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Preferences And Voting Behavior: Smith's Impartial Spectator Revisited

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2008

Edward Saraydar
The University of Western Ontario


Why do people expend resources to vote in large-number situations where the probability of their affecting the outcome is close to zero? In a recent article, Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky (1985, p. 198) argue provocatively that Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) not only predicts such behavior, but further predicts that people “frequently” vote for outcomes that cost them more than they would individually be willing to pay. In other words, in the relevant environment, they claim that individuals will systematically express false preferences for costly outcomes they “really” do not want. I submit that a fair reading of TMS in fact provides no basis for their view; if anything, TMS suggests the opposite.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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