Progressive Libertarianism — Peter St.

Progressive Libertarianism — Peter St. Andre has some great thoughts on moral progress and the attitude that distinguishes progressives from paleos. It looks like we've been thinking quite along the same lines. Peter also mentions 'urban libertarianism'. Maybe 'cosmopolitan libertarianism' is better… Hmmm… Cosmopolitan progressive libertarianism. How could you be against that!? I especially like Peter's addendum to the lefty bumper slogan: “If you want peace, work for justice… If you want justice, work for freedom.”

  • So the important question is, Will, do you vote?

    Secondly, there is an impression out there that poor, ignorant voters, perhaps rural and in the South, now vote Republican. Are Republicans, on the whole, that more affulent than the Democrats who are supposedly being convinced, wrongly, to vote?

  • Yeah. I vote.

    That impression is largely false. Poor people really do vote overwhelmingly Democratic. See Gelman, et al.

    • Gelman uses too many numbers.

      What is your response to the numerous economists who refuse to vote?

    • Jon H

      ” Poor people really do vote overwhelmingly Democratic. See Gelman, et al.”

      Stupid people really do vote overwhelmingly Republican. See Bush, George W., two terms.

      • anon

        Thank you! Die-hard economist-minded republicans are WAY too quick to equate money with intelligence. While they are correlated to a small degree, degree obtained is much more influential than IQ. Applied degrees are especially influential to income, which are notoriously unbalanced to teaching applied skills over overall knowledge. I know a lot smarter english majors than finance majors, because finance majors mostly focus on applying skills and understanding and constructing spreadsheets than actually analyzing complex situations.

  • According to political scientist Diana Mutz, people tend to avoid political participation when they expect conflict. Given the non-realized Democratic persuasion of many apathetic youth on college campuses, I think drives for youth participation among poli sci students and campus Democrats comes from the fact that, yes, they don’t expect any conflict. They know these non-voting youth lean their way, so all that’s needed is encouragement, not a load of knowledge and rhetorical skills.

  • You alluded to potential paradoxes. Here is one possibility. You estimate the percentage of people who know what they’re doing at 20-30%. This means that politicians cater mainly to the views of the remaining 70%. So the enlightened 20% realizes this and doesn’t know who to vote for. So in fact the 20% who knows what they’re doing doesn’t know what to do.

  • MikeSchilling

    McCain’s number shot up after he chose Palin, largely because eh was a shout-out to the GOP base; that’s prima facie evidence that Republicans would not be voting.

  • Jesse

    Will, I wonder how you can make claims about others’ moral behavior when (I think) you do not believe in objective moral facts. I’m not being confrontational, just genuinely curious. When you talk about “immoral behavior” or something “people shouldn’t” do, are you only expressing your own passions, as Hume might have put it, or the general consensus of the cultural ethics?

  • Higher-quality democratic decisions, and better policy, can be secured if bad voters choose to abstain

    This seems to me to rely too much on the (unlikely) idea that high-information voters are voting for some sort of general, positive-sum good, rather than their own interests. If our “bad voters” are disproportionately poor and young, then saying that they should abstain from voting seems like a pretty good recipe for capture of the political process by the old and rich.

  • What would a test that could separate “good voters” from “bad voters” look like?

    Without such a test, how could a public-spirited bad voter discover that he’s a bad voter and be in a position to make the good choice to not vote?

    • ryan yin

      What about a test of general political knowledge (how many years to a Senator’s term?, etc.) or even a vocabulary test (on grounds that smarter voters are more likely to be better voters)? If one agrees with arguments like Brennan’s, it doesn’t seem one would have to try very hard to generate a test that is more accurate than the status quo, right? After all, we’re really just looking for something that works better in the aggregate.

      • BT

        o, for example, it is liklley that Joe Biden could vote and Sarah palin could not. Is that what you are saying?

        Elitism is wonderful thing, ain’t it? No matter where it’s coming from.

        • BT

          Sorry for the typos. I guess that means that I would most likley be a “bad” voter.

          Where do folks come up with nonsense like this?

    • A Different Matt

      Dude,

      are you kidding? You want us to buy, then read, some third author’s book before judging the merits of your blog post?

      You realize the standards you’ve set for participation are a little like the poll tax – improper and disproportionately affecting a particular demographic you deem unworthy? Basically, you’re discriminating against everyone who doesn’t have a lot of time on their hands and are well read and have a lot of intellectual curiosity. In short, people like you. This thread is basically just for you and Will Wilkerson. I recommend a tea party instead of a blog post next time, if you feel everyone’s disagreeing in bad faith…

      • If you’re referring to me, and my recommendation of Caplan’s book (in another comment), then you could get the gist of it without buying it from this free article.

        And, yes, I think you’d be better equipped to judge the merits of blog posts if you were more familiar with the strongest arguments available. Likewise with voting and judging candidates and their policies.

        I’m not sure what standards you’re talking about. I wasn’t proposing a mandatory test, just a way for a well-meaning citizen who took the argument of this post seriously and wanted to know whether his vote was likely to further his own goals for society.

  • Matthew Tievsky

    In theory, I agree with Brennan’s argument. But I’m not sure that voters can reliably identify when they are incompetent to vote.

  • Dexter

    Ergo, we should support the GOP in its efforts to reduce the number of voters in any given election.

  • Brendan D.

    There is certainly a point to be made here, Will. People, en masse, tend to vote stupidly, just as they tend to react stupidly (not just with overreaction but underreaction and poor reaction as well). But I think your point veers strikingly off-course when you get into blaming one party or the other. Do you honestly think that the best of all voters votes Republican? I don’t see how you can say that if you look at the last decade of Republican rule. The GOP has, in its own way, become more a paean to the “idiot elites” in this country than even the Democrats of poor rural areas. How else could one explain the rise of a well-spoken but otherwise completely incompetent big-government liberal like Mike Huckabee? The idea that Republicans have been out there defending our poor nation from the evil Big Government Liberal Democrats is as naive as it is ridiculous. No party has a monopoly on good government, since neither has managed to create a good one.

    Ah, but perhaps you were saying that we could get away from party politics altogether were the masses not so attracted to political parties? That’s a horse of a whole ‘nother color, my friend…

  • Matt

    “But the poorer and younger Democratic-leaning voters are also least likely to show up at the polls. … However, higher levels of voting from these groups pretty much ensures greater electoral pollution.”

    Nowhere in between, or after, these statements was it explained why poor or young voters should be considereded “electoral pollution”. I’m thinking that’s a pretty important part of your argument, so please explain its absence.

  • CitizenE

    A Platonic democracy. I wonder what the South Africans who voted for the first time when Mandela was let out of prison or the Iraqis who voted in such large numbers would think. Certainly a lot of know nothings voted for George W. Bush. But like it or not, the idea that the poor shouldn’t vote leads me to think maybe you would like a House of Lords. What would be more important is to improve our educational system.

  • On a related note, because they turn out to vote at a higher rate, educated voters have 1.84 times the voting power as undereducated voters per capita.

  • Lily

    Incredible. We are currently entangled in costly wars abroad with much of the rhetoric supporting said entanglements focusing on “spreading democracy” in impoverished lands, yet you would advocate non-participation by people deemed “bad voters” because of 1) youth 2) being labeled “poor”. I must ask, are “liberals” rich, elite ivy leaguers? Or stupid poor folk? Are you advocating Joe Six Pack and working class Hockey Moms abstain because they are “bad voters”? Of course not. Because they are on your side.

    And incidentally, though a young college student and therefore a target of the Democratic voter registration push you so abhor, I consider my stake in this election greater than those wealthy, white-haired GOP execs who you would undoubtedly tag as “good voters”. I am just now entering an unstable workforce, will not have health insurance after graduation and my peers are fighting these wars.

    “Good and bad, good and evil”: Republicans and their simplistic, binary distinctions always take the place of simple fairness and transparency when they are questioned or lose ground.

  • Chris Darrouzet

    Mr. Wilkinson,
    Your argument is foolish. Nothing in its particulars leads back to your basic premise that some people vote foolishly and ought not to vote.

  • BB

    And who shall determine who the “good voters” are? A Council of the Learned?

    Let me guess who you nominate as Chairman….

  • JoGirl

    Mr. Wilkinson, what you and Brennan are describing sounds quite a bit to me like Jim Crow-era poll tests and taxes. Hey, you guys have already succeeded in rolling the U.S. economy back by roughly 80 years, so why not roll back our political system by 44 years while you’re at it? Great idea!

  • I knew this post would be misinterpreted and dismissed.

    I encourage people to become familiar with the thesis of Bryan Caplan’s: Myth of the Rational Voter, before they dismiss the idea of “bad voters”.

    • pedro

      Oh come on. His argument is that there are essentially no voters who cast a rational vote, because of the opportunity costs of becoming wiser about our options. He doesn’t say that there are good voters and bad voters.

      Stop with the sneers.

      • No sneering. By “bad voters” I mean it in the way Will describes: people whose votes will lead to inferior policies; not morally deficient or anything like that.

        And, yes, it’s rational for people to favor other benefits from their preferences than pure policy benefits, because of the unlikelihood of their votes being decisive. However, there can still be “good voters”, because some people happen to have enough knowledge and interest in the relevant subjects to favor better policies.

  • Jack

    Doesn’t the argument have an infinite regression? Lets say I agree that the poorest and least educated voters shouldn’t vote. Yeah, that’d lead to huge Republican majorities. But why do we think the average College-educated Republican is qualified in a unique way? Maybe the ideal set of those qualified to vote consists mostly of lawyers and PhDs. That would flip the balance back toward Democrats.

    Besides, all of this assumes that people are voting for the common good. If democracy is really just functioning as an interest aggragator (which I think might be the position Will holds) then some people not voting won’t lead to better government, just shift power from one faction to another.

    And Will, you’re blog has made me much sympathetic to the libertarian view than I was, but I quickly lose heart when you forward weird Republican notion of a left-wing media. Its depressing for me 🙁

  • Tom Ames

    The thesis seems to be: “people should not make bad decisions”. What are bad decisions? Reading the paper, it turns out that they are those decisions that are bad (i.e, harmful or unjust). You and your buddy give no indication that there might be differing goals, or factions with different criteria for what constitutes “good” vs. “bad” decisions. A union member, for instance, might vote against a candidate who promises an unregulated workplace. In your cozy world, this would be a BAD decision, and one that the union member should disqualify herself from making.

    If you can’t identify an objective standard for “good” vs. “bad” decisions, you have no business to claim that such a standard, universally applied, exists.

    (I suspect that you argue against encouraging the poor unwashed voters to participate because, well, because they appear to be on the verge of making a decision that you’re really not going to like. Your euphemism for this, “electoral pollution”, would make a great slogan justifying fascism. Which, as I better appreciate the more I read of you juvenile glibertarians, does not seem incidental to your goals.)

    BTW, have you ever thought about the related thesis that, due to the social costs, people should not pollute the blogosphere by making stupid arguments on their stupid blogs?

  • wph

    I was inclined to be sympathetic to this argument. As a kid, I remember watching a rerun of an episode of Barney Miller in which a wife has been prevented from voting by her husband from a number of years. The good cops put an end to this, and tell the woman that it is very important that the woman votes. the woman protests that she does not know the issues, and does not know who to vote for. The cops say this does not matter, she just needs to vote. She decided (as I remember the episode) to vote against the candidate her husband was voting for to cancel his vote out. I remember as a kid thinking that it didn’t make a lot of sense for the cops to tell this woman to go out and vote when she was so badly informed.

    In the bloggingheads diavlog, Perhaps there is an argument, Brennan takes the position that sometimes knowing the opinion of the informed is enough to be informed, so perhaps there is a possibility that by being informed about what her husband would do is enough of an indicator of what the right thing to do would be, simply by doing the opposite.

  • wagonjak

    What a total Kristolized idiot you are sir! A rather feeble attempt here to somehow depress the Dem vote? You are deluded!

    What kind of conscious progressive would come here and change their mind because of this pathetic drivel?

  • Joe

    How amusing. Why are poor people “electoral pollution”? They vote Democrat because it is the party that takes care of them, just like Republicans take care of the rich. The electoral pollution, if anything, are the millions of people who in 2000 and 2004 voted for Bush despite evidence that he would be an extremely bad president. And the millions of people who are going to vote for the Republican ticket because of Sarah Palin, and others because they think John McCain would be good for America.

  • Laura in Austin

    I understand the wish for a more informed and sensible electorate. I live in a state where nearly EVERYTHING–including various public commissions and judicial posts–are ELECTED (a hold-over from a state constitution written in reaction to Reconstruction), so election time requires quite a bit of study to prepare for all the posts, candidates, and issues. So in my state, I often worry about posts being filled by unqualified, corrupt, or incompetent candidates who winy because the voters are unwilling or unable to do the work to educate themselves before voting.

    That being said, I can’t consider the subject of “quality” voters without also considering the subject of “quality” candidates, and perhaps even MORE important, the quality — and RELEVANCE — of the political parties those candidates belong to. The way I see it, the quality of the candidates and their parties seem to be important forces in shaping the quality of the voters you speak of. The Republican and Democratic parties seem to have encouraged and benefitted from a “dumbed down” electorate. A gullible, uninformed, even apathetic electorate can make their jobs much easier. I consider myself a “quality” voter (of course — how many people admit to being stupid voters?) who is, by the way, poor and lacking a college degree. And each state- and national-level election I’ve voted in has left me increasingly discouraged by the lack of “quality” — both in candidates and voters — and the damage the situation creates.

    So, going back to the subject of “quality” voters, I think the efforts of both of our major parties to “dumb down” the electorate, combined with the ridiculousness of the situation, the trivial nature of much of our public political discourse, and the intransigent and entrenched interactions between left-right political forces in our country, our voters are faced with a feeling of futility. They feel that their limited power to affect the situation is of little consequence. The resulting attitude, APATHY, serves to worsen the “quality” of voters and reinforce this crappy dynamic. In other words, it seems to be a self-perpetuating dynamic that relies on the worst qualities in voters and candidates and parties.

    This particular election has given me pause, however. I do have a small kernel of hope and will wait to see if it takes root and grows. Regardless of your opinion of Sen. Obama, I think his campaign has provided a model for future electionss that will be beneificial to all political parties and voters. The fundraising and technical methods he used in his campaign are, to the quality of the election process, what the free market is to the quality of our economy. And the beneficiaries are the voters and the consumers. Yes, really! Hear me out:

    What Obama envisioned, and what the campaign has portrayed, is a new model for campaigning that, to a great degree, removes the need to involve the traditional rich and powerful sources of campaign funding. Removing the necessity to rely on rich and powerful contributors also removes the resulting need to “serve” those contributors whose interests may be incredibly narrow and often not beneficial to the general citizenry. Believe it or not, most of our elected officials, REGARDLESS OF PARTY, are eager to be relieved of the need for constant fundraising and endless ass-kissing of special interests.

    The fact that Obama has been so wildly successful in fundraising from the “little folks” leaves me very hopeful that this alone, whether Obama wins the election or not, will inexorably change the nature of all future campaigns. In order to simply remain competitive, candidates will have to follow this fund-raising model. And that will mean candidates will have to solicit the financial support of the “little folks”–and both the candidate and the policy proposals will have to be appealing and convincing enough to persuade folks to donate. Superior candidates — in terms of character and policy proposals — will emerge and rise to the top, while inferior ones — those who are unqualified or beholden to special interests or propose irrelevant or foolish policies — will fall to the sidelines.

    I’m hopeful that an improved selection of candidates will encourage a far more engaged and informed electorate.

  • squashed

    I worry that Brennan may be making a very basic logical flaw. (Or perhaps you didn’t fully summarize his argument–I can’t know.) What does a “bad vote” look like? Presumably “bad” voters who vote based on little or no information are relatively evenly distributed. between candidates They should cancel each other out. You only get a problem when you get patterns of “bad voters”. In that case, you don’t have “pollution” you get some sort of identifiable skew. The problem isn’t pollution–the problem is whatever is causing voters to vote for improper reasons.

  • Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the comments.

    Just a few points:
    1. Squashed: We discussed the miracle of aggregation in the discussion, and it also gets some discussion in a footnote in the paper. Also, note that bad voting includes voting from irrational and immoral beliefs, not just ignorance. So if it turned out ignorant voting is harmless, it wouldn’t make much difference to my argument.
    2. For the people making the Jim Crow analogies: Note that a point I make in the talk and in the paper is that we would not want to have any sort of competence exam. The duty I discuss is a moral duty, but should not be enforced by law (in part because we can’t trust anyone to enforce it properly, and in part because it would be unjust to enforce it).
    3. The reason I don’t give a precise formula for bad voting is because it’s not necessary for the argument. In philosophy, you try to use the minimal number of premises to establish a conclusion.
    4. Finally, note that I don’t necessarily endorse the view that poor people are bad voters. The discussion was hypothetical: Suppose it turns out bad voters are disproportionately poor. If so, would that mean this view is epistocratic or elitist in a bad way?

    Cheers,
    J

  • Matt A

    Your view IS elitist in a very bad way. The goal is to try to inform more voters, not to tell them to just give up and not vote. You’re talking down to a portion of the electorate as if they’re complete fools. People vote for a number of reasons. Poorer voters often see the good that government assistance can do for their lives. I, for one, witnessed my mother saved by government assistance on two occasions – once when the business she worked at closed and another when we needed food stamps for a brief period. I am educated on the issues to a degree and I don’t just base my vote on that.

    There are people that do because they want their children to have the same economic security. What you call ignorance is actually a practice of life-based voting. If poor people tend to vote Democrat, it’s because poor people most often benefit from doing so.

    Your argument insists that intellectually inferior surrender the franchise to those who are smarter than them. There’s nothing inferior about using what you see in your own life to help you in your decision making.

    THAT is rational. Your argument is not.

  • Tom Ames

    Jason,

    Can you tell me why your argument doesn’t simply reduce to “people shouldn’t make bad decisions,” with a (wholly understandable, but unsatifying) punt on whether or not there is any way to know if a given decision is objectively “bad”?

  • Rich

    Will, I take your point but on what basis would you question the electoral wisdom of younger and/or poorer people, as opposed to (say) religious people? Surely–or at least, just as surely to me as your views are to you–the religious are the really dangerous voters, since their defining characteristic is irrationality.

  • Scott

    I would certainly encourage the lemmings showing up at Sarah Palin rallies to stay home on Election Day. Anyone who considers that ridiculous woman fit to be President of the United States is undoubtedly a low-information, low-quality voter and will reduce, as you say, the “quality of democratic choice.”

    • Yes, and 27 years ago the exact same argument was made about Ronald Reagan and in favor of Jimmy Carter. One thing never changes: the Progressive/Liberal wing has serious difficulty understanding that Conservative alternatives to Progressive politics have often been extraordinarily effective. Yes, they often take longer to work and tend to become woven into the fabric of our success as a society rather than bearing the stamp of a single leader. But, compared to the often spectacular failure of Progressive policies handed down by those too clever by half, you should not be surprised when many people adopt a Conservative position. Indeed, when you make comments like the above, you really do come off sounding like you’ve spent all of your time just going from outrage to outrage on the Puffington Post rather than seriously engaging the world.

  • Matt A:

    I don’t know if your comment is addressed to Will or to me. (For what it’s worth, since we’re sharing stories about government assistance, I was born to an unwed poor single mother who had to collect welfare checks, too. So, please don’t make any assumptions about my overall politics or my attitudes toward the poor.)

    I agree it’s a good idea, all things equal, to educate voters. Great. Go do that. Still, even if it’s true that we should educate voters, it doesn’t follow that those who will vote badly should vote. Those are two separate points. It’s true that we should try to educate drivers so they drive better, and it’s also true that irresponsible drivers shouldn’t drive.

    Let’s say hypothetically your society unjustly fails to educate you, and, as a result, you will never have the skills needed to become a qualified surgeon or driver. Then you shouldn’t be a surgeon or a driver. It’s not your fault you shouldn’t be a surgeon or driver, but you still shouldn’t be one.

    I think a good liberal society ought to provide in one way or another for the education of all. My country does tend to do poorly educating certain groups. That’s lamentable, and insofar as it’s the product of bad policy, unjust. It is a bad thing if people born into lower socioeconomic-statuses are consistently placed in positions where they are unable to vote well due to a lack of education or some other good. These things should be changed. However, it doesn’t follow that people should not vote badly. I agree that we should educate people better, and I also hold that they should not vote badly. We should probably also have more economics courses in high schools, but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t vote badly. Etc. If we see people are voting badly, this calls, all things equal, for institutional reform (if we can get it with a net positive effect). But the fact that calls for institutional reform doesn’t automatically let individuals off the hook.

    Lack of education is a problem. Go fix that. If bad voting by unqualified people doesn’t fix the problem, then don’t ask for that. Ask for the thing that fixes the problem.

    Tom:

    It takes some work to establish my position, which holds that you don’t have any obligation to vote, but you must not vote badly if you do vote. (Note that I don’t say you have to vote in an optimal way, just that you must not vote badly.) There are serious objections to such a simple claim that it takes quite a bit of work to overcome. First, your vote counts for basically nothing, so it’s unclear why it would matter how you vote. Second, I had to show that my argument for not voting badly did not imply that stronger claims that everyone should vote, and everyone should vote well. Third, I had to stave off worries about “epistocracy”. Then I had to show that the fact that many people vote out of consideration for character or skill didn’t in some way invalidate my claim that they shouldn’t vote for harmful policies or candidate likely to produce harmful policies. So, there’s a lot involved in saying that there’s such a thing as a bad decision. So, yeah, every moral claim is an instance of “don’t make bad decisions”, but they hardly reduce to it.

    As for the metaethical question (what makes something objectively right or wrong), though I am a specialist on those sorts of questions, it’s best for me to pass. Sorry.

  • Bruce Moomaw

    So, let’s see: leaving the electorate disproportionately tilted toward richer and older voters decreases “bias” in elections? And discouraging the poor and young from voting produces benefits large enough to compensate from the maintenance of this bias toward the old and the wealthy in current elections? I would very much like to see just what kind of ” institutional reform (if we can get it with a net positive effect)” Prof. Brennan actually favors; he seems remarkably shy about describing it.

    Wilkinson, however, seems less shy about describing his recommended “institutional reform” : “Very low voter turnout can improve the quality of democratic choice.” And the way to ensure “very low voter turnout”, of course, is to re-institute the poll tax — or, alternatively, to require a questionnaire measuring the voter’s “knowledge” of issues, with the questions of course being written entirely by the administration elected by that scattering of very well-educated voters (who, of course, will be very well-educated precisely because their families were wealthy enough to educate them very well. Needless to say, such voters will be VERY eager to better educate the poor and thereby threaten their own continued control of the government.)

  • E

    I cannot believe you get paid to sit around thinking about how the world would be a better place if people you happen to disagree with stayed home on election day.

    Seriously. You get paid for this? I’m not going to lie — sometimes I do sort of imagine that the world would be a better place if Republicans didn’t vote. Or, hey, if they just ceased to exist. And if I had a pony! But then I grow up.

    Also, Rock the Vote does attempt to educate their electorate. I’m not sure what they’ve got going on this year, but in past elections, they’ve aired specials targeted at young voters about issues that matter to us — like finding decent healthcare right after you get out of college, the rising cost of tuition, profiteering by text-book companies, etc — and usually they host town-hall style meetings with the candidates that air on MTV. What is the CATO institute doing to educate voters? Besides telling us to stay home for our own good, I mean.

  • E, Read the next post up.

    What is Cato doing to educate voters? I suppose constant in-depth analyses of policy in all areas together with public forums with leading figures discussing the most important issues of the day won’t satisfy you. Perhaps the annual fiscal policy report card of American governors would be useful to voters? You can find the Cato website here: http://www.cato.org. Feel free to look around! I think you’ll find it at least as comprehensive and educational as Rock the Vote.

  • Bruce Moomaw

    On reading Brennan’s comment an hour ago, I see that what he’s apparently talking about as an “institutional fix” is simply that the poor need to be better educated — and that, until they are better educated, they have a “moral duty” not to vote. Which will produce exactly the same effect I mentioned above, although in somewhat milder form than Wilkinson’s apparent fondness for an American reversal of Britain’s 1867 Reform Act. That is, by nobly passing up their opportunity to vote, the poor will leave a remaining wealthier electorate with less incentive to educate them sufficiently to give them the “moral right to vote” and thus dilute that electorate’s economic power — unless that electorate equally nobly passes up its own self-interest by extensively educating the poor anyway. Haven’t we been through this “if men were angels” slop before?

  • anonymous

    please. do us a favor. don’t vote. we don’t need your immoral polluting of the voter pool, kthxbai.

  • Bruce, You are saying that I am fond of things that I gave no evidence of being fond of. Why?

  • heather

    I think that anyone who pronounces the word nuclear as nucular should not be allowed to vote. Oh, wait, that would disqualify both George W and Sarah Palin. They’re so smart. We need more “good” voters like them. Get a life!

  • Don

    An argument completely divorced from reality.

    We have a two party system. Generally, about half the “informed” public chooses each party. The “informed” public isn’t much to behold.

    Because we have a two party system, “bad” choices are filtered out, if by “bad” choices you mean “someone an ‘informed’ voter wouldn’t vote for.” Hence, the ignorant voter is voting one of two tested products (that are largely the same). In the gerrymandered/electoral college system, his vote hardly matters.

    The ignorant voter – to the extent he or she is truly ignorant – is a random, and uninformed voters likely will cancel one another out. To the extent he or she has a certain economic profile – as is in fact the case – he or she is voting what he or she believes to be his or her economic interests (that is, they vote overwhelmingly for the party that panders to the poor). This isn’t any more immoral than anyone else voting his or her perceived interests.

    Basically, in context, you are just expressing distaste for the poor voting.

    Divorced from context, you have a situation in which you are an abstract and personl wrong, but no concrete way to measure the wrong or claim it is an indentifiable social problem. The wrong of “ignorant” voting is by nature relative. The college professor who does not do the due dilligence his education would allow is less guilty of the wrong than the high school dropout who can’t read the voters pamphlet but makes an honest effort to listen to Katie Couric.

    This is one of the silliest things I’ve ever read. Talk about intellectual laziness.

  • Don,

    Your comments about ignorant voters are largely irrelevant, since the paper is predominantly about voting from unjustified and immoral beliefs rather than ignorance. Also, the point about ignorant voters canceling each other out is dealt with both in the talk and in the paper. Did you miss that? (Out of intellectual laziness, perhaps?)

    Also, the evidence from the political science empirical work strongly if not decisively favors the view that people don’t vote for their own interest. They vote for what they perceive to be the national interest.

    Also, not everyone has a two party system. Not sure what difference it makes, though.

  • Paul

    I don’t understand. It seems to me you have the argument backwards.

    We elect representatives to make policy decisions on our behalf, based on who we believe is acting for the common good /national interest, and upon the best information we’ve been given about the candidates.

    Yes, it would be great if all citizens were fully informed about how certain policy proposals might affect them, but even then there would still be significant disagreements about the best course of action. It’s not the quality of the voters we should worry about, but the integrity, intelligence and flexibility of the people running for office.

  • Bruce Moomaw

    Wilkinson: “Bruce, you are saying that I am fond of things that I gave no evidence of being fond of. Why?”

    Because you HAVE given strong evidence of being fond of them. Quoting you again: “it’s in the electoral interests of Democrats to scream ‘disenfranchisement!’ any time someone correctly notes that, far from delegitimizing an election, very low voter turnout can improve the quality of democratic choice.” Now, how do you propose to achieve that desirable “very low voter turnout”? By most of the voters voluntarily refraining from voting? Or — since I take it that you don’t believe in fairy tales — by setting up some mechanism to ENSURE very low voter turnout? (Thereby “improving the quality of democratic choice” by ensuring that only those whose families could afford to educate them extremely well are allowed to vote.)

  • Bruce, You’re doing a lot of unwarranted extrapolation. First, what part of the sentence you quote do believe to be false? I was making a claim about the way the world is, not a claim about how I would like it to be. I proposed NO mechanism to achieve lower voter turnout other than to stop glorifying voting as a sacred civic duty, no matter how poorly informed the voter is. What I had in mind is simply an electorate where getting out and voting wasn’t considered to be such an imperative of good citizenship. The passage you quote is part of explanation of why the political incentives are so aligned that the glorification of voting is very unlikely to cease. Indeed, it is an explanation that predicts your own semi-comprehending indignant behavior. For the record, I think all adult citizens should have the right to vote. I also think everyone with that right should exercise it responsibly. I am under no illusion that this will ever happen.

  • Paul, The difficulty is that a very large percentage of voters have no idea who their candidate representatives are, much less what they believe.

  • Paul

    “What I had in mind is simply an electorate where getting out and voting wasn’t considered to be such an imperative of good citizenship.”

    Oh, please. What percentage of eligible voters actually get out and vote?

    • And what percentage donate blood regularly?

      What point do you think you’ve made?

  • Herunar

    It’s true that poor voters often vote Democrat. So do intellectuals. As for the rest of your post, I’ll just have to say that dictatorships function very much in the same way and in the same logic. That is not necessarily bad. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments in some places, like Africa, tends to run better than free-party democracies. And Marxist intellectuals propose the very same idea. But your article is ridiculous in that you suggest a better democracy could be made by artificially discouraging people from voting. That, my dear, is not democracy.

    • The only prescription from Will that I’ve seen is to refrain from “artificially” encouraging people to vote. Is that not democracy?

      Is there some reason to think that things would be better if as many people vote as possible (regardless of their knowledge and interest)? If that’s what you think democracy requires, then so much the worse for your favorite flavor of democracy.

  • Diane Snyder

    Unjustified and immoral beliefs don’t exist in a vaccuum. Ignorance is a vital component in these beliefs taking root. ” God, guns and gays” is an organizing principle for collecting a lot of unjustified and immoral votes. We have many voters convinced Obama is a Muslim or that Sarah Palin is perfectly qualified to be President of the US simply because John McCain picked her as his running mate. Somehow it is bad for poor people to vote their self interest and yet to not do so is unthinkable for the well to do. Most Americans don’t know who their congressman is, can’t name the members of the Supreme Court or can name the 3 branches of government. They don’t want their taxes raised, but see no moral conflict in supporting a war we now know to be based on lies, and so far, are not willing to pay for. How many people realize that the “bailout” is being paid for with borrowed money from other countries such as China? And what are we to make of all the intelligent, highly educated people who got us into this mess? What are we to think of all the congresspeople who couldn’t even act on what was universally proclaimed to be a financial calamity without adding 150 billion dollars of pork to the bill? The idea that you have identified “bad” voters as the young and poor and that we would have better policies if they didn’t vote is a shallow, simplistic exercise in wishful, misguided thinking.
    Piper

  • Bruce Moomaw

    “What I had in mind is simply an electorate where getting out and voting wasn’t considered to be such an imperative of good citizenship. The passage you quote is part of explanation of why the political incentives are so aligned that the glorification of voting is very unlikely to cease. Indeed, it is an explanation that predicts your own semi-comprehending indignant behavior. For the record, I think all adult citizens should have the right to vote. I also think everyone with that right should exercise it responsibly. I am under no illusion that this will ever happen.”

    “Glorifying voting as a sacred civic duty”? The primary reason why a large number of genuinely idealistic political activists are encouraging the poor and the young to vote is that, by doing so, the poor and the young are acquiring the power to represent their own interests to a degree comparable to that of the non-poor and the non-young — something which their apathy and (in the case of the poor) their ignorance has left them unaware of. “Glorifying voting as a sacred civic duty” has nothing to do with it. Fairness in allowing all citizens to equally exercise their self-interest does. (Which, of course, is exactly what I was talking about when I pointed out that discouraging the poor from voting on the grounds that they’re more ignorant than the nonpoor will only ensure that they become even more ignorant relative to the nonpoor, as well as being unable to express their justified self-interests.)

  • anthony

    Sounds like a fine idea, although there’s the problem of figuring out a bad voter. I can think of several possible measures.

    How about, given the economic wreckage around today, anyone who’s publicly advocated for extreme free-market deregulation approaches? Seems pretty clear that they shouldn’t be voting. Or heck, given that the current administration has now failed to win 2 wars that they started, failed to respond to the near-destruction of a major city, and also watched the financial system collapse, anyone who voted Republican in 2004 could probably also be considered a bad voter.

    Oh, wait – you didn’t mean that?

  • E

    Having listened to the discussion but not read the paper (yes, out of laziness), I don’t have a problem with the assertion that heavy participation is unnecessary to keep a democracy working. But Brennan takes it a step too far. He’s not just saying that heavy participation shouldn’t be encouraged; he’s saying that it should be *discouraged.* Brennan citing and obviously subscribing to the idea that lower class peoples are generally incapable of voting rationally or knowing how to vote in their own best interests discredits his argument even more. The idea that the middle or upper classes are somehow inherently less biased than the lower class is not just paternalistic — frankly, it’s offensive.

    My second problem is the assertion that society considers voting to be the pinnacle of civic virtue. I am unfamiliar with the idea that being a good citizen means being actively involved in politics. Being a good citizen means being actively involved in your community. Political participation is just one potential way to express your civic virtue. The idea that liberals subscribe to such a narrow definition of civic duty is extremely weird to me.

    Obviously I’m not looking at the research Brennan may be using, but the assertion that people tend to vote in the national interest rather than in their own interest is bizarre. I’m sure most people generally believe that what’s best for them is in the national interest? Brennan seems to view people’s political interests in an impersonal, academic way. But in my experience, the majority of voters tend to think about politics in personal, even deeply personal terms. They care about the way politics affect their lives — whether they can marry the person they choose, whether their healthcare premiums are going to go up, whether their taxes are going to go down. Jane Doe might not have time to be well-versed in all the arguments and counter-arguments and facts and figures wrt NAFTA, but if she did she’d be bombarded with conflicting arguments and evidence. Which of these are the “truth?” And two similar voters might look at all the same information and come to the opposite conclusions. Which of them is the “bad” voter?

    But whatever. That’s just the fundamental disagreement I have with you. On a possibly more applicable note, I think you really need to work on your examples. Some of the scenarios you guys made up during the course of this discussion were… stretchy. If our afore-mentioned busy voter is Dr. Jane Doe, making the effort to be a “good” voter might cut into her time curing cancer? A “bad” voter is someone who goes to the polls and Christmas-trees their ballot? A bad policy would be the active persecution of minorities? These examples are extreme and extremely unlikely, and they make this argument seem even more divorced from reality.

  • Michael

    Funny how your vision of the bad voters (young, poor) are the folks most likely to be fighting the wars that benefit the good voters…

  • E,

    Your criticisms are all addressed in the paper. If you don’t want to read it, that’s fine, but you should be wary of making criticisms that are irrelevant or based on either misunderstandings of what I said or conjectures about what I might have said.

    I never said that the poor are bad voters. (I also never advocated voting Republican. In fact, I’ve never done so. Big surprise.)

    Will said in the discussion something like, “Suppose it turns out that the poor are disproportionately those who count as bad voters because they aren’t educated well. What would you say about that.?”

    I responded with something like, “In that case, I still don’t think they should vote, but we should provide better education.”

    Notice that this doesn’t actually claim the poor are bad voters. It’s hypothetical. As far as this paper goes, it takes no stance whatsoever on how extensive bad voting is. The thesis of this paper is a normative one about what people shouldn’t do. It is compatible with it being the case that in fact everyone votes well. It’s also compatible with it being the case that everyone votes poorly.

    I’ve also explicitly addressed cases where the information doesn’t admit of any obvious conclusion.

    And, yes, people do vote for the active persecution of minorities. People do vote for racist reasons here in the US, and, moreover, this paper takes no special interest in American politics. It’s about democratic voting in general. (Why do Americans always think one is talking about them?)

  • Several of those criticizing the argument that Will and Jason are making seem to be constitutionally unable to avoid straw-man arguments.

    For example, the thrust of the argument is not that the “poor and young”, per se, should be encouraged not to vote. To the extent that the “poor and young” learn something about the issues at hand and can intelligently explain the likely outcomes of one policy over another, they would indeed be more qualified to vote than someone older and richer who has not done so. Thus, I cannot help but think that most of the critiques are grounded in the soft bigotry of low expectations: a belief that the poor and young are indeed generally ignorant. Given that the “poor and young” do tend to vote Democratic it is not surprising that commenters who feel an affiliation with Democrats are upset by the argument. Hell, they may well be upset at their own implicit understanding that their success in electoral politics is largely due to an ability to influence the stupid or ill-informed. The result, it seems, is that they argue *around* the issue without actually addressing the points raised.

  • Oh, and one other thing… I recognize that the argument doesn’t revolve around ignorance, per se, but voting from “immorality,” but the argument regarding the shallowness of the critiques being presented remains the same.

  • Maybe it will placate some people if I agree fullthroatedly that, yes, fundamentalist voters who think that God wants a Constitutional ban on gay marriage are also very likely to vote badly. Anyone who still thinks Iraq is connected to 9/11 and votes on that basis votes badly, etc. etc.

  • anonymous

    no, what would placate some people is if you, instead of calling for people to NOT have a voice in society, were to call for better education and higher living standards for those people so that their voice was more informed. otherwise, you’re just another elitist who thinks you’re somehow more deserving than everyone else. you may be all that? but you ain’t no bag of chips, baby.

  • Yes! Let’s have better education! Let’s have higher standards of living! That will indeed deliver a better electorate. But it would still be better if people who don’t know what they’re doing don’t vote, whether or not they’re ultimately responsible for that. Do you think that an electorate of LOWER average competence will be MORE likely to support candidates and policies who will deliver improvements in education and living standards?

    Serious question: If people don’t know who the candidates are (and they don’t in most elections, since most elections are not presidential elections), don’t know what they stand for, don’t know what policies they support, and don’t know the likely effects of various policies, how exactly are they supposed to help themselves–how can they act as effective agents on their own behalf–by voicing their preferences in elections? I think what you in fact get are candidates who are successful at pandering to different groups of especially poorly prepared voters. If you think THAT GUY is ipso facto the best agent of those people’s interests, then I guess you’d be comfortable with “vote or die-ism”. But if you suspect that THAT GUY is good at pandering and little else, you will not see him as a likely effective advocate for those who have put him in power.

    • anonymous

      as soon as YOU give up your vote, seeing how you are polluting the voter pool with your ~immoral~ elitism, then i’ll take you seriously. otherwise, your argument seems to be, “i don’t like how THEY vote, so they don’t deserve to”. “they”, of course, being everyone *you* deem unqualified to vote. why not just bring back poll taxes, literacy tests, and property ownership qualifications… maybe just go ahead and get rid of that entire women’s right to vote thing while you’re at it… that’d cut out a HUGE percentage of people whose votes don’t measure up to your approval.

      you live in a republic where we’re all guaranteed the right to vote and, while it’s true that people do not always vote in their best interests, rather than calling for them to be silenced, it is MUCH more important to address the issues that keep them voting in that way.

  • Brian

    How about anyone who actually still believes, in the face of mountains of contrary evidence, that the “American media establishment overwhelmingly favors the Democratic Party?”

  • Don

    Jason,

    Your critiques are off the mark.

    The fact of the two-party system, or any system in which informed or good voters actively participate, is central, because of the central question – whether people are voting for “bad” policies. College professors, civic leaders, and moral philosophers vote for both parties in the current system. Each party has a variety of policies, and most informed, good voters don’t agree with all of them. A voter may reject Democratic economic choices, but also pro-choice. He must make a value choice, and either one is defensible as “good” voting. Whether it is a two or a four party system doesn’t directly matter – but the fact is that the political system tends to bundle policies, some “good” some “bad,” and hence, in the typical scenario, there are no objectively “bad” bundles offered.

    Hence “bad” voting isn’t a harm. The “bad” voter registers as a value choice that perhaps the voter didn’t himself intend.

    Your argument is reductionist everywhere. Take, for example “character voting.” You reduce the issue to one of voting personal morality. However, voters asses the entirety of the candidate’s character – our press tells us that “elitism” is an issue, that “experience” is an issue, that “moral character” is an issue. It isn’t wrong to consider these factors. Personal integrity is relevant, though hard to judge from a distance. You invent a hypothetical voter who votes exclusively one of these factors. I don’t think such a voter exists – in fact, almost universally, Democrats decide that the Republican is of bad character and vice versa. The problem iwith “character voting” isn’t that voters consider character – or that they assign character to the role that you approve – but rather that smear campaigns are conducted. This you blame on the voter, though – they are to be derided as “bad” voters because they believe someone’s intentional lie, rather than focusing on the obvious culprit, which is the media filter, which does not aggressively debunk bad information. The bad information – the politicians and media elites who promote bad rationales – are the pollution in the system. Given the diversity of human nature, people will be more or less prone to drink this poison. But they did not manufacture it – they are it’s victims, their only crime being lacking circumspection.

    Instead of faulting the political and media system for intentionally poluting the system, you place the fault squarely on an unidentifiable voter for being someone’s dupe. In law, the person who makes a misrepresentation is the most culpable, not the person who believes the lie. You invert this moral equation, demonstrating your moral bankruptcy.

  • Jason Brennan

    Don, I’m very sorry, but you’ve missed the point pretty severely, and on top of it, you’re rude.

  • Thomas C.

    Perhaps it has been raised already but…

    Your argument is almost tautological at points (bad voting is undesirable)… at its core it is, in a sense, true.

    There are a number of problems with applying anything like your argument to real life, but I think two points suffice to relegate it to an intellectual toy, nothing more.

    1) Bad voters will usually be unable to recognize themselves, and many of those who do recognize that they are “bad voters” will be inclined to vote anyway for “bad reasons”. There’s a lot of evidence out there to back this up— the truly incompetent do not realize they’re incompetent.

    2) It is undesirable to use force to strip the vote from “bad voters” either on the basis of group approximation (the poor, if we use your assumptions) or individually. At the very least the reduction in “social currency” (trust in the system, happiness, social tranquility) is likely to exceed any gain in decision making efficiency.

    In fact that same argument could be extended even if bad voters can recognize themselves— the act of voting tends to spur a modicum of civic pride and introspection (and those voters who don’t feel either are those least likely to realize they are bad voters AND to follow your logic through to the conclusion).

  • Thomas C.

    A parallel argument could be made that bad parents should not have children— and while you might attempt to distinguish the two arguments in any number of ways, I think that the parallel holds. It *is true* that bad parents should not have children, but to advance the argument in any serious way that they should self-select out is either 1) going to be utterly ineffective as those who possess the traits to be bad parents are not likely to have the patience, judgment, and civic intentions needed to adhere to the principal or 2) May in fact be harmful, as arguing that certain people should not have children may have real psychic/social costs. So, while it might be a “good argument” in the abstract that society would be better off if bad parents elected not to have children, the argument is not a “good argument” in the real world sense— it is an academic bauble, not to be taken seriously.

    The argument might be made that two congenitally deaf people with a 100% chance of having a deaf baby should not having (sure to be deaf) children, but it may well be that the cost of dissuading them from having children (anger, resentment, alienation) exceeds the cost of not attempting to dissuade them.

  • Thomas C.

    This reminds me of one of those bad arguments on the LSAT:

    18. People should be public-spirited, and act with the common good in mind. When enough people vote badly–from ignorance or bias, for example–the result is often bad policy. The quality of policy matters to the public good. Higher-quality democratic decisions, and better policy, can be secured if bad voters choose to abstain. Because the personal cost of not voting badly is so low, a public-spirited person shouldn’t do it. And it seems that a lot of people are quite likely to vote badly. So there are many people who, if they care about the common good, ought to choose not to vote.

    The reasoning in the above argument is flawed because it fails to consider:

    A) That people who vote badly may not be able to recognize this fact.
    B) That voting badly may create benefits which offset or exceed the harm to policy.
    C) The quantity of people voting badly may not be enough to cause bad policy to occur.
    D) Because each assumption, while probably true, has a significant chance of being incorrect, and it is therefore likely that some assumption is wrong, even though any given assumption is probably correct (this would never appear as an LSAT answer though)
    E) All of the above

  • Steve M.

    Professor Brennan’s point seems to me to be an astonishingly trivial one. Indeed, it’s so trivial that I would think it uncontroversial. People should behave responsibly when exercising political authority. They shouldn’t exercise power badly, and they especially shouldn’t do so ignorantly. Votes lead to policies. Policies have real effects on people’s lives. No serious person thinks judges and legislators should vote without looking at the relevant evidence, or purely for reasons of self-expression. (Though, I suppose, one does sometimes hear the deeply immoral claim that we should keep criminal laws on the books — and use them against real people — to “express our moral sentiments” or to “send a message that we disapprove” of unpopular conduct.)

    The clamor here is a little strange. I would have thought being a democrat *just is* holding the belief that the entire adult citizenry will, in the long run, tend to exercise power more responsibly than any elite we can identify. I suppose one could think securing the consent of the governed *requires* maximal voter participation, but I don’t quite understood why, given some well-known chestnuts from public choice theory and studies of viting behavior, that isn’t really an argument for liberalism or libertarianism. Call me a Millian, I guess. Though I will say that the self-refuting partisanship and vitriol of the criticism expressed here is amusing — after all, why care so much whether the political system and culture encourage the maximum possible number of people vote unless one suspects that a system in which everyone who possibly can votes is, for entirely prosaic reasons, *better* than the alternatives?

    One comparison here is to driving. Not the duty ot drive responsibly, which has already been raised. But the intense, vitriolic reaction to calls to monitor the driving skills of the very elderly. Or even to the suggestion that the very elderly should keep their diminishing faculties in mind, and not drive unless they’re sure they’re able to do so safely. People can get angry when someone makes that suggestion, but I’ve always thought it a trivial claim. Almost as if supporting the driving right — and its unfettered exercise — serves an important signalling function.

    I should disclose, though I shouldn’t have to, that I’m a thoroughgoing democrat. And I think that the United States would be better off if it had higher levels of voter participation. That doesn’t mean, however, that voters who vote by flipping a coin or by voting for the better-looking candidate vote responsibly. How it that notion possibly be controversial?

    • webgrrl

      “the entire adult citizenry will, in the long run, tend to exercise power more responsibly”

      Of course, Kierkegaard argues otherwise, that “the crowd” ought not vote:

      Wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in. ”

      – On the Dedication to “That Single Individual”

      A crowd – not this or that, one now living or long dead, a crowd of the lowly or of nobles, of rich or poor, etc., but in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision.” (emphasis added)

      • Steve M.

        Touché.

        Although, as an unreconstructed Millian (at least of the On Liberty variety), I believe I am obligated to disagree with whatever Kierkegaard has to say. if I don’t, they might throw me out of the meeting next Monday.

    • Don

      There are only two choices:

      One supports, wholeheartedly, the exercise of the franchise as a political right (not a privilege, like driving).

      One does not support the exercise of the franchise as a right, but rather seeks to curtail exercise of the right, by direct or indirect means.

      Certainly everyone disagrees with others’ exercise of rights: for example, I can abstractly wish that free speech wasn’t exercised through rap music, or that people would breed only when they were financially prepared. This complaint that not everyone exercises rights responsibly is trivial. It is exceedingly odd to couch this largely irrelevant complaint in the form of a long, supposedly philosophical discourse. By taking the complaint seriously, there is an implied assault on the underlying value of democracy. That is why there is such a strong reaction: the author is laying out a framework for rejecting democracy, while disingenuously claiming that he supports voting as a right.

  • Don

    Jason,

    Actually, there are so many points that you miss.

    First, why do you even equate voting in the modern environment with “policy?” Voters in 2000 weren’t informed of the problems with the intelligence megaplex. They weren’t asked if we should invade Iraq. No pol that I can recall ran on the notion that something needed to be done about the housing bubble in 2004. These are the most important policy choices of the last eight years, and they were absent from discourse. Interestingly, the solutions adopted to each for Republicans and Democrats, were identical.

    Second, you don’t even begin to understand the underpinnings of democracy. Democracy is justified on the theory that government has legitimacy only by consent of the governed. The “governed” includes the entire body politic – sinners and saints, intelligent and unintelligent. There isn’t any use complaining about the fact that some people are lazy or immoral – that is already assumed in the equation when one adopts democracy as a value. It is also rather silly to claim that a racist vote is immoral – in fact racism is immoral, on message boards, in coffee shops, anywhere. Singling out voting as a particular instance of the evils of racism is beside the larger point – racism is bad, in any form – and does not respect the underlying value of democracy – that is self-determination in itself, regardless of whether the exercise is laudable or not.

    Pointing out that your argument is fundamentally immoral isn’t rude. I thought we were talking about morality.

    Cowardice isn’t much of a moral value, either, btw.

  • Don,

    May I suggest that you read the paper? Nearly every criticism you have made either mischaracterizes my position or is a criticism I have explicitly addressed and responded to in the paper. So, in the later kinds of cases, if you think my response to those criticisms fails, you would want to explain why. (This means accounting for what my response is. You are making criticisms I thought of on my own and responded 10 months ago when I wrote the first draft.) But so far, unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a single objection from you (or, alas, anyone else on this forum) worth considering for when I expand this paper in book form a few years from now. So, it would be a big favor to me (and to my character, perhaps) if you could read the paper and carefully explain where I go wrong, rather than writing the kinds of things you have been writing.

    For instance: Your point about wholeheartedly endorsing the right to vote: In the opening paragraph, I wholeheartedly endorse the right to vote as being a right, not a privilege. I then point out that the right to X doesn’t imply the rightness of X-ing. (This is, by the way, an uncontroversial claim among rights theorists.)

    • Don

      Jason,

      You point out my most fundamental disagreement with your view. Let’s examine it.

      The very nature of a right is that it may be exercised in controversial or socially harmful ways. Hence, we have debates on the limits of rights – whether it be pornography, rap music, negligent parenting, etc. Generally, those who accept the notion that free speech is a right will accept that the right should be freely exercised, unless there is a concrete and severe harm. So, in the end, the right is limited by fairly exigent examples. Broader arguments against free speech – such as the argument that there is some statistical connection between pornography and rape or even sexism – are inherently dangerous, and when they are made, they are essentially covert attacks on the right itself. Again, because acceptance of the notion of a right is an acceptance of the inherent legitimacy of self-determination, not the acceptance of the choices made through that self-determination.

      Hence, it is commonplace and unexceptional to comment that we all wish that others would make different choices, or that some people make bad choices in the area of rights. I have no problem saying that it would be better if people would refrain from making violent porn or rap music, or if they would read books on child development. It makes sense to make information and education available to people on all topics, so they can live their lives, and exercise their rights, in ways that benefit all. The odd thing about voting, unlike rap music or bad parenting – we can’t even define clearly who the bad voters are, or what their influence is. So, it’s a little odd to even discuss them.

      So, this isn’t a question of rights. Instead, you make it a question of morality, and quite a useless one, because you note that it is one that to have any effect requires self-policing. But, as a matter of morality, it is exceedingly odd to single out a right. You say it is morally wrong to participate in a neo-Nazi rally. But that really is just a tiny slice of the moral question at issue. It is morally wrong to be an anti-semite – in the privacy of one’s thoughts, at the dinner table, or at a rally. You are issuing an odd injunction: not, “forsake racism” but “don’t exercise the franchise in a racist manner.” But the practical reality is, as long as racism exists in society, there will be racists voting. Instead of – as anyone who’s main concern was morality would be – opposing racism, laziness, and prejudice, you choose to condemn only one action: voting. But, again, voting isn’t the moral issue: the underlying attitude is – voting being one manifestion of an actual problem.

      Which, frankly, is troubling in a world with a history of movements to prevent the “wrong” people from voting. Given this history, and given that “bad” voting is undefinable, I find your focus troubling.

      And, even more to the point, the value of democracy (at least from my perspective) is that racists and ignorant people can and do express their preferences, for several reasons. The government imposes force on the government, and democracy is a way to philosophically legitimize that force. It may be my preference to have no jews in the government. Bigot though I am, I get my say over how I am governed: this is self-determination. If stupid people choose a stupid government, that is an expression of their will, and government gains legitimacy from their will.and nothing else: not the will of a few, or the best, as all are equally subjects. There is no higher value involved. Additionally, I would rather have immoral influences worked out through the electoral process than left to fester in dark corners. The value of democracy thus has nothing to do with the ultimate policy choices.

      Now, perhaps I just missed this, but it seems to me that you paid lip service to the value of democracy and rights by merely saying that it would be wrong to force people not to vote or participate in neo-Nazi rallies. I differ. I want people with neo-Nazi attitudes to participate in the political process (the problem with neo-Nazis as a party being not that they are bigots that they ultimately will want to replace democracy and self-determination with force – this is a problem that I will explain a bit below). Only though the open struggle between “bad” and “good” ideas do we progress, and it is a human right to be heard by those who legitimize force over you, however, stupid the exercise.

      The neo-Nazi question comes down to whether a political party (not a voter) should be able to advocate for the overthrow of liberal democracy (that is, respect for personal automony and democratic process). This seems to me a different question, more along the lines of limits on free speech at the extreme edges. One can be an anti-semite or racist, and vote against candidates because of race or religion, and not violate the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy. This may not lead to good policy choices, but that isn’t the object.

      Perhaps you addressed this. If so, I’m sorry I didn’t understand.

      • Which, frankly, is troubling in a world with a history of movements to prevent the “wrong” people from voting. Given this history, and given that “bad” voting is undefinable, I find your focus troubling.

        When I look at the world, I see a history of movements of various interest groups trying to command and control the lives of other people, and the all too predictable response of some of these interest groups who try to gain control of these commanding heights by preventing other people from voting. Given this history, I find your adulation of democracy troubling.

        One of your comments earlier in the thread was:

        It is also rather silly to claim that a racist vote is immoral – in fact racism is immoral, on message boards, in coffee shops, anywhere. Singling out voting as a particular instance of the evils of racism is beside the larger point – racism is bad, in any form

        This is nonsense. It doesn’t bother me very much if some anti-Semite living hundreds of miles away from me hates the abstract concept of my identity. It does bother me when this person’s bigoted preferences are expressed through the ballot box, and consequently through policy.

        • Don

          1. Your first comment makes no sense. I really can’t make much sense of it, but apparently you think is it wrong to “prevent people from voting” but at the same time my “adulation of democracy” is troubling. If you value voting, you value democracy. If not, I’m not sure what your point about preventing peole from voting is.

          2. As to the morality of racism:

          a. As a moral question, racism is immoral, no matter how expressed. Period. The degress of harm from each expression is another question.

          b. As a practical question, it makes sense to say exactly what I did: the problem is racism, not racists voting. If you strike at the roots of racism, and eliminate the attitudes, you eliminate racist voting as well. If you are only concerned with racists voting, you are either left with stripping racists of the vote, or what Jason does: make the pathetic argument that racists should somehow have the good sense to know their racism is wrong, and stay home. THAT is nonsense.

          • I look at efforts to prevent people from voting in the say way I look at lobbying: both are predictable symptoms of the ever increasing importance of democracy and politics in our lives. Both are ugly. The way to treat the underlying disease is to lessen the importance and impact of politics.

            If one is concerned with the social impact of racism, and less so with the inner intellectual errors of individual racists, then there are more than your two suggested responses available. An additional option is to reduce the number of questions that are addressed by the political realm. An example: suppose our dating options had to first be approved by democratic vote (much like many business decisions). This would amplify the social impact of racism. Instead of merely worrying about glares and unkind looks, those who would like date interracially might be legally barred from doing so, if enough of the electorate disapproved.

            Dating is one obvious example of something that should not be decided democratically, and why democracy would be a horrible nightmare if expanded. Since democracy amplifies the social effects of racism, those who wish to minimize racism should look towards minimizing (and eventually completely eliminating) electoral democracy. And that is why your adulation of democracy troubles me. I have no interest in running other people’s lives, and I except the same sort of respect from them. And from you.

          • Don

            I’m done with this exchange, because I don’t think you have a very good grasp on what is happening in the real world, and you seem to be developing some sort of resentment against me that I really don’t care to deal with.

            First, there isn’t an “increasing” importance of “democracy” in our lives. In fact, the United States has never been democratically run. As I mentioned in my comments to Jason’s article, a fundamental premise of his argument is that voting is connected to policy. But, I was never asked my opinion on the Iraq invasion, the bailout, or reducing the deficit. There are many problems in the world, but majoritarian tyranny isn’t one, in the United States or anywhere else. My personal belief is that the United States would be far better if it were more democratic, and not run by special interests. I also believe that issues like dating won’t and shouldn’t be decided democratically, because we have a constitution that limits the intrusion of government into the realm of personal freedom. You – and I – might wish that the scope of the protection of personal freedoms be expanded, but that has nothing to do with whether the decisions that remain to be made by the government should be made through representative democracy.

            These happen to be the principles that the nation was allegedly founded upon, although never put into practice. I didn’t invent these ideas, or even particularly promulgate them. I am not your problem. I can have limitless adultation of democracy, and you can believe that adulation is corrupt, but that really doesn’t make a bit of difference in either of our lives.

            I am not running your life, or asking to, nor is anyone else. The reality is that elections will continue, and the relatively weak democratic elements of our government will probably not change much in our lifetimes, though you want them reduced and I want them increased. But you seem to have a chip on your shoulder, against me, or someone else. You will not get what you want from the government, and neither will I. What you do with your situation is up to you.

  • Don

    An additional point:

    You say that bad voting is a collective harm. But I disagree that the collective harm originates in the voters, rather than the parties or candidates. Say, for example, that 10% of the voting population is racist. They would, for bad reasons, vote against a black candidate. But the more likely and greater wrong would be that certain candidates would leverage their attitudes, and not only have them vote against black candidates, but also go out of their way to point out that a white candidate is cozy with blacks, or take that 10% and rile them into activists. The “collective” aspect comes not from the voters, but from the candidates. These prejudices don’t spring up in vacuums, after all, ever, but are the products of propaganda campaigns. And this aspect – playing up the worst in people by political leaders – is clearly identifiable, and even preventable, whereas talking about racists and ignorant people self-policing is admittedly useless and directed at something undefined, of uncertain consequence.

    And the use to which the argument is put is very predictable, as here: voter registration drives are condemned, since they include the poor and the young, who are somehow suboptimal voters. Your argument serves no purpose whatsoever, and is inexplicable in ignoring major moral ills in the system, except that it can be used to reinforce certain prejudices among certain conservatives and libertarians.

    • Don

      Or, to put it yet another way:

      There are purely individual sins, like laziness. No one praises laziness, or promotes laziness – it’s just easier not to exert effort. I can decide to be lazy all by myself, and there isn’t any laziness club.

      Then there are uniquely political sins, like racism. Very few people decide, without any prompting, that Jews are the source of all evil. Instead, a political/religious agenda was furthered over centuries by church and political leaders. I can choose to adopt this world view, which will often be based on outright lies from the leaders, but I cannot adopt it unless it exists, and it exists because of the political system.

      In the context of the current election, it works as follows. I have, on my own, as a responsible voter, no reason to research every person who serves on a board with Obama. But I do know who Ayers is. Although there appears to be no relationship whatsoever between Ayers actions and philosophy in his youth and Obama, the leaders of the Republican party have singled out and exaggerated the connection between Ayers and Obama to create an impression that Obama secretly holds radical views. As a responsible voter, I preceive that this could be relevant information, and it gives me one more information I need to research and filter – in this case bad information. But other voters, who don’t have the time or resources to research the question, might accept that Obama “pals around with terrorists.” The political system doesn’t place one red herring before voters, but manufactures several every day.

      The voter, then, trying to navigate this minefield of misinformation, may vote a prejudice: that Obama favors violence against the government, or that he may secretly do so, when in fact this is merely a smear. You say he should refrain from voting, rather than vote from prejudice or bad information, but he didn’t create the bad information, and the bad information/prejudice was invented precisely to coax him to vote. Again, the moral culpability of the dupe is less than minor.

      In focusing on individual voter behavior, you are falsely protraying the real dynamic at work. You are, supposedly, focusing on a “collective action” problem, but ignoring the nature of the collective action. The collective action is not driven at the level of the voter.

      Similarly, in viewing the question of legitimacy, you again diminish the responsibility of the government/political system. In fact it is the government’s moral duty to solicit support of every citizen, because it is taking every citizen’s tax money and imposing laws on each of them. You seem to take this on in one sentence: that it is a tenet of classical Republicanism. You reject it, a claim it is an empirical question, and say a functioning democracy can work with less participation. But, of course, a functioning democracy can work if only three people vote – the question is whether that government has any moral legitimacy to use force against the populace. There are tolitarian governments that stage show elections, that function fine as well. They are not legitimate governments because the consent of the individual voter is secured basically by a fraud of presenting only one choice. Similarly, a false legitimacy is promoted whenever a demographic is excluded, either by law or by promoting a system in which certain people are discouraged from participation. If you could actually devise a system in which nonparticipation were inspired by the sort of reflection and self-policing that you suggest, then in fact less voting could be better voting. But, in the real world, voter apathy comes from a sense of helplessness or alienation – people who have needs or wants and believe they are not served by the system. In the real world nonparticipation is a result of certain demographics being excluded and ruled over without consent. In the real world, and in a philosophically pure world, more voting is always better.

  • Don,

    I’m in a demographic being ruled over without consent. And, whether or not I vote has nothing to do with it.

    No real moral legitimacy comes from people voting. Some people vote in self-defense. But, if their side loses (or wins), they can still be abused by the winners. Calling it voluntary, or legitimate, because people vote is a ridiculous, dangerous, fiction.

    But, if voter participation grants legitimacy to whatever the government decides to do, in the eyes of people like you, then that’s a great reason to favor less voter participation.

    • Don

      Sorry, I am not be eloquent, but your response is incoherent.

      What demographic do you belong to being ruled over without consent?

      Let’s try this again: If people believe their interests are in some way served by the system, they will vote. If they feel excluded by the system, they will not. Therefore, low voter participation is a symptom of a system that isn’t resting on the consent and approval of the populace.

      And, if you believe that the system lacks legitimacy, by all means there is no sense in legitimizing it by voting. Work outside the system, if you believe that the system can never be responsive to your needs. You may decide this is a fiction (although it seem logical to me), but I don’t see how it is dangerous. The degree of voter disinterest and alienation in the United States throughout my life is a sign of the government’s illegitimacy. If voter participation spikes in 2008 in response to widespread dissatisfaction with the current administration, that presents an opportunity for the government to restore its legitimacy. If participation dwindles again, it has failed.

      Upon reflection, perhaps “legitimacy” is not the precise word, since that is an up or down, legal concept. I think perhaps moral authority is more appropriate.

      That moral authority doesn’t exist in the first place, to any degree, unless there is a consistent respect for rights. Hence, a popular authoritarian regime doesn’t have moral authority and ultimately destroys the free democratic process that confers legitimacy. I haven’t advocated legitimacy or moral authority solely by majoritarian force.

  • What demographic do you belong to being ruled over without consent?

    The Lysander Spooner demographic.

    Consent, of course, is a self-evidently absurd notion in the absence of unanimity.

    Here is Randy Barnett, explaining Why “We the People” is a Fiction:

    This point becomes clearer when one realizes that if consent is an expression of a willingness to go along with something, then this presupposes it is possible to express unwillingness. Just as I can say, “I consent,” there also must also be a way to say, “I do not consent.” I am not here talking about the likelihood of such a refusal or all the considerations that might leave one “little choice” but to consent. Rather, I am simply insisting that, just as the word “no” means the opposite of “yes,” for consent to have any meaning, it must be possible to say “I do not consent” instead of “I consent.” But notice where the argument has taken us when consent to obey the laws is based on voting: If we vote for a candidate and he wins, we have consented to the laws he votes for, but we have also consented to the laws he votes against. If we vote against the candidate and he wins, we have consented to the laws he votes for or against. And if we do not vote at all, we have consented to the outcome of the process, whatever it may be. It is a queer sort of “consent” where there is no way to refuse. “Heads I win, tails you lose,” is the way to describe a rigged contest. “Heads” you consent, “tails” you consent, “didn’t flip the coin,” guess what? You consent as well. This is simply not consent.

    And on The Dangerous Fiction of “We the People”:

    Some use such slogans as “We are the government” or “the government is us” (though I heard this more frequently in my youth before Vietnam and Watergate). This view of government gives legislators an enormous power to do what they will, provided only that they muster the requisite number of votes. For if “we are the government,” then we would seem to consent to anything the government does. The fiction of popular sovereignty, therefore, becomes dangerous when legislatures are conceived of as a literal surrogate for “We the People” themselves. Because “the people” can “consent” to alienate any particular liberty or right – though not their more abstract inalienable rights – legislatures, as the people’s surrogate, can restrict almost any liberty and justify it in the name of popular consent. The fiction of popular rule, as opposed to a popular check on rulers, allows a legislature to justifiably do almost anything it wills. And this, in turn, allows majority and minority factions of the electorate to gain control and wield the power of the legislative branch at the expense of the aggregate rights of their fellow citizens.

    • Don

      I don’t know why an anarchist would consider voting in the first place. Hence my confusion.

      • I wouldn’t consider voting (except perhaps in self-defense, though even in that case it is almost always just a waste of time). I would consider convincing other people not to vote, since I don’t think it’s healthy for people to always look towards elections and politicians whenever they have problems that need solving.

        The Lysander Spooner demographic has no interest in playing your sorts of political games. We want out. You won’t let us. That is unfortunate.

        Meanwhile, we will continue to point out that democracy rests on irrational and immoral foundations – that most voters are not equipped with either the knowledge or the incentives to run other people’s lives for them, and that it is wrong for them to try, and wrong for people to encourage eligible voters to participate more, when they should be participating less.

        • Don

          Interesting. I’m just a guy on a messageboard with an opinion. I have no special training in political philosophy and no position in the government, but it’s quite possible that my opinion is wrong. It happens to be my honest opinion. I’m fairly opinionated, and enjoy debate, and have been wrong more than once in my life, and, as has been mentioned, I can be a little rude. I apologize for my rudeness, but not my opinion.

          “I” am not “playing” any “game.” “I” am not refusing to let you “out “- I’m not even sure what you want to be let “out” of. I’m not even forcing you to engage in conversation with you, but somehow you seem to resent me.

          I’m sorry you feel that way. Good luck to you in your quest for personal happiness.

          • Passive-aggressive much?

            I don’t resent you personally; I don’t know you. I disagree with your views on the value of electoral politics, just as you disagree with mine.

        • Christie

          The Lysander Spooner demographic seems to me, having read as much of Spooner as I could stomach, to be made up of people who are emotionally still at the two-year old stage of believing that it is, if one can just find the magic method, possible to always have one’s own way. They simply have not been able to come to terms with the human condition, that is, the fact, that human beings are as subject to the laws of the universe as is, well, everything else in the universe, from the physical laws that have created the universe as it exists today to the biological laws that determine our characteristics as living beings. Intellectually, of course, they have developed the ability to produce wonderfully eloquent and beautifully reasoned justifications for why the latter imperatives are so distasteful.

  • Thanks Micha. Great excerpts.

    And, Don, if you still don’t see how it’s dangerous then I’m not sure we share enough understanding of politics to communicate about it.

  • Christie

    Will seems to be quite right in suggesting that he uses Jason’s paper as a jumping off point for a different argument. “Polluting the Vote” is a mildly interesting if ultimately unconvincing argument about the responsibility of individuals to abstain from voting if they “vote badly”. Will then goes on to argue that efforts to increase the numbers of people voting are nothing more than an invitation to “pretty straightforwardly immoral behavior.” Will’s argument is that those who are being encouraged to vote are primarily the poor and/or the young, who, although he does not come right out and say it in so many words, are simply by virtue of their youth and/or poverty de facto “bad voters”. In other words, they don’t share Will’s viewpoints or his votes for Republican candidates. Yes, indeed, bad voters. While Jason is encouraging everyone, no matter their economic condition or partisan choice, to not be a bad voter, Will is more interested in either continuing the practical disenfranchisement or adding to it of as many people as possible who will presumably vote for the other side. What an intellectually dishonest argument.