I’m an Economist and I Refuse to Vote


I’m NOT an economist and I’ve never voted all my life


FEE

by Bryan Caplan

 

I do not vote. Since I’m an economist, the parsimonious explanation is that (a) I know the probability of voter decisiveness is astronomically low, and (b) I selfishly value my time. But that’s hardly adequate. I spend my time on many quixotic missions, like promoting open borders. So why not vote?

My honest answer begins with extreme disgust. When I look at voters, I see human beings at their hysterical, innumerate worst. When I look at politicians, I see mendacious, callous bullies. Yes, some hysterical, innumerate people are more hysterical and innumerate than others. Yes, some mendacious, callous bullies are more mendacious, callous, and bully-like than others. But even a bare hint of any of these traits appalls me. When someone gloats, “Politifact says Trump is pants-on-fire lying 18% of the time, versus just 2% for Hillary,” I don’t want to cheer Hillary. I want to retreat into my Bubble, where people dutifully speak the truth or stay silent.

Abstention Is an Option

I know this seems an odd position for an economist. Aren’t we always advising people to choose their best option, even when their best option is bleak? Sure, but abstention is totally an option. And while politicians have a clear incentive to ignore we abstainers, only remaining aloof from our polity gives me inner peace.

You could respond, “Inner peace at what price?” It is only at this point that I invoke the miniscule probability of voter decisiveness. If I had a 5% chance of tipping an electoral outcome, I might hold my nose, scrupulously compare the leading candidates, and vote for the Lesser Evil.

Indeed, if, like von Stauffenberg, I had a 50/50 shot of saving millions of innocent lives by putting my own in grave danger, I’d consider it. But I refuse to traumatize myself for a one-in-a-million chance of moderately improving the quality of American governance. And one-in-a-million chance is grossly optimistic.

Change the Things You Can

What about my children? If I’m worried about their fate, I’ll save more, put money offshore, or buy canned goods – all of which could plausibly actually help my children. What about the victims of bad policies if the Greater Evil prevails? If I had an effective way of helping them, I’d consider it. (The same goes for the victims of bad policies if the Lesser Evil prevails). But voting is a pathetically ineffective way of helping these victims.

I have fine friends who find my attitude dumbfounding. My question for them: Suppose the Greater Evil wins – and offers you a job in his administration. Will you take it? If you need time to weigh your answer, you’re more like me than you admit. Even if you ultimately say yes, your hesitation at my hypothetical shows that consorting with bad people hurts you deep inside.

Politics isn’t utterly hopeless, but it’s mostly hopeless. The only way I know to escape this darkness is to focus on the tiny corner of the world in my control and make it beautiful and pure. Call me anti-social if you must. Unlike your candidates, at least I’m honest.


Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

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