Here’s David Henderson:
Before going to UCLA to do graduate work, I had been reading books and articles by Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, and Anthony Downs. They had shown that the probability of affecting the outcome of a typical election was so close to zero that the expected value of voting was substantially less than its cost. Therefore, they concluded, there was no point in voting, no matter which way you would vote, even in a close election.
David goes on to show the folly of this sort of economistic thinking. People vote because it’s the right thing to do. I know my vote won’t sway a Massachusetts election, and I vote. My economist friends know their vote won’t sway the election, and they vote. It’s discouraging that David and I seem to be in the minority, lots of economists think there is some sort of mystery as to why people vote. They vote because they get utility out of doing their civic duty. Why is that so hard to understand?
Here’s Alex Tabarrok:
Poor people often do things that are against their long-term interests such as playing the lottery, borrowing too much and saving too little. Shah, Mullainathan and Sahfir have a new theory to explain some of these puzzles.
I don’t see lotteries as posing any sort of puzzle. Indeed it seems to me that poor people should buy lottery tickets. Suppose you were stuck in a deadend job, and had little hope for a better future. Wouldn’t it be rational to spend a few bucks a week on lottery tickets, to buy some hope? Life without hope for the future is very difficult. If you’ve never experienced it consider yourself lucky.
My general view is that economists should not focus on explaining why people do certain things. Rather they should explain how changes in costs and benefits affect how often people do those things. My colleague David Gulley has done studies using a rational expectations model that shows people respond rationally to changes in the expected payoff from lotteries. I have no doubt that people would also respond rationally to a tax on voting, or a penalty for not voting.