Do you remember how stridently democracy has been emphasized in recent elections? Voter ID laws were condemned as undermining democracy. Citizens (at least those expected to vote the “right” way) were browbeaten to vote as the only way to preserve democracy. When the party in power changed, even considering changing a policy backed earlier by only 50-percent-plus-one under its control was pilloried as an assault on democracy. Any time the Supreme Court overrode one party’s initiatives, it hammered the ruling as a violation of democracy. And if an election loser didn’t meekly accept the official results, however questionable, they were a usurper of democracy.
Underpinning the appeal of such rhetoric is the idea that democracy “gives the people what they want” (as opposed to H.L. Mencken’s version that it is “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”), so that “saving democracy” allowed Americans to get what they wanted.
Unfortunately, the idea that democracy gives people what they want has lots of holes. In democracy, every preference out of line with majority wishes is overridden, and the general welfare is transformed into any dominant faction’s impositions. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” James Madison agreed, noting that democracy provides “nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party.” And if whatever some majority decided always determined the law, there would be no purpose in putting certain rights against government imposition beyond “democratic” determination, so we must ask why America adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which Justice Hugo Black called the “thou shalt nots”?
Even beyond those thorny issues, however, there is another important reason to question whether democracy gives people what they want. The view that it does so reflects the belief that people vote for instrumental reasons — that is, in an effort to achieve policies whose effects will best advance one’s interests. The problem with that assumption is that one’s vote in any large-numbers election is extremely unlikely to affect the outcome, which makes the instrumental value of someone casting a “better” vote very close to zero, unlike in markets, where someone’s choices determine their results. And if the instrumental benefits are near zero, the benefits of an instrumental approach are unlikely to justify the costs necessary to cast such a vote.
To illustrate, consider a case where you had a one-in-a-million chance that your vote would swing a major electoral result to benefit you by $10,000. Viewed instrumentally — solely as a means to an improved end — the expected value of that vote is one cent ($10,000 times the one-in-a-million odds). Such a small payoff cannot explain choosing to vote, much less adamant support for, or opposition to, a particular candidate or issue.
But people often also care about what has been termed the expressive value of voting — what they believe a vote says about them. Perhaps best expressed by Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky’s classic Democracy and Decision, it reflects the fact that, beyond voters’ instrumental incentives, they might also want to vote for something because it makes them feel better about themselves by, say, embellishing a noble self-characterization. A vote could validate one’s sense of self-worth by illustrating that “I care,” “I seek justice,” “I am patriotic,” “I am not a racist,” and the like. And when such “birds of a feather flock together” in like-minded groups, such self-endorsement can be multiplied many times over.
Consider, for example, protectionist policies, endorsed by the most likely 2024 presidential candidates of both parties. Promoters claim that their version of protectionism will be good for Americans, even though it can, in fact, only be good for some at even greater costs to others. But such campaigns focus on making voters think it demonstrates that they are patriotic (e.g., “Make America Great Again” or “Buy American”), revealing far more concern for the expressive value of voting rather than the instrumental value, which is negative for most citizens.
Such issues also infest government policies with expressive-vote-seeking treatment of redistribution. Every current policy seems to come with a “but you won’t pay; only the rich will,” claim. That is then buttressed by the false claim that the (much higher) taxes they pay doesn’t even approach paying their “fair share” (in fact the real “fair share” question is why the zero or even negative federal income taxes so many program-beneficiaries pay represents their “fair share,” which means it is only fair that they should be entitled to live off others). That way, voting benefits for yourself out of others’ pockets can be self-interestedly rationalized as “defending fairness,” or “I only want what is fair,” rather than “I am using government to steal from others.”
In such cases, the expressive value of someone’s vote will often dominate its instrumental value, to the point where changes in the instrumental value of proposals (policy effects) will have virtually no effect on many peoples’ votes, as long as a candidate can maintain the expressive value of their support.
Contrast voting for a candidate or proposition with the case where your vote is decisive — in market choices. In the one-in-a-million odds example above, many would be willing to vote for a $10,000 benefit for someone or some group they supported, because the expressive value of that imaginary generosity exceeds the expected cost of such a vote to them — 1 cent. But they would not be willing to give that $10,000 — the real cost of such generosity — themselves.
Consequently, for votes thought to have sizeable “send-a-message” expressive implications about themselves, voters may frequently vote for policies and candidates whose policies would harm their interests, because voting makes such choices artificially cheap. Further, it provides a major reason why people are far less informed about public policies (which their vote won’t affect with any likelihood), which public choice scholars call the “rational ignorance” effect, than about their market choices, where their choice is determinative. It can also explain why candidates who want to convey large, expressive values put more effort into burnishing the appropriate image than to adopting better policies.
In other words, with expressive voting, I must only give up an infinitesimal chance of altering a political outcome in a way that would cost me, in exchange for the full value to me of polishing my role as the hero in my own story. And that is vastly less than paying what it actually costs to implement the policies that make me feel better if I vote for them.
And this brings up the question: “Will 2024 be the ultimate expressive voting election?”
We already have huge expressive motivations in place. There seem to be literally millions who are determined to vote for “Make America Great Again,” and millions who could be described as having “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” And we seem to be reinforcing such people, as well as making more, with the current indictment of Donald Trump. We have many on the left saying it proves “no one is above the law,” which sounds noble, but given the obvious exception of the Biden family. Among many other ways the law is only being used against those such people disagree with, it would be more accurately termed, “We showed you!” And that is why on the other side, we hear instead of people “standing up for themselves” against the arbitrary weaponization of the law and law enforcement, when justice is supposed to be blind.
And that is the case when we still have a year and a half until the next election. That, in turn, makes it seem that expressive voting will carry the day, one way or the other. And who knows what other massive misdirections will be launched by November 2024. But with voters paying so little attention to the actual instrumental effects of the policies proposed, with all their devilish details, my fear is that good government is more likely to be made impossible, than advanced by such a contest. After all, campaigning almost solely for expressive votes in a vastly divided country threatens to put a prudent government out of the question, and as Jeremy Collier wrote, “Prudence is the necessary ingredient in all the virtues, without which they degenerate into folly and excess.” It would appear that the fewer areas we relied on government and the fun-house mirror reflections of our interests it is based on, and the more we make our own choices with our own resources, while not violating others’ rights, the better off we would be.