Yeah suckers, I voted according to the California proposition voters' guide I wrote two months ago! Take that, forces of tyranny and evil!
Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at the voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost - in time, effort, lost productivity - with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your "civic duty." As the economist Patricia Funk wrote in a recent paper, "A rational individual should abstain from voting."
The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim. This was documented by the economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter, who analyzed more than 56,000 Congressional and state-legislative elections since 1898. For all the attention paid in the media to close elections, it turns out that they are exceedingly rare. The median margin of victory in the Congressional elections was 22 percent; in the state-legislature elections, it was 25 percent. Even in the closest elections, it is almost never the case that a single vote is pivotal. Of the more than 40,000 elections for state legislator that Mulligan and Hunter analyzed, comprising nearly 1 billion votes, only 7 elections were decided by a single vote, with 2 others tied. Of the more than 16,000 Congressional elections, in which many more people vote, only one election in the past 100 years - a 1910 race in Buffalo - was decided by a single vote.
But there is a more important point: the closer an election is, the more likely that its outcome will be taken out of the voters' hands - most vividly exemplified, of course, by the 2000 presidential race. It is true that the outcome of that election came down to a handful of voters; but their names were Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. And it was only the votes they cast while wearing their robes that mattered, not the ones they may have cast in their home precincts.
I met dozens of economists (and economics majors) at UCLA, none of whom voted. I'm sure there are thousands of such economists in the country who don't bother to vote.
But wait a minute, you say. If everyone thought about voting the way economists do, we might have no elections at all. No voter goes to the polls actually believing that her single vote will affect the outcome, does she? And isn't it cruel to even suggest that her vote is not worth casting?
This is indeed a slippery slope - the seemingly meaningless behavior of an individual, which, in aggregate, becomes quite meaningful. Here's a similar example in reverse. Imagine that you and your 8-year-old daughter are taking a walk through a botanical garden when she suddenly pulls a bright blossom off a tree.
"You shouldn't do that," you find yourself saying.
"Why not?" she asks.
"Well," you reason, "because if everyone picked one, there wouldn't be any flowers left at all."
"Yeah, but everybody isn't picking them," she says with a look. "Only me."
And that's the point! Economists' group-think has politically castrated their profession. Each individual economist is too smug to vote, but wait... those thousands of votes actually could affect an election! Since economists tend to be conservative/libertarian leaning, their smugness reduces the chances that the policies I prefer will get enacted.