Bohanon: A Lion of Economics Dies on Election Day

November 10, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

One of my favorite professors from graduate-school days passed away on Election Day. Gordon Tullock was a founding member of the Public Choice School of Economics. Public Choice uses economic tools, models and ways of thinking to analyze the decisions of voters, legislators and bureaucrats. Voters, for example, should be well informed about candidates and issues. But what does economic theory predict?

Joe College graduates from State U. Joe wants a new suit for his downtown job, so he checks out the options at the local department store. He narrows it down to a cool-looking pinstripe and a more formal three-piece. He has 100 percent control over which suit he buys, he bears all the costs and receives all the benefits.

There are certain goods that Joe wants but does not buy in a department store — goods and services that are provided by the local government. Suppose a series of well-maintained bicycle paths contribute to Joe’s well-being. How does Joe “buy” such a good? The answer is he does not buy bike paths or other publicly provided goods; rather, he pays taxes to support their provision and gets to vote for the politicians who control them. However, unlike buying a suit, which is a purely private choice, buying bike paths is a public choice. Joe’s vote is simply one of 100,000 in this decision. He has almost no control over the public-sector outcome. His vote does not matter.

Wait, did I just say Joe’s vote didn’t matter? The answer is yes. The chance of any individual’s vote being decisive in any election is minuscule. So whether Joe votes or not, his access to bike paths is likely unaffected. What incentive, then, does Joe have to vote, much less be careful or well-informed about how he votes? Again, minuscule.

Professor Tullock taught that voters had an incentive to be “rationally ignorant” about their public-sector choices. Why seek out a lot of information or do any heavy mental lifting when you vote — there are costs to such civic-minded actions and little in terms of expected benefits.

This insight explains quite a bit about electioneering and the political process. Ever notice how candidates always try to be all things to all people? How they evade specific stands on specific issues? How campaign ads are either cotton-candy fluff about the candidate or harshly negative about her opponent? Do you get the sense that lots of folks vote for frivolous, uninformed reasons? Welcome to the wonderful world of Public Choice economics.

It is ironic that Professor Tullock died on Election Day, because he took his own advice and never voted. As pundit James Bovard stated, “Since he had perennially scoffed at the notion that voting is worthwhile, it is ironic that he cashed in his chips on Election Day. But since he was living in Illinois at the time of his death, he probably voted anyhow.”

I vote. You should, too, but only if you do the heavy lifting and serious thinking about your choice: Be at least as serious as when you buy a suit, but I am under no illusion that most people are that informed. For this and other insights picked up from Gordon over the years, I am grateful. He was a true giant. May he rest in peace.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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