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Significant insignificance

by DONALD J. BOUDREAUX
| Tuesday, November 25, 2014 9:00 p.m.

In a nation of 317 million people and in a global economy of billions, each typical action of an individual can be described as “insignificant.” But significant differences separate different kinds of insignificance.

Consider your most recent purchase of toothpaste. That action had an insignificant effect on the market price of toothpaste. Shareholders of Colgate don’t notice that you bought their toothpaste and they would have suffered no decline in profits had you bought some other brand. In this sense, your purchase of that tube of toothpaste is insignificant.

Yet in another sense your purchase is quite significant: It determined what you got. Had you chosen another brand, you would have gotten that other brand rather than the one you chose. Had you chosen not to buy toothpaste at all, you would have gotten no toothpaste.

Likewise with most of our choices. In one sense, your choosing to marry Bob rather than Bill has no significant effect on society — no effect that can be detected by a demographer studying statistics on marriage or mating patterns in America. Yet your choice has a significant impact on you as well as on Bob, Bill and whatever children are born to you and Bob.

Our individual choices in markets and personal relationships are significant to us. Every such choice matters to every individual who makes that choice. The reason is that each such choice changes the pattern of the chooser’s life. Sometimes the change is minuscule (as when choosing a brand of toothpaste) and sometimes it’s massive (as when choosing whom to marry). But in all cases each choice matters .

Not so with political choices. Despite oceans of public rhetoric to the contrary, each of those choices truly is insignificant from the perspective of the individual voter.

The typical voter is not stupid. Therefore, you — as a voter — understand that the outcome of the election does not hinge on your vote. If candidate Jones defeats candidate Smith in an election, that outcome would not have changed had you cast your ballot differently — or if you had cast no ballot. From the standpoint of each individual, voting in a political election is truly insignificant. Your individual vote plays no role in determining which candidate you get to represent you.

Nor does your vote have any significant impact on the public’s and politicians’ assessment of the election. Suppose you voted for Smith, who wound up losing to Jones by 20,696 votes. Had you instead voted for Jones, Smith would then have lost by 20,698 votes. Or suppose that you didn’t vote at all: Smith would have lost to Jones by 20,697 votes. Does anyone think that the policies that Smith endorsed are more highly regarded because, due to your vote, Smith lost by only 20,696 votes rather than by 20,698 votes? Surely not.

Of course, elections are swung by large numbers of votes in the aggregate. If several thousand more people had voted for Smith rather than for Jones, Smith would have won. But each vote is cast individually. What matters is the perspective of each individual chooser. And from that perspective, voting is indeed insignificant.

In my next column, I’ll explain the significance of this reality.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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