Why Vote?

What droves the democratic instinct to vote?  There’s no good economic rationale, this article argues, and yet people continue to vote in their millions. Is it civic duty, or the hope that your vote will have an impact?  Or is it the social value of being co-operative and being seen at the polling station?  Discuss your ideas here …


6 Responses

  1. from Justin

    I am sure we are all familiar with the old saying that it is not the votes that count but the who does the counting. This is what I think they are suggesting.

    If one must argue on this, I would suggest that economics dismisses the degree to which it is informed by cognitive assessments, the same assessments animating the very process of voting. I assume this is why communists would deny the vote and exchange – they are irrational processes. Democracy and capitalism are by their very natures irrational because they rely on many input sources which are near impossible to rationalise through analytical parcelisation.

    Sure, voting is a waste of time to economists but they miss a number of key points. While democracy is written off as rent-seeking and pretty much a waste of time energy and resources, there is an intangible cost they do not measure. Legitimacy, or the least the perception of it, is more important than the potential economic losses. Without legitimacy, there is no endorsement of rulers to govern and any decision they take would have to be enforced with force or by the application of a uniform version of human cognition.

    Needless to say, I can level the same criticisms against the
    implications of economist dismissals of political science at economics – Voting is not a science, but neither is forecasting. Economics, as a science, is no better than psychology and measures nothing more than outputs. Improvements in productivity are just as much intangible as
    tangible – psychology plays just as much a role in improving outputs as does scientific measurements of inputs to outputs ratios. In this sense, it shares much in common with the other social sciences and anything that deals with modes of human interaction.

    If we think voting is self-interest, we would be correct. As it stands, voting is a menu of policy options and usually we are motivated by the free stuff we expect to get out of the deal. As part of the social contract, I think it would be unwise to listen to the economists. They should stick to what they know and leave practical issues of governance to Idasa.

    This is what I think, for what it is worth.


  2. I am not sure if I am supposed to comment because I am not based at Idasa any more and I don’t know whether I should be horning in on your debates. However, this is an issue on which I have written repeatedly so I thought I would reply.
    The argument that voting is not rational is a product of a school of thought known as rational choice which assumes that human beings only make decisions in the same way as machines do – by weighing costs against benefits in a very mechanical way. This is not really how we take decisions – in economics as well as politics: we are influenced by all manner of factors such as who we think we are, what we value and the like which this very narrow view of our behaviour cannot understand.
    In the unlikely event that anyone is interested, I have written some published academic articles showing why this view does not explain South African voter behaviour and would be happy to forward the material to anyone who is interested in the academic debate.

    Steven Friedman

  3. Something I forgot in the last note, which I think is important to spell
    out: voting is symbolic.
    The act of voting is an expression of personal priority. It is no accident that game shows and talent shows gather more votes than most elections. People can see the outcome of their inputs almost instantly.
    This is where dishonest politicians capitalise: they take advantage of the fact that output results are diffuse and spaced out over areas and time. It is no accident that votes beseeched and deliverables promised seldom tally with the actual electoral promises.
    In a sense, voting is much like religion, it provides hope that after a while fades into cynicism when its promises of quick fix are not delivered upon.

  4. Thanks Steven, I’d like to see those articles – sounds interesting. Could you forward them to me at bmuller@idasa.org.za.

  5. Glad to see this conversation developing, and hope it will indeed lead to further reading. Apart from our own library, here is a substantial bibliography of scholarly work on voter efficacy:

    In the library the Journal of Democracy has an article by Bob Mattes using Afrobarometer data to make some controversial points about South African voters which are worth reading and responding to.

  6. Steven, I would also be happy to read what you have written.
    I also think that rational choice in voting is much like the caprice that holds supply and demand together. It is much related to personal self-construction, as you say. I am interested in the meta-narrative of voting just as must as its sociological practicalities.

    My email: jsteyn@idasa.org.za.


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