The visible hand in economics

Myth of the selfish voter

Posted on: April 8, 2008

Every election time you hear the same old story that rational people don’t vote. Why is it that so many people mix up rationality with selfishness? Over at Vox a pair of political scientists set the record straight:

If you think your preferred candidate could bring the equivalent of a $100 improvement in the quality of life to the average person in your country… you’re now buying a billion-dollar lottery ticket. With this payoff, a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive isn’t bad odds.

And many people do see it that way. Surveys show that voters choose based on who they think will do better for their country as a whole, rather than their personal betterment. Indeed, when it comes to voting, it is irrational to be selfish.

So the people who vote are the altruists amongst us, who care more for the nation than for themselves. It’s not just a heartwarming tale though: it’s a lesson in sensibly reconciling the evidence with the theory. If it doesn’t make sense for selfish, rational beings to vote then why would we model them as selfish?

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