A Quick Argument Against Voting
First of all, let me express my gratitude to Bryan for the opportunity to do some guest blogging and for his far too kind introduction.
I figure I should use my first post to say something about my academic interests—specifically effective altruism and the ethics of political participation. The argument I make in my book Why It’s OK to Ignore Politics is that most people should reallocate whatever time and energy they currently spend on politics (reading the news, online discussion, voting, etc.) to more effective forms of private altruism.
To see why, imagine that you’re on your way to the polls to cast a vote in the next presidential election. As you’re stopped at a red light, you notice some kids playing baseball. One gets hit directly in the eye, so you rush over to help. The injury is severe enough that you’ll need to get her to the hospital immediately to save her vision. But if you drive her to the hospital, you won’t get to the polls in time to vote. What should you do?
Clearly you should take the child to the hospital. The benefit of saving her sight vastly outweighs the cost of failing to cast an inconsequential vote. But notice that the same choice confronts us every election season. Suppose you spend a few hours researching and casting a vote. You could have used those hours to work some overtime and earn, say, $50 to donate to the Seva Foundation instead, which is enough to prevent one person from going blind. If you agree that a someone’s sight is worth more than an inconsequential vote in the case of the injured baseball player, then you should agree that earning to donate to the Seva Foundation is a better use of your time than preparing and casting a vote.
(It’s true that you can vote *and* earn to donate, but it would be better to skip voting and earn to donate even more. Similarly, it’s true that you can invest in index funds *and* play the lottery, but it’s better to put the lottery money in the investment instead of doing both.)
One reply that I’ve heard to this argument alleges that, by voting, you set an example that others will follow. So your vote will make a difference after all. But I’m skeptical.
For one, I’ve noticed a tendency to think of ourselves as highly influential only in the good cases. But there’s no good reason to believe that your influence works in exclusively positive ways. When you take a drive (perhaps to the polls on election day), do you ever really worry that your neighbor will see you hop in your car and decide to take a drive herself, thereby putting more cars on the road and increasing the risk of a serious traffic accident? I doubt it.
In fact, the influence argument for voting can be reversed. Why not think that observers will be less likely to vote when they notice that you’re voting? After all, their vote will have a slightly higher chance of deciding the outcome of the election if you don’t vote. So they might decide to head home if they see you in line at the polls.
Second, there’s a “$20 bill on the sidewalk” objection. If ordinary people have that much influence over others, Reebok is leaving a pile of money on the table by not paying me to wear their shoes and boost their sales. Why would sneaker deals be reserved for star athletes and exclude philosophy professors if we’re really that influential?
Even if I still haven’t convinced you (which actually suggests that at least I am not influential), you could always set a good example for others by wearing an “I Voted” sticker and skipping the voting part. You can buy a lifetime supply for about six dollars here. If you’re anything like the typical American worker, you’ll earn that much in under 20 minutes—far less time than what you’d need to spend to vote in the next 500 elections.
Now, I know what you’re thinking—“what if no one voted? Wouldn’t that be bad?” Sure! But that doesn’t imply that you, the marginal individual, should vote. By analogy, it would be bad if no one filled cavities, but you, the marginal individual, aren’t obligated to become a dentist. Indeed, it’s much better to have a division of labor. A world where some practice dentistry and others sell toothpaste is a better world for your teeth than one in which everyone practices dentistry. Similarly, a world where some cast informed and unbiased votes and others earn to donate to effective charities is a happier and more prosperous world than one in which everyone is a voter.