Jason Brennan: Justice isn’t “whatever democracy decides”

brennanThree cheers for democracy! Not so fast, says Jason Brennan, who argues that justice isn’t necessarily ‘whatever democracy decides’, and that participation in the political process all too often fails to produce citizens who are smarter, nobler, and more considerate of others. In his new book, Against Democracy, Brennan says democracy isn’t the only path to moral justice, and that it’s time to experiment with a new form of government called epistocracy. Recently, Brennan took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Your book is a response to a view you call “democratic triumphalism.” What is that view and what’s wrong with it?

JB: Triumphalism—a widely accepted set of conclusions—holds that democracy deserves three cheers. Cheer one: Political participation is good for us, makes us smarter, and produces fellow-feeling. Cheer two: We have a basic right to an equal share of political power. Cheer three: Democracy is a uniquely just form of politics.

I think democracy doesn’t deserve the first two cheers, and probably doesn’t deserve the latter. Politics is bad for us and we’re bad at politics.

Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry. Ideally, I argue, we’d want to minimize our degree of political participation. Further, I examine about twelve major arguments for the claim that we’re owed the right to vote, and find them all lacking. In the end, the right to vote isn’t so much about giving individuals power over themselves, but power over others. The problem is that because individuals matter so little, most individuals use what little power they have unwisely. As a result, democracies tend to make bad decisions. Against the third chair, I suggest that epistocracy—a constitutional, republican form of government in which political power is to some degree, by law, apportioned according to competence—may outperform democracy.

What kind of value does democracy have, then?

JB: The best places to live right now are almost all liberal democracies. So, the point isn’t to argue that democracy is a disaster. But it’s not the end of history either. In my view, democracy has the same kind of value a hammer has. It’s an instrument for producing just and efficient outcomes, according to procedure-independent standards of justice. If we can find a better hammer, we should feel free to use it.

Some people deny there are procedure-independent standards of justice. Justice, they say, is whatever a democracy decides. But on reflection, I doubt anyone would accept that. Suppose the US has a referendum and unanimously votes to nuke Tuvalu. Or suppose 70 percent of voters decide to enact protectionist policies simply because they don’t understand economics. I don’t see either move as just.

We tend to treat the right to vote as a badge of honor, as a way of saying, “You’re a valuable member of our national club.” I think that’s a mistake. We should view the right to vote the way we view a fishing or plumbing license. We should view the president not as a majestic leader but as the chief public goods administrator. We need to downgrade the “status” we attach to political participation and power. If we did that, then differences in voting rights would carry no further stigma than the stigma I face for lacking a plumbing license.

You claim people have a “right to competent government.” What does that mean, and why think that?

JB: Political decisions are high stakes. They decide matters of life and death, peace and prosperity. Our decisions can deprive innocent people of life, liberty, and their rights, or greatly harm them.

Most of us think a jury owes the defendant (or owes the rest of us) a competent decision. They should decide a criminal trial by 1) being aware of the relevant facts, 2) processing those facts in a rational way, and 3) deciding on good faith rather than out of prejudice, malice, or bias. Similarly, I argue, any group that wields political power must act out competently and in good faith. Just as it would be unjust to enforce a jury decision if the jurors paid no attention to the fact and decided on whim, it would be unjust to enforce a vote made out of ignorance, misinformation, or whimsy.

Are democracies competent?

JB: Sixty years of empirical work show that mean, median, and modal levels of political knowledge among the electorate are low. In fact, voters aren’t just ignorant, but systematically misinformed about many issues, including simple issues like what the unemployment rate is, and complicated issues like basic economic theory. Further, empirical work shows that voters would have different policy preferences if they were better informed. In a world where every voter has high information, we’d never have an election between Trump and Clinton. We’d have better candidates.

That said, democracies do tend to have pretty good policies compared to, say, monarchies and oligarchies. But part of the reason for that is that democracies don’t just do what the people want. Instead, elites, parties, bureaucrats, and others have significant discretion to act against the will of the people.

Some political theorists have advanced ambitious arguments trying to claim that democratic electorates are highly competent as a whole even though most voters are ignorant. These arguments, however, are usually based on mathematical theorems that, while correct in principle, bear no resemblance to the reality of democratic behavior. For instance, Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason (PUP 2012) isn’t a defense of any actual existing  or likely to exist democracy, but instead at most an argument about why democracies would be smart if only voters behaved in radically different ways.

Throughout the book, you talk about three species of voters: hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. What are these?

 JB: I use these as terms of art to describe three classes of voters. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbits are simply folk who don’t care much about the outside world, and just want to eat, drink, and be merry. The political analogue would be a person who doesn’t care much about politics, doesn’t have strong opinions, doesn’t know much, and doesn’t participate much. Roughly half of Americans are political hobbits. Think the typical non-voter.

Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. Consider: Soccer hooligans are pretty well informed about soccer, but they are biased and mean. They tend to be nasty toward fans from other teams. They only accept information that makes their team look good. Political hooligans are like that about Team Republican or Team Democrat. They have more information, and they participate frequently. But they are biased, and only accept evidence that confirms their own pre-existing views. They tend to think anyone who disagrees with them is mean or stupid. Roughly half of Americans are political hooligans. Think your typical activist or party member.

Vulcans are dispassionate, scientific thinkers. They have high knowledge, but are also aware of what they don’t know. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. In the US, hardly anyone is a Vulcan.

Most political theories that defend democracy inadvertently do so by imagining how democracy would work if only we were all Vulcans (or on our way to becoming Vulcans). But we’re not Vulcans; we’re hobbits and hooligans. And so many proposals for making democracy better actually make it worse. For example, democratic deliberation not only fails to deliver the results political theorist say it would, but backfires.

 Your view is often criticized as elitist. What’s your response?

JB: We don’t say it’s elitist to think a plumber knows more about pipes than I do. We don’t think it’s elitist to say a truck driver knows more about driving than I do. But for some reason it seems elitist to say that I know more about economics than the average truck driver or plumber. Why? The issue here is that we treat truck driving and plumbing as low status, and political power as high status. But, I think, we should change that attitude. We should upgrade the status of non-political activities and downgrade the status of political activity. Once we do that, we can freely say something that’s, to be blunt, obviously true: The electorate doesn’t know what it’s doing, and putting so much power in the hands of a body that doesn’t know what it’s doing is dangerous.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Policy at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University. He is the author of  The Ethics of VotingWhy Not Capitalism? and Libertarianism.

Along with these books, Brennan is the co-author of Markets Without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. He is a regular writer for the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

 

 

Ethicist Jason Brennan: Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy

By Jason Brennan

The Washington Post reports that there is a sharp uptick today in the number of Britons Googling basic questions about what the European Union is and what the implications of leaving are. This is a bit like deciding to study after you’ve already taken the final exam.

Technically, the Brexit referendum is not binding. Parliament could decide to hold their own vote on whether to leave the European Union. Perhaps they should. Perhaps the UK’s leaders owe it to the people to thwart their expressed will.

Leaving the EU is no small affair. It probably will have enormous effects on the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. But just what these effects will be is unclear. To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, a person would need to possess tremendous social scientific knowledge. One would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.

Political scientists have been studying voter knowledge for the past 60 years. The results are uniformly depressing. Most voters in most countries are systematically ignorant of even the most basic political facts, let alone more the social scientific theories needed to make sense of these facts.

This brings us to the central injustice of democracy, and why holding a referendum was a bad idea. Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.

We’d find this behavior intolerable. Your doctor owes you a duty of care. She owes it to you to deliver an expert opinion on the basis of good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way. To force you to follow the decisions incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust.

But this is roughly what happens in democracy. Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions.

There’s a big dilemma in the design of political institutions. Should we be ruled by the few or the many? What this amounts to is the choice between being ruled by the smart but selfish or dumb but nice. When only a small number of people hold power, they tend to use this power for their own ends at the expense of everyone else. If a king holds all the power, his decisions matter. He will likely use that power in a smart way, but smart for himself, rather than smart for everybody. Suppose instead we give everyone power. In doing so, we largely remove the incentive and ability for people to use power in self-serving ways at the expense of everyone else. But, at the same time, we remove the incentive for people to use power wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, individual voters have no incentive to become well-informed or to process information with any degree of care. Democracy incentivizes voters to be dumb.

Going back to the doctor analogy, here’s the dilemma: Suppose you could choose between two doctors. The first doctor prescribes you medicine based on what’s good for her, not you. The second is a complete fool who prescribes you medicine on whim and fancy, without reference to the facts. Roughly, with some exaggeration, that’s what the choice between monarchy or democracy amounts to. Neither is appealing.

What if there were a third way, though? In my forthcoming book, Against Democracy, I explore a way of splitting the difference. The trick is to find a political system that both 1) spreads power out enough to prevent people from using power selfishly and 2) weeds out or at least reduces the power of incompetent decision-makers.

In some sense, republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.

All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.

brennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His new book, Against Democracy, is out this August. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

Philosopher Jason Stanley on Donald Trump and mass incarceration

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Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration

by Jason Stanley

Donald Trump’s support is in large part due to the fact that he gives explicit voice to ideologies that are outside the bounds of public respectability. It is natural to think that the problem then is not Trump, but rather the prevalence of these ideologies. Indeed, you might think that in some sense Donald Trump couldn’t be the problem. A candidate giving voice to such ideologies would only attract support to the extent to which those ideologies have underlying support. If so, much of the criticism that has been directed at Trump’s candidacy is misguided. Perhaps we should even be grateful to Trump for making explicit what is so often present yet hypocritically denied.

And yet it is a powerful thought that the very mark of a demagogue is precisely their willingness to exploit the ideological spaces left firmly outside the sphere of “respectable” public discourse. Hannah Arendt writes:

…the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over.[1]

Arendt is quite clear that Trump’s campaign strategy is the favored choice of democracy’s worst enemies. But she does not explain how giving public voice to disreputable ideology is a greater threat to democracy than the fact of its existence.

The prevalence of xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and commitment to harsh retributive justice is undeniably a problem that is independent of Donald Trump. But Trump’s political strategy poses an additional threat to democratic practice. Even when fundamentally illiberal ideologies are publicly repudiated, they serve as barriers to fair democratic deliberation, as politicians appeal to them with the use of coded language (“inner city”, “welfare”). As long as the public ethos against them remains firmly in place, there is a strategy to combat coded appeals to illiberal ideologies, colloquially known as “calling it out”. But Trump is not denying he holds these ideologies; he rather advertises it. In so doing, he legitimizes these ideologies in the public domain. When illiberal ideologies are rendered legitimate, it is no longer clear what strategy to employ to combat them.

In a healthy democracy, democratic deliberation is guided by a norm of impartiality, in the sense that policy makers at least take themselves to be responsible to such a norm, others take them to be responsible to this norm, etc. In political philosophy, there are disputes about which notions of impartiality should be at the basis of liberal democracy. The most important aspect of impartiality is what has come to be known as reasonableness. To be reasonable in one’s conduct towards others is a matter of being open to these other perspectives.

The norm of reasonableness has a long history in democratic political thought. The most well-known contemporary formulation is due to John Rawls:

Persons are reasonable in one basic aspect when, among equals say, they are ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so. Those norms they view as reasonable for everyone to accept and therefore as justifiable to them; and they are ready to discuss the fair terms that others propose. (John Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 49)

It could hardly be fair to expect some citizens to comply with a policy if it was devised without their perspectives in mind. Policy that is genuinely fair must come from deliberation that takes every reasonable perspective into account. The stability of democracy as a system therefore depends upon a citizenry who are not sealed off from the perspectives of their reasonable co-citizens by fear, panic, or hatred. A general belief that Jews are out to deceive will undermine reasonable public discourse, as it will lead citizens to discount the actual perspective of their Jewish co-citizens in forming policy. It would be no surprise to discover in such a society policies unfair to Jewish citizens.

Problematic ideological divisions do not immediately disappear in a society even when wars are fought to overcome them. But in the presence of a public ethos that repudiates them, it becomes unacceptable to endorse them in public. As Tali Mendelberg has brilliantly described, this does not mean that the problematic ideological fissures become politically neutralized. It rather means that politicians who seek to exploit them must do so in a way that does not undermine the public’s view of them as reasonable public servants. This dialectic, applied to the ideological fissure of racism in the United States, is aptly reflected in a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, later to lead George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, with the notorious Willie Horton ad:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

When a politician uses language that explicitly represents a group in negative terms, it undercuts the social norm that keeps such ideological fissures part of the private sphere. Since it is assumed that legitimate public discourse is guided by a norm of reasonableness, it gives an aura of reasonableness to the description of Muslims as terrorists, Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, or climate science as “bullshit”.

Certain ideologies subordinate by targeting a group, and representing the perspectives of its members as unworthy of consideration in the formation of policy. In the extreme case, such ideologies dehumanize its targets. When ideologies that subordinate or dehumanize a group are legitimated in public debate about policies governing members of that group, democratic deliberation about policy is placed into crisis. We can see this process quite clearly at work by considering the effects of public discourse about US criminal justice practices from the late 1980s through the 1990s.

Violent crime declined continuously and steeply throughout the 1990s, beginning in 1991. But the debate about criminal justice policy and practice during this time was ideologically removed from this reality. Criminal justice policy had become a proving ground for politicians to demonstrate their perceived toughness. Debate was infused by an ethos that frowned on expressions of empathy for perpetrators. Dehumanizing vocabulary targeting those caught up in the criminal justice system was commonplace, and many of the words were racially coded (“super predator”, “thug”, “gang member”, though not “sex offender”). Rehabilitation is hard to envisage for those described as “thugs”, “super predators”, or “gangsters”. These are words that describe persons whose characters are resistant to any such method. Criminal justice practices became harshly retributive as a consequence.

Though the precise mechanisms continue to be a matter of debate, it is widely agreed that the culture surrounding crime policy had an effect on criminal justice practices that was both rapid and extreme. The U.S. Incarceration rate hovered around the norm for liberal democracies of 100 per 100,000 for many decades until the late 1970s. Then it started to rise; the current rate of 756 per 100,000 in prison or jail is by far the highest in the world. The United States has also developed a culture of policing marked by a level of fear and lack of empathy that is without parallel in liberal democracies (a 2015 headline of an article in the Guardian states “By the Numbers: US Police Kill More in Days than Other Countries do in Years”). Nor is the unprecedented decrease in crime since 1991 tightly connected to the intensely punitive criminal justice path the United States chose to take in the 1990s. Canada has experienced a similarly unprecedented drop in crime during this same time period, without following the US path into mass incarceration.

The harshly punitive criminal justice practices that emerged from the American public culture of the 1990s have harmed the United States morally and fiscally, as well as its standing in the world. Rhetoric in the public sphere that describes immigrants as “rapists” and “terrorists” can be expected to have a similar effect on immigration policy. And since Trump uses all opportunity for political debate as a means to signal toughness, the realization of the electoral power of his political strategy poses a broad challenge to democratic practices.

Let us return to the comparison between a political climate in which politicians must cleverly conceal an appeal to (say) racism so it is noticed only by fellow racists, on the one hand, and one in which politicians feel free to loudly proclaim it, on the other. A plausible moral to take from the politics of criminal justice policy and practice in the United Slates in the late 1980s and 1990s is that there is a significant additional policy cost in the latter climate. Politicians signaled their toughness to voters by flaunting their lack of empathy for those accused of crimes. The criminal justice practices that grew out of this were harshly cruel and socially and economically destructive.

American politicians typically avoid rhetorical strategies that explicitly dehumanize even widely disparaged groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, this mechanism of protection evaporated in the debate surrounding criminal justice. American politicians eagerly trolled for votes by employing incendiary rhetoric to describe criminal offenders. The result is the current crisis.

Trump’s candidacy is focused on policy debates whose structure parallels that of the criminal justice debate, where there is a clear “friend/enemy” distinction exploitable for political gain, such as immigration and terrorism. His rhetoric emulates the dehumanizing tropes of the late 1980s and 1990s criminal justice debate. This is no accident, as Trump developed this rhetorical style during these very debates. Indeed, any history of the rhetorical excesses of that debate must include the full page advertisement Donald Trump published in several New York city newspapers in 1989, during the trial of the Central Park Five, the five teenagers on trial for the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park, entitled BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY BRING BACK OUR POLICE”. It said the “crazed misfits” causing crime in city streets “should be forced to suffer, and when they kill, should be executed for their crimes” (the teenagers were later discovered to be innocent). In the current campaign, criminal justice is again central. Trump urges the country, in language evoking that previous era, “we have to get a lot tougher on crime.” One of this signature campaign issues is broadening the use of the death penalty. His “tough on crime” rhetoric has already been credited with threatening to undermine the bipartisan consensus that there is a crisis of incarceration.

Trump is also increasingly experimenting with the most extreme dehumanizing representations, ones that have pre-genocidal associations. His first national advertisement, released this week, showed Mexican immigrants as insects scurrying and scattering like an infestation. It would be nice to dismiss such representations as unlikely to affect public debate. History suggests that this is wishful thinking. The representation of targeted groups as insects or vermin is a theme in Nazi propaganda about Jews; in the buildup to the Rwandan genocide, Hutu ethnic radio pride radio stations began calling Tutsi, “inyenzi”, meaning “cockroach”. Recent US history with the criminal justice debate suggests we may even be particularly vulnerable.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, politicians across the political spectrum seemed to tacitly agree that reasonable criminal justice policy would have to be sacrificed for electoral expediency. Debate about criminal justice became a way of appealing to the worst appeals to fear and voters’ desire for revenge, without fear of social sanction by the media or the public. Democrats could freely use it to enact the flawed masculine ideal of a complete lack of empathy. The case of US criminal justice policy shows that when democratic deliberation breaks down in this way, it is not just the democratic process that is lost. Trump’s campaign promises to broaden this to every policy debate. Its success is already leading to broader emulation. More than just our democracy is in peril.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace and Company: San Diego, 1973), p. 351.

Stanley jacketJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Most recently, he is the author of How Propaganda Works. Read more on his website, here.

Jason Stanley discusses democracy and demagogues in The New York Times

stanley jacketJason Stanley, author of How Propaganda Works, had a popular op ed in the New York Times this weekend on democracy and demagogues, containing references to both Plato and Trump.

On Trump’s well known comments on Mexican immigrants and Ben Carson’s recent claim that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation”, Stanley writes in the NYT:

Liberal democratic rhetoric is supposed to unify citizens with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and make visible previously discounted perspectives (for example, the perspective of women during the struggle for women’s right to vote). Trump’s and Carson’s comments are explicitly antidemocratic. The fact that they seem to have been rewarded — at least in immediate improvements in poll standings — confronts defenders of the American political system with two questions. There once was a facade of equal respect that required political strategists to use code words to avoid accusations of violating it. What has caused it to crack? And what are the risks for our democracy?

According to Stanley, two of the causes are the need to court donors, and the fact that politicians feel compelled to appeal to voters who don’t share democratic values. Read the rest of the piece here and the introduction to How Propaganda Works, his acclaimed examination of how propaganda undermines democracy and particularly the ideal of equality, here.

Jason Stanley is professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How.

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.

[1] http://www.newsweek.com/should-voting-be-compulsory-376905

[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.

Leah Wright Rigueur on Making Sense of Ben Carson

Leah Wright Rigueur

Photo Credit: Chion Wolf WNPR

Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor of Public Policy, Leah Wright Rigueur, who was extensively quoted in the Washington Post  this week on Ben Carson, has written the first in a series of posts she’ll be contributing to the PUP blog. Today she explains the surge in Carson’s popularity among Republican voters in a race that has, until recently, been dominated by Donald Trump. Leah’s recent book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, offers further insight into the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism. We’re delighted to have her. –PUP Blog Editor

Making Sense of Ben Carson

A modified version of this post appears at The Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post

According to recent polls, Ben Carson has surged in popularity among likely Republican voters and now finds himself at the top of the GOP presidential primary pack. A recent poll of Iowa Republicans, for example, found Carson tied with Donald Trump for first place, with each candidate garnering 23 percent support. That an African American with zero political experience is now a front-runner in the Republican primaries is shocking. A political campaign that many dubbed a joke now appears to have political legs, and the public and press are scrambling to make sense of it.

The idea of a black conservative and/or a black Republican often feels a little like an oxymoron. Black people are partisan voters, overwhelmingly affiliating with the Democratic Party since 1948. In 2012, more than 90 percent of black voters cast ballots for Barack Obama. Their partisanship was, and continues to be, strategic – after all, many of the post-World War II advances in racial and social justice have come by way of Democratic liberalism. Coupled this with the modern – as in, post 1960s – GOP’s move to the extreme right and hostility toward racial justice and race-conscious solutions, and it would appear that politically, black voters have nothing in common with the Republican Party or modern conservatism.

But clearly we know that there are exceptions to this rule. According to the Pew Research Center, between five and eleven percent of the black public either identify as Republican or Lean Republican. Carson is not the first black Republican to run for president, and he won’t be the last. He’s also not the first black Republican to be discussed as part of a potential Republican presidential ticket. Speculation has long surrounded moderate Republican Colin Powell, who has declined to run, time and time again. In 1968 Richard Nixon toyed with tapping liberal Republican Edward Brooke as his vice-presidential running mate, while Gerald Ford placed the black senator high on a private list of potential vice-presidential appointees, in 1974.

Carson, Powell and Brooke, of course, all exhibit different forms of black Republicanism, ranging from liberal to the extreme right. But to some degree, their belief in Republicanism is undergirded by a kind of general black conservatism. African Americans are no strangers to conservatism. We see strong strands of it crop up in nineteenth and early twentieth century religious thought, especially among black churches, despite their political radicalism. Despite their beliefs in racial equality and justice, we see conservative thought in the behaviors of even some of the most progressive of civil rights leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. Conservatism also underscores the respectability politics of the black middle and working class, historically and in the present-day. Even today, studies have shown that about a third of black people self identify as conservative, although their conservatism rarely translates into support for the Republican Party.

And this is how we make sense of Ben Carson. He comes from a long conservative tradition, one that is rooted in a belief in religious morality, personal responsibility, self-help, individualism and free-market enterprise, and one that sometimes exists outside the boundaries of partisanship. Some have attributed Carson’s switch from ardent Democrat to conservative Republican as a matter of opportunism. That may very well be true, but one read of Gifted Hands, indicates that Carson has long exhibited the kind of “everyday black conservatism” that defines a portion of black communities.

Carson also comes from a partisan tradition that has given us figures like Clarence Thomas, Mia Love, Tim Scott, and many others. Organizations like the Black Silent Majority Committee in the 1970s, and the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education in the 1980s and 1990s, built on the black conservatism of past, cultivating a harsher kind of partisan Republican activism and rhetoric that Ben Carson currently articulates.

It’s the kind of position that conservative audiences, almost exclusively white, embrace. Carson is unique no doubt in attracting so much popularity. Historically, black Republicans have been unsuccessful at commanding this kind of attention, at this level of politics. And there are many, many reasons why Carson is surging in the polls: his religious roots, his “niceness” especially when contrasted with Donald Trump, his image as a brilliant surgeon, his position as a political outsider at a moment when people universally distrust politicians, his plain-spoken ability to “tell it like it is,” and his willingness to criticize, unapologetically, Barack Obama, and more broadly, black social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM).

For white conservative audiences, Carson is “safe.” His words on racism, for instance, while profoundly critical of racist acts, are striking when compared to criticisms employed by black liberals. For Carson, racism is something to be changed through individual acts rather than something to be eradicated through structural change. In an era when explicit acts of racism are taboo, Carson’s rhetoric is both palatable to white audiences and comforting. In fact, Carson’s race lends a certain level of legitimacy to his remarks. In other words, conservative voters can look at Carson and have their personal beliefs on race validated, because a black man is articulating their exact same ideas. Historically, we consistently see this, as the GOP moved further to the right. Republicans in 1975, for example, used the Black Silent Majority Committee’s various conservative platforms to validate their views on various racial issues – even as African American voters routinely rejected the organization’s positions. This fraught relationship even led Clarence Thomas to once quip that black converts to the GOP’s acceptance hinged on becoming – in Thomas’ own words – a “caricature of sorts, providing sideshows of anti-black quips and attacks.”

Given all of this, what are we to make of Ben Carson? Are we to take him seriously? Well, in short, yes – we absolutely should take his candidacy seriously. Regardless of whether or not his campaign fizzles or he ends up at the top of the Republican presidential ticket, the general public, scholars, and journalists need to grapple with what, exactly, Carson represents. At this point, the scenarios are nuanced – at the extreme end of the spectrum, Carson could end up as the Republican nominee. He could also end up as vice-presidential nominee, a future presidential cabinet member, a member of Congress, or as a consultant to various public and private Republican factions. There’s a very real chance that Carson may ultimately end up influencing public policies, either directly or indirectly. After all, over the course of the last 80 years, the GOP has implemented black Republicans policies and programs, often favoring those ideas that are firmly couched within right-wing thought. And as we have seen in the past, previous Republican contenders rarely fade from the limelight, choosing instead to use their popularity to influence popular opinion. Ultimately then, we must pay attention to how Carson uses this platform, no matter how precarious, to influence American politics and life.

Leah Wright Rigueur is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Ethicist Jason Brennan on why smart politicians say dumb things

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan, whose posts on the ethics of voting for our 2012 Election 101 series were enormously popular, will be 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. We’re excited to have him back, and to kick it off with his first post. –PUP Blog Editor

Saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is “an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics”. Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians. If only someone better came along.

But there’s a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it’s not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate. Nor is it because great and evil villains (insert the Koch Brothers or George Soros, depending on your political predilection) are keeping our saviors down. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he’s not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that. As I’ll document at greater length in future blog posts here, most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic. Most non-voters are not dispassionate truth-seekers; rather, they just don’t care much at all.

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states and vote Democrat or Republican. Otherwise, your vote has no real chance of mattering. Polls show that citizens more or less realize this.

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You’d probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it’s not worth your time—it doesn’t pay to learn economics or political science.

Indeed, it’s not clear that voters are even trying to change the outcome of the election when they vote.  One popular theory of voter behavior is that voters vote in order to express themselves. Though the act of voting is private, voters regard voting as a uniquely apt way to demonstrate their commitment to their political team. Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.

When you see politicians saying dumb things, remember that these politicians are not fools. They are responding rationally to the incentives before them. They say dumb things because they expect voters want to hear dumb things. When you see that voters want to hear dumb things, remember that the voters are only foolish because they are responding rationally to the incentives before them. How we vote matters, but for each individual person, how she votes does not. Thus, most individuals vote as if very little is at stake.Trump’s popularity is an indictment of democracy, not a conviction (yet). Democracy may make us dumb, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, democracies always make dumb decisions.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief Hisotry of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.