The Voter's Paradox

An Introduction to the Theory of Social Dilemmas

By: Leon Felkins


Written November, 1994

Revised March 10, 2001

Note: This is a local copy of the same paper published at The Ethical Spectacle with minor revisions and additions.


The Classic "Social Dilemmas"

Definition of the "Voter's Paradox"

Detailed Analysis

[Note: This is an introduction to Analysis of the SD. For a more extensive coverage see my series of essays starting at "A SURVEY OF THE SOCIAL DILEMMAS".]

If we hope to understand this apparent paradox, we must examine each of its components very carefully. While the end result appears to be paradoxical, each component, under careful consideration, is quite straightforward.

It helps a great deal to understand that the components of the cost-benefit equation are usually independent. In fact, the VP situation that is discussed here is principally due to this independence. On the other hand, if benefits are dependent on the individual's costs, then the situation is not likely to be a VP. Since this essay is about the VP, near independence will be assumed.

Generalization of the Paradox

[Note: This section is brief. For further details, see my essay, A SURVEY OF THE SOCIAL DILEMMAS]

In the introduction, it was stated that this essay would attempt to examine the general case of problems that have the "no technical solution" (NTS) characteristic defined by Garrett Hardin. This section will examine the general case.

More Examples

[Note: This is a brief list. For more extensive coverage, please see my "Examples of Social Dilemmas"]


What are the consequences of the VP? How does it impact our daily lives? From the many examples given in this essay, the reader must surely agree that the impact is serious and universal. The choice between the individual's best interest and the group's best interest is a choice we all must make constantly. Apparently, we don't always chose what is best for society and ourselves even though our choices are rational!

Ways to Remove the Paradox


In this article, the various phenomena of the so-called "Voter's Paradox", or "Social Dilemmas" have been examined in detail. There are two major aspects to this paradox, both of which present enormous difficulties for a society based on social interaction. First there is the problem that it seems to be quite evident that certain scenarios requiring the cooperation of all or most of the individuals in a group would provide benefits for everyone far in excess of what they would be able to do privately. Good examples are elections, roads, water supplies, river levees and other large investments. Yet, at the same time, it is obvious that for a particular individual, his or her maximum return is obtained by making no contribution - that is, freeriding. For example, if the levee could possibly break, the individual would be best served by not contributing to the sandbagging at the main levee but instead working on defenses around his own home.

The second major component of the "Voter's Paradox" is that the contribution of the individual in large groups may be absolutely or practically of no significance. On a national election, one vote cannot possibly determine the outcome of the election. If the levee broke because it was shy 100 sandbags and I could only do 50, then my effort was useless. Or if it didn't break because it had at least 50 more than it needed, my contribution would again be useless.


  • [1] Hardin, Garrett; "The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, Vol. 162; 13 December, 1968
  • [2] Axelrod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984
  • [3] One explanation as to why people "irrationally" cooperate is the force of "memes". See "Evolution, Selfishness and Cooperation" by Francis HEYLIGHEN at the Internet Web site, <>.
  • [4] A discussion on the impact of the VP on society will be contained in another paper by this author, now in preparation.
  • [5]That is, random fluctuations far exceed such a small amount and therefore make it undetectable. In communications this is called "signal to noise ratio", which if too small, the signal cannot be detected.
  • [6] Hardin, Russell; Collective Action, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982, Page 75
  • [7] Dawkins, Richard; The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • [8] See the Web site, "Principia Cybernetica", <> and "Memetics" at <>
  • [9] Most people, when first presented this argument, make a fuss over the fact that "my contribution just might be the one that will decide that the Center is to be built". This is extremely improbable for most real world situations.
  • [10] Actually, the return from a group effort can be less than the contribution as well as greater. There is no guarantee that group cooperation provides returns greater than the contribution. It is easy to imagine a situation in which the individual's efforts were wasted such as investing in a worthless development project.
  • [11] Russell Hardin, Page 60
  • [12] See Glance and Huberman, "Social Dilemmas," Scientific American, March 1994, pp. 58-63.
  • [13] For an interesting analysis of this and more complex situations, see Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, 1984.
  • [14] Russell Hardin, Page 29