This post may be also be found at The Libertarian Institute here.
In 2016 about 55% of Americans voted in the presidential election. Of those 55%, about half voted for Hillary Clinton and half voted for Donald Trump. That means about 27% of all votes went to Clinton, about 27% to Trump, a small percentage of popular votes to third party candidates, and about 40% of Americans didn’t vote, which could be interpreted as a vote for nobody. If one’s vote is an endorsement, then who are we endorsing when we don’t vote at all?
So much of the political process involves candidates and their teams getting you to the polls. Have you ever wondered why they spend so much time doing this? Trump won with 27% of eligible votes. In other words, he didn’t need everyone to come out, he just needed enough of the people who did come out to vote for him. So why do politicians spend so much time and money getting you to vote when they don’t actually need all of you, just some of you? We can assume that in every presidential election a certain number of people are going to vote, no matter what. Regardless of who is running, they will find someone to vote for simply because they always vote. So why don’t candidates simply spend their time trying to persuade these people to vote for them, instead of soliciting new voters?
The reality is that candidates need you to vote because it gives them a sense of legitimacy. In political science this is called a mandate. When people don’t vote and candidates win by small margins, it doesn’t quite give that candidate the mandate he or she was looking for. All political power rests on public consent, and the candidate would prefer that a high majority of the public support his or her leadership. You may recall that after the 2016 election, President Trump spent months trying to convince everyone that a lot of people were at his inauguration, that he won by huge numbers, etc. It doesn’t take a therapist to tell that he was insecure about his victory. If he could convince the public that he won by as much as he thought he did, then he would have more of a mandate.
If candidates and their teams can get a high majority of Americans to vote, then it gives more of a perception of legitimacy to the victor. But when barely over half of the eligible voters turn out, what does this mean? Firstly, it means there is no legitimate mandate for anyone to lead. How can 27% be a mandate? That is basically 1 out of every 4 Americans saying they want a certain person to be in charge. Secondly, it means that about 45% of eligible American voters didn’t want either of the two major candidates to win; at least they didn’t want them to win badly enough to actually cast a vote. In this sense, the actual majority – non-voters- revealed their preference to be neither Clinton nor Trump. But of course, this reality won’t do. Democracy is supposed to be reflective of the will of the majority, but it seems the majority’s will doesn’t matter if their preference disrupts the system. Common rebuttals to political abstention go as follows:
- If you don’t like either candidate, why didn’t you vote for someone else?
- If you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome.
- If non-voters really wanted someone else to win, why didn’t they run their own candidate who reflected their own views?
- It only takes a few minutes to register to vote, so non-voters must be lazy.
- By definition non-voters do not reveal their political preference so we can’t know what the will of these people would have been.
- Democracy is open to all, so it’s as easy as making your voice heard.
I’ve written before about why I don’t vote, so that’s not what I want to address again here. What we will focus on is what economists call an opportunity cost. An opportunity cost is something someone gives up by choosing to do something else. For instance, if someone chooses to build houses instead of selling cars, his opportunity cost is the possible profit he might have made from selling cars instead of making houses. Each of us has to choose if the benefits of pursuing one thing over another outweighs the costs. If a man can either become a home-builder or a car salesman, he will choose the one that is best for him, and the foregone potential benefit of doing the other thing is his opportunity cost. We don’t always succeed in choosing the best path; in other words sometimes the thing we chose not to do proves to have been, in retrospect, the better option. Sometimes we stay at a job for years because we think there’s a future there, but it doesn’t pan out. The opportunity cost for all the years we were at that job are the things we could have been doing instead.
What does all of this have to do with politics? One facet of politics which receives little popular attention is the opportunity costs involved with the entire process. When candidates, their teams, strategists, pundits, news media, and voters spend time trying to get someone elected, they give up time and money that could have gone elsewhere. Therefore there is an opportunity cost involved in participating in politics. If someone thinks that participating in politics is more beneficial than doing something else with their time, then so be it; but we must acknowledge the reality that there are other things people could be doing.
The cost/benefit for everyone except voters should be obvious: if their guy wins, they reap all of the rewards that come with it. So even though candidates give up months and years of their life to campaign, the cost will be worth it to them, if they win. Their strategists and donors also benefit because if their guy wins they gain access to power. Every election cycle there are major donors who give millions of dollars to a candidate. They don’t do this out of the kindness of their heart, they want a return for their investment. It was quite candid of Trump to admit this in the run-up to 2016 when he was asked why he donated to Clinton’s New York Senate run and the Clinton Foundation. He essentially said that as a businessman he had an incentive to donate to every candidate. In that way, he has access no matter who wins. This isn’t really anything new. For all of these people, the opportunity cost does not deter their decision to engage in the political process. But are there obvious benefits for the common voter? More specifically, are there any benefits for voters who vote or support candidates who are not likely to win?
As we’ve seen, 45% of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2016. We could dismiss them as “lazy,” but I doubt this legitimately explains why nearly half the country didn’t drive five minutes to cast a vote (or even do it from home). If a voter in 2016 wanted Clinton or Trump to win, then for them the benefits outweighed the costs, and thus their participation in politics could be considered rational. For instance, many people liked Trump because he spoke about strict immigration policy, or because they felt he represented their middle-class interests. Regardless of why someone voted for Clinton or Trump, if they thought that by winning, he or she would benefit them personally, then their time spent voting outweighed their opportunity cost. But apparently only about 27% of Americans thought Clinton would benefit them, and the same for Trump. 45% of Americans didn’t even think that the cost of getting off their couch was worth casting a vote. And this is where opportunity cost becomes most visible.
Let us suppose a voter didn’t like Clinton or Trump in the months leading to the 2016 election. What would be this person’s options in light of this? He or she could have personally run for President, but would not have been likely to win. This person could have supported a different candidate, such as the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, but history shows that a third party candidate won’t win; the most he or she can do is affect the outcome by “splitting the ticket.” So we ask then, is it worth this person’s time, and does the cost/benefit incentivize him or her to vote for a third-party candidate when they know for sure that this third-party candidate will not win? The opportunity costs in this scenario will likely deter this person from voting. Why go cast a vote for someone that won’t win? Even the small amount of time it takes to go vote does not overcome the opportunity costs involved.
So if a potential voter doesn’t like either major candidate, and he or she is not personally going to run, and they know that a third-party candidate is not going to win, what should this person do if they want to be part of the electoral process? A lot of Americans who are in love with democracy would tell this person to find someone they do support, and then do whatever they can to get him or her elected. But what is this really implying this would-be voter should do? Give up their time, money, and resources to support someone who still is unlikely to win? Do people realize that a Democrat or Republican has won every presidential election since 1853? How should a normal American go about vetting a candidate and then convincing over a third of the country to vote for him or her? Should they give up their job and time with their family to do this? Should they give up some of their salary to try to spread support for this new candidate? It has been approximated that $2.4 billion was spent on the 2016 presidential election. We wonder how that money might have been better spent. For “fiscal conservatives” and/or financially prudent Christians, how are these costs justified?
In reality, we know that few of us are going to give up weeks of our lives, and money out of our own pockets to support a candidate that will not win. We won’t do this because the opportunity cost is too high; we would be giving up too much to not get enough in return.
This doesn’t mean that every candidate is necessarily a bad person or that we should never vote or never give time or money in support of a candidate. If you think that spending time and money toward a candidate outweighs your opportunity cost, then go for it. But all of the arguments that are supposed to shame Americans into voting don’t hold weight in light of opportunity costs. Because, essentially, if you don’t vote for one of the two main candidates, then your vote doesn’t matter. We could qualify this by saying that maybe it matters to you, but it has no practical influence on the election. If I had voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or Mickey Mouse in 2016, then my vote would not have mattered one iota in the grand scheme of things. In light of this, is it worth the opportunity cost to give up my time, resources, and effort to go through the charade of trying to get someone else elected?
Some people (especially big L libertarians) think that eventually, with enough support, someone could break through the two party system and get elected. Therefore to them, the opportunity cost is worth it since they envision an eventual return on their investment. There have been glimmers of success in this strategy. What Ron Paul did on the Republican debate stage in 2012 was a pivotal moment for the cause of liberty. He spoke out against interventionism and bad monetary policy and consequently spread the message of liberty to millions of Americans. As he’s said many times, even though he wanted to win the presidential election, he always knew that it was more about education, and that running for president gave him a platform to spread his message. A lot of people supported Ron Paul. They gave him their votes and time and money. While this is great for those who did so, the reality is that he didn’t win. But, for everyone who supported him, the benefits of spreading the message of liberty outweighed the opportunity costs, so it was worth it to them.
We are not saying that opportunity costs mean voting is inherently immoral. People vote and campaign because they think it will return to them some sort of benefit. They must determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs. Some Americans give up weeks and months of their time to help with a campaign. If this is what they want to do, they’re free to do so. No one can decide another’s opportunity costs. But we can surmise, according to the voting data, that the opportunity cost of spending two seconds to vote for someone was too high for many Americans; it evidently would have returned to them a negligible benefit, if any. Most Americans did not care for either candidate, nor did they support any third-party candidate enough to vote. None of them winning meant any kind of benefit for nearly 45% of eligible voters.
Trump was supposed to the the outsider…the independent…the business candidate, and he even spoke out promisingly against the U.S. war in Iraq. But what has happened since he was elected? Tariffs, more spending, and more war. He hasn’t ended wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and now there seems to be a rising tide for more war in Syria and Iran. Scott Horton always says that when a politician wins, he will ignore his good promises and keep his bad ones. We would be hard-pressed to think of a modern president who is an exception to this rule. So even to those who did support and vote for Trump, we wonder if in retrospect their efforts to get him elected were worth their opportunity costs. I submit that sitting on your couch and reading an economics book is an infinitely better use of your time than voting in an election. But only you can decide.
If another candidate ever came along who said he was going to bring the troops home, end the Federal Reserve, shut down most federal departments, and respect the 9th and 10th Amendments, many non-voters might be inclined to vote for him or her. But until then, we should continue to promote education over participation in politics. Teaching others, and learning new things for ourselves, is far more fruitful than spending time and money on a candidate who will only disappoint. The opportunity costs of politicking, for many, are always too high.
If candidates are voter junkies, and need your vote to get their next high, what message does it send when 45% of Americans simply refuse to vote? It seems that nearly half of the population is saying “we don’t want either of you.” What are these 45% supposed to do? Vote for someone else even though they won’t win?
Americans shouldn’t be shamed or denigrated for not voting. Some people think that other Americans died for your right to vote, and that’s fine for them to think that, but if some died for your right to vote then they also died for your right to cast a ballot for no one…to not vote. If there are others such as myself who wished that no one would have won in 2016, then we wonder what would have happened if 80% of Americans had refused to vote. Or 90%? Or 100%? What if, through abstention, we all said, “we don’t want a president”? Not voting is just as significant as voting, since both reveal a preference.
Democracy is painted as the opposite of monarchy. We learn in 8th grade history class that colonists hated the British monarchy and so they fought a war for independence and established their own republic. It’s a fun story, but is our modern-day republic all that different from the British monarchy of 1776?
Monarchies give people one option.
The American democracy gives you two.