Shame on You, Voter! A Case for Not Voting from Jason Brennan

We often hear that it’s our civic duty to vote, but according to ethicist Jason Brennan, author of the controversial book The Ethics of Voting, most people have no business heading to the polls at all, since they won’t vote in an informed, competent, and morally reasonable way. But no harm done, right? Certainly voting is a high stakes game, with policies that impact our healthcare, our rights, and our economic realities hanging in the balance, but the reality is individual voters—even ignorant, biased, and irrational ones—carry almost no power.  Shouldn’t this liberate your average uninformed but patriotic citizen to exercise their democratic right and vote however they please? Not according to Brennan. Read his post on why you (and your logic-challenged uncle and your current events-blind friends) shouldn’t feel guilty for staying home on election day:

 


Most People Shouldn’t Vote

Jason Brennan

 

When I see people with an “I Voted!” sticker, my first thought is, “Shame on you!”

Imagine 12 people are serving on a jury in a murder case. The prosecution and defense present evidence and call witnesses. The court asks the jury to reach a verdict. They find the defendant guilty.

Suppose four of the jurors paid no attention during the trial. When asked to deliberate, they were ignorant of the details of the case. They decided more or less at random.

Suppose four of the jurors paid some attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty not on the basis of the evidence, but on wishful thinking and on bizarre conspiracy theories they happen to believe.

Suppose four of the jurors paid attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty because he is an atheist, while they are Christians. Like many Americans, the jurors trust atheists no more than they trust rapists.

In the case above, the jurors acted in a vile and despicable way. The defendant is possibly innocent. He does not consent to the outcome of the decision. The decision will be imposed upon him through violence and threats of violence. The decision could harm him, and deprive him of property, liberty, or even life. Jurors have a moral obligation to decide these kinds of cases in a competent and morally reasonable way.

This line of reasoning applies even more strongly to the electorate as a whole. Political decisions are high stakes. Most citizens are innocent. Almost none of us consent to the outcome of the election or to our government.* The outcomes—including all ensuing laws, regulations, taxes, budget expenditures, wars, and so on—are imposed upon us through violence and threats of violence. These decisions can and so harm us, and can and do deprive many of us of property, liberty, and even life. At first glance, we should think that voters, like jurors, have a moral obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable way.

However, as I document in The Ethics of Voting, the best available evidence indicates that most voters mean well, but are politically incompetent. Most are like the first eight jurors in the thought experiment above. (Most non-voting citizens are even worse.) If so, I argue, they owe it to the rest of us to abstain. Citizens have no duty to vote, but if they do vote, they must vote well, for what they justifiedly believe will promote good government.

There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.

Of course, there’s a difference between jurors and voters. Individual jurors have a lot of power. Individual voters have almost no power. You are more likely to win Powerball than to decide an election. If so, does that excuse individual voters? My individual vote will not hurt anybody, so doesn’t that mean I can just vote however I’d like?

I don’t think so. I’ll illustrate why not with an analogy. Suppose a 100-member firing squad is about to shoot an innocent child. Suppose they are trained to shoot so that each bullet will hit the child at the same time. Suppose each bullet, on its own, would suffice to kill her. Suppose also that you can’t stop the shooters. The child will die regardless of what you do. Now, suppose the shooters offer to let you join in and fire with them. Is it okay for you to take the 101st shot?

Most people, upon reflection, think not. Even though you don’t make a difference, you have a moral duty to keep your hands clean. You have a duty not to join in with the group when the group harms innocent people. Only a monster would take the 101st shot, even though it makes no difference to the outcome.

So it goes with voting. If you are an ignorant, irrational, biased, capricious, or malevolent voter, your vote makes no difference. However, you’re the 101st shooter. We shouldn’t celebrate you for voting. We should hold you in contempt.

 

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

Comments

  1. Of course, defining “ignorant, irrational, biased, capricious, or malevolent” gets tricky, in today’s political climate.

    “You are too stupid/ignorant to vote” could be hurled by either side. So perhaps a more concretely defined discussion about the types of knowledge needed to be an informed voter would be useful.

  2. Typhoon Jim says:

    It’s clear; I’m the one who’s qualified. All those guys? The ones over there that don’t agree with me? Uninformed conspiracy theorists, all.

  3. We can determine who is likely to vote well by asking them about relevant but factual items about candidates positions. This work builds on the ideas of the Marquis de Condorcet who assumed juries would arrive at true factual outcomes when each member of the jury was more likely than not to arrive at the correct answer, that is get the answer write more than half the time. We then can extend the logic to items that are less factual and more subjective.

    However before we jump off on voting as subjective, if Jason moves the argument to the point where we admit that many items of voting are subjective and not factually based, then that is a major accomplishment!

  4. Typhoon Jim says:

    The content of such a questionnaire is likely to be both contentious and a platform for grandstanding of all kinds, since it is likely to be written by some form of joint legislative committee. It can also turn into a pretty irrelevant trivia contest if you set the bounds of “factual” very rigidly (about the only thing that such a committee is likely to agree upon are things like how many years a person has served, or the like) What exactly would such a thing accomplish? After all, if substantial debate could always be settled with factual appeals, wouldn’t we not have this problem?

  5. Was it not Socrates who told us how ridiculous it is to choose our leaders by lot when we would disdain to do so for our potter and our baker? The charge you lay exposes the fundamental contradiction in the very nature of democracy, which, ultimately, is likely to prove to be its fatal flaw. The Athenian democracy self-immolated through misgovernment. We have lasted a bit longer, in part because our system is much less democratic, but for how long more?

  6. Response… In a not too distant election 1 vote decided the election. 1 vote not cast cost the citizens several thousand dollars. How? the race resulted in a dead tie. Meaning there had to be a runoff election. If one more person had voted in the original election, it would have decided the contest and saved the people thousands of dollars.
    What is one vote worth?

  7. Very well put. I’m linking to this from my own post on voting… I think this is an even better way of explaining it :)

    We need less people voting on who has better teeth and more people voting on what the politicians will actually do! otherwise the number of intelligent votes gets diluted and we have… well… what we have :)

  8. Michael Hamilton says:

    Sounds like you’ve built a great case for a poll tax.

  9. “the best available evidence indicates that most voters mean well, but are politically incompetent.”

    Who defines competence? Are bankers competent? Were men 100 years ago, or even 40, or even now, “competent” at speaking to women’s questions? Were and are whites competent to speak for blacks, gentiles for Jews, Jews to Palestinians, straight to gay, rich to poor? But I think the last is the only one you’d claim to be addressing.

    Then there’s the history of idiots with PhD’s, for example in economics. Our recent disasters are the result of corrupt leadership and popular passivity, and more of the latter will give us more of the former. But this is what you offer. Maybe we should limit the franchise to people who deal with the concrete rather than than the abstract. Maybe we should ban philosophers and mathematicians (and poets) from political participation.

    If the uneducated poor could put a damper on the grand schemes of the powerful, I’d be all for it. As it is, the poor get steamrolled. Its true that democracy and representative government require an educated populace, but your response seems more to justify the fact that we’ve failed to ensure one.

    “There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics.”
    Yes, in a democracy there is something wrong with willed ignorance. It’s a betrayal of responsibility. But you’ve demonstrated it yourself. Your arguments are clearly self-serving, and it’s only freedom of to participate that allows others not in your position to mock you for it.

  10. Mark Lance says:

    Response…Jason:
    Let’s say this is all correct. “Citizens have no duty to vote, but if they do vote, they must vote well, for what they justifiedly believe will promote good government.” How much worse, would you say, is it to contribute a million dollars to a campaign for reasons having nothing to do with an epistemically well-grounded belief that the candidate is going to be the best of society – say, rather, that you contribute because you think s/he will support policies that favor your own economic power, or that of your industry – than it is for a single ill-informed individual to vote? I take it that, however we quantify, the answer has to be “a lot”.

    It strikes me as odd to focus on the latter while ignoring the latter.

  11. Joshua Wooden says:

    The only problem I see with this, is that ignorant people don’t realize how ignorant they are. Thus, the people who shouldn’t vote usually don’t have a clue that they shouldn’t vote. And the folks that are even willing to spend time reading a book like this, well – they’re probably the folks who should be voting.

  12. Pseudonym says:

    So here’s one contrary opinion, based not on ethics, but on practicality.

    I live in a country where voting is compulsory. You get fined if you don’t. (To anticipate any objections: Yes, of course there are exceptions to the rule. Yes, accommodation is made for people who truly can’t vote. Yes, we’ve thought of all of this.)

    Of course, it’s not actually compulsory to vote in practice. Ballots are secret, so nobody knows what you actually do in a polling booth. You could just draw a doodle or write a slogan on your paper without actually casting a vote. (I work as an election official, and I can report that some people get quite creative.) But either way, it is compulsory to turn up to a polling centre and get your name ticked off, and while there, people do typically take the trouble to cast a valid vote.

    Yes, this system has some problems, but it also has a few advantages.

    First off, in systems where voting is optional, it is sometimes considered a valid tactic to discourage people from voting. Some forms of this tactic are legal and some are not. We hear horror stories of dirty tricks used by some groups in other countries, like telling people that there are certain requirements to vote that they don’t satsify, or trying to get electors removed from the roll. Here, such tactics simply don’t work. You can’t prevent someone from voting because everyone must vote.

    Secondly, and more importantly, it reduces the power of political lobbies. You know those bumper stickers that say “I like bumper stickers and I vote” (feel free to substitute a political cause popular to your locale)? They carry no implied threat here. Yes, people who are pro-bumper-sticker may still vote as a bloc for the pro-bumper-sticker candidates. On the flip side, they won’t be mobilised disproportionately.

    I’m no philosopher, but I do find it interesting that nobody in this thread has actually challenged the claim that “citizens have no duty to vote”, on which the rest of the argument hinges. To my mind, that does at least require some justification.

    That also brings the jury analogy into slightly sharper focus, since citizens DO have a duty (in theory) to serve on a jury in most of the Anglosphere. Most people seem fine with that.

  13. Jason Brennan says:

    Thanks for the comments and concerns everyone. I’ll try to post a follow-up on here in the next few days. (Many of these issues are covered in the book as well.)

    @Mark Lance:
    Mark, you seem not be aware of the empirical work on this issue. (Some citations below to get you started.) The view that campaign expenditures buy elections seems to be little more than popular but mistaken folk political science. The dominant theory in poll sci is not that having more money causes people to win, but being more likely to win causes you to get more money. Money chases winners; it does not make winners. (Of course, you can’t win at all unless you have lots of money. But, similarly, you can’t be a NFL linebacker without weighing over 250 lbs. That doesn’t mean that most heavy people can become linebackers, or that all it takes to be a center is to eat 10,000 cheeseburgers.)

    Similarly, the dominant view about how rent seeking takes place is that it occurs post-election. Just read Mueller’s Public Choice III for an overview of that issue.

    Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book:
    “In fact, there is very little money in politics. In the 2008 US federal elections, presidential candidates raised nearly $2 billion. They spent more than $1 billion. Congressional campaigns spent another 1/3rd of a billion. Let’s round up: Assume candidates and PACs spend $2.5 billion total during every presidential election. That might seem like a huge sum, but it’s not. Consider that the federal government spent about $2.9 trillion in 2008. Campaign spending is less than 1/10th of a percent of the federal of the federal budget. Percentage-wise, that’s a tiny amount spent to control so much power and such a huge budget. (Note, also that the budget could be much bigger than it is.) Compare: In 2008, Nike had an operating budget of about $7 billion and global revenues of about $15 billion. Yet Nike spent about $2.5–3 billion of advertising and marketing. In other words, total campaign spending in the US, during one of the most intense elections ever, is about equal to Nike’s marketing budget. If campaign spending really did buy laws and regulations, we would expect spending to be at least an order of magnitude higher.”

    Here are some citations to get you started:

    Ansolabehere, Figuieiredo, Snyder, “Why is There So Little Money in United States Politics?” JEP

    Robert Hall and Allen Deardroff, “Lobby as Legislature Subsidy”, APSR

    Baumgartner, Barry, et al, Lobby and Policy Change: Who Loses, Who Wins, and Why

  14. I agree with Brennan about voting but disagree that ignorance and obstinate irrationality is not a sin outside of the voting booth. I think the assumption here is that ignorance is containable; in the private sphere, it affects no one other than maybe the ignorant. But that is wrong. Ignorance is like a permeable noxious gas. We can see this clearly in the media’s and in politicians’ pandering to their audiences’ ignorance to the detriment of all. Ignorance is a sin regardless of whether that ignorance is displayed in the political decision making process or kept to “oneself”. But there is no such thing as your own isolated ignorance. It makes its way outwards and harms others. It is also, IMO, a inherent evil.

  15. @Mark Lance: +1 (!!)

  16. anonymous says:

    The more I think about this, the stranger Jason’s whole approach to the ethics of voting seems. He proceeds as though sheer, incurable voter stupidity is the real problem and takes *everything* else about our political/economic system as an unquestioned given. If we’re going to talk about the ethics of voting, we ought to cast a wider net:

    -private interests swaying elections with huge donations
    -super pacs misleading voters with slanted (even dishonest) advertising campaigns
    -voter suppression targeted at minorities
    -already lousy public education being threatened with further funding cuts

    All of the above happen and all are bigger problems than sheer, incurable voter stupidity. If the point of ethics is to figure out what we should, in fact, do, philosophical discussions ought not ignore the most pressing issues.

  17. Mark Lance says:

    Response… You say that 2.5 billion campaign spending isn’t a lot because it is a small percentage of the total budget for running an entire country. But the size of the federal budget is obviously irrelevant to the question of how much money it takes to influence the behavior of a few politicians. In fact, you grant that the ability to raise a huge amount of money is a pre-requisite for being a serious candidate in most national races. As you say, not noticing that this concedes everything I claimed: “Of course, you can’t win at all unless you have lots of money.” Right. So the contribution of money makes you a serious candidate. If you focus simply on which person – among those preselected – is going to win, then contributions may make little difference. Similarly, most lobbying money goes to both parties. (Which explains why public opinion on a wide range of issues is so out of step with that of elected officials – there’s a large literature on this as well.) This too, you seem to acknowledge in saying that rent-seeking occurs post-election. You seem to think this is an objection, but of course it is not. If it is immoral to bring about bad government by voting for someone in ignorance of whether they will be best for all, it is just as immoral to influence the later behavior of that official with no concern for whether the behavior will be best for all. There is no justification for ignoring the preselection and the post-influence and focusing your moral outrage solely on the moment of choice between the two pre-selected candidates. So given that we both acknowledge that campaign money makes an enormous difference to who has a chance to be elected and to what they will do when they are, and is given without even a pretense of selfless interest in good government, the question remains: why give it a pass?

  18. Jason Brennan says:

    @Mark:

    I’m not claiming that democracies choose bad policies only because of voter incompetence. I agree that a wide variety of other factors influence policies. However, the received view in political science is now that campaign spending matters much less than most people–including you–believe. You are free to disagree, of course. But if you think you have an intelligent objection to the citations I gave you, you should have no problem publishing that in APSR.

    You also assumed that most campaign spending, or at least that most large donations, are given for self-interested reasons. However, again, in poli sci, the view is that ideology trumps self-interest when it comes to campaign spending. I think you should brush up on this stuff before posing an objection.

    Finally, you’re forgetting that the quality of the candidates who make it on the final ballot in the first place depends in significant part on voter beliefs, preferences, knowledge, and ideology. If We the People had bad ideas about politics, we’ll tend to make bad choices among the candidates on the ballot. That is bad, but it is not even the worst part. The quality of the candidates who make it on the ballot depends upon the quality of the electorate. The politicians who make it on the ballot are low quality because they appeal to the median voter. If the median voter has silly views, then smart, well-informed, intellectually honest, forthright politicians don’t stand a chance.

  19. anonymous says:

    “You also assumed that in most … large donations are given for self interested reasons. However, again, in poli sci, the view is that ideology trumps self-interest when it comes to campaign spending.”

    Maybe so, but that is (again) irrelevant to the objection. You’ve argued that voters, ideological or otherwise, shouldn’t vote b/c their votes are likely to lead to bad outcomes. And that straightforwardly commits you to saying that campaign donors, ideological or otherwise, shouldn’t donate if their donations are likely to lead bad outcomes.

    Why should we be so trusting of wealthy donors and so suspicious of the average voter?

  20. Jason Brennan says:

    @Anonymous:

    I don’t trust donors, actually, and I agree with Mark that my argument against voting will also apply to many donors. However, I disagree with Mark about how strong the effects of donation are. I think bad voting is worse than bad donating, while Mark thinks bad donating is worse than bad voting.

  21. Still nothing about who judges and how. That’s the first question to answer before we get to any other. Who defines what is and is not “epistemically well-grounded”
    What did the American majority think of Quaker Pacifists in 1942, or Communists in 1955? Has anyone here read King’s letter from Birmingham jail?

    And if we can limit voting, why not limit speech as well, if we deem it “politically irresponsible”. Only one mention of Socrates so far. I’m sure he’d agree with those troubled that Jon Stewart has as much authority as he does.

    As to the rest:
    Money in politics is not limited to money in elections. Berlusconi’s money is well spent as far as his interests are concerned. If you’re prime minister it helps to be in control of most of the major media outlets in your country, and if you’re in control of most of the major media outlets in your country, it certainly helps to be prime minister.

    There’s also a major misunderstanding about voting itself and its role in a democracy. Voting is not about trying to get what you want; it’s not concerned first with individual choice, but with marking collective change. People who argue against voting because their interests will be diluted should also divorce themselves from politics altogether even in causal conversation. Voting is no more than one point in time in our collective debate. Whatever individualists may want to believe, society situates the individual, not the other way around. Practice precedes theory; Sophocles did not read Aristotle.

    To strengthen our republic, strengthen general education. The system in this country is terrible. Evidence of that is as much here as in any urban high school.

  22. It seems arbitrary to say that it’s amoral to ignorantly vote for political office, yet you continue to engage in actions that constitute a functional “vote” in all sorts of other domains. i.e., a person might not know what the ideal dietary practice is, and they purchase and consume unhealthy food, leading to the supermarket to continually stock it, against the general interest of the other consumers. Or if an individuals approves of such-and-such social more, that happens to dominate women or minorities, without knowing very much about the social world and how say, stereotypes, take hold and begin to reverberate. And I think both examples are coercive in a sort of way – the power of a corporation over the individual, and the instantiation of social norms that are mostly initiated without our informed consent. I guess what I am saying is that all three of the example (voting ignorantly, consuming ignorantly, enacting norms ignorantly) are pre-existent behaviors that are embedded in society without our say-so, and that we routinely engage in without meaning to.

    I suppose my gripe is that the implied distinction between voting and other sorts of conduct seems wrongfully constructed, and can extend itself to all sorts of situations, that would also arise from people having a similar lack of education in certain spheres; perhaps not as extreme as your example, but still potent. I just mostly don’t see the point in pursuing the line of thought. I can see why it is not ideal, but citizens engage in a whole lot of bad conduct that they lack the capacity to recognize, and I am unsure about designating ignorance as outright amoral.

  23. Jessica Pellien says:

    Thanks for your comments here. You may also enjoy this follow up post from Jason Brennan: “Will the bad voters please step forward?”: http://blog.press.princeton.edu/2012/08/16/will-the-bad-voters-please-step-forward-more-from-jason-brennan/

  24. Interesting. I’m supposed to be convinced that voters must satisfy the highest standards of rationality, based on the claims of a guy who admits to negatively pre-judging the merits of everyone who wears an “I voted!” sticker? Okay, I’ll accept that Brennan himself might be disqualified from voting on grounds of irrationality, but let’s not leap to the wild conclusion that I’m not well qualified to vote either.

  25. Response…I think is was William Buckley who said he would choose Boston phone book over Harvard faculty in voting on issues–I agree…

  26. Daniel Berntson says:

    The problem, as I see it, is not so much voter ignorance. The problem is a lack of voter independence.

    Here is the idea. There are well-known result to the effect that large groups consisting of people who are only slightly more reliable than chance can, when employing majority voting, be significantly more reliable than experts. If you get enough people who are 51% reliable at picking out the best candidate from a two candidate field and those people are choosing a candidate by majority vote, the group can perform better than an expert who is much more reliable.

    Put another way: give me enough ignorant voters who are better than chance and independent, and I can beat any of your policy experts using democratic voting.

    The problem is that as a matter of fact, voters are not very independent. If they were, ignorance wouldn’t be such a problem–we would only need voters to be slightly better than chance.

  27. Suppose 100 people vote. If we have 40 idiots on the right, 40 idiots on the left, 20 smart people decide the election whether the idiots vote or not. Rather than deciding which party has more idiots or chastizing them for doing something they’re given the right for, let’s educate them.

    I’m a political scientist and sympathize with the rage intellectuals have with neanderthals in the voting booth. But politics, as much as it’s policy, governing, law and academia, is also populism and that’s probably never going to change.

    Most American citizens can’t pass the citizenship test. The solution isn’t to keep them from voting, it’s to educate them.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] a moral duty to abstain from voting. See my previous posts, “Bad Government is Our Fault” and “Most People Shouldn’t Vote” for part of my explanation why. (Note that in “Bad Government is Our Fault”, I explain why I [...]

  2. [...] read the whole thing to find out why voting in a mass democracy is not necessarily something that should be [...]

  3. [...] Brennan (HT: Bryan Caplan): Bad Government is Our Fault, Most People Shouldn’t Vote, How Do I Know if I’m a Bad Voter – Vergleich von uninformierten und irrationalen [...]