Douwe Osinga's Blog: Voting is irrational

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Voting is irrational

One of the last taboos in our society must be democracy. Not that democracy works. You can say that democracy doesn’t work. That is doesn’t work here. Or in the US. Or in Africa and certainly not in Iraq. But you can’t say that you’re not going to vote. You have to vote. It is you duty as a citizen.  Meanwhile any child can see that voting is completely irrational and pointless. There is no good reason to vote in an election, but still 50% or so of voters turn up. That is actually quite impressive.

One man, one vote means that it only makes a difference for a man to vote if his one vote is the deciding vote. This has never happened as far as I know in any major election, so never in history has the vote of one man made a difference. There is a chance that it might and there is even a chance that you might be the lucky voter. But it is very unlikely. The impact of the election times that chance, i.e. your expectation value of the actual voting is much lower than the costs of the voting in terms of time and effort.

People tend to get upset when I tell them this. They quibble a bit about chances, but there is not much room there: voting is statistically speaking pointless. After a bit more discussion, it comes either down to that voting is our moral duty or to that we have to vote, because of what would happen if nobody voted. The last argument is often accompanied by references to Immanuel Kant.

Let us start with the moral duty. Discussing morals is always a tricky thing, but in this case, I find it hard to imagine that the right to vote turns into a moral duty once it seems that the former right has no value. Can a duty be irrational? That brings us to Kant, to whom all ethics boiled down to rational duties.

It seems Kantian to ask what if nobody voted, wouldn’t that mean chaos? Isn’t it that we therefore cannot will our underlying maxim to be universal law, as Kant would put it? The underlying law would be not to vote and we cannot want that. But that would be too simple. If nobody would be a baker, we would all starve, but that is no reason for everybody to become a baker. Furthermore, it is possible, i.e. not self-contradictory to want that nobody votes.

To admit that voting is pointless but insist that it is a moral duty, because everybody needs to vote in order for democracy to work, would be distinctly un-kantian in that it treats human beings as an means to democracy and not as an end in themselves. Furthermore, if democracy needs everybody to vote and the more people vote, the less incentive there is for an individual, it seems that democracy itself is self-contradictory in a Kantian sense. The more people vote, the less power they actually gain, so the less they will want to invest into it in terms of studying the issues at stake.

What is there to do? Simple. Reduce the number of people that vote. If there are only 2000 people that vote, it does make a difference whether they vote, so those people will have the incentive to put time and effort into learning what is at stake. The only question is how to select those people. Parliamentary democracy tries to do with by electing those people again. This sort of works, but has two draw backs. One is that it doesn’t really solve the problem described above, because you still have a lot of people who have to vote, but don’t have a reason to. The second reason is that an elected parliament hardly ever votes the way the people would, i.e. it is no longer a democracy per se.

The alternative is simple. Draw a random selection using statistically sampling from the population to vote in a parliament. We all know really that this would be more representative for what the people want than the current systems. Yes, they would need time of work and they would need access to all the information they require. And yes, you could suppose that the average guy doesn’t know what is good for him and should therefore be represented by a politician (because we can trust them), but how would the average guy then know how to choose this politician? Real democracy is by jury.