Go Vote! Unless it is rational for you not vote. Ignorance can be rational. But is it moral?

November 3rd, 2009

This morning, while on my ways to the polls, I tweeted “Go Vote! Unless it is rational for you not vote. Ignorance can be rational.”

A Professor whom I deeply respect replied:

Unless all candidates are equally evil, I see no moral justification in not voting.

That is a fantastic point. Often, in the pursuit for rationality and economic efficiency, morality takes a back seat. Rationality does not always line up neatly with morality. While it may be moral to help a a person in need, it is not always rational to do so. While it may be moral to exercise your civic responsibility and vote, it is seldom rational. The time, effort, and knowledge required to cast a vote, even an uninformed vote, are costs. The benefit to beĀ expected from these costs are minimal. Thus, it is hardly rational to vote. I vote because I enjoy exercising my civic responsibility and participating in a representative democracy, but I have no false allusions that my single vote makes a difference.

A friend replied:

Josh, aren’t you overlooking in your equation of rationality that shirking moral obligation has costs (albeit not easily quantifiable) as well?

This comment speaks in my language. Shirking moral obligations certainly will have a negative externality on society. As more and more people remain ignorant, abstain from voting, and distance themselves from the political process, our Representative Republic will weaken. So in that sense, on the aggregate, it is rational for society to vote.

But, in economics, only individuals choose. There is a significant collective action problem here. According to Coase, one way to eliminate these problem is to assign property rights.

In a Representative republic, the property rights should take the form of responsive government. But in a Nation as large as ours, that responsiveness just isn’t there. While the responsiveness exists at the local level, there just isn’t that much authority local governments have anymore, as most important decisions are made in Washington.

So, to the individual, it is still rational not to vote.