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Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Voter Apathy

Voter apathy, particularly among college aged people, has been brought up many times in class. Despite efforts like MTV’s Rock the Vote, young adults just aren’t showing up at the polls. After reading Mancur Olson, I understand that voter apathy should be expected. No individual can realistically hope to determine the outcome of a public election. However, individuals can expect to bear the costs of voting. Whether it is the extra gas necessary to get them to the polls, lost wages, or simply time that could have been spent doing something else, voting imposes a cost on individuals. So if an individual cannot hope to determine the outcome of an election and voting imposes a cost, then why would anyone choose to vote? Olson says that a rational person will not choose to vote.

I guess that makes me an irrational person because I voted in the last election. Of course that was before I read The Logic of Collective Action. However, even knowing what Olson says about large, latent groups and agreeing with his theory I will still vote in the upcoming election. I will vote because, for me, voting provides some noncollective benefits. When I vote I feel I have fulfilled my civic responsibility. For me the benefits of voting outweigh the costs. But then again, I grew up in a family that talked politics over the dinner table. When I turned eighteen, I was expected to vote. And I did. But not everyone grows up with the same expectations. Those people who are not taught civic responsibility at home must learn it somewhere else or not at all. Most people encounter the concept of civic responsibility during the course of their education. But more and more, it seems to me, the education system is teaching our youth to be free-riders when it comes to exercising their civic responsibility.

Class sizes are steadily increasing from grade school to college. This trend is easily understood from an economic perspective. At relatively small numbers as class sizes grow, overhead expenses such as buildings (and teachers if one assumes that a teacher can as easily teach fifty students as fifteen) remain relatively fixed and the marginal cost of teaching an additional student falls. However, as the class becomes larger, the contribution of each individual student to the class as a whole falls. When the teacher asks for a volunteer to work a problem on the board the pressure to volunteer and participate is less than in a smaller group. Thus it is easy for students who do not prepare for class or students that need extra help to go unnoticed in larger classes.

Conversely, in small classes, like ours, each individual’s contribution is proportionately greater. People who do not prepare for class find it more difficult to go unnoticed. It is easier to weed out free-riders and punish or “incentivize” them appropriately. Large classes set the expectation of free-riding whereas small classes set the expectation of participation.

I know that the incentive to free-ride is not a learned behavior per say. But meeting expectations is a learned behavior. Whether it is paying bills on time or voting, most people do what is expected of them even when it imposes a cost. If we expect our youth to free-ride – to sit in the back of the classroom and let the “smart” kids carry the load – then what will they do later in life when it comes time to exercise their civic responsibility?

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