by Leon Felkins and Mack Tanner
"If voting could change anything, it would be illegal." --Graffiti

How many times has someone told you that everyone would be happy, healthy and content if only people would forget their selfish desires and work for the common good? By serving the common good, don't we also serve our own enlightened self interests because the common good guarantees the maximum benefit for every individual? Wasn't the me generation a tragic mistake? Isn't it time we returned to the ideal that each individual puts the community interests above his own selfish interest?

Does working for the common good give a person greater benefits than working for one's own selfish behavior?

If the answer is yes, then we should to be able to demonstrate that an individual sacrifice has a real effect on the common good. If my single, personal sacrifice can alter the final result, then I can say that my sacrifice produces more in rewards than my personal costs. But if my sacrifice makes no difference to the final result, why should I make it, especially if I receive the benefits of the sacrifice of others even if I make no personal sacrifice?

The truth is that an individual sacrifice for the common good never produces a personal reward equal to the cost of the sacrifice. Let's look at some examples to demonstrate what we are talking about.

Almost everyone will agree that voting is an important civil duty. Moreover, it's a duty that requires little personal sacrifice in our society. For most of us, it takes no more than a few minutes of time. Polling places are easy to find, almost always near the place where we live, registration is simple, the process is painless and most of us have pretty definite opinions about whom we want to elect. So how come only about half the eligible voters actually get to the polls?

Let's say that on election day you find yourself 150 miles away from home on a two day meeting. (The meeting was scheduled after the final date for requesting an absentee ballot.) Your have a choice: you could do your duty, drive home, vote and drive back. Or, you could just forget the whole thing. Most likely you will chose the option of forgetting about it--this time. Your reasoning is sound. The cost for you to vote is substantial while the return is, for all practical purposes, zero. Why is that so? Because your vote will not actually make a difference in the results of the election! While you may have other reasons for voting or not voting, as far as the election process itself is altered, your vote is just not significant.

You won't be alone in deciding not to bother to vote. As many as half the voters will not only decide voting is not worth the sacrifice of driving two hundred miles, they'll decide it's not worth the sacrifice of the risk of getting rained on, missing a favorite TV show, being late for dinner, or driving six blocks out of the way on the way home from work.

Let us look at the voting situation more carefully and examine some of the counter arguments often made for why you should vote.

What if the election resulted in a tie? Would not my vote count then?

Sure, if that ever happened. But ties don't ever occur in large elections and if they did there would be a re-count. Your vote would still get obliterated! (See Cecil E. Bohanon and T. Norman Van Cott - "Now More Than Ever, Your Vote Doesn’t Matter" and a followup, "Now More Than Ever, Your Vote Doesn’t Matter: A Reconsideration" by Jac C. Heckelman.)

But I like to vote. I really don't care whether my vote does any good or not - I get an internal feeling of having done my duty. And, if the candidate I vote for wins, I can brag about how I help him get elected.

This is the real reason why most people do vote. They have bought into a group of myths that make them think that their single vote really does count. Because they believe those myths, voting makes them feel good. If voting gives you a good feeling, by all means do it, if it doesn't cost you a lot of time or money. But what if you don't like any of the candidates, you know they are all crooks and that not one of them will do what he or she is promising they will do? Do you really feel good when you are forced to choose between Slick Willy, Read My Lips, or a rich Texas shrimp?

What about the possibility that my employer may reward me for voting and/or there are other rewards for being a registered voter?

If the reward exceeds the cost of voting, then vote. That is rational. But how often does that actually happen? The question is not why do so few people vote, but why does anyone bothers to vote at all. Voting may be a fun and pleasurable experience but it doesn't make rational sense as a way of getting a payoff for the effort and sacrifice.

If my voting will do nothing, what can I do to help get my candidate elected?

Simple: get other people to vote, lots of them. If you can get 10,000 people to vote the way you want and your personal reward for doing that exceeds the cost of your doing it then, rationally, you should do it. It doesn't pay to vote, but it does pay to donate a great deal of money to a political candidate which is then used to con less intelligent and less rational people into voting for the candidate who will promptly ignore the desires of those who voted from him but do everything he can to serve the desires of those who made big contributions to his campaign.

That is why it's so easy to buy elections. The thinking voter gets no real, tangible rewards for voting; the bought voter gets whatever pay-off he/she is offered.

But if a single vote makes no difference to the outcome, what about the other things our leaders ask us to do as a civic duty? Let's look at another example of civic duty, one in which we could argue that the personal sacrifice has a much greater impact on the public good than the simple act of voting. Suppose you live in a California city that happens to be running out of water. The mayor declares - among other things - that the residents are to take baths only two days a week. Although this is not your day to bathe, you have just finished making a plumbing repair in the basement and you are feeling really grungy. The desire to take a bath weighs heavy on your mind.

You consider the options. They can best be stated by the following "payoff matrix".

                 | Direct Impact     |Member of Community Impact
 Take Bath       | Great             | - negligible 
 Don't Take Bath | Awful             | + negligible       

(The '-' means slightly negative; the '+' means slightly positive)

When I take any action that uses community resources, it impacts me in two ways. I am impacted directly by my action and I am impacted as a member of the community.

With regard to the bath water example, the pay off matrix would provide enough evidence to a rational person to conclude that the net pay off is heavily in favor of taking a bath. The loss that he/she would get from cheating as a member of the community is insignificantly small.

Both of these scenarios present examples of a situation sometime referred to as "The Voter's Paradox". Basically that paradox states that the return to an individual from a group contribution that is beneficial to the group will be less than the direct cost to the individual. The paradox results from the fact that while the individual may have a positive personal gain in not voting, if everyone declines to vote, or to conserve water resources, we have a disaster on our hands.

The two scenarios actually present two classes of the problem.

With regard to the voting dilemma, the problem is that there is no return at all to balance the voter's cost of voting. The reason why this is so is because elections are a binary (to use a term from the computer world) event. Your candidate is either elected or not. We do not put 55% of candidate A in office and 45% of candidate B. It is all or nothing, which means that one less vote simply has no impact on the final result. The very improbable case of a tie vote is statistically insignificant.

The second example of a water shortage is not binary in that every little bit of water in the reservoir does help, even if the actual difference one bath may make is down in the noise ( to borrow another term from electronics). But one always gets a significant reward for cheating, i.e. instant cleanliness. Yet, if half the population does as I do, the impact is disastrous.

What if everyone did that?

Experience tells us that everyone won't. We can be pretty sure that a significant segment of any human population will believe the myths and do their duty. Like the sheep they are, they will vote, conserve water, and offer every sacrifice for the common good that the preacher, teacher, or politician tells them to make.

But we are not writing this for the sheep who do what they are told to do. We're addressing this to those who think and act rationally in their own self interests. The rational individual is first concerned with the results of his/her actions as it impacts on his/her own happiness and well being. Such a person may decide to make a sacrifice in the common good, but will do so only if he or she is certain that the personal sacrifice will produce a common good result that is at least equal to or, hopefully, greater than the value of the personal sacrifice.

What we are arguing is that such a situation almost never occurs. Most of the time, a personal sacrifice never produces an impact on the common good that would justify the personal cost.

The final paradox is that if everybody did as I contemplate doing, then it would me even less sense for me not to cheat. The more people who cheat, the less rational it becomes to be one of those sacrificing personal good for the common good. The more rational, self directed, selfish people there are in a community, the less likely that appeals that everyone should work for the common good will produce results.

This dilemma is sometimes called The Tragedy of the Commons which refers to the early New England practice of establishing a grazing commons used by everyone in the village. The commons pasture was a limited resource which all members of the village could use for grazing their milk cows and horses. The assumption was that the good citizens of the community will each limit their use of the commons to a fair share that would insure that the grass was not overgrazed. It never happened that way. In every case the commons was overgrazed into a dust patch. The reason was simple. Too many people recognized that as the grass was a limited resource, they had to get the maximum amount into their cows before some one else did. The expectation was always that if one didn't take more than his or her fair share, the next fellow would.

The Tragedy of the Commons poses an extremely serious dilemma to those who would try to design a society based on the assumption that individuals will contribute to the group's well being rather than looking out for their own selfish interests. If we recognize that individuals are driven by selfish desires and we are looking for a rational basis for voluntarily contributing to community welfare, we are in serious trouble.

Faced with the reality of the Tragedy of the Commons, society usually opts for one of two different methods for insuring the common good as well as the preservation of community resources. These two methods are not complimentary, but contradictory.

One of these is the pay-as-you go method, that is, the free market. In the free market approach, every common resource, whether managed by private owners or by a community government, is sold to the public at a price high enough to insure that the resource is not depleted. If there is a water shortage, then the price of water is jacked up until people have no choice but to limit the amount of water they use for bathing. This not only has the advantage of insuring that water consumption goes down, it also gathers capital that can be used to increase the supply of water through the creation of new sources.

But the modern advocate of socially responsible government objects to the market place approach because it results in an unfair situation in which the rich wash their cars while the poor can't take a bath at all. Such advocates of the common good claim that the only way to fairly distribute a common necessity is by regulation. That means that you jail people who take baths on the wrong day and the only fair way to gather capital to finance new public projects is by taxation. You not only have to collect enough tax to pay for the water system, but you must also collect enough to hire the water cops, pay the judges, and to build the jails where you will put both water and tax cheats.

But does such government action really solve the voter's paradox or the tragedy of the commons, or does it simple create a new commons, a public treasury, that then becomes the target of plunder for selfish people who will always put their own selfish interest above the common good?

If we look at recent political history, it is obvious that the tragedy of the commons could also be called the tragedy of the public treasury. No matter how much we collect for the public treasury, it will never be enough to meet the demands of those who claim a right to use the money from the treasury.

It is not remarkable that each individual describes the public good as those things that are in his own best interest. The elderly want more social security and medical benefits, the trucker better roads, the farmer crop subsidies, the investor bank guarantees, and the politician every single benefit that will result in more votes for him at election time. The inevitable result is that the government never spends the revenue in the public good, but only for the benefit of those clever enough to manipulate the system to their own benefit.

We can see the result in America today. The entire political process has degenerated into a mad scramble over what should be financed with public funds as our politicians spend us into national bankruptcy.

This paradox affects our lives in a variety of ways every day. A few more examples are provided for your amusement and to further illustrate the general nature of the problem:

If the above arguments are correct, we can only conclude that a rational and selfish individual will not voluntarily contribute to community welfare even though he/she would share in that welfare. We could even suggest that the only people who do voluntarily sacrifice personal rewards for the public good are nothing but patsies. The person who refuses to contribute to the common good gets a double reward. He or she gets the immediate reward of the money or effort saved, and the long term reward of collecting whatever public good the patsies created.

But doesn't altruism have it's own rewards?

There are very convincing arguments that living human beings are rarely altruistic. It is easier to believe that positive civic actions by individuals result from stupidity, intimidation, bribes, or the success of propaganda campaigns rather than true altruism!

But can't we educate our children through the school system about the importance of working toward the common good? We have been trying to do that ever since the beginning of this century. Education hasn't converted children into altruistic adults in this country and it certainly didn't work in the Soviet Union where the school system tried desperately to create the new socialist man who would always work for the common good. Indeed, it seems that just the opposite happens, the more educated a person is, the more he/she is likely to take rational actions and less likely to be easily convinced to sacrifice his own good for the common good.

What is the solution to this dilemma? Do those of us wise enough to recognize the mythologies and the bull shit that priest and politicians hand out decide that we have no choice but to go along with the program of inducing guilt, intimidating the ignorant, propagandizing the uneducated, and bribing the electorate as it has been practiced by the churches, governments, and teachers for thousands of years?

Or, do we shout out the truth? Do we admit to ourselves, and tell anyone who wants to listen that sacrificing for the common good makes no rational sense, that the only way to achieve the common good is to make every thing a pay-as-you-go proposition with the free market place determining what the price of every commodity and benefit will be? Moreover, do we make a rational decision to take every legal advantage of the common good and the common treasure for as long as others are willing to believe in the myths that teach it is better to serve the common good rather than look out for one's own selfish interests?

Indeed, do we dare examine the very concept that there even is such a thing as the common good? Or is that idea as mythical as the morality that claims humans must put aside their own interest in order to serve the interest of the community?

In reality, society is always a chaotic mixture of competing needs in which the needs and wants of no two individuals ever match. No matter how much you may want tax supported public schools, I'll remain convinced that public schools are a failed social experiment that should be junked. Some argue that the war on drugs does more damage to society than drug addiction could ever do. Do agricultural subsidies really serve the common good of the consumer who must pay higher prices at the food counter?

There is not a single major political issue in modern America in which there is anything approaching a consensus agreement about what action must be taken in the common good.

Would a society in which no one gave a damn about the common good, be such a bad place to live?

Such a society would not put the butcher, the baker, or the farmer out of business. We all must count on other people, but the best way to make sure that someone does what we want them to do is to return the favor by performing for them what they perceive to be an equal favor. That's what the free market is all about.

If you really think about it, we already live in a society in which every individual is really looking out for their own self interest. It's just that we've allowed too many people to glibly lie that they were supporting the common good when all they are really interested in is their own selfish rewards. They lie about their love for the common good because they want to take advantage of our gullibility to get what they want out of the system. That includes every person who now holds political office and every person who is trying to get elected. Throwing the current bunch out and replacing them is not going to solve the problem.

But what about the voter's paradox? How do we solve that problem?

Why bother? If we give up the idea that people should sacrifice for the common good, we take away most of the justification for the politician. In a free society, voting shouldn't count for much. If people take full responsibility for their own lives, that leaves nothing for politicians to do. It's only when we allow the politician to make us slaves of the common good that we have to worry about whom we elect.


This article appeared in the IDEAS magazine, August 1992.

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