Voting, or, Pushing a Whale

whale rescue
from Barotrauma, © Capt. David Williams

A recent Freakonomics podcast explained that economists do not vote, because, according to Steve Levitt, “there never has been, and there never will be, a vote cast in a presidential election that could possibly be decisive.”

He’s wrong. Think of voting like “pushing a whale.” A whale* washes up on a beach. The townspeople collect, and determine that the whale can be saved if she is pushed back into the sea. And collectively they push, they shove, they haul. More people join, and eventually, there are enough hands pushing, and the whale is successfully returned to the water, where she swims off with a departing, appreciative flap of her flukes.

No single person was decisive in saving the whale. But the whale could not have been saved without the effort of the minimum number of pushers required to move that whale.

When you vote, you are part of the group, working together to achieve a goal. Each person who joins in strengthens the effort. You are being decisive.

The difference between the whale and the election: while it’s clear when your collective is big enough to push the whale (it moves, or it doesn’t), you don’t know whether your single vote is necessary to bring victory to your candidate. Win or lose, you’ll never know**. But does that mean you should sit there on a beach chair like Steve Levitt, eating chicken wings, watching everyone else do the work? Absolutely not. In fact, not knowing if your effort is needed makes your vote even more important.

So head on down to that whale, and push, dammit! Vote!

*For you conservatives who don’t give a shit about the whale, try replacing “whale” with something you love, e.g., “oil tanker.”

**Disregard polls. They only predict the outcome insomuch as they make people enact it.

1 thought on “Voting, or, Pushing a Whale”

  1. A beautiful metafore. And I’d dare to add: pushing is important even when the whale doesn’t make it to the sea and live, for it shows to each one of us that collective pushing can bring about changes.


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