Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting created quite a stir here yesterday with his post on why most people shouldn’t vote, so I asked him to sound off on some of the comments he received, including the question of how to identify what some called the all-too-subjective “bad voter”. The burning question seems to be, how do you know if you’re a bad voter? Well, as Jason argues, you probably are. But read on for some interesting findings from political psychology that explain his views, as well as some practical advice on improving cognitive biases and becoming a good voter.
How Do I Know if I’m a Bad Voter
In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that most people have 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 focus on bad voting even though bad voting is not the only thing that causes bad government.)
Here’s a problem: the people I describe as bad voters are unlikely recognize that they are bad voters.
To confirm this in at least one instance, as an unscientific experiment, I discussed my thesis with a person whom I believe exemplifies bad voting. He agreed that other people should not vote.
More scientifically, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have shown that incompetent people systematically overestimate their own knowledge, competence, and mental acuity, while they systematically underestimate others’ competence. The less incompetent people know, the less they know it. In contrast, more competent people tend to be more modest about their abilities. They know much, but they also know how much they don’t know. They overestimate how much others know. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)
In chapter seven and in the afterword of The Ethics of Voting, I give an overview of some findings from political psychology, as well as other studies in voter rationality and knowledge. The upshot of those findings is, in my opinion, that any random person should assume she is politically incompetent until she has good reason to think otherwise. The issue is not “How do I know I’m a bad voter?”—you probably are.*
Instead, the issue is “How could I possibly become a good voter?” In the afterword to the paperback edition, I give some practical advice about becoming a good voter. Becoming a good voter takes significant knowledge of the social sciences and of some current events, but that’s not the first step. Getting information is not only useless, but downright harmful, unless you have disciplined your mind to process information in a dispassionate, scientific, unbiased way. So, in the afterword, I outline some of the main cognitive biases we suffer from, and describe practical steps one can take to overcome those biases.
Now, I freely admit that most bad voters do not recognize they are bad voters. If so, one might object, how can they have a duty not to vote? They do not know they are bad voters, so how can they have a duty to abstain?
I don’t find this objection persuasive. Here’s an analogy. Suppose Bob beats his children for any minor infractions. He refuses to educate them, holding that education corrupts the soul. He verbally abuses them because he thinks this builds character. Bob does all of this because he thinks it’s best for his children, even though it’s clearly not. Now, suppose Bob isn’t crazy. Rather, he’s just in the grip of some false, bad beliefs about child rearing. In this case, most of us would hold Bob responsible for his actions. Sure, he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he should know better. He’s a bad parent and should act better.
I have often compared bad voters to drunk drivers—they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk. Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop. Still, even though I don’t know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to voters. Many of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it’s their fault that they’re like that in the first place. So, they aren’t excused when the vote badly.
*However, people reading the Princeton University Press blog are much more likely to be good voters than randomly selected US citizens. I’m not saying that to suck up to readers, but because it’s true. The demographic factors that positively correlate with reading this post are also positively correlated with being a good voter, as I define the term.