Vote, or else? Jason Brennan on why moral obligations shouldn’t be enforced

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan is writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. You can read his first post on “why smart politicians say dumb things” here–PUP Blog Editor

Turnout in American elections is low compared to some other advanced democracies. Should we force people to vote?

Brookings Institute analyst William Galston thinks so. In a recently published Op-Ed at Newsweek, Galston offers a host of arguments on behalf of compulsory voting.[1] None of the arguments are very good.

Galston’s right about one thing: Compulsory voting works. It’s clear that compulsory voting does in fact get more people to vote. But everyone agrees that alone isn’t enough to justify compulsory voting. A basic tenet of liberal democracy, or, really, fundamental human decency, is that it’s wrong to force people to do anything without a strong justification for doing so. Thus, proponents of compulsory voting bear a strong burden of proof. They must produce some reason why it’s permissible to force people to vote.

Does Compulsory Voting Lead to Moderation?

Galston argues that moderates are underrepresented. People belonging to ideological extremes are much more likely to vote than people with middle-of-the-road views. He claims that compulsory voting would thus lead to more moderate political outcomes.

He’s right that moderates vote less. Ample empirical work (e.g., see Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance for a review) shows that political moderates participate less than people with more extreme views. But, that same work also shows that this is because political moderates care less about politics, hold their beliefs more weakly, and also are less informed about politics.

But does compulsory voting actually lead to more moderate political outcomes? The available research (e.g., see Sarah Birch’s Full Participation for a review of the empirical literature) does not support this result. Perhaps it’s because the extremes already tend to balance each other out, and what we actually get from Congress or the president are moderate outcomes and compromise positions.

Indeed, it’s not clear compulsory voting does much of anything. It has no significant effect on individual political knowledge, individual political conservation and persuasion, individual propensity to contact politicians, the propensity to work with others to address concerns, participation in campaign activities, the likelihood of being contacted by a party or politician, the quality of representation, electoral integrity, the proportion of female members of parliament, support for small or third parties, support for the left, or support for the far right.[2]

Is Voting an Enforceable Duty?

Galston believes you have a duty to vote. I disagree,[3] but suppose he’s right and you do have a duty to vote. It doesn’t follow from the mere fact that something is a moral obligation that it’s permissible to force people to do it.

On the contrary, many moral duties—aside from duties to avoid violating others’ rights—are unenforceable. You might have moral duties to keep promises, to be nice to strangers, to buy your mom a birthday present, to be faithful to your boyfriend or girlfriend, to give to charity, to improve your moral character, to apologize for your past wrong-doing, to avoid becoming a member of the KKK, and to avoid using racist language. Nevertheless, these moral obligations are unenforceable—it would be wrong for the government to force you to fulfill these duties, even though they are (Galston and I both agree) moral duties.

So what makes voting special? Why is it an enforceable duty, rather than an unenforceable duty?

Galston says that voting is an expression of gratitude, which makes his defense of compulsory voting all the more perplexing. We often owe it to each other to express gratitude. If you buy me a present, I should say thanks. But in general, the duty is express gratitude is unenforceable. If I don’t send you a thank you note, you shouldn’t call the police and ask them to throw me in jail.

The Public Goods Argument: Are Non-Voters Free Riders?

In an earlier New York Times Op-Ed, Galston describes non-voters as free-riders: “Requiring people to vote in national elections once every two years would reinforce the principle of reciprocity at the heart of citizenship.[4] The idea here is that people who don’t vote are like people who don’t pay their taxes. Non-voters benefit from the good government provided for them by voters, but they don’t do their part in helping to provide that good government. That’s unfair. So, just as it’s permissible to force everyone to pay her fair share of taxes, maybe it’s permissible to force everyone to pay for good government by voting.

On the contrary, I think Galston has an overly narrow view of how citizens fulfill their civic obligations.

Imagine Superman were real. Now imagine Superman never votes or participates in politics. Imagine Galston said to Superman, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts. You benefit from good government but don’t do your part.” Superman could respond, “Remember all the times I saved the world? That’s how I did my part.”

Let’s take a less extreme case. Suppose there is a medical genius, Phyllis the Physician. Phyllis is such a genius that she produces new medical breakthroughs hourly. If Phyllis cares about serving the common good, helping her fellow citizens, or paying off some “debt to society”, she has little reason to vote. An hour at the voting booth is worth less than an hour at the lab. Now, imagine Galston said to Phyllis, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts.” Phyllis could respond, “No, I’ve paid voters’ back by producing my research. I don’t owe them anything more.”

Superman and Phyllis are extreme cases that illustrate a general point. Each of us in our daily lives as workers, artists, managers, parents, truckers, musicians, priests, teachers, or whatnot, does things that make distant others better off. We’re not just taking; we’re giving. We’re already doing things that make it so that the world and our fellow citizens are better off with us than without us.

There’s no obvious reason to assume that non-voters specifically owe a debt to voters, that the only way we citizens can “pay” for good government is to vote, or that the only way to avoid free-riding on voters’ efforts is to vote ourselves.  If we have a debt to society, or a duty to compensate voters for their efforts, we could instead hold that this debt can be paid, and that voters can be compensated, any number of ways. For any given citizen, given what other citizens are doing and are good at doing, there will be an optimal mix of political and non-political ways for her to pay her debt. For some citizens, this will mean heavy political engagement at the expense of other pursuits. For other citizens, it will mean complete disengagement so as to free the citizen to pursue non-political activities. For most citizens, the optimal mix will be some combination of political and non-political engagement.  Though each citizen might contribute in different ways, they can all pay their debts.

The Best Argument for Compulsory Voting

In the end, the best argument for compulsory voting begins by noting that under a voluntary voting regime, the people who choose to vote are unrepresentative of the population at large.

Voters and abstainers are systematically different. The old are more likely to vote than the young. Men are more likely to vote than women. In many countries, ethnic minorities are less likely to vote than ethnic majorities.[5] More highly educated people are more likely to vote than less highly educated people. Married people are more likely to vote than non-married people.[6] Political partisans are more likely to vote than true independents. In short, under voluntary voting, the voting public—the citizens who actually vote—are not fully representative of the voting eligible public. In general, the privileged are proportionately more likely to vote than the underprivileged. The worry, then, is that because the privileged are more likely to vote, government is likely to be unfairly responsive to their interests. Because the underprivileged are less likely to vote, governments are likely to ignore or underrepresent their interests.

As Galston summarizes the argument:

The second argument for mandatory voting is democratic. Ideally, a democracy will take into account the interests and views of all citizens. But if some regularly vote while others don’t, officials are likely to give greater weight to participants. This might not matter much if nonparticipants were evenly distributed through the population. But political scientists have long known that they aren’t. People with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote, as are young adults and recent first-generation immigrants.[7]

Let’s put the argument in a more rigorous form. Let’s call this the Demographic Argument for Compulsory Voting:

1.     Voters tend to vote for their self-interest.

2.     Politicians tend to give large voting blocs what they ask for.

3.     When voting is voluntary, the poor, minorities, the uneducated, and young people vote less than the rich, whites, the educated, or older people.

4.     If so, then under voluntary voting, government will tend to promote the interest of the rich, of whites, and of the old, over the interests of the poor, of minorities, or of the young.

5.     Under compulsory voting, almost every demographic and socio-economic group votes at equally high rates.

6.     Thus, under compulsory voting, government will promote everyone’s interests.

7.     Therefore, compulsory voting produces more representative government.

8.     If compulsory voting produces more representative government than voluntary voting, then compulsory voting is justified.

9.     Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

This argument appears powerful and persuasive at first glance. Nevertheless, as I’ll explain in my next post, it’s unsound. It rests on a number of false empirical assumptions.

Note, however, that Galston cannot consistently advance both the Public Goods and the Demographic Argument for Compulsory Voting. The Public Goods Argument treats voters as cooperators. One person’s vote tends to benefit others, while abstention comes at their expense. The Public Goods argument says that non-voters take advantage of voters. But the Demographic Argument treats voters as competitors. One person’s vote tends to harm other voters (by reducing the power of their vote), while abstention helps them (by strengthening the power of their vote).  The Demographic Argument assumes that non-voters advantage voters, while voters take advantage of non-voters.

At most, one of these arguments is sound. If the Public Goods Argument is sound, then when I (a privileged, upper-middle class, married, white, heterosexual, cisgendered male) abstain, most voters should be mad at me. But if the Demographic Argument is sound, then when I abstain, I do women, blacks, Latinos, the poor, the unemployed, and so on, a favor, by making it more likely the government will represent their interests rather than mine. Galston can’t have it both ways.


[2] Sarah Birch, Full Participation: 140; Benjamin Highton and Raymond Wolfinger, “The Political Implications of Higher Turnout,” British Journal of Political Science 31 (1) (2001): 179-223, 179.

[3] See Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), chapters 1 and 2.

[4] William Galston, “Telling Americans to Vote, or Else,” New York Times, 6 November 2011, SR9.

[5] In the United States, African Americans typically have a lower overall turnout than whites. However, there is some evidence that, once we control for socioeconomic status and other factors that influence voting turnout, African Americans actually vote in higher rates than whites. For instance, African Americans vote less than whites, because they are more likely to be poor, not because they are African American. However, this probably does not matter for the purposes of the Demographic Argument. See Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, “Individual and Systematic Influences on Voter Turnout: 1984,” Journal of Politics 54 (1992): 718-40.

[6] For a review of the empirical literature establishing the claims of this paragraph, see Jocelyn Evans, Voters and Voting: An Introduction (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2004): 152-6.

[7] Galston, “Telling Americans to Vote”: SR9.

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