Political free riding

Reading through this article, a paragraph caught my eye:

What makes this an effective and rational strategy, of course, is the phenomenon known as “free riding.” When you think about it, it’s pretty irrational for any of us to vote. During these endless campaigns, it takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to inform yourself about the candidates and their positions. And it takes time and energy to interrupt your daily schedule and vote. And for what? Rarely, if ever, does any single vote make a difference in the outcome. The rational thing is to just stay home and let everyone else do their civic duty while we still enjoy the full benefits of democracy.

I have to admit: I’d not heard the term “free riding,” at least not as it was being used by this writer. But a Google search revealed plenty.

One working paper explains it like this:

There are two basic reasons why a citizen may choose to engage in political activity: She may wish to achieve particular results (“extrinsic motivations”) or she may simply enjoy engaging in the political activity itself (“intrinsic motivations”). However, most citizens’ ability to affect political outcomes is extremely limited, and attempts to do so impose real costs. Thus, citizens are strongly discouraged from acting on their extrinsic motivations, in the hope that others with similar policy preferences will act for them.

As I delved deeper into the subject (for example, pdf, link to pdf), I found myself shaking my head. In my column for The Virginian-Pilot this week, I tried to explain the problem, not an easy task in less than 750 words.

We all benefit from the public good that is our democracy. But even without our participation – unless we all simultaneously choose not to participate – our democracy will continue. So where is the incentive to participate? It is far easier to sit back and just let someone else do it, right?

I intend to continue to explore this topic, because I think it is one of the more important ones I’ve run across in a while.


3 thoughts on “Political free riding

  1. It is a very important topic to explore… I do agree that the democracy will continue, since there will always be those who participate. Why would people let the few be their voice as well though? Those few may not share my views or opinions, so I choose to participate. I would hope that others do the same.

  2. I believe that when we vote we are imprinting on contemporary society, the beliefs of the electorate. Ultimately, we end up with a generally exceptable, homogenous elected official. Problem is, we don’t always end up with best.

    Donald Fagan wrote, that in the future, we may have “… just machines to make big decisions, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision…”. Sometimes (sometimes) that sounds pretty good.

  3. I’m just back from registering high school students to vote. Some are eager to register and some just shrug. I think the intrinsic motivators are the most important. My vote may never decide an election, but I’ll never be ashamed that the election was decided without my vote. I admit there are times when I look at election results and wonder why we bother, but then I remember that every other form of government is run by the same sorts of people, only less of them. So, I guess I’ll keep on pushing voting.

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