My Endorsement for 2012
English: Ballot Box showing preferential voting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Consider this my endorsement in the U.S. presidential race: I endorse not voting. I’m not saying that nobody should vote, or that this election in particular merits not voting. My endorsement is for the principle of not voting in general. The idea that voting is some moral obligation -that you should vote, get out the vote, rock the vote, etc.- is something we are told by society throughout our lives. Public schools in particular really drive home the idea that voting is a virtue. This message is mistaken, and we should stop sending it. People should feel free to not vote, and to not feel guilty about it.
Of course this would be a straw-man if I claimed that society’s message is that voting paired with ignorance is a virtue. Most of the time the message that you should vote is paired with the message that you should “get informed”. The problem with this idea that everyone should be informed enough to vote responsibly, and that everyone should vote, is that it ignores one of the most fundamental lessons of economics: specialization.
People should do what they are good at. But we have this bizarre notion self-sufficiency in this country. It’s somehow a virtue to grow you own food, fix your own appliances, and generally do things for yourself rather than paying someone to do them. That we should all be involved in the process of making governing decisions rather than leaving it to those with the most ability and interest fits right into this myth that self-sufficiency is a virtue. The opposite is closer to true: specialization is a virtue, because it increases welfare.
This doesn’t mean that only phds, or geniuses, or DC insiders should vote. Most people with as much interest in politics, economics, and policy as a serious baseball fan has in baseball can become an informed enough voter to actually vote responsibly. What we should teach people is that the real virtue is having the humility to recognize when the minimal amount of obligatory “getting informed” that you can muster isn’t really generating sufficient information. Or maybe they did try really hard to get informed, and they’re even interested in this stuff, but in the end they decided they can’t figure out who would be best. People with this level of humility are the real heros we should celebrate.
My goal isn’t just to convince people not to vote, but to convince them that they should not feel guilty about not voting or “being informed”. There are many ways to contribute to society, generate public goods, and generally increase welfare. Someone who is bored by economics but is great at convincing people to donate blood, build homes for the poor, tutor underprivileged children may serve society better by focusing on those things they do well. It’s not just volunteering either. If you are a brilliant and inventive scientist who is bored to death by policy, then just working extra hours, or maybe relaxing so you do your job better, may be the best way to contribute to society. A doctor who comes home and forces himself to read the New York Times out of a sense of obligation to “be informed” may contribute to society more by watching a movie, or just going to sleep.
Maximizing your contribution to society is a virtue, and sometimes the best way to do that is to ignore politics, policy, and economics and focus on what it is that you do best. We should celebrate, not shame, those with the humility and wisdom to recognize this.
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