Voting and the Value of Legitimacy

This article extends my discussion on the value of a vote. I discuss soft and social value in particular, and establish a mechanism for rapid diminishing returns of vote buying by an individual.

As a recap, I often vote and I generally think voting is a good idea, albeit not for everyone. I support the idea of doing a cost-benefit analysis, but I think many people underestimate the benefits.

In particular, I think soft and social benefits constitute most of the value of a vote. In the past I cited the value of human life as perhaps the premier example of such values. Another is the value of legitimacy and integrity. I also think collective signaling games have a value.

What do I mean by legitimacy and integrity? I mean I see some truth to perhaps the most common of pro-voter arguments, “If you didn’t vote then you have no right to complain.”

There is value in observed legitimacy. Legitimate arguments are more convincing than illegitimate arguments, ceteris paribus.

If I wish to convince you that policy A is desirable and I act in a way that apparently (whether in fact or not) improves the chances of policy A taking place, I have given integrity and legitimacy to my argument with you in which I claim that policy A is desirable.

This value is multiplied at the social level. When many people vote in favor of policy A it sends a political signal, but it also sends a more general social signal. This could be heard on the market. If the bill in favor of policy A fails, perhaps some firm or entrepreneur will take note of the demand anyway and supply the requirement.

Suppose that in this way I am able to increase the probability that you accept my argument in favor of policy A. This wedge probability is valuable to me. In this since I have gained value from voting regardless of the vote outcome.

This also helps establish a mechanism of rapid diminishing returns to voting, on the part of an individual voter, but not on the part of a political campaign, party, or machine.

In the case of the signal value of integrity and legitimacy, the voter exhausts almost all gains by voting. It may be the case that the value of many of the soft and social values, inside and outside of voting, are rapidly diminishing in this way.

Suppose the vote is a commodity and I am allowed to purchase your vote. Would I value your vote at a rate equal to my own? If the rapid diminishing of soft and social value holds, then I would be willing to pay far less for your vote compared to the level at which I value my own vote.

We also need to consider the availability of close substitutes. If I can give $10 to my favored political campaign and expect to earn the equivalent of a vote, why would I purchase your vote for $6700?

There is some risk to the marketing strategy of a campaign, so $17 or even more may be justified in particular cases, but $6700 seems obviously a bad deal.

$17 and $6700 are not random numbers, by the way, although they are simple rough numbers. Take a look at the earlier cited Contra “I Don’t Vote” for some reasoning there.

Enforcement costs are another reason I might not like to buy your vote. How do I make sure you voted for the person you said you would vote for?

In the earlier cited article about commoditized voting I outline a vote transparency policy which would drastically cut enforcement costs of this kind, but the current policy in the US is one of vote obfuscation, which makes vote contracts exceedingly risky today.

In conclusion, if the buying and selling of votes were made legal than we should expect to see the votes of indifferent voters bought and sold at relatively low prices. There would also be core voters who would value their own votes rather highly, probably mostly for soft and social reasons. Those votes probably wouldn’t be bought or sold.

While I stand by the claim that a person should value their own vote with a present value of 17-6700 dollars or perhaps more, I don’t genuinely expect a market price for transferable vote contracts to exceed $100 in a Presidential election with a political context similar to the present one, even if the votes were made transparent by law.


Leave a Comment