Voting Is Not Rational

Column by Stephen Nichols.

Exclusive to STR

While reading Paul Bonneau’s recent column on STR entitled “Voting Is Not Irrational,” I was taken aback by the obvious flaws in his analysis and the conclusions resulting from that analysis. It’s been a few days since his article was published and I’ve been formulating my response to it for some time. Let me now share with you my counter-analysis and thinking as to why voting is clearly not rational.

Paul outlines several arguments in favor of voting and in support of voting non-interference. I really appreciate the effort Paul has put into his writings. Each of his arguments should be given a moment of consideration and a measured response:

Particular Worldviews

Paul wrote: “Given a particular worldview, voting is not all that irrational. If one already accepts that some people should be ruled by others, then the process by which rulers are chosen becomes crucial. This is why voters are not moved by our arguments. They have accepted, as a given, the legitimacy of the state. If the state is legitimate, if it is right and good that some should be ruled by others, then of course people should vote!”

They key phrase here, in my mind, is “Given a particular worldview.” That phrase may be followed up by anything that can be rationalized by a particular worldview. Which, it turns out, is pretty much any behavior yet conceived by man. By this reasoning, if my particular worldview tells me that I should skewer, roast and eat babies, then my desire isn’t all that irrational, right? Well, in reality, that depends on the thinking behind my rationalization.

It’s obvious that people who accept the legitimacy of the state are likely to accept the means used to choose rulers, be it voting or appointment or divine right. This is not the issue. The issue is the chain of thinking behind this acceptance. If any link in that chain of reasoning is weak, then it is susceptible to productive attack.

Paul is right to point out “particular worldviews” insomuch as the desire to emancipate ourselves from the coercive state is related to those competing worldviews. If one agrees that it is competing worldviews that fuel the coercive state, then it is desirable to attack the rationality behind support of those destructive worldviews.


Paul wrote: “The probabilistic argument – that one’s vote is highly unlikely to decide an election – is one that actually is independent of worldview…”

This section of Paul’s column was a bit contradictory, but I believe I understand the thrust of what he’s saying: that voting works and the probabilistic argument is a dead end. It’s hard to argue with that assessment for two reasons:

  1. Given a “particular worldview,” voting works as intended.
  2. Most people don’t understand probabilities. Read more about that at

At best, the probabilistic argument might engender some voter apathy. But, because most people don’t understand probabilities, the argument is essentially lost on them. And even if the argument were well understood, it’s just not that moving because it doesn’t engage the destructive worldview that supports the coercive state. It’s just a mere intellectual curiosity.

Getting Productive

At this point, Paul calls for a more productive strategy that involves directly attacking the legitimacy of the state. He writes:

A much more productive course might be to directly attack the legitimacy of the state. Once that comes into question in a person’s mind, it seems unlikely there will be much voting from him any longer. And that should be our aim anyway. We want people questioning the state. It doesn’t help if we somehow talk them into not voting when they still believe the state is legitimate.”

I wholeheartedly agree that it is most productive to directly attack the legitimacy of the state. The point that Paul seems to miss is that voting is the portcullis to that attack. Let me explain:

Unless you’re a convicted criminal, state employee or otherwise dependent on the government, involvement with the state is limited by your level of activism. And, for most people, that activism is limited to voting every year or so. For most of the time the state is tolerated and ignored by these folks. Yet, when the chance to vote is offered, those of conscience (given their worldview) line up to influence the direction of the state on Election Day. Quite literally, for most people in our society, involvement with the state is predicated on voting. Indeed, many are emotionally invested into their right of suffrage.

Arguing with someone about the abstract legitimacy of the state is not productive unless that person is fertile ground for such ideas. Take some time and have that discussion with an avowed statist and watch their eyes glaze over. You’ll lose them in almost every case.

However, calling the practice of voting into question really pushes their buttons! Tell a voter that you don’t vote and you’ve got their attention. I’ve seen more voters than I can remember give me the look of shock and horror when I tell them that I don’t vote and why. They happily engage with me to try and convert me to their religion. And, make no mistake; voting and politics are religious beliefs for many people. By my reckoning, politics is the largest secular religion around. Screw Jesus, long live the bald eagle!

This is the rub. People are not rational about why they vote. They just do it “just because.” Really dig in on this with voters you know. Ask them why they vote. Probe them for their reasoning. If their head doesn’t explode after you ask the question, you’ll find, in nearly all cases, a logic vacuum replaced by unreasoned faith. What you’ll find is their sense of civic duty and emotional defensiveness.

This is why voting is not rational--because people engage in it based on irrational thinking. They engage in it based on emotional investment and feelings. There is no clear line of thinking that supports voting as a rational act. If there is, I’d love to hear it! Of course, given a “particular worldview,” anything can be rationalized. But rationalizing something doesn’t make it rational.

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Stephen Nichols's picture
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Suverans2's picture

What seems "irrational", to me, is not voluntarily withdrawing from membership[1] in a group that one vociferously claims to despise.

A group does not exist without its members, "all governments must have citizens in order to exist."


[1] Secession The act of withdrawing from membership in a group. ~ Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, page 1351
[2] Omnes licentiam habere his quae pro se indulta sunt, renunciare. [It is a rule of the ancient law that] all persons shall have liberty to renounce those privileges which have been conferred for their benefit. Cod. 1, 3, 51 ; Id. 2, 3, 29 ; Broom, Max 699. ~ Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (c.1991) page 1086

Jim Davies's picture

Nice, Stephen. Never thought of that; people vote "just because" - so of course voting is irrational.

That article is fun too; though a bit overstated. If it were really true that we argue or debate solely in order to win, how would anyone ever change his mind? Yet people do change minds.

mjackso6's picture

I was already thinking that voting and politics in general represented religious or faith-based thinking before I hit that part of the article. Given that, it becomes very difficult to change people's thinking on the subject. A rational belief can be argued, discussed, debated, etc. and either upheld or shredded based on logical premises. An article of faith, on the other hand, is almost immune to outside attack. The only way for an article of faith to be shattered is from within, i.e. when enough doubt accumulates in a person for them to take a hard, honest look at their cherished belief and find it wanting. The only way I know to catalyse this process is the slow introduction small arguments and bits of information that contradict those articles of faith. With luck, eventually this will lead a person to start asking him/herself all of those niggling questions that undermine his/her faith and if this continues, eventually that faith will crumble. Yeah, I know, that sounds long, drawn out, and melodramatic, but that's the process I went through. I'd been a statist all my life, retired after 20 years in the military, and sailed on as a conservative Independent afterwards. It took my wife placing those little seeds of doubt in my mind and almost three years of 'germination' time for things to take hold for me. But if someone with a background like mine can 'get it', anyone should be able to.

Jim Davies's picture

Thanks mjack for that post. That was my experience too (though a different religion.) Congratulations to your remarkable wife!

Twenty years... yes. Don't know how to substantiate this, but I've been thinking for quite a while that most folk re-examine their core beliefs about that often. If so, it follows that in any year, about one twentieth of our friends are open to what we have to say.

Can you think of any factors that might have accelerated the process, for you? Eg, suppose a Ron Paul had been elected Commander in Chief, who slashed the military by 50% and explained why, and you were laid off (if that's the right term.) Would that have been such a factor?

mjackso6's picture

Mr. Davies,

I've thought about this for awhile, and I suppose that in some ways my change of mindset was sort of a mid-life crisis. I retired from the Army medically (brain tumor, not blown up on a battlefield), so I deffinitely felt 'pushed out'; the timeline was similar, but I was involuntarily separated, which left me without a feeling of closure. I also have lingering disabilities which interfere with my ability to work, so I've had far too much time to sit and ponder all sorts of things that I was only peripherally aware of in the past.

I suppose that if Dr. Paul had, by some miracle, managed to be elected and the military was slashed back to a more reasonable (but still insane) level, that would have had a huge effect on a lot of people. I can't say how open everyone would have been to his message, but I do know that some of Dr. Paul's strongest support was and is among the military.

I don't think that anyone who was 'kicked out on his/her ear' would be very happy, but I doubt that would have happened. Every time the military has down-sized during my tenure there, there was always some sort of incentive/compensation package for Soldiers willing to voluntarily take early retirements or early discharges, and I can't imagine that Dr. Paul would have done any less.

I think you're probably right about people re-examining themselves and their beliefs every couple of decades. I guess that roughly corresponds to attaining adulthood, seeing your children leave the house, and the beginning of 'retirement' (whatever that is these days). All of those major life changes probably bring a lot of introspection. I kind of hope so; I'm hoping to gently nudge my kids in this direction without rubbing their noses in things, and my father just hit his 60's a couple of years ago and has seemed to be asking some of the same questions that I was not too long ago. In fact, I've recently thought that he and my oldest daughter might be ready for the lessons about freedom that I learned through your material and website.

Persona non grata's picture

“There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities. They will not bear discussion.”

~ Lord Acton


albergine's picture

The voters world is a sick lie, as their life is a lie, and will continue so until their driver is brought to it's knees and the wall of excuses has crumbled and dried to a choking dust in the mouths of their slaves who live a life hidden by masks - deluded and in fear of revealing the nothingness that remains beneath, they walk amongst us, with fake honour, playing the innoccent with caring and understanding hand whilst in their deepest darkest corner they slumber content amongst the shouts of those they stifle... until again called upon by their master to refresh the game - and so then gather as one to prove their allegiance to the great whore that promises pleasures, reminds them of pain and re-forms their deformed masks with a mirror that fools all they look upon, as so with all who look upon them. So contented are they, spun into apathy, addicted to submission, with heads bowed from beginning to end .

darrenlobo's picture

I especially liked the 3rd reason you give against voting in the section about probabilities. :-)

Suverans2's picture

I know that at least two individuals here have already read this: but it bears repeating, evidently.

GeoffreyTransom's picture

It's not clear to me why anybody would have a problem with the idea that voting can be rational, probabilistically-irrelevant and immoral - all at the same time.

As Mr Bonneau's original article made clear, his view is that the bulk of the citizenry have already accepted the legitimacy of the process, and it's hard to disagree with that.

In much the same way, for most of history, 'most people' accepted the legitimacy of
* the Church's arguments against heliocentrism;
* claims that illness was caused by witches or demons;
* owning other people as chattels;
* imprisoning and killing people for their sexuality or religious beliefs.

(You should be able to see where I'm going here).

So the bulk of the citizenry thinks a thing is perfectly OK: what then is the optimal response for the 'median individual'?

In a world of full information **and** relatively high levels of cognitive capacity (both of which are lacking in broad society: Deltas breed at higher rates than Betas and Alphas), the probabilistic analytics compound any sensible benefit-cost analysis and clearly indicate that voting is a dumb thing to do. But if you're dumb, you can still be rational.

First let's do the benefit-cost analysis.

The 'direct' costs (the only costs taken into account in a private decision) are very low - a couple of hours wasted. The lower is your income, the lower is the cost of those couple of hours (and with polling places open after work in many places it is possible to vote without foregoing labour income).

Benefits: to the extent that your 'side' wins, there is some psychic income ("Yay team!"). There are also the benefits that you assume derive from the 'right' guy being in power - some of which accrue to you (perhaps in the form only of additional psychic benefits...feeling that 'our team' will do things 'right'). Worse still, the further down the economic totem poll you are, the greater the proportion of your non-discretionary consumption derives from the State, and the fewer alternative sources of income you have in the event that the State cuts off the taps (this is why the poor are Keynesian).

So you pull the lever or fill in the card or tap the screen, in the expectation that this thing you're doing will bring you more utility than it costs. (This is axiomatic - otherwise you don't do it).

The problem is with the expectations-formation process: people consistently underestimate the extent to which candidates lie (and the extent to which the State is a 'Magic Pudding'). The less educated are more likely to be fooled. So those who have the lowest **cost** of voting are also those who will systematically overestimate the **benefits** of voting.

TL;DR: Dummies vote because they get the sums wrong. But they still do so RATIONALLY.

This sets up some negative dynamics. Candidates rationally lie: it's far easier to win by telling Deltas whatever they want to hear, since they won't remember what you said after two news cycles. The electorate is 'Delta Heavy' as a direct result of the systematic desire of the political class to subsidise reproduction of Deltas - it's far easer to find cheap labour/cannon-fodder if you underwrite the breeding of the dumbest two quintiles. (This is not a 'race' thing: check out the dregs of any Western nation and you will find plenty of whites so dumb it's amazing they remember to breathe).

So the benefit-cost argument favours voting for the dummies. They will RATIONALLY decide to vote in larger numbers than those whose expectations-formation process is more fully informed. This is nothing more than the idea of "bounded rationality" (where the constraint in this case is mostly cognitive, since the cost of information is almost zero).

The probabilistic 'layer' suffers similarly from the 'Delta Effect'.

Most folks are unaware that Daniel Ellsberg (of "Pentagon Papers" fame) wrote his PhD dissertation on what is now known as the "Ellsberg Paradox" - which is not a paradox at all, but simply a further piece of evidence that people are hopeless at calculating probabilities in their heads. The Wikipedia page on it gives a good summary, but really? "People can't do sums in their heads" is not, and should never have been, a basis for a PhD - but is is relevant here.

The IALS and ALSS surveys set a VERY low bar in their 'numeracy' tests, but they still show that around half of the adult population in US/UK/Australia/NZ/Canada is incapable of adding up a restaurant bill and adding a 10% surcharge... so PROBABILITIES? IN THEIR HEADS? ON THE FLY?

So again, dummies will make systematic errors about the vast array of probabilities in play (of the vote having any impact on the outcome; of the candidate being willing or able to actually implement their claimed agenda; of the voter capturing the benefits that they think they will derive... and so forth). And as Dunning and Krueger's seminal paper shows, the dumber folks are, the more likely they are to strongly believe that they are competent.

Also, it is generally true that the **unconditional** probability that an individual vote will have an impact on an outcome is far more dependent on the political demography of their place of residence than anything else: it is NOT simply "1/N" where N is the number of voters in the entire population. It is not even "1/n" where n is the number of voters in the district.

It is "1/x" where x is the number of UNDECIDED voters in the district, IFF (if and only if) x is large enough to determine the outcome; ZERO otherwise. In a district where an outright majority votes a particular way (these are called 'safe seats' in Australia, New Zealand and England), no individual vote matters - but 'safe seats' change hands quite often.

We have to bear in mind though, the RELEVANT probability (from the point of view of the prospective voter) is their subjective prior probability that their vote will matter. Again, bounded rationality (stemming from cognitive incapacity) rears its head.

So if you're a Delta, you overestimate the benefits of voting (but the bit you don't overestimate is the direct transfers to you frm the system); the costs of voting are low and are partially mitigated; you systematically over-estimate the odds that your vote will make a blind bit of difference to the tally.

On all these bases, the scales tip in favour of voting - rationally. (But **boundedly** rationally).

For INFORMED rational people, voting is a no-brainer - everything mitigates against it. We understand the temporal dynamics that are caused by democracy - that it attracts megalomaniacal parasitic sociopaths who eventually come to dominate the political caste; that it is incapable of remaining financially sustainable, and becomes a vast funnel that transfers wealth to politically-connected cliques; that it fails to perform the tasks that it claims to perform; that it brings into existence a set of institutions that have a vested interest in extending their own power... that eventually it leads inexorably to tyranny and then collapse. And the probability is super-easy to calculate: it's 100%.

Rational is as rational does - but it depends critically on the **information set** that you operate with, and your **cognitive capacity**. A life of HFCS, fluoride, low iodine, low D3 and TV dooms the Deltas to a life of ignorance and low processsing power.

DP_Thinker's picture

Voting is violent:

Voting is unethical:

Voting is definitely irrational as no one vote will ever count. That right there leads it to be irrational. Even the economist can figure that out:

Paul's picture

Even though billed as an article countering my own which has "obvious flaws", I can't find much to argue about, because it largely agrees with mine. But I will find a few quibbles to chew on.

"I believe I understand the thrust of what he’s saying: that voting works and the probabilistic argument is a dead end."

Well, I think the probablistic argument is pretty much a dead end, but I certainly wouldn't say my position is plainly that "voting works". It works pretty well for the ruling class. It works for the rest of us, sorta, for very local races. It works not at all for presidential-level voting (the very kind of voting that boosts turnout).

It's not an all or nothing question. If someone wants to raise my taxes significantly in a very local district, it is not at all irrational or immoral not only to vote against it, but to lobby and write letters to the editor against it. My having participated at that level does not much help the ruling class in their drive for "legitimacy", while it may actually stop the tax. It may be worthwhile even if my time is valuable. (Anyway I tend to question reducing everything to an economic argument. My wife's time is very valuable, yet she spends much of it working on her aquarium full of adopted free fishies and $1 fish.)

On the other hand, presidential level voting is pretty much always a joke.

"Arguing with someone about the abstract legitimacy of the state is not productive unless that person is fertile ground for such ideas. Take some time and have that discussion with an avowed statist and watch their eyes glaze over. You’ll lose them in almost every case.

However, calling the practice of voting into question really pushes their buttons!"

Well, as Dale Carnegie wrote, "You cannot win an argument." You particularly cannot win an argument such as "Voting is immoral," with a person who votes. It's just dumb to even try such tactics.

Asking them WHY they vote doesn't sound like a bad idea to me, if a realistic viewpoint is kept in mind: the point is not to stop people voting in tomorrow's election. The point is to plant a seed in a person's mind for sprouting months, even years in the future.

I did, by the way, admit that questioning voting might have some utility in terms of delegitimizing the state, in my article.

"This is why voting is not rational--because people engage in it based on irrational thinking."

And going at it from this angle will always be counterproductive. One cannot interact with others without letting a little contempt for them creep into one's manner. And that is going nowhere.