In nearly 40 years of teaching, I’ve learned that students predictably react with hostility if told that none of their individual votes in political elections will ever determine the outcome of any election.
When discussing public-choice economics, I’m careful never to say that an individual’s vote “doesn’t matter.” Of course it matters, at least to each individual who votes — a reality proven by the fact that each individual who votes chooses to spend time and effort to do so. I’m also careful to preface my remarks with the assurance that nothing that I say should be interpreted as a plea, or even as an excuse, for people not to vote.
No Individual Vote Determines Electoral Outcomes
But I nevertheless do insist on driving home the correct understanding that in any majority-rule election with more than a small handful of voters, the probability of any one vote determining the outcome is virtually zero. I conclude by stating frankly to my students this verity: “Your vote will never make the outcome of any election other than what that outcome will be if you vote differently or if you don’t vote at all.”
Not one of the thousands upon thousands of students who have taken my classes over the decades has ever denied outright that the outcome of any election is extraordinarily unlikely ever to be determined by a single vote. When explained straightforwardly, the “non-determinativeness” of a single vote is simply too obvious to deny.
Yet intellectual awareness of this reality seems, strangely, to fuel in many students a need to venerate voting — to describe voting as being not only a sacred secular act, but as the most precious right that an individual can possibly possess.
And what’s true of students is true of the public at large. Majoritarian democracy is widely (if mistakenly) regarded as being synonymous with freedom, and the right to vote is held to be a priceless privilege that gives to each person who exercises it remarkable power to determine how he or she fares within society by giving each person a loud voice in determining the course of society.
Very few people are willing to accede to the reality that voting gives no individual any influence whatsoever over the manner in which he or she is treated, or how he or she fares, in society. The widespread romantic belief is not only that the person who votes has a meaningful say in the affairs of society, but also that the “say” that a person has through voting is more powerful and important than any other “say” that a person can have in society.
As a simple matter of arithmetic, however, this belief is a complete fairytale. Yet it persists.
Contrast this myth of the power of voting with another myth, one almost diametrically its opposite — namely, the myth that in markets every ordinary person is powerless, with his or her puny individual choices swamped and made insignificant both by those of “powerful” others and by faceless market forces.
Decision-Making Power Within Markets
A prominent version of the “people are powerless in markets” myth is the notion that, because each of us in markets is highly dependent upon the efforts of others, we as individuals are not really responsible for that which we produce.
Barack Obama alluded to this myth when, during the 2012 presidential campaign, he reminded his audience that businesses that use infrastructure such as roads and bridges to transport their goods to market “didn’t build that.” Nor do businesspeople typically provide for the education of their workers. The insinuation is that any profit that businesses earn could not have been earned without these state-supplied goods and services. And — the insinuation continues — because the state made possible these profits, the state is entitled to a large chunk of them.
Others have exposed the factual and logical errors that infect the insinuations drawn from Obama’s “you didn’t build that” declaration. What’s relevant here is the stark difference between the presumptions at the root of the “you didn’t build that” myth and those at the root of “voting gives each individual a real say” myth.
While of course it’s true that each individual in the modern market economy is highly and daily dependent upon literally billions of strangers for his or her existence — with most of these strangers, by the way, not being operatives of the state — it is emphatically untrue that each individual in market economies has no significant personal influence over his or her economic well-being.
Of course roads, bridges, communications networks, and all other manner of infrastructure make possible nearly every productive effort of people in modern economies. But to be necessary is not to be sufficient. The most extensive network of highways by itself produces no economic value. Ditto for the most excellent schooling of the population, and for the most efficient judiciary. Actual economic value arises only if and when entrepreneurs create goods and services to be made available on markets.
Without the creativity, risk-taking, and efforts of individual entrepreneurs, no economic value would be produced. This reality is made not one whit less certain because successful entrepreneurs rely upon infrastructure as well as upon the productive efforts of countless strangers in the market.
If, for example, Steve Jobs had lazed about all day gazing at his navel, we would not today have as many and as high-quality smartphones and other electronic marvels as we have. And if you retort that had Jobs been nothing but a lazy navel-gazer then some other entrepreneur would have done pretty much what the real Jobs actually did, I will note that we would then still be beholden to that other entrepreneur for his or her individual creativity, risk-taking, and effort. In no case does infrastructure itself create valuable goods and services, however beneficial, or even necessary, it might be for the creation of valuable goods and services.
And what’s true for successful, famous entrepreneurs is true for each ordinary person.
The market gives to the plumber, the pipefitter, and the political-science professor each a real and meaningful say in how his or her life proceeds. The young man who chooses to pursue a career as a physician need not persuade 51 percent of his fellow citizens to endorse his choice; that choice is his and his alone. Likewise for the woman who chooses to delay having children in order to work full-time as an attorney: the decision is hers, and it’s a decisive one.
Unlike in politics, each person’s individual decisions outside of politics are typically decisive. Each of us, individually, chooses what to eat, what to wear, where to live, whether or not to attend college, whether or not to have a pet hamster, with whom we have sex and how often, how many tattoos and piercings adorn our bodies. This list is practically endless.
In short, popular mythology insists that matters are exactly the reverse of what they are in reality. We are told that we have meaningful voice when we don’t, and that we don’t when we do.
The danger is this: as the state comes to superintend ever more aspects of life, the say of each individual in how his or her life plays out diminishes. Yet the naïve, stubborn popular belief that the most powerful “say” that each person has in democratic society is through the vote will mask this loss of personal say. People will be herded down the road to serfdom, all the while with each person mistakenly supposing that, because he or she votes, he or she chooses to make this ominous journey.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University