Britain went to the polls last week, and a right mess we made of it, in terms of choosing a government (four days on, and the parties are still negotiating). Normally, pundits lament the long term decline in voter turnout (though it went up a bit in last week’s close contest, to about two thirds of registered voters), but isn’t it amazing that people vote at all?
According to Rational Choice Theory, which underpins a lot of the study of microeconomics, a person acts as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at action that maximizes advantage.
Well that certainly doesn’t explain why people vote in Britain’s first past the post system – the closest run contest in last week’s election, in a Northern Ireland constituency, was decided by four votes. So no single individual’s decision to vote/not vote decided any contest, and I suspect it never has (historians do tell me if any contest was won by a single vote).
That means that when 30 million people left their front door last Thursday to queue in the rain (as many of them had to) to cast their vote, the likelihood of them personally affecting the choice of their MP, and therefore (eventually) of ‘maximizing their advantage’ through government policy or the MP’s constituency activities, was infinitessimal – less than that of being struck by lightning. And yet off they all went.
Conclusion? Rational choice theory isn’t much use, at least in this case. Voting is a gloriously symbolic, cultural and above all collective
act, not an exercise in maximising personal gain. But one slight worry – is the long term decline in voter turnout a sign that people are starting to behave more like ‘homo economicus’?
And if we were to move to a different voting system, based on some form of proportional representation, the direct personal advantage of voting might become more tangible, no?
As ever, over to the economists to explain where I’ve gone wrong/misrepresented them etc ……
And for Python fans, not as funny as I remember it, but still worth watching their take on the 1970 British election night – not much has changed, apart from an increased number of candidates for the silly parties – probably thanks to this sketch.