There is a literature, or at least a batch of memes, holding that voting is not an ‘instrumentally rational’ activity, since casting a ballot is costly and one’s vote is unlikely to decide an election. The expected ‘instrumental value’ of voting is thus held to be low, very low, surely less than the value of a free half an hour. The supposed implication is that a sane person should vote only if it’s fun, like Candy Crush is.
The other day I saw a philosophy professor berating a professed voter in a Facebook thread. The philosopher banged on at length, making comment after comment, editing some of them, over the course of an hour. “If you view voting as a consumption good, like eating a candy bar or wave a flag for fun [sic], then it might not be a waste of time,” said the good prof, appropriately citing “the entire ‘paradox of voting’ literature.”
Say I were to add my two cents, as it were, to this established thicket of ideas. My slice of discourse might be, say, the 10,000th piece of writing that has appeared in the greater literature area.
Probably there is a conventionally diminishing marginal product of additional takes on the matter. While it’s remotely possible my piece will discourage a lot of voting, odds are it will affect no one and deter zero votes. Perhaps it will affect a few folks, though it’s not even certain what effect it would have on them. (Possibly my argument would be so facile and my style so repulsive that readers resolve to vote more often out of spite.)
What is the expected instrumental value of me making my argument? With some probability it causes a few votes not to be cast, saving a few half-hours, though losing the supposedly very low instrumental value of the votes.
The probability that my argument converts a few votes to non-votes might be higher than the probability that a vote swings an election, but that would have to be established. The value of a few half-hours saved is a great deal lower than the value of deciding an election. Also, the half-hour spent casting a ballot entails voting in several contested elections, not just one.
If sane voters can only be getting themselves off, what are sane contributors to the “paradox of voting” literature, as it carries forward in isolated corners of social media, doing? Their refinements, it would seem, are not helping society in an appreciable way. Nor is it likely that one’s latest comment, sentence, correctly spelled word, or well-chosen punctuation mark noticeably furthers one’s career. It’s also not clear that the world is any better off if the careers of “paradox of voting” aficionados do advance.
May it all be irrationality, or a ploy to sell books, or clawing for status. Hopefully no one views the hurling of insults as a consumption good.