Voting and efficacy

Voting is widely regarded as a civic duty. The Founders assumed that citizens would inform themselves of the issues and of how candidates would approach the issues if elected, then cast their vote accordingly. In a nation of nearly 314 million people, this idea has become laughably outdated as the magnitude of individual voices trends to the infinitessimal.

Two party system

Realistically, one’s choices are Republican or Democrat. I suppose there are the Libertarians - the autistics of the political world.[1] But our two-party system bundles unrelated concepts into pre-packaged ideologies. Do you favor “fiscal responsibility” and marriage equality? Too bad; because those ideals don’t come in a pre-packaged form. Within the party system, the large amount of cash ensures that dissent doesn’t happen. It’s all or nothing.

The parties are indistinguishable

Notwithstanding the GOP resistance to President Obama’s healthcare plan - which is almost exactly what Congressional Republicans themselves proposed during Bush II - it’s pretty hard to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats. They both spend lots of money, Republicans on bombs and missiles, Democrats on social programs. They both spy unlawfully on their fellow citizens. Most seem to bend the truth; and they all seem to favor a simple lie over a complex truth.

Vox populi, vox Dei

Not so much. More like “vox Koch, vox Dei.”

So why all the fuss about voting for this candidate or that? The Media Bubble will ensure that we stay deeply polarized for the forseeable future. Vote GOP, vote Democrat. It’s all the same. Just today, the Supreme Court voted to strike down individual campaign contribution limits.

Change the world without casting a ballot

Let’s take a step back and think about why we vote at all. Don’t we choose to participate in elections because we want to advance causes and ideals that are important to us? Perhaps our choice to cast a ballot has an aspirational, forward-looking quality, reflecting our hopes for the world in which our children or grandchildren will live.

Bush? Obama? What's the difference?

We can look at voting like any other activity as a balance of costs and benefits. On an individual level, participation in an election, particularly the presidential elections, has almost infinitely small value. And it carries a cost if done properly. It takes time and effort to inform oneself in an unbiased fashion about the issues and candidates. Unless one wants to mindlessly cast a ballot for the received wisdom of one’s party, it takes effort.

But since our personal time and energy - our bandwidth - is bounded, the process of informed voting has an opportunity cost. What else might we be doing instead of participating this process? I’m not at all sure that the cost-benefit balance favors participation in elections. And if our goal is to invest our time judiciously to further our own interests and ideals, then perhaps there’s a better way.

I’m not at all certain that I’ll vote again. The candidates appear indistinguishable to me. I can’t bring myself to vote for a Republican because their ideology is so bound-up in limiting personal freedoms that aren’t really a matter of public concern. But I don’t think that the Democrats have been very successful in distinguishing themselves. Ignoring the Fourth Amendment, they routinely spy on citizens accused of no crime. And they still have not closed Guantánamo Bay.

Maybe the best way to change the world is to adopt the platitude of “be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want your kids or grandkids to inherit a better future, then instill abilities and values that correspond to the way you’d like that world to work. If you want to live in an ethical society, just be ethical. If you do not want animals to be mistreated, stop eating them. If you want to slow global warming, stop polluting. If you want to support local jobs and economies, stop buying so much “Made in China” stuff.

In a sense, this shifts the emphasis away from decisions over which we have very little control to decisions that reflect character and values in action. In another sense, this takes the idea of “think global, act local” to its most basic form.


  1. The characterization of libertarians as austic doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the same neurologic “wiring” as persons with autism. But when given psychometric studies, self-identified libertarians score higher on the systematizing side of the Empathizer-Systematizer scale - the only political group to do so. Persons with autism have similar responses, leading to the metaphorical association between libertarians and autistics. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychology and currently professor of Ethical Leadership at the Stern School of Business as NYU has written extensively about how political identification, morality, and empathy are connected.