Do Elections Matter?

I am told that there will be an election next week. Actually nobody told me; it’s what I gathered from the yard signs. Elections, for me, are a spectator sport. I will probably be up all night watching the Prop 19 returns come in, but I haven’t participated since Bryan Caplan showed me the mathematics of voter decisiveness.

While I agree with Caplan and others that voting doesn’t matter, my own research (very much in progress, caveat emptor) is making me wonder whether it’s possible, even in theory, for an election to matter. We all know that an individual vote doesn’t change the outcome of an election. But does the outcome of an election causally change policy, or does it just correlate with policy change?

Increasingly, I think the latter. Here’s one thought experiment: what would policy in the US look like if it were an autocracy instead of a democracy and nothing else were different? That is, let’s impose a strong ceteris paribus condition and change the form of government from democracy to autocracy.

My tentative reaction is that everything would be roughly the same as it is now. Think about it in Coasian terms. Government policies impose negative externalities on some people. Those people have an incentive to bargain with other people in order to get that policy changed. That can be as simple as bribing the autocrat to change the policy, or as radical as a coup in which defectors from the regime are promised larger returns than they are currently getting.

As in any Coasian theory, transaction costs matter, and insofar as transaction costs prevent exchange, it is possible for the nominal form of government to make a difference. This is why the nasty autocrats are so nasty; they have mechanisms, based on ethnicity, ideology, or external support, of preventing the exchanges that would remove them from power. But in the US, transaction costs seem reasonable even if they are not negligible. Furthermore, transaction costs must be evaluated relative to the externalities to be addressed. Modest transaction costs mean only modest externalities remain. As the externalities increase in magnitude, holding transaction costs constant, the greater is the likelihood that exchanges will resolve them.

If the US were a ceteris paribus autocracy, with the modest transaction costs and wide distribution of power that now exist, we’d get basically the same outcomes we have today. I’m not saying it would be exactly the same, but it would be close. And if that statement is true, then it must also be the case that elections mostly just correlate with policy change, they don’t cause it. Changes in electoral outcomes reveal changes in constraints faced by the government, they don’t themselves drive the change in policy.

This is not just a semantic difference. It means that your opinion gets counted about the same whether you show up to vote or not. In the long run, it doesn’t matter if voter turnout is 90 percent or 10 percent, or if voter turnout is ideologically lopsided. The real constraint that the government faces is still the same. Elections don’t matter.

This is where I resist the urge to water down my conclusions with statements about how tentatively I hold these views. I hold these views. Tell me, is this my most absurd belief?

7 replies to “Do Elections Matter?

  1. Adam

    It is not your most absurd belief, though I’m sure many would think that it is.

    I don’t think I entirely agree. I think that elections matter a lot less than is commonly believed, but I do think that they have an impact on policy. If nothing else, they provide an accepted and nonviolent means of transferring power between administrations, congresses, dynasties–whatever you want to call them.

    I tend to think that in practice there are higher transaction costs to changes in autocracies–even if the US was one–because the power of autocrats in general rests on the feeding of the particular coalitions that keep them in place. If those coalitions become more greatly at odds with the desires of the general populace, it’s not clear that the result will be a change in policy, whatever the wealth of those outside the coalition.

    That said, I understand your perspective and think there is definitely something to it. Have you ever talked to John Nye about his work on elites? Very interesting stuff, related I think.

  2. Eli Post author

    Adam, it’s possible that transaction costs are lower in autocracies, other things equal, because of the existence of the “particular coalitions” you cite. It’s more clear who you have to pay off.

  3. Adam

    It’s possible, but I doubt it. It just depends on which transaction costs you’re talking about, of course. I’m talking about the transaction costs borne of the shift from one coalition in power to another; in democracies that involves leaving office and taking office, in other systems it usually involves bloodshed.

  4. Eli Post author

    On the contrary, bloodshed is the result of high transaction costs, not an input into those costs. People fight when they can’t bargain to the efficient solution, and here the efficient solution involves a coalition that is powerful enough to certainly win a fight.

  5. Pietro Poggi-Corradini

    Apparently the health-care reform enacted by the Dems was proposed by the Heritage Foundation in the nineties. I’m not sure abt this claim, but if true it lends credence to your theory.

  6. Pete


    I loved this post so much I showed it to a friend, whose initial response was “that’s a cool idea, but of course there’s no way to ever prove it.” I told him I thought some agent-based models of voters with a given preference set and different mechanisms to address policy might do the trick. On further reflection, though, this still assumes that outside of a democracy people have mechanisms to affect policy. Do you think (as I do) that you can take the presence of these mechanisms as largely given, or will that need to be a core platform of your research? Will agent-based models be a part of your research?

    Further, Adam’s comments remind me of the recent Douglass North book, Violence and Social Orders. It’s a good outline of how throughout history, the elites of society have restructured their organization to protect their own interests, and eventually this has brought about the system we have today. I think the North argument would probably support your argument that it’s not elections that matter, it’s having some mechanism in place to effect policy change that is important.

  7. Eli Post author

    Pete, thanks for your interest. I agree that we can to some extent take the mechanisms as given. I think for instance that trade in the state of nature is more robust than a lot of people think. There is a lot of research on this point; see Pete Leeson’s work for example.

    I haven’t worked with agent-based models, though maybe that would be a good approach. The difficulty with agent-based tests is that they are sensitive to the assumptions that are made, and here it is precisely the assumptions that are at issue. I have briefly discussed a related idea (the one I’m actually working on now) with an experimental colleague of mine. Once I get a little further along on this draft I may try to talk him into doing something on it. Also, there may be clever econometric techniques that can provide evidence.

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