The Dilemma Of The Rational Voter
Security personnel stand guard as people wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling station at Mangnar, Bastar district, Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 12, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

The Dilemma Of The Rational Voter


Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” In contrast, columnists often repeat themselves, but seldom rhyme. I shall buck this trend today by inflicting upon you the following limerick:


Thinking of elections makes me sad.

Every neta out there is a cad:

A scoundrel who should lose.

But hey, how can I choose,

When all of them are equally bad?

This is a dilemma every Indian voter is familiar with. All political parties are like competing criminal gangs, fighting for the right to be the only legal mafia for five years. Who do you pick? The least evil sociopath?

And along with this dilemma comes a broader paradox at the heart of democracy.

The Dilemma Of The Rational Voter


As elections approach, I must note

No election is won by one vote.

That is the paradox

Of every ballot box.

How does democracy stay afloat?

My column today is about voting, and the paradox, and the dilemma. I will consider four questions. One, why is it rational to not vote? Two, despite the answer to question one, why is it rational to vote? Three, if you feel, as I do, that all the options before us are terrible, why should you vote? Four, despite the answer to question three, why should you refrain from voting?

If you feel the questions above contain contradictions, well hello, welcome to Indian democracy.

Why We Don’t Vote

At one level, voting makes no rational sense. An election is rarely decided by one vote. Voting takes effort, and carries the opportunity cost of whatever else you could have done with the time you spent voting. The cost is personal, while the benefit is social – and there may even be no benefit, so why bother?

This also explains the phenomenon of Rational Ignorance, defined as “refraining from acquiring knowledge when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide.” This is why voters tend to be ignorant about public policy and economics, even though a government’s actions in those domains affects them so deeply. The time taken for voters to educate themselves is simply not worth it, given that their informed vote is unlikely to make a difference.

The great columnist HL Mencken once described democracy as “a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” Winston Churchill, a man who won many elections himself, even remarked, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But would you blame that “average voter” for this? Does she not have a life?

Voters wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling station in Narayanpur, Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 12,2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Voters wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling station in Narayanpur, Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 12,2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Why We Vote

If voting makes such little sense, why do people vote anyway? Well, they do so because while not voting is rational in one way, voting is also rational in another way. If you are a sports fan, you will know what I mean.

When you watch a cricket match on television with your friends, and punch the air and cheer when your favourite batsman hits a six, or the team you support takes a wicket, why do you do so? You don’t do it because your action helps the team in any way. Punching the air in front of a television set 1000 miles from the action is about as useful as, well, a vote. You do it anyway, because expressing your support has a value of its own that goes beyond the good it does the team.

The Expressive Theory of Voting states that while voting may not be rational from the point of view of influencing an election, it is rational from the point of view of expressing yourself. You express your support for a sports team by cheering for them. Equally, you express your support for your political or ideological tribe by voting. This, in conjunction with Rational Ignorance, explains why so many voters vote for policies that actually end up harming them.

Beyond this, I could argue that voting might be one of those rules, like respecting consent or not stealing, that one should follow at all times even if it does not benefit us in a given situation. If it were to become a norm that we followed for its own sake, society would be better off, and so we should also follow it. As the first formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative goes, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

I am not sure that would help, because Rational Ignorance would still kick in, and everyone voting could merely result in more people voting for the wrong things. But since democracy is the best of all possible systems, and it is premised on the value of votes, how can one argue against such a norm?

An elderly woman along with other voters waits to cast her vote at a polling station,  at Solana, Hamirgarh, Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 12, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
An elderly woman along with other voters waits to cast her vote at a polling station, at Solana, Hamirgarh, Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 12, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: India At 71: Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

The Voter Without Choices Should Vote

Say you are a voter who thinks, as I do, that every party out there is horrible, and every politician is a sociopathic scoundrel. Why should you vote then?

One argument for voting could be that some bad choices are worse than others, and that voting for the least bad has some value. By not voting for the least bad, you are making it a bit more likely—by the margin of one vote —that someone even worse comes to power. Another argument is that you are a stakeholder in this great democracy, and by not voting, you are abdicating on your responsibility and, thus, harming yourself.

The Rational Voter might argue that she incurs a cost by voting. That, however, is a fixed cost. A bad government can cause near-infinite damage, so even a minuscule probability of your vote making a difference could tip the scales and make it worth voting.

So is it a slam-dunk then? We must vote? Not so fast.

The Voter Without Choices Should NOT Vote

Think of the political marketplace as, well, any other marketplace, where people respond to supply and demand. Say I go to a mall to buy a shirt. I visit five stores, and don’t like any of the shirts on offer. It is rational for me to not buy any shirt instead of settling for the least horrible shirt. This non-buying of a shirt creates an incentive for potential clothing entrepreneurs to make a shirt that I will buy.

In the same way, not voting sends a signal to potential political entrepreneurs that there is a gap in the political marketplace, a supply-demand mismatch that can be exploited. In our first-past-the-post system, 30 percent of the votes are often enough to win, and the fact that more than 40 percent of eligible voters often don’t vote ought to act as an incentive in two ways. One, it pushes new players to get into politics. Two, it pushes existing players to reform and to try and provide more value.

The argument about the duty of the citizen also cuts both ways. I might think that X is a horrible prime minister, and Y would be less terrible – but he would still be terrible. Why should I endorse terrible with my vote? Why should I settle for terrible? I deserve better – and so do you. Is it not our duty, both to ourselves and our nation, to hold out for it?

So there you have it, I’ve provided arguments for it being rational to vote, and for voting being irrational. I’ve also argued both for and against voting if you think all your choices are rubbish. If you’re fed up with me, let me end on a note of light relief, with another limerick:


Our politicians are such a blot.

Our efforts have always come to naught.

It’s inevitable.

We’ll remain unstable,

Whether you voted or you did not.

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for a decade-and-a-half, and has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice. He edits the online magazine Pragati, writes the blog India Uncut and hosts the podcast The Seen and the Unseen.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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