Every election season around this time you hear some argue that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, or even whether you vote, because your has effectively zero chance to change the outcome of the election. After all in an election with tens of millions of voters one individual vote is essentially meaningless, and necessarily within the margin of error. Indeed, with such a negligible return on any individual’s vote some have argued it’s irrational to vote given that the costs of getting out of bed and traveling to the polling place likely outweigh the benefits of voting. So no individual should feel obligated to vote at all let alone feel obligated to vote for a lesser of two evils candidate, right?
I think those who make this argument have taken too narrow a view of self-interest and failed to grasp what the activity of voting is in practice. If this were a good reason to ‘waste’ your vote it would be a good reason to never participate in any social good. Everything from charity, to clean air and water, to mutual nuclear disarmament is dependent of the conscious actions by multiple parties acting for collective good, despite coming at a cost to them personally, because it is the best way to achieve their individual ends (or at least better than getting the worst possible option).
Take the example of cancer research: Obviously we would all like there to be more effective treatments for cancer. However, it would also be to my narrow individual interest if I didn’t have to contribute anything in order achieve that end. Moreover, unless I am very rich any financial contribution I make towards cancer research is exceedingly unlikely to be a deciding factor in reaching the goal of more effective treatment. I doubt that anyone would take that to mean therefore I personally shouldn’t contribute because if everyone took this narrow self interested approach the end wouldn’t be achieved.
The same reasoning explains why people vote, and to a lesser extent, who they vote for. Sometimes it is in the interest of the individual to coordinate with a group. Those who oppose this are essentially arguing that it is never rational to consciously act as part of a group even if it will be to the entire group’s benefit in order to do so. The problem is, as is made clear from charity example above, we clearly take such actions on a regular basis precisely because we know it is to our mutual benefit to do so. Far from being irrational, our cooperation in these scenarios is actually a triumph of our rationality. The ability to coordinate to achieve goals beneficial to us all is one of the traits that is fundamental to human society. Without it we would be back to lives that are, as Hobbes would say, “nasty, brutish and short.”