June 24, 2024 

AmosWEB means Economics with a Touch of Whimsy!

AmosWEBWEB*pediaGLOSS*aramaECON*worldCLASS*portalQUIZ*tasticPED GuideXtra CrediteTutorA*PLS
ZERO-BASE BUDGET: A method of budgeting expenditures in which each expenditure is justified on its overall merits rather than being based on the budget for the previous year. A zero-base budget is most often proposed (but seldom implemented) for governments. Governments generally establish budget expenditures based on expenditures for the previous year. If, for example, budget expenditures last year were $100 billion, the requested budget for this year might be set at $110 billion. The existing $100 billion is a "given" and only the extra $10 billion is justified. With a zero-base budget, the entire $110 billion is justified.

Visit the GLOSS*arama


The decision NOT to do something (such as vote in an election) because the cost of taking the action is more than the expected benefit. The rational decision to refrain from an endeavor is a straightforward application of utility maximization and along with the related notion of rational ignorance, is a source of voter apathy and government inefficiency.
Rational abstention is the utility-maximizing decision to refrain, or abstain, from an activity. Like other utility-maximizing decision, it is based on a comparison of the benefits obtained from the action with the opportunity costs of the action. If the benefits outweigh the costs, then the action is undertaken (a vote is cast). If the costs fall short of the benefits, then the action is not undertake (a vote is not cast).

Voting in an election or otherwise participating in the political process is comparable to the production of any good. Voting provides benefits, it provides satisfaction. Electing the "right" candidate lead to an improvement in society.

However, voting also requires scarce resources (labor, capital, land, and even entrepreneurship). These resources have opportunity costs; they could be used for other valuable activities.

People compare the benefits of voting with the costs. If the costs exceed the benefits, then there is no effort to vote. People rationally choose to abstain.

The choice of rational abstention is quite important in the political arena. Potential voters (as people) commonly choose to refrain from voting or otherwise participating in the political process. It's often "not worth the effort."

However, if voters choose not to vote, then politicians need not include their preferences when undertaking government actions, which is a recipe for inefficiency.

Utility Maximizers

Voters are human beings who make choices that maximize utility. In the same way consumers (people) seek to maximize utility when making purchases and workers (also people) seek to maximize utility when making employment decisions, prospective voters (people once again) seek to maximize utility when decide whether or not to vote.

Note that utility maximization is simply the process of choosing among options that provide the highest possible level of satisfaction. This satisfaction can result from consuming goods (eating a Hot Fudge Bananarama Ice Cream Sundae) or from other activities (enjoying a multi-hued sky as the sun sets below the horizon). It can also result from engaging in the political arena (basking in the glow of civic responsibility).

However, because choices have consequences, utility maximization is really all about weighing benefits and costs. Choices are based on comparing the benefits generated with the opportunity costs foregone. The decision to consume a Hot Bananarama Ice Cream Sundae is based on a comparison of the satisfaction obtained with the satisfaction foregone by NOT consuming other goods that were NOT purchased with the income used for the sundae. The decision to enjoy a sunset is based on a comparison of the satisfaction obtained with the satisfaction foregone by NOT spending time pursuing other activities.

As utility maximizers, people (consumers, workers, voters) rationally choose those activities that generate the most satisfaction, that provide the greatest benefits over costs. The choice to vote in an election is no different from any other utility-maximizing decision.

Benefits and Costs of Voting

Let's take a closer look at the assorted benefits and costs related to the voting in an election.
  • Benefits: The benefit-side of this decision includes a number of benefits. First, is the enjoyment of doing ones "civic duty," or participating the democracy. Second, from a more practical perspective, is any personal benefits that might be achieved from the successfully outcome of an election. Perhaps the supported candidate plans to reduce taxes paid by the voter or increase funding for a program favored by the voter.

  • Cost: The cost-side of this decision includes most of the standard "cost" items of any production activity. Labor, capital, land, and entrepreneurship, each with alternative uses, are employed in the process of voting. In the political arena, such cost is primarily the time an effort of heading to the polling both or undertaking other actions in support of a candidate or issue.

Rational Ignorance

A concept closely related to rational abstention is rational ignorance. Rational ignorance is the decision NOT to become informed about a topic (such as what a political candidate wants to do) because the cost of acquiring the information is more than the expected benefit.

The act of acquiring information, especially information about political candidates and issues, is also like the consumption of any good. People rationally compare the benefits of information acquisition with the costs. If the costs exceed the benefits, then the choice is to remain ignorant or uninformed. People rationally choose to refrain from seeking out the information. People rationally choose not to know.

However, if people choose not to know, then they are unlikely to know who the politicians are, what they intended to do, and/or the consequences of prospective policies, which is a recipe for inefficiency.

Voter Apathy

The combination of rational ignorance and rational abstention results in what is commonly termed voter apathy. People choose not to know about, or participate in, the political process. When people follow the path of voter apathy, then politicians can take actions that do not reflect the preferences of ALL of society, which once again is bound to generate an inefficient allocation of resources. While voter apathy is definitely a problem for a democratic society, it's also just the thing you would expect from rational choice and utility maximization.

The problem with voter apathy is that political leaders do not necessarily nor need to know or account for the preferences of every member of society.

With markets, preferences are indicated by the prices buyers are willing to pay. Resources are allocated to the production of goods with the highest prices and thus which provide the most satisfaction. That's a recipe for efficiency.

However, with voter apathy, preferences are not necessarily known. Politicians do not know the best way to allocate resources. They do not know which goods provide the most satisfaction. That's a recipe for inefficiency.

Other Sources of Government Failure

Rational ignorance, together with rational abstention and the resulting voter apathy, are not the only source of government failures. Three other noted sources are politicians, interest groups, and bureaucracies.
  • Politicians: These are members of society who seek elected offices. Problems and inefficiencies arise because politicians, like all human beings, seek to maximize their own utility. This pursuit can and does conflict with doing what's best for the economy.

  • Interest Groups: While some people have little or no involvement in the political process, others have a great deal of involvement. These people, who also seek to maximize utility, have more to gain or lose from particular government actions and are thus motivated to act accordingly, usually by forming special interest groups.

  • Bureaucracies: Government policies are usually implemented by complex organizations. Those who work in these bureaucracies are also, you guessed it, utility maximizers. Their pursuit of utility can and does conflict with the efficient implementation of government policies.


Recommended Citation:

RATIONAL ABSTENTION, AmosWEB Encyclonomic WEB*pedia,, AmosWEB LLC, 2000-2024. [Accessed: June 24, 2024].

Check Out These Related Terms...

     | public choice | rational ignorance | government failures | voting rules | voting problems | political entrepreneurs | principal-agent problem | special interest groups | government bureaucracies |

Or For A Little Background...

     | market failures | government functions | public finance | efficiency | public sector | private sector | utility maximization | market efficiency | fifth rule of imperfection | seven economic rules | political game |

And For Further Study...

     | median voter principle | logrolling | voting paradox | capture theory of regulation | rent seeking | Tiebout hypothesis | public choice politics |

Search Again?

Back to the WEB*pedia


[What's This?]

Today, you are likely to spend a great deal of time searching for a specialty store hoping to buy either a video game player or an AC adapter that won't fry your computer. Be on the lookout for telephone calls from former employers.
Your Complete Scope

This isn't me! What am I?

Okun's Law posits that the unemployment rate increases by 1% for every 2% gap between real GDP and full-employment real GDP.
"It is not fair to ask of others what you are unwilling to do yourself. "

-- Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, activist

Federal Open Market Committee
A PEDestrian's Guide
Xtra Credit
Tell us what you think about AmosWEB. Like what you see? Have suggestions for improvements? Let us know. Click the User Feedback link.

User Feedback

| AmosWEB | WEB*pedia | GLOSS*arama | ECON*world | CLASS*portal | QUIZ*tastic | PED Guide | Xtra Credit | eTutor | A*PLS |
| About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Statement |

Thanks for visiting AmosWEB
Copyright ©2000-2024 AmosWEB*LLC
Send comments or questions to: WebMaster