Voting: The rational choice

A political scientist pushes back against those who claim voting is irrational

By Andrew Leonard
Published November 3, 2008 8:00PM (UTC)
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One of the authors of the "Voting for Charity" essay I referenced last Friday takes issue with my critique:

Dear Mr. Leonard,

A colleague pointed me to your article about our paper on why it is rational to vote. I'm glad you think our article is "pretty funny." We try to be entertaining even in our most serious writings. I agree with your comment that "we don't need a rational choice framework to provide a reason for participating in the process." And, in a world where nobody was making rational choice arguments, our article might not be necessary. But with prominent economic writers such as Steven Levitt telling people that it's irrational to vote, we think our article offers a useful corrective.

Beyond this, we are making a point which I believe you overlooked, which is that if you are voting for rational reasons, than what is rational is to be voting for (perceived) social benefits, not for your own pocketbook. It is indeed irrational to vote if the gain that you're expecting is a potential $300 tax cut or better health insurance for yourself or whatever. But it is not necessarily irrational to vote if your goal is to help the country as a whole.

Andrew Gelman

Professor, Department of Statistics
Professor, Department of Political Science
Columbia University, New York

P.S. If you're interested, our longer research article on rational voting is here.

UPDATE: Andrew Gelman is also author of Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do." (Princeton University Press),

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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