Carpe Diem

Economist Gordon Tullock makes the case for not voting

In a heretical, irreverent look at voting, George Mason University economist emeritus Gordon Tullock explains in the 2008 video above why he doesn’t vote, and why he believes you’re better off avoiding the polls on Election Day.

“People think they should vote because they’ve been told that in school, and there’s a large volume of propaganda at any point in time. Many people are under great delusions as to the importance of their vote. They think their vote makes a lot of difference, but as a matter of fact it doesn’t.”

But what if nobody voted? Professor Tullock answers that question…

47 thoughts on “Economist Gordon Tullock makes the case for not voting

  1. this is game theory 101.

    convince others not to vote so that you vote becomes more valuable.

    the irony of this philosophy is that the more people adhere to it, the less true it becomes.

    oh, and off topic, but, for those who missed last night’s feel good movie of the fall SWATTING PANDA, FALLING TIGER….. GO GIANTS!

  2. The 2000 presidential election came down to 537 votes in Florida.

    Obviously this year is close and a tie for electoral votes would move the election to the House and Senate.

    How about President Romney and Vice President Biden?

    Those who don’t think their vote makes a difference might well be the deciders.

          • Walt,

            I know Methinks personally, and yes, her personality is exactly the same. But that’s why I like her. That, and her attitude is not directed at me.

          • Yes, as JM says, I am very blunt in person, Walt. I will not put on my pointe shoes and tippy-toe around your fragile male ego, but you never have to guess what I’m thinking either.

            I have to deal with the dumb things you say and you have to deal with my calling it dumb. That’s life “in the real world”, as you and Larry were so fondly waxing philosophical about on the Mencken thread where the two of you were busying yourselves with missing the point entirely.

          • Methinks, your rudeness overshadows your often worthwhile and very thoughtful remarks. I would not do business with you even if you could make me millions of dollars. Try putting your real name here and see what it does to your personal brand and pocketbook.

            I deal with a lot of people every day by email, class discussion boards, other blogs, and even quite a few disagree with me, but nowhere else are as many people as rude as they are here. Why must people who disagree be so disagreeable?

          • BTW, Walt, you have the choice not to pay me by not doing business with me. I, on the other hand, have no choice but to subsidize you and your slimy union buddies. I prefer bluntness and honesty to your sleazy theft.

          • Actually, Walt, I find Methinks’s rude bluntness refreshing. She certainly has a way with words. Of course, like Jon said, it’s not aimed at me.

            So far I’ve succeeded in avoiding those barbs by not saying really dumb things, and not bragging about myself in every comment.

          • Walt: “ I would not do business with you even if you could make me millions of dollars.

            Walt has principles? who knew?

  3. I certainly see the argument not to vote, but I still do. On top of enjoying it (I also enjoy jury duty), it’s a social thing for me. A bunch of my friends and I meet up after the polling, have a few drinks and watch the results come in. It’s quite fun, actually.

  4. Would Professor Tullock run for office and advocate that no one vote? Has anyone ever really done that anywhere? Theory, economic and otherwise, often breaks down in the real-world that we live in.

    You have your dreamers who live in a theoretically perfect or absurd world that will never exist, and then you have the real people who get stuff done. If you will excuse me, I have some politicking to do for a presidential and Senate candidate for the rest of today before I go to my parks and recreation meeting tonight.

    • No, Professor Tullock would not advocate that no one vote, and he isn’t here either. Explaining why he doesn’t vote isn’t the same as advocating the same. He’s making the case why it’s logical for him to not vote. Although, I do like your off topic tirade about theory vs real world – it tickled me.

      • Anyone who puts the word “professor” in front of their name and tapes a lecture or stands in front of a classroom is taking on an advising role whether they want to or not. Even I, as a lowly instructor, know it comes with the territory and we can never forget it. It is impossible to educate without having influence even though we want our students to make up their own minds.

        • Don’t worry so much, Walt. I’m sure that as a lowly instructor you’re far less influential than you make yourself out to be.

        • Is this really any different from a political endorsement? Is it really any different from General Colin Powell endorsing Barack Obama or Lee Iacocca endorsing Mitt Romney? The only difference is Tullock is doing an un-endorsement.

          • I don’t see it, JM. Where is he endorsing anything. I see an explanation for his decision but I have watched this twice and I can’t see the endorsement.

          • Well, Walt is saying that, because he is in a position of influence as a professor, that he is endorsing not voting. I am granting this to be the case. Is it, then, any different from a political endorsement?

          • Jon,

            We hold professors’ opinions highly in the U.S. Most simply put, the word “profess” automatically gives extraordinary authoritative strength to any message. So, yes, I can see it being different than a political endorsement when using a “professor” title. I see it more like a minster wearing a collar giving his religious opinions. If the preacher wants to be considered an uninfluential layman, he has to take off the collar.

          • I’m afraid I do not follow. We have a person acting as an endorser saying “I believe in this thing/person, and here is why.”

            I really do not find his actions irresponsible at all. At least, no more irresponsible than someone saying “I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store in the Universe.” (Five Internet Dollars to anyone who gets that reference).

          • The title of the post is: “Economist “Gordon Tullock makes the case for not voting” I put that with him being a professor as endorsing his case and wanting you to buy into it. I suppose he could make a case for something he did not believe in and also expect you not to be the least bit influenced by his position/title.

            Again, somehow I can’t see Tullock running for office and suggesting that you don’t vote at all. I’ve never seen a political candidate take such a position, and I’ve been around political campaigns since George McGovern (who just died this week).

          • So, if someone who is employed as a professor makes a case for and against the very same thing (as they so often do), what then is this professor endorsing?

            In fact, if you were attentive, you’d notice Tullock making a case for voting: people enjoy it. He doesn’t enjoy it as much as other people, so he doesn’t vote. A case for and against How would an “instructor” miss the value of constructing arguments?

    • This comment is hysterical. What characteristic of the “real world” makes Tullock’s argument break down? How is division an absurd theory?

      • If you take a project management program, you will find most projects break down trying to get from the planning to the implementation stage because the strategies that are needed cannot be formulated. If those who plan had to do the implementation, the plan would look a lot different. Applying division to voting in the U.S. has no useful purpose because it cannot and will not be done anyhow. If you think it can, can I see a list of the strategies that will get you there?

        • That is strategies cannot be formulated or nobody can be found to pay for them. Look at the budget. If no dollars are assigned, it isn’t going to happen no matter what anybody says. Always have a current budget when you attend a meeting to cut through the crap talk.

      • Are you sure you’re not Larry?

        Would you like a list of three countries where division is used in actual practice and is more than just a theory?

        You can most likely successfully use division yourself to determine the weight of your own vote and balance that against the actual cost of voting.

        Try watching that Tullock video again, but this time pay attention.

  5. Professor,

    I love your posts on shale gas. Here is a suggestion for your next post. Oxford Catalysts Group Plc can make premium diesel for $1.57/gallon from shale gas. They are building a factory at Marcellus Shale in PA. It will start making gas by 2014. It opens up a whole new market for shale gas and brings us closer to energy independence.

    Shale gas into Diesel fuel.

  6. The same specious argument can be made against any individual activity that has a small social impact. Littering, for instance. My one piece of litter adds very little to the aggregate, so I should drop it and not bother to put it into a garbage can. Or how about boycotting a brand because of a corporate policy that you dislike? My buying decision won’t have a significant impact on a boycott, so why bother with little issues such as ethics and social conscience?

    Obviously the aggregate IS a function of millions of individual decisions. Personally I prefer an environment where people are aware of this and act accordingly. I also prefer to be around people who act on the old principle, “Do what you would like everyone else to do.” That would mean I should avoid the company of Gordon Tullock.

    • The attitudes seem to come from being anonymous and/or not agreeing with everyone else’s opinion. I expect strong opinionated replies; people do disagree, but the petty personal attacks from people who will not publicly own their post appreciably weakens the quality and appeal of this blog. I am disappointed because I expected better when it moved.

  7. I, not being an economist, don’t necessarily view my decisions in terms of “maximizing my happiness.”

    How about this for a reason to vote: Is not an election in a sense similar to a market, and votes similar to purchases? My vote provides information, even if it doesn’t, in and of itself, determine the outcome. (That said, living in Ohio as I do, my vote has a better-than-average chance of being the big one.) Each vote for any given candidate, as well as each decision not to vote, contributes a tiny bit of information to the process, just as a purchase or sale conveys the price information that helps entrepreneurs and firms decide what to produce and where to invest. Any one vote may not matter all that much, but in a small way it influences who stands for election and which proposals he advocates.

    As to Dr. Boudreaux’s complaint about the dishonesty of the politician: with all due respect, that approach, when taken by the most principled among us, results in leaving the field to the basest among us. No politician is an exemplar of moral behavior, but some are much worse than others. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

    Both arguments against voting are persuasive, but in the end, to my mind, unconvincing. I for one will continue to vote.

    • James

      I, not being an economist, don’t necessarily view my decisions in terms of “maximizing my happiness.

      You could say instead that you feel better about voting than not voting, or that you are happier having voted than not voted.

      Prof. Tullock’s point is that the odds that anyone’s vote will make a difference is 1/115,000,000, and in his view his risk/reward is greater than 1 as he is more likely than that to be killed driving to and from the polling place.

      I don’t believe, as some do that he is endorsing not voting, just pointing out that it really doesn’t matter.

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