The New York Times’ Freakonomics blog recently asked the question “Is it smarter to sell your vote or to cast it?”. It quoted an article in NYU’s student newspaper which found that two-thirds of the NYU students polled would trade their vote in next year’s presidential election for a year’s free tuition, 20% would trade their vote for an Ipod Touch (or about $299) while 50% would trade their vote permanently for $1 million.
The economists at Freakonomics have always argued that voting does not make good economic sense. They argue that while voting is costly to the individual voter in terms of time, effort and lost productivity, there are no corresponding benefits. A single vote rarely ever decides an election, especially not the major, really important ones. In the event that the difference between the votes is marginal, other parties, like the courts, will come into play.
Of course, you say, if everyone thought this way, then no one would vote, and then we might as well have a dictatorship. The price of being a democracy is that we have to vote to be able to choose our own representatives.
That sounds like a great argument. But think about elections in India. Think of the daily wage worker, who loses a day’s pay when he (or she) goes to vote. If the employer is harsh, our worker may even be fired for missing a day, of course with a different stated reason. Yet the poor not only turn out to vote in large numbers, they also attend rallies and demonstrations, and actively involve themselves in state and national politics.
How do they do this? Of course, because they are paid by the parties. By paying more than their daily wage, political parties make it an easy economic decision for the poor. I am now going to take a controversial stand and say, not only is it right that the poor should be paid to attend rallies, it is also in the common good, for it enables the poor to have an interest in politics, take time to understand issues, and take an active role in our democracy.
I also love the way the poor go about accepting freebies. The poor are equal-opportunity accepters of freebies. They will attend all rallies and accept all freebies. This does not mean they will vote blindly. They do use their votes to better their plight, and by voting as a block, they do increase their power. I shall give you just one example – Jagmohan, 2004. The detailed story is here, beautifully described by the Financial Times. No doubt, there are many more such examples that each of us can cite.
We, the salaried and the professionals, are not tempted by freebies. Nor do we attend rallies. We become cynical. Forced to choose between two corrupt politicians, we end up voting for neither.
The poor do it better. They are probably as cynical as we are, but they make the most of the situation. Their individual votes may be meaningless, and the outcome of the election may not make any difference to their lives.
But all the freebies offered in the election itself will. So they accept that color television, the saris and the few hundred rupees. They trade their vote for a price, because that is the best economic choice. The poor, after all, are great economists. They have to be.
As for me, I will accept that $1 million, thank you. It will help nicely with the mortgage. I can even start a nonprofit, and make far more of a difference than my one vote ever will.