Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Let us not use guilt as a prod to make everyone vote

Unless you have been meditating at a monastery in the Himalayas, you’ll be aware that it’s election season across India. This season is marked by celebrities, politicians and activists (trying to be either of the first two) invading your screens and hearing range, guilt-tripping you to vote in the general elections. “Your vote matters" and “Exercise your right to vote to change the system" are the usual platitudes thrown around. It’s almost considered immoral for the self-appointed urban educated elite to not go to a polling booth on election day to pick a side (or at least vote “None of the Above"). Let me tell you, dear reader, why it is really okay to spend your election holiday binge-watching a Netflix show or taking your family out for a picnic rather than going out to vote.

For one, voting is rarely based on policies. Most of us are ignorant about nuanced policy debates and practical governance-related issues. We’d rather focus on controversial and impertinent issues such as the Ayodhya Ram temple or the number of casualties in an Indian military operation than boring but truly significant issues such as the disinvestment of public sector enterprises or India’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean.

“Real voters, however," as economist Robin Hanson points out in his book The Elephant In The Brain, “show more interest in the status, personalities, and election drama of politicians than in their track records or policy positions...voters act more like sports fans rooting for their favoured team than like analysts trying to figure out which team ought to win." To be fair, forming a balanced opinion by reading opposing views and watching policy debates costs a lot of time and effort. “And yet the personal benefits are infinitesimal. It’s true that your life might improve if Candidate A is elected instead of Candidate B, but the odds that your single vote will tip the scales is minuscule," writes Hanson. Maybe if a hundred thousand other citizens think the same way, the result could change. But we’re talking about you and your decision to cast your one vote. It is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election. To sum up, the costs of voting for most people exceed the expected benefits, a phenomenon known as the “Down’s Paradox".

For another, voting is not the most effective way of contributing towards the betterment of the country. Advocates of exercising your franchise argue that this act is a means for you to contribute to putting your country on the path of progress. This is a doubtful claim.

Let’s take the example of an issue that is perpetually a matter of concern in developing countries: job creation. During an election campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi had promised 10 million new jobs every year. Did he deliver on that promise? Maybe not. Can any Indian prime minister deliver on that promise? Highly doubtful. We might think the government creates jobs because politicians always say they do, but this is just a Keynesian myth.

Entrepreneurs and businessman create jobs by innovating and solving problems in exchange for money; the role of the government is ideally not to interfere in this process while shielding citizens from physical violence. By simply doing your job and contributing to the economy in the form of output and taxes, you’ll be doing your bit towards solving the issue. If you want to raise the stakes even higher, start your own business and give people jobs. To paraphrase philosopher and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, there is no virtue without risk-taking.

If macro-economic problems are not your cup of tea, let’s pick another cause of concern that everyone, including me, has an opinion on: school education. Is voting for the right candidate the best way to help improve learning outcomes? Definitely not. A more effective way to contribute would be to fund an underprivileged student’s education. Care about social justice or the environment? Work for or donate to groups working on the problem in an organized manner. Voting is not the answer.

So, is it irrational to vote? I will not commit the sin of labelling an action contrary to what I advocate as “irrational". Voting can be an act of expression and affirmation of one’s identity, almost a display of loyalty to one’s caste, religion or any subgroup that an individual wants to identify with. A sense of belonging can often be strong enough for voters to ignore the broader inconsequentiality of their single vote. Political commentators, often condescendingly vilify identity politics as a prime cause of instability in democracies without taking into consideration that a shared sense of identity has been a feature of Homo sapiens that has helped us survive for millions of years in tough environments. In their 2010 book Identity Economics, George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton remind us that people’s pride in their collective identity can be viewed as a form of wealth which they constantly aim to enhance and protect. This kind of wealth matters even more in a country where 364 million people are still in poverty (as per the 2018 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index).

It’s understandable that two-thirds of all eligible voters pressed a ballot button in the 2014 general elections, but it’s hardly a surprise that a third of them didn’t.

Archit Puri is a Delhi based researcher and writer.

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