How Much Would You Pay to Vote?

For some reason, even scholars familiar with economics lose the ability to “think on the margin” when it comes to the matter of voting. For example, Cato senior fellow Jim Harper recently agreed that yes, your vote will almost certainly NOT affect who the next president is, but it will affect the size of his or her margin of victory, and so that’s why it makes sense to vote in purely cost/benefit terms.

Yet as David R. Henderson points out, Harper’s argument fails too. I’d put the matter like this: Do you really think anybody cares whether a sitting president won by a margin of 2,321,210 as opposed to 2,321,211? Since that type of miniscule difference will affect the behavior of precisely ZERO people–including the policymakers in DC whom Harper said respond to margins of victory–it follows that casting a vote in a presidential election confers basically no benefits, on the margin, if we are thinking in purely instrumental terms.

Before I continue, let me repeat what I said in my previous post on this topic: I am NOT arguing that people should only follow narrow cost/benefit calculations when making important decisions, regardless of ethical principles. For example, if I see a guy passed out on a park bench with his wallet hanging out of his pocket, I will certainly not steal it, even though it’s possible that I think, “Somebody else is definitely going to take it, so it’s not like I’m making the guy any poorer than he otherwise would be.” I can’t control other people’s behavior, I can only control mine, and if it’s wrong to steal a wallet, then I won’t do it–period–regardless of the analysis of outcomes “on the margin.”

However, that’s not really the situation with voting. Just about every single person who plans on casting a vote in the upcoming presidential election will have serious philosophical and moral objections to the candidate receiving the vote. But for some reason, people engage in faulty “strategic” thinking, arguing goofy things like, “A vote for the Libertarian candidate is a vote for Hillary,” or, “I don’t want to waste my vote by pulling the lever for a decent human being.”

This type of reasoning is nonsense; your vote WON’T affect who the next president is, so by no means should you “hold your nose” and vote for someone you hate, thinking that you are somehow being an adult and doing the tough but wise thing. No, you’re not: Your analysis is totally flawed. If you want to walk by the guy passed out on the park bench and say to yourself, “I won’t steal his wallet, and I wish everybody else in society would follow my example,” then that makes sense. But it doesn’t work to vote for someone you think is a horrible person; you wish others WOULDN’T follow your example. To be analogous to the park bench situation, you should vote for the person you think is honorable and competent, even though you know others won’t follow your lead. Or you can follow my example, and not vote out of principle, recognizing that the whole system is a farce designed to convince Americans that they have a big say in who runs the federal machinery of welfare and warfare.

I have been trying for a while to get even my economist friends to “think like an economist on the margin” when it comes to casting votes for president. I think I’ve finally got it! Suppose the rules are tweaked so that (for some reason) the government approaches Jim Smith and tells him, “Every other eligible voter still gets one vote, just like before, but we’ve got a deal for you, Jim. You get your first vote for free, like before, but after that, you can cast as many additional votes for president as you want, but you have to pay $100 per additional vote. So how many do you want to buy?”

Now as an economist, how would you advise Jim? If you think it makes sense to vote, and assuming Jim is a productive adult, that first “free” vote is implicitly worth $100 when you factor in the opportunity cost of his time, etc. So all along you’ve thought it made sense for Jim to implicitly spend $100 on that first vote. But now he gets to buy more votes, just by writing a check. So how many more should he buy?

I am hoping even the biggest fans of democratic elections would agree that Jim should not sell off all of his worldly possessions and borrow as much as possible, in order to cast as many votes as he can possibly afford in this upcoming election. In other words, I hope we can all agree that at some point, Jim should decide, “It would not make sense for me to buy an additional vote for $100 of my wealth.”

Now suppose Jim ends up buying, say, 18 votes this time, in the 2016 election, paying out $1,800. He waits and sees the outcome. In his state, Donald Trump (say) wins the popular vote by a margin of 34,020. Now Jim had voted for Trump (let’s suppose) because he followed Harper’s advice, and wanted the anti-establishment Trump to have a big margin when he went to DC. But in retrospect, Jim wonders whether he should’ve only bought, say, 10 votes, thus saving himself $800 and shrinking Trump’s margin of victory in his state down to 34,012. In other words, Jim is thinking that he could have used that $800 much more effectively in different ways than by boosting Trump’s margin from 34,012 to 34,020.

Would Harper say Jim is demonstrably wrong? Wouldn’t Jim’s point be obvious? And if so, wouldn’t Jim be able to talk his way down to buying ZERO extra votes at a price of $100 a pop? And if so, why not go one step further and not even cast the “free” vote, which burns up $100 of Jim’s time, all things considered?

More generally, even if you don’t like the particulars of the scenario I just invented, I’d ask my pro-voting economist friends to think through how they would advise someone who needed to construct a personal “demand curve” for additional votes. The purpose of this exercise is to force my economist friends to think on the margin, the way we do for other goods and services. There is nothing “irrational” about spending money on books of poetry, or giving donations to feeding people in Africa, but we still use marginal analysis in these settings.

So too with voting. How should an individual voter weigh the pros and cons of additional votes? Once you think through that exercise, it may show you that you’ve been using a faulty framework when thinking about the traditional setting where your choice is only between casting 0 and 1 vote.