Why do people vote? Don't ask a micro-economist.

Britain went to the polls last week, and a right mess we made of it, in terms of choosing a government (four days on, and the parties are still negotiating). Normally, pundits lament the long term decline in voter turnout (though it went up a bit in last week’s close contest, to about two thirds of registered voters), but isn’t it amazing that people vote at all?

rational_choiceAccording to Rational Choice Theory, which underpins a lot of the study of microeconomics, a person acts as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at action that maximizes advantage.

Well that certainly doesn’t explain why people vote in Britain’s first past the post system – the closest run contest in last week’s election, in a Northern Ireland constituency, was decided by four votes. So no single individual’s decision to vote/not vote decided any contest, and I suspect it never has (historians do tell me if any contest was won by a single vote).

That means that when 30 million people left their front door last Thursday to queue in the rain (as many of them had to) to cast their vote, the likelihood of them personally affecting the choice of their MP, and therefore (eventually) of ‘maximizing their advantage’ through government policy or the MP’s constituency activities, was infinitessimal – less than that of being struck by lightning. And yet off they all went.

Conclusion? Rational choice theory isn’t much use, at least in this case. Voting is a gloriously symbolic, cultural and above all collective

depends what you mean by 'count'...
depends what you mean by 'count'...

act, not an exercise in maximising personal gain. But one slight worry – is the long term decline in voter turnout a sign that people are starting to behave more like ‘homo economicus’?

And if we were to move to a different voting system, based on some form of proportional representation, the direct personal advantage of voting might become more tangible, no?

As ever, over to the economists to explain where I’ve gone wrong/misrepresented them etc ……

And for Python fans, not as funny as I remember it, but still worth watching their take on the 1970 British election night – not much has changed, apart from an increased number of candidates for the silly parties – probably thanks to this sketch.

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9 Responses to “Why do people vote? Don't ask a micro-economist.”
  1. Interesting post. Ignoring coalition talks aside this election has made only one casualty on the ID ministers side–Mike Foster lost his seat in Worceste.

    Considering coalition talks, it would be interesting if thelid dems get Michael Moore to sit as ID SoS.

  2. Alex C

    If you assume that the only benefit people get from voting is affecting the outcome than this would be true. But what if people benefit from the sense of community they get from voting, the act of voting itself, or the psychological gain from voting for the winning party.

    Under rational choice theory I’ll weigh the costs against these benefits. Observing people voting might not be a failure of rational choice theory but rather a failure of accurately modelling these benefits.

  3. There is a lesson in this dilemma – voting is a chore and is handled like a grudge purchase, “I will regret it if I do not do it”. It has very little benefit while people feel that democracy is served. No one recognises that after the vote one is ruled by the minority, in the UK’s case less than 600 people rule the rest. In most African countries not even that happens. Be happy that in an advanced “democracy” people at least talk to each other. Hope you find a group of 600 willing to take on the task of deciding for the rest.

  4. Keith Johnston

    Just for the record: there was a New Zealand member of Parliament, Reg Boorman, who won his seat by one vote on election night in 1987. He used to joke that when he left his electorate he took his majority with him. He subsequently lost his seat when his opponent took legal action over his electoral spending.

  5. Ken Smith

    I remember the earlier posts on this year on how to improve the lives of migrant workers in the Gulf. Give them a vote and you will soon see how they use it to “maximise their advantage”

  6. But what if people benefit from the sense of community they get from voting, the act of voting itself, or the psychological gain from voting for the winning party.

    Re psychological gain from voting for the winning party – that doesn’t explain all those people who voted for Labour in safe Tory seats and vice versa.

    And while someone may psychologically from voting (feel good factor) and while this may increase their utility, it is not a rational response.

  7. Nic

    Hi Duncan,

    I’m afraid you are simplifying the economics somewhat. As Alec C writes above, the utility benefits to voting are likely to be more/other than whether your vote impacts the result.

    If you can destroy decades of economics so easily then that is a clue that you are really facing a straw man.

    Lastly, what economists call ‘utility’ can be modelled as either some internal feeling (as in early utilitarianism) or as preference-satisfaction (ie. I would prefer x if asked). The latter is entirely consistent with altruism and other moral ideals etc. (such as believing you have a moral obligation to vote). So ‘utility-maximising’ in this sense is a very broad concept which needn’t imply universally selfish behaviour.

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