Trade your vote for a new iPod?

By Dan Streib

What says political apathy better than an iPod Touch? Probably a lot of things but some 20 percent of the students recently polled at New York University said that they would give up their right to vote in the 2008 presidential election for Steve Jobs’ latest toy. Now most assuredly there are some of you reading this column who would agree to that deal, especially if you think your vote does not matter – at least the Touch would give you some entertainment. And the debate regarding whether one vote really matters has been run into the ground. But to my great surprise, the most poignant question that remained in my political science major mind after discovering this fact was more of an economic one. What price would I be willing to put on my vote?

An old joke comes to mind: A rich old man approaches a young woman and asks if she would sleep with him for $1 million. The woman replies, “Sir, I would sleep with anyone for that price.” Then the man hastily replies, “Would you sleep with me for $10?” The woman’s reaction is quick. She slaps him and exclaims, “What kind of woman do you think I am?” The man responds, “Madam, we’ve already determined what kind of woman you are, now we’re just haggling over price.”

This comical story aside, if someone gave me $1 million for my vote, I’d have a hard time refusing. And it’s not just greed. Even one who takes politics very seriously might be a fool to refuse. Forget all of the things you could buy, and for purposes of our discussion, think of that situation from the perspective of the hypothetical model citizen. That is, a person who is obsessed with politics not as a hobby but because of some higher sense of duty that must be fulfilled through civic engagement.

Think about it. Maybe to be the true model citizen, this person would have to reject the money offered for his vote. But think of what a model citizen could do with the money if he received it through other means. He might use $1 million in a variety of ways. Imagine if this person donated this kind of money to the development of civic/government programs in high schools or to think tanks for research into voter apathy. Imagine if he spent this money on a local campaign of his own in which he could directly bring about positive change in society. After any of these measures, this person would have achieved model citizen status. Now could you fault this person if he gave up his vote in one election, in one year, for any of those reasons? I couldn’t.

The point is, there is more utility one can derive from that large sum of money than one can get from one vote – no matter what one’s ideals. And as much as I believe in the importance of ideals, I can’t help but state that even my vote may have a price. Thus, we now know what kind of citizen I am.

Yet, upon further reflection, it may be very well apparent that we will trade our ideals for a price. I, personally do not think it’s right to steal. However, if my family is starving because of lack of food, I might just compromise my ideal and steal from a wealthy neighbor. Does the fact that I would steal in certain circumstances indicate that I am as bad as someone who steals under any circumstances? I would like to think not.

So, to use the terminology of the joke above, I would like to haggle over price – that is the price or value we place on maintaining our ideals. Because when one thinks about it, many of our values have a price. This fact alone does not denegrate them. What shows our true character is how high a value we place on our ideals. In fact, one might even say that the price a person places on his or her ideals shows the value we should place on that individual. Even though the model citizen would sell his vote, he is not comparable to those 20 percent at NYU. He would never sell his vote for an iPod, no matter how cool it may be. And that’s something that those who place such a low value on the great idea of democracy should keep in mind.