Economics 101 & Public Square

Voting with Your Feet to Serve the Common Good

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It’s election season in the U.S., and we are hearing a lot about voting. I saw a public service announcement on television, and a Hollywood actress asked us to vote. I suspect she wouldn’t want my vote if she knew what it was, but she was encouraging voting nonetheless.

On Election Day, Americans proudly wear the red, white and blue “I voted” sticker, which is kind of a badge of honor. There are many in the world who are denied the benefits of democratic institutions, and this keeps them oppressed.

It is important, but is it the most important voting that we do? This prompted me to think about why we put so much emphasis in voting on Election Day and proudly wearing our stickers, when the “everyday voting” we do is so important yet never discussed.

The Voting We Do Everyday

You vote every day when you go to the grocery store or the gas station, pay your rent, purchase a washing machine or buy a latte. You are voting with your feet and sending important messages about your preferences and desires to the folks who are trying to give you what you want.

In some ways, this is very different from political voting. When we go to the ballot box, we are not afforded the luxury of voting with precision. I vote for a person who I think believes what I do on at least more issues than not, and then I hope he or she wins.

If my candidate doesn’t win, I am out of luck until next time, which could be four years later. If they do win, then I hope they stay true to their promises. If they don’t stay true to their promises, it is difficult for me to keep them accountable.

I can send an angry letter (which will be read by a staff intern), place an angry phone call or go to social media. However, these aren’t good accountability mechanisms, and they don’t always result in changed behavior and apologies. Mostly, I have to wait for their term to end and hope to vote them out; this depends not just on me, but also how others feel about the performance of this person.

In short, it’s complicated and has some accountability issues. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved, but it does mean we aren’t going to get what we want, and the consequences of bad political behavior are high.

How Voting with Your Feet is Different

This operates quite differently in economic exchange. When I go to Starbucks to purchase a latte, I am buying one thing, so there is precision and transparency. This is also true when I buy a house—even though the house is more complicated than the latte. I know what I want and have good reason to believe I will receive it. If I don’t get what I want, I have many methods to hold the seller accountable.

Let’s face it. We are fallen sinners, and mistakes happen. Starbucks may mess up my order, or the contractor may install my plumbing incorrectly. One of these is easier to fix than the other, but what matters is that they can, and often do, get corrected.

Why is this so? Because when I don’t get what I have been promised, I not only write letters, place phone calls and go to social media, but these actions also bring about changed behavior and corrective action. They do that effectively because Starbucks wants me to come back, and they want my friends to come. They want me to keep voting for them with my dollars. The minute they let me down without fixing it, I am afforded the opportunity to leave. I can leave because I have a great deal of alternatives.

The private voting we do through economic exchange is possibly the most important voting that we can do: It brings about change, it helps us express our values and it serves the public good in awe-inspiring ways.

That I can go to the grocery store and have a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from which to choose, in the middle of winter when I could not grow them on my own, brings about peaceful cooperation. I am cooperating with farmers, truck drivers and grocery store managers, whom I do not know, but we come together. I am served with fruit and vegetables, and I reward all those involved in the process by paying for them.

Most important, it allows people to use the gifts that God has given them to serve not just their family but also strangers.

Glorifying God with Our “Voting”

We are made in the image of God with a command in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply. Part of being fruitful is using the gifts God has given you to serve his creation and others. This brings him glory and offers more flourishing on earth.

Voting with our feet through the market provides countless opportunities for us to use our God-given gifts to help others. This is true whether you are a janitor or a CEO. If God has created you to do these things, your job is to do them well. As customers, we vote with our feet and send signals about the value that others are creating, and this encourages even more human creativity.

The voting that happens in economic exchange brings peace and greater levels of human flourishing. The more voting we do in economic exchange, the better off we are, and in doing so, we can compete to see who serves strangers the best. In the market, we encourage others to do just what God has commanded us: use our creativity to be fruitful and serve.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in a special report by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and The Washington Times entitled, ”Faith at Work: Individual Purpose, Flourishing Communities.” Reprinted with permission. 

Learn more about why economic ideas matter in Be Fruitful and Multiply: Why Economics is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions.

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