Back in 2004, rapper P. Diddy started an organization called Citizen Change and launched a campaign called Vote or Die. Diddy and the campaign were subsequently mocked in some circles, notably the popular TV show South Park.
Since 2006, Citizen Change has been inactive, but in a recent interview at a Revolt music conference, Diddy said that the process of voting “is a scam”. Reflecting on his time in Vote or Die, Diddy says he concluded the process was, to put it mildly, corrupt. Diddy also pointed out the disconnect between voting and the people it supposedly benefits.
Much controversy has been made about his comments, but is Diddy right about voting? Two libertarians, Bryan Caplan and Katherine Mangu-Ward, have argued as much.
One of Caplan’s main arguments in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, is that voters have no reason to vote rationally.
Voters do not bear the costs of their irrationality when they vote on given candidates or policies. Largely due to their low probability of individually influencing public policy. This allows them to leave their biases unchallenged and have no good reason to do otherwise.
Relatedly, while Caplan uses the concept of rational irrationality to disprove the effectiveness of voting, public choice theorists use rational ignorance instead.
Rational ignorance relates to the amount of information we’d have to consider to understand a candidate enough so we made fully informed decisions.
In summary, it doesn’t make sense to pore through all of the information needed to be a rational and informed voter. Living in the 21st century, you have so much easily digestible information at your fingertips. So why wouldn’t you just listen to the TV debates and see what your friends share on Facebook?
But even if it did make sense to collect all that information and vote in an informed manner, Ward has argued similarly to Caplan in her 2012 Reason article Your Vote Doesn’t Count that statistically, it still doesn’t matter.
Ward recounts that, “In all of American history, a single vote has never determined the outcome of a presidential election. … A 2001 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter looked at 56,613 contested congressional and state legislative races dating back to 1898. Of the 40,000 state legislative elections they examined, encompassing about 1 billion votes cast, only seven were decided by a single vote (two were tied).”
Admittedly, Diddy did backtrack slightly and explain that he’s not encouraging people to disregard voting. He just wants voters to keep in mind that if they vote, the people on top are messing it up for the rest of us (again, to put it mildly). If one feels they must vote, Diddy argues they should vote in the most rational way possible.
Ward has called this “voting as a past-time”. Voting becomes something you do not because you think it’ll change things at the highest levels, but because it’s fun or just something you like doing on an aesthetic level.
Finally, the conflation between voting and political action is tired and fallacious. Voting isn‘t the only type of political action one can engage in to enact change. Direct action has been used throughout history to perpetuate or counter political movements. Civil disobedience, cop-watching, community organizing, and direct action on the job, to name just a few, have all been strategies used to resist oppression.
So let’s heed Diddy’s advice and treat voting as little more than a passing fancy, or worse yet, a distraction.
Especially now that we’ve got star power on our side.
Addendum: I originally mistook Caplan’s argument for public choice theory arguments and have explained that mistake here. This article has been edited to better reflect the relationship between these ideas.