It’s officially vacation season, and that means big bucks for coastal communities and theme parks. How do they make sure things go right, and how do they learn when things have gone wrong? Profits and losses are reliable guides, and markets act swiftly and surely to reward people who satisfy consumers and punish people who don’t. The process suggests that you might actually effect more meaningful change responding to customer satisfaction emails than you might by following politics and voting.
There’s a meme that goes around saying “the mayor in Jaws is still the mayor in Jaws 2, which shows why it’s important to vote in local elections”? It’s cute, but you’ll notice something even more important: the entrepreneur who unwittingly allows bloody mayhem in his theme park in Jaws 3-D is nowhere to be found in Jaws: The Revenge, which shows that it’s even more important to make sure people who don’t give their customers what they want lose money.
I can imagine what the follow-up “customer satisfaction survey” email exchange might have looked like in our world of rapid communication feedback.
“How likely are you to recommend this park to a friend?”
“Not at all likely.”
“Why or why not?”
“Arm bitten off by giant shark.”
The hard truth is that filling out a customer survey probably makes a bigger difference than following politics and voting. Ask virtually anyone if they think you have a moral obligation to vote and they will say “yes.” You will likely hear from pulpits and read on op-ed pages that to vote is a sacred and solemn duty of a good citizen. You might hear that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about what the government does, how high your taxes are, how low the taxes on “the rich” are, and so on.
Economists (sometimes gleefully) remind you that your vote will not matter. By this we mean that your vote is exceedingly unlikely to be decisive in a large election. By “unlikely to be decisive,” we mean “your vote will not change the outcome.” The electoral college amplifies this somewhat. Consider, for example, the 2024 presidential election. I’m pretty sure Donald Trump (or whoever takes the Republican nomination) will win Alabama (where I live) and Joe Biden (or whoever takes the Democratic nomination) will win Massachusetts (where AIER is located). If I vote Democrat, the Republicans will win Alabama. If I vote Republican, the Republicans will win Alabama. If I vote Libertarian, the Republicans will win Alabama. If I vote Green, Alabama will still go red. If I don’t vote at all, the Republicans will win Alabama.
Scholars have spent a lot of time and spilled a lot of ink discussing the obligation to vote, the mechanics of voting, the incentives people face when they vote and the implications of those incentives for the outcomes we observe, and so on. Maybe voting is important as a civic ritual even if it doesn’t actually change the outcome. Given the time and energy people spent denying the franchise to marginalized groups and the long struggle to obtain and protect voting rights, the argument makes a lot of sense. There’s a sense in which voting, while it isn’t likely to change the outcome of an election, is like taking communion in church, which isn’t particularly nutritious. Maybe you should do it because of its ritual value. It’s a form of communion with the polis, with those who have come before (and who sacrificed in order to secure the right to vote) and those who will come after.
Maybe. But let’s think about organizations’ responsiveness to your wants and needs in different institutional contexts. Do people listen to voters? They say they do, but the political process is painfully slow. Borrowing from Steven Horwitz, compare the Flint water crisis to what happens when McDonald’s messes up your order. McDonald’s takes care of it swiftly. The Flint government…not so much. I’m sure we have all heard about times things have gone wrong at a fast food restaurant, but with “billions and billions served,” McDonald’s could get perform flawlessly 99.99999 percent of the time and still have hundreds and hundreds of vivid horror stories. They do a remarkable job remarkably responsively.
Political change is possible, of course, and people devote their lives to it. But if you really want to see which organizations are nimble and responsive to their constituents’ needs, look at business customer service and compare it to the DMV or the local planning board or the health department. To their credit, representatives of the Transportation Security Administration contacted me after I wrote this article titled “Dear TSA: I am not your customer.” And yet in spite of some minor changes, the TSA still exists and still subjects people to routine and wasteful humiliations before allowing them to board a plane.
Hence, I wonder how to most meaningfully effect change for the person who wants to better the world. Should you spend your time voting, preparing to vote, researching the candidates, and so on? Or should you take five or ten minutes to fill out the customer satisfaction survey that you were emailed after your last flight or hotel stay? To have an actual, tangible effect on the world, I would suggest the survey.
Here’s an example of a business being responsive to customer needs and wants. Not that long ago I opened a drawer in a hotel room at a conference and found a pack of condoms. They were unopened, thank God, but suffice it to say this wasn’t the welcome I was expecting or hoping for. I took them downstairs and discussed it with the manager on duty. They instantly credited my loyalty account with some points—which were unnecessary, and likely took a look at how well they inspect rooms in the cleaning process. After our home was broken into in 2008, I don’t recall getting a customer satisfaction survey, an apology from the local police, or any bonus points in my Memphis PD loyalty program.
If you’re looking to become a better voter in the run-up to the 2024 election, here are some reading suggestions. Civic responsibility is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Do some extra reading, work to understand political economy—and fill out that next “customer service” survey you get. It might even be your civic duty.