I’ll Take My Chances With the Lottery

Recently by Pete Kofod: The Rise of the Praetorian Class

With the recent euphoria about the $640 million lottery in the US it got me thinking. Why is it that those who decry participation in the lottery are the same people who implore their fellow citizens to participate in the hallmark ceremonial activity of democracies, commonly known as voting?

I recently tried to stir up some controversy on the matter by posting the question on my Facebook page, but sadly I was unable to rouse any significant emotional responses. Either my Facebook acquaintances share my world view, an unlikely explanation, or they have experienced what I refer to as Facebook Confrontation Fatigue (FCF), the condition that most of us reach when we realize that participating in inflammatory conversations on Social Media gets us nowhere.

Regardless of the reason, I was asked by my infamous good friend Jeff Berwick to explore the topic. With that in mind, let us contrast the lottery and voting.

In single majority elections, the only significant vote is the one that marginally surpasses the total vote count over the opponent’s vote count. All additional votes for the winning candidate are superfluous and have no significance. Put another way, if you vote and your candidate wins by two votes, you might as well have stayed at home, your vote did not change the outcome. The probability in large elections of a candidate winning by a single vote is exceptionally low, a fact that almost guarantees that the trip to the voting booth is an utter waste of time.

This position is often met with what I refer to as the Mandate Argument. The Mandate Argument holds that voters who form a large minority, say 48% versus a 52%, are able to shape policy of the elected officials by virtue of their “almost majority” status. While this group is usually addressed with noble sounding platitudes such as “I am the President of all citizens, not just those who voted for me”, the truth is that elected officials rarely even represent the interests of those who voted for them, let alone those who voted for their opponent.

Using history as a guide, the Mandate Argument is utter bunk and does nothing to shape policy. Occasionally it may be used as rallying cry of the faithful or a shot across the bow of the winner, but the truth is that election cycles are far enough apart that upon winning the election, the newly elected candidate gets busy with their self-serving agenda, choosing to worry about the next election when that time comes. This of course presumes an element of integrity and willingness to stick to campaign promises, a dubious premise that we will explore shortly.

The idea that voters opinions and desires are cast in to a melting pot and that this “collective consciousness” manifests itself in policies by elected officials is a fallacy that seems to remain rooted in the voting public’s belief system, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is probably because it supports an illusion of control over destiny through the political process. “My candidate may not have won, but at least my voice was heard” is probably easier to accept than “I donated money, stood in line and filled out a piece of paper for nothing.” This is an important issue to consider.

Democracy and “voting enfranchisement” have long been heralded as a civic duty. Arguments are frequently heard that people died for the right to vote, and merely questioning its practical value is consider heretical, yet has anyone ever considered that these arguments may perhaps be less noble than they are made out to be? After all, a great way to pacify people is to grant them the illusion of control, a concept that is explored in Stefan Molyneux’s brilliant video “The Story of Your Enslavement.” Suffice it to say, the fact that merely questioning the value of the electoral process is to invite scathing personal attacks should encourage the rational sceptic to conduct a deeper philosophical inquiry in to the matter.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that your single vote was the deciding vote. Overcoming incalculable statistical odds, by your actions, your candidate got the job. Congratulations, but for the feat to be meaningful, the newly elected official must be a catalyst of beneficial activity (at least to your own personal agenda and not for the 48% who voted for the other candidate) and that, presumably, is predicated on the candidate doing what they said they would do. An exercise in considering the past performance of people who have sought elected office should be instructive enough to engender significant doubt that this will happen.

"I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay, and that means taking responsibility right now in this administration for getting spending under control. I pledge that I will cut the deficit I inherited in half by the end of my first term."

2008 Deficit: $459 billion

2012 Deficit: $1.3 trillion

Of course, if you chose to purchase the elected Officials’ loyalty then you will be in good shape. Otherwise, there is a pretty good chance that the difference between Bob the Candidate and Bob the Elected are as night and day. Consider the unstated premise of a political candidate. “Give me your money, tell the world you like me and on a given day come down and pick me, so that I may have the right to tell you what to do.” That is the nature of the democratic process.

There is plenty of historical precedent for such skepticism. Consider the following:

i. President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay.

ii. President Bush promised military would not be involved with “nation building”

iii. President Clinton, well, his prevarications are legendary.

iv. President Bush (41) swore “read my lips. no new taxes.”

Meanwhile, you have appointed politicians like:

i. Timothy Geithner asserting that under no circumstances would the US dollar face a credit downgrade.

ii. Eric Holder saying that “Due Process does not necessarily mean Judicial Process”

So even when the politicians aren’t telling a flat out lie, their ability to torture the spoken language to fit their needs is something to behold. The late and great comedian George Carlin had something to say about it at the National Press Club, and yes, it is safe for all audiences 😉

It is important to realize how the nature of the relationship changes at the point of election. Before the election, voters are partners in the arrangement. The candidate needs the support of the voters or his efforts are in vain. He will tell them anything and everything to get elected. That partnership ends the instant that the candidate has been elected. At that point voters cease to be partners and are now transformed to commodities, chattel traded to the highest bidder.

On the other hand we have the lottery, commonly referred to as a tax on people who are bad at math. This is certainly a fair characterization as the odds of receiving a return on investment are astronomically small. Ticket revenue is siphoned off by authorities for various noble sounding programs and winnings are taxed as ordinary income, traditionally in the neighborhood of 50%. That being said the risk to reward ratio is easy to calculate and participants can determine if participating is worth their while. Once the probability of success has been determined, no other vagaries enter the analysis for return on investment.

In the final instance, the probability of a person’s ballot being materially significant is unlikely to be greater than the probability of winning the lottery. Unlike voting, however, a lottery win bestows significant benefit upon the winner. Therefore, I am far more inclined to seek financial gain by participating in the lottery than I am to seek community improvement through voting.

Reprinted with permission from The Dollar Vigilante.