Voting, Public Goods, and Free Riders
By David Henderson
John C. Goodman has an insightful and relatively short post this morning making the case for voting even when you’re virtually positive that doing so won’t change the outcome of an election. It reminded me of something I wrote in “Market Virtues and Community,” Chapter 11 of my The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey. Here it is.
A story from my own experience illustrates the great gulf between what economists claim as rational behavior and what we really believe in our hearts. Before going to UCLA to do graduate work, I had been reading books and articles by Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, and Anthony Downs. They had shown that the probability of affecting the outcome of a typical election was so close to zero that the expected value of voting was substantially less than its cost. Therefore, they concluded, there was no point in voting, no matter which way you would vote, even in a close election. This was even clearer for the 1972 presidential election that was on at the time, because President Nixon was about to trounce George McGovern.
At UCLA that fall, I got into a long, heated argument with another beginning graduate student, in which I laid out Tullock’s case for why it made no sense for him to vote. He understood the argument, but wasn’t convinced. He said, “But if everyone thought that way and acted on it, the whole system would break down?” “Wrong,” I said. “If everyone thought that way, that’s exactly when you should vote.” We went back and forth, neither of us able to convince the other. I will admit now something that I would not even admit to myself then: Part of my reason for trying to persuade him was that I had just moved from Canada and could not legally vote, and I envied him his right to vote. Three years later, I heard that he had said that now that he was steeped in the UCLA way of thinking, he realized that I was right and he was wrong. I don’t know what he thinks now, but I’m convinced that he was right and I was wrong.
What he was articulating was the way he was brought up and, for that matter, the way most of us are brought up. Most of us are taught that when we make decisions, we don’t just calculate the effect on our own well-being. We don’t necessarily estimate the effect on others’ well-being either, because doing so is difficult and often impossible. But we do tend to ask ourselves, “What if everyone acted this way?”
If you have children, you probably raise them to believe that stealing is wrong or that they should not use other people’s things without asking. I bet you say something like, “How would you feel if Johnny stole your bicycle?” Why do we say that? Because we are trying to socialize our children, to make them aware that other people count, that other people–to use a formulation from Immanuel Kant that my mentor, Clancy Smith, likes to quote–are ends in themselves also. With such devices and, even more important, with our own modeling, we turn our children into good people.
But think about that. Why should we want our children to be good people? If we totally accepted the economists’ model that leads to the free-rider problem, we should want to raise our children to take advantage of other people whenever the cost to our child of doing so–and I use “cost” in the narrowest sense–is less than the child’s benefit. I have met hundreds or thousands of economists, and I have yet to meet one who raises his or her child that way. Well, maybe one, but I hope, I pray, for his and his child’s sake, that he was kidding me. True, we have lapses. I know one economist who, when the waiter left an item off the bill, told his son not to mention it so that they could pay less. Having lapses is part of being human also. But the overall thrust of how economists raise their children is very much the way noneconomists do it: We teach, and try to model, virtues.