Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voting: How I Did and Why I Nearly Didn't

Having stood in line a mere 10 minutes at early voting this past Friday, I impatiently mentioned to my wife that we could leave and the state would still remain Red (as it has since 1980). While this Republican coloring may not always be the case due to the increasing Latino population (though they would have to increase their voter turnout), it is the case this time around. Why the sudden surge in pessimism? Boredom, for one, but also the growing realization that we do not live in a swing state. The Romney/Ryan ticket is going to carry Texas despite my vote, not because of it. After teasing my mother via text about this unavoidable fact (she's a bit more zealous about her Republican vote than I am), I finally made it to the voting booth. I sat there for a minute, staring at the names of the presidential candidates. I suddenly felt the urge to vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, former Republican Governor of New Mexico, and founder of Big J Enterprises (one of the largest construction companies in New Mexico when he sold it in 1999). This made sense considering I am more libertarian in my views than Romney and that my vote would not really change the outcome of my state (The Onion got it right).[1] Nonetheless, having prepped myself to vote for Romney ever since he gained the Republican nomination, I followed through. Besides, a fair libertarian case can be made in support of Romney. I am also optimistic about his business and economic insight, though I worry over his "tough talk" on China and military spending.[2] As for the rest, I voted Libertarian, unless the Republican was a woman (since women tend to outperform men in leadership qualities).

If I hadn't voted, though, would I be shunning my duty as a citizen? With celebrities like Ellen Degeneres encouraging everyone (especially those undecided) to vote, does the conventional wisdom hold up? Should everyone vote?


As economist Bryan Caplan has shown, voters are far from rational. The public suffers from four major biases:

  1. Anti-market bias - the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism.
  2. Anti-foreign bias - the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners.
  3. Make-work bias - the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor.
  4. Pessimistic bias - the tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy.[3]

Your duty is not to vote, but to vote well. This does not mean voting for My Candidate vs. The Other Guy, but voting in a morally and epistemically justifiable way. I wish many would take the enthusiasm behind their "moral duty" every four years and put it behind everyday choices that have major consequences for society (avoiding out-of-wedlock births, for instance). Do not be swayed by the claim that you have a moral duty to vote, especially if you know you are not well informed. Informed voters often harm the collective with their votes, let alone uninformed voters. Steering clear of the ballot box when you know you are politically ignorant is the most moral thing you could do. Keeping your hands clean of future political sins brought about by the collective is always good when you are self-aware of your ignorance. As philosopher Jason Brennan puts it, "Bad voting occurs when a citizen votes without sufficient reason for harmful or unjust policies or for candidates that are likely to enact harmful or unjust policies." Your one vote won't sway the election anyhow.[4] What if everyone thought this way? They don't. So no worries. But I think a few less ignorant voters is a good thing. This is especially true when bad ideas lead to bad polices, which produce poor growth that in turn brings about more bad ideas (a cycle Caplan calls "the idea trap").

This is a call to inform yourself to the extent that you can justify your position, whatever it may be. If you are still undecided about the candidates and plan to not vote, I applaud you. I wish I had done this the first time I voted in 2004. You've probably made the most moral choice out of all of us, voters and non-voters combined. If you are still undecided about both candidates and voting these last couple hours, stay home and do the rest of us a favor.

1. For my swing-state libertarians, I suggest reading Randy Barnett, "The Mistake That Is the Libertarian Party," The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 5, 2012).

2. The final Gallup poll finds that people believe Romney would handle taxes, the federal budget deficit, and the economy as a whole better than the President. A CNNMoney poll found economists leaning in favor of Romney, while an admittedly mixed poll by The Economist found Obama favored among academics and Romney favored among the National Association for Business Economics. Others have found Romney's 12 million job target to be realistic, which is maybe why there is such an impressive list of economists (including six Nobel laureates) who support him. And while government spending is atrocious under both parties, there is some recent evidence that the economy fares better under Republican presidents.

3. See Bryan Caplan, "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies," Policy Analysis 594 (Cato Institute, 2007 May 29). Jason Brennan provides more biases that lead to poor decisions in voting.

4. To be clear, I'm not bashing the electoral college, which will not be eliminated anytime soon.

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