Nearly everyone takes offense at being told that his vote will not determine the outcome of an election. But taking offense to this fact is akin to taking offense to gravity or to the multiplication tables: Reality is what it is whether we like it or not. The mathematical fact is that the probability of any one vote swinging a national or statewide election is virtually zero.
To point out this fact is not to counsel against voting. It is, however, to put people on guard against wrongly assuming that each voter votes in an informed and careful way. When an action has no personal consequences for the actor, the actor tends to be more careless than when an action does have personal consequences. The outcomes of democratic elections should thus not be so readily regarded as reflecting “The People’s” wisdom or genuine preferences.
Still, even people who understand this reality often bristle at its mention. One fear, I think, is that mentioning this reality will discourage people from voting — and if people are discouraged from voting, then democracy breaks down.
This fear is probably misplaced. Although it’s impolite to point out that no single vote matters (in terms of swinging an election), I’m confident that even the most naïve voter understands this fact. Yet millions of people nevertheless continue to vote.
Here’s a related fear: Pointing out that no single vote matters will cause people to lose faith in democracy. This fear is one that I share — although, for me, it’s not a fear so much as it is a hope. Democracy is indeed the best means of making collective choices (such as choosing representatives). But this fact does not mean that democracy is the best means of making the vast majority of choices that government today makes. Many decisions made by our democratically elected government today are better left to individuals.
Consider pharmaceutical options. The Food and Drug Administration must approve a drug before Americans can legally use it. FDA bureaucrats, who are appointed by elected officials, determine whether the risk of each drug is low enough to justify its benefits.
But such a decision about appropriate risk is best left to each individual. I might have a greater tolerance for risk than you have. So even if you and I are diagnosed with the same disease, you might refuse to take a medication that I choose to take. Yet if the FDA decides that the drug is too risky, then I am denied the opportunity to potentially be cured using my treatment of choice.
Decisions on the use of different drugs are best left to each person. My choosing to use a drug does not oblige you to use it. But “The People’s” decision — through a government bureaucracy — to prohibit the use of drugs that the majority of voters believe are too risky prevents those people who have greater tolerances for risk from using such drugs. Such an outcome is unjust. Why should I — with an unusually strong tolerance for risk — be denied the freedom to act on my preferences?
This unjust outcome, like many others, would be avoided if fewer decisions were made democratically and more were made individually.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.