, the voter’s dilemma is a bit different from the prisoner’s. But the problems of individual vs. common value are similar. An individual who doesn’t vote gets the benefit of saving the effort, without costing his cohort anything–a selfish, but ultimately rational, decision. In this situation, the non-voter is like the prisoner who puts the responsibility on another party: he walks away, while the voter has to “pay” with his vote.
However, if a group of people don’t vote, they are like the prisoners who blame each other. Not only do they refuse to participate in the democratic process (a cost to society), but they devalue their own opinions (a cost to themselves). The apathy of a group of non-voters might even amplify the votes of their political opponents. This is the worst possible group outcome. Therefore the most rational decision is to vote, especially since the cost of voting is relatively low: a few minutes of one’s time. This is true even if the voter has absolutely no influence over whether or not other people vote, and never finds out who else did or didn’t.
But unlike the prisoners, voters aren’t isolated. Someone who is passionate about voting will influence the decisions of her friends and family members. Her passion and effort will increase the value of voting for the people who care about her. In fact, having a close friend, spouse or child with a passion for politics could easily raise the cost of not voting, while increasing the value of an individual vote. By encouraging her family and friends to vote, the passionate voter not only amplifies her own voice (since she is likely not only to influence voting, but voting behavior), but improves the chances of a good outcome for her group. In Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, this is the best possible decision. It’s the equivalent of both prisoners being found innocent.
Leaving aside all the other reasons to vote or not vote, the social value of voting may make the biggest difference. This is different from the sense of civic duty that motivates some people to vote. The voters who are influenced by others (most people?) vote not to benefit society, or even to elect a particular candidate, but to benefit–or at least appease–the people they know.
If you care about politics, the best way to amplify your vote is to convince the people you know to vote with you, both in the metaphorical sense (e.g., vote on your issues) and in the physical sense (e.g., ride in your car). The second best way is to honor and celebrate voters, with “I voted” stickers, Foursquare badges, or ticker-tape parades. The equation is simple: make voting an act of pride among your social circle–using social media, or not–and your vote matters more.
Too late for this election, you might be thinking–and you’re right. But the next one is not far away.
Something to think about.
My name is Natalie Binder. I am a second-year graduate student in information studies at Florida State University. I have a B.A. in political science & social science and was a 2007-2008 Fulbright Scholar. I also work at a rural public library, where I perform fax whispering, faith healing (computers only, please), cataloging, grant-writing and Tweet management. If you liked this, you might also like my over-literate blog, my semi-literate Twitter feed, or my non-literate Tumble-log.