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Meehl: The selfish voter paradox and the thrown-away vote argument

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Meehl. 1977. The selfish voter paradox and the thrown-away vote argument. APSR 71.

In Brief

Two voters engage in a Socratic dialogue over what universal principal could be agreed upon which would induce a rational person to vote. The voters are Standard Old Party (SOP) is from one of the two main parties that stands a chance of winning, and Flat Earth Vegetarian (FEV) is from a marginal third party (which loses in a two-party system). Meehl speaks through FEV, just as Plato speaks through Socrates in the Republic, to develop an ethico-political premise upon which a person would vote. Through dialogue with SOP, four principals are derived and argued to be essential for getting persons of either party (or any voter who is rational) to the polls. The ethico-political premise must be: 1) axionomic, 2) sociotropic, 3) collective, and 4) neutrofactual. An ethical "pseudo-Kantian" premise (e.g. what one ought to do universally) and minimally other-regarding (sociotropic) standard must be engaged, which nevertheless does not depend upon one's action affecting the outcome (end). Further, one would only vote if doing so for a prospective outcome which is collective in nature.


Claim (in a nutshell):

Voting must involve ethics. If "ethics is garbage" then either voting for a potentially successful candidate or voting for "not a chance in hell" candidate is irrational, since either way, you are "throwing away your vote." (Thus, the appeal by politicians and party activists to the "throwing away your vote" claim is fallacious and we should ignore it.) For voting 'not' to be irrational, then, we must satisfy the four elements of the ethico-political premise outlined above.


Meehl creatively argues that the act of voting itself, in a large democratic system, independent of the outcome, is equivalent to "throwing away one's vote" under economic definitions of rationality. Argues that political decisions do not have equivalent traits to economic decisions.

Comments and Criticisms=

Research on similar subjects


Meehl, Paul (author)Political TheoryDemocracyVotingNormative Theories of Voting

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