Hammer, Painting, Person: How to Value Democracy

Jason Brennan

What kind of value does democracy have? Should we value it the way we value hammers, paintings, or persons?

When we ask what makes a hammer valuable, we usually ask whether it is functional for us, as we are. Hammers have a purpose—to pound in nails—and good hammers serve that purpose. Hammers primarily have instrumental value. They help us achieve an independent goal. If some other tool better serves that goal, then we’d gladly replace our hammers with that other tool. No one insists on using a hammer when a driver or wrench works better.

When we ask what makes a painting valuable, we usually look to its symbolic value. We ask whether the painting is sublime, whether it evokes various feelings or ideas. We also value some paintings more highly because of how they were made, and who made them. An ugly Picasso scribble on a napkin might fetch a hundred grand, but if you or I drew the same picture, it wouldn’t fetch a dollar.

When we ask what makes human beings valuable, we will often say that they are ends in themselves. Sure, people can also have instrumental value—the person who makes you coffee serves a purpose—but they also have intrinsic value. People have a dignity, not a price, or so many philosophers insist.

What about democracy? Most political philosophers agree that democracy has instrumental value. It functions pretty well, and tends to produce relatively just outcomes. So, they think, democracy is valuable at least in the way a hammer is valuable.

They have a point. In general, the best places to live are liberal democracies, not genuine monarchies, sham democracies, oligarchies, or one party states. But, still, if democracy only has the kind of value a hammer has, then if we we’re able to identify a better functioning form of government, a form of government that better realizes procedure-independent standards of justice, we would happily replace democracy with this better functioning regime.

However, most philosophers—and many laypeople living in modern democracies—also think we should also value democracy the way we value a painting or a person. They claim that democracy uniquely expresses the idea that all people have equal worth and value. They claim that democratic outcomes are justified because of who made them and how they were made. They see democracy as an end in itself. Some philosophers think that democracy is an inherently just decision-making procedure. A few go so far as to hold that anything a democracy decides to do is justified simply because a democracy decided to do it. They deny there any procedure-independent standards by which to judge what democracies do.

Proceduralism is the view that certain political regimes are inherently just or that certain regimes are inherently unjust. Proceduralists about democracy tend to think democracy has the kind of value paintings and people have. For instance, the philosopher Thomas Christiano seems to think democracy is an end in itself, while David Estlund (in his 2007 Princeton University Press book Democratic Authority) argues most other forms of government other than democracy are inherently unjust.

Pure proceduralism, the most radical version of proceduralism, holds that there are no independent moral standards for evaluating the outcome of the decision-making institutions. Whatever a democracy does is just just because a democracy does it. This view—which is popular among certain democratic theorists—is on reflection rather absurd. For instance, suppose we had a dispute about whether citizens should be allowed to rape children. Suppose the majority votes, after following an idealized deliberative procedure, to allow adults to rape any children they please. They also vote to have the police ensure that no one stops adults from raping children. A pure proceduralist about democracy would have to say that, in this case, child rape would indeed be permissible. For that reason, pure proceduralism appears to be absurd. There are at least some procedure-independent standards of justice. It would be odd if there were independent moral truths about how to make decisions but not independent truths about what we may do.

Instrumentalism, in contrast, holds that 1) there are procedure-independent right answers to at least some political questions, and 2) what justifies a distribution of power or decision-making method is, at least in part, that this distribution or that method tends to select the right answer. So, for instance, in criminal law, we have an adversarial system, in which one lawyer represents the state and the other represents the defendant. There is an independent truth of the matter about whether the defendant is guilty. This truth is not decided by the jury’s fiat. Rather, the jury is supposed to discover what the truth is. Defenders of jury trials and the adversarial system believe that, as a whole, the system tends to track the truth better than other systems. If they learned they were mistaken about that, they’d stop advocating jury trials.

When it comes to democracy, do you advocate it on procedural grounds, instrumental grounds, or both?

In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I argue that democracy is nothing more than a hammer. It is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. It is not intrinsically just. It is not justified on proceduralist grounds. Any value democracy has is purely instrumental. If we can find a better hammer, we’re obligated to use it. Further, I argue, there’s a good chance we know what the better hammer would be, and it’s time to experiment and find out.

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 has written numerous books including The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism and is the coauthor of  Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His most recent book is Against Democracy. He frequently writes for the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

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.

Jason Brennan: Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual

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Democracy Doesn’t Rest on the Consent of the Governed

By Jason Brennan

There’s a popular idea—an idea you might get from middle school civics classes—that democracy is based on the consent of the governed. Now, democracy is more responsive to what people want than other forms of government, and it gives the governed a large say in what happens. However, it’s a mistake to say that the relationship individual citizens have to their government in a democracy is consensual. Let’s think about why.

Recently, I purchased a Marshall JVM amplifier from a dealer. It was an archetypical consensual transaction. It had each of the following features:

A.       I performed an act that signified my consent. In this case, I ordered the amplifier. The outcome—that I lost money but gained a JVM—would not have occurred but for my performing the act that signified consent.

B.       I was not forced to perform that act—I had a reasonable way to avoid doing it.

C.       Had I explicitly said, “I refuse to buy a Marshall JVM at that price!” the exchange never would have taken place.

D.       The dealer was not entitled to take my money unless it sent me the amplifier—it had to hold up its end of the bargain.

Now, imagine that any one of these conditions didn’t happen. Suppose, instead of A, that the dealer just extracted money from my bank account and sent me the amp, even though I’d never placed an order. In that case, that would be strange kind of theft. The dealer would have taken my money without my consent. Suppose, instead of B, the dealer (or someone else) had said, “Buy this amp or I’ll murder you.” In that case, we still wouldn’t call it consensual—it would be a weird form of theft. Suppose, instead of C, I tell the dealer, “I absolutely refuse to buy a JVM!,” but the dealer just sent it to me anyways. In that case, it would have been like it had given me a gift without my consent. If they then sent me a bill, I wouldn’t have any duty to pay it, since I’d told them I didn’t want to buy the amp. Suppose, instead of D, the dealer takes my money but never sends the amp. In that case, it would be fraud. In each of these cases, the transaction would not be consensual.

In general, our relationship as individuals to our government doesn’t look much like a consensual relationship.

If you don’t vote or participate, your government will just impose rules, regulations, restrictions, benefits, and taxes upon you. Except in exceptional circumstances, the same outcome will occur regardless of how you vote or what policies you support. So, for instance, I voted for a particular candidate in 2012. But had I abstained or voted for a different candidate, the same candidate would have won anyways. This is not like a consensual transaction, in which I order a JVM and the dealer sends me the amp I ordered. Rather, this is more a like a nonconsensual transaction in which the dealer decides to make me buy an amp no matter whether I place an order or not, and no matter what I order.

If you actively dissent, the government makes you obey its rules anyways. For instance, you can’t get out of marijuana criminalization laws by saying, “Just to be clear, I don’t consent to those laws, or to your rule”. This is unlike my relationship with my music gear dealer, where “no” means “no”. For government, your “no” means “yes”.

You have no reasonable way of opting out of government rule. Governments control all the habitable land, and most of us don’t have the resources or even the legal permission to move elsewhere. Governments won’t even let you move to Antarctica if you want to. At most, a privileged few of us can choose which government we live under, but the vast majority of us are stuck with whatever government we’re born with. This is unlike buying an amp from Sweetwater.com, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a dealer.

Finally, governments require you to obey their rules, pay taxes, and the like, even when they don’t do their part. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government has no duty to protect individual citizens. Suppose you call the police to alert them that an intruder is in your house, but the police never bother dispatch someone to help you, and as a result the intruder shoots you. The government still requires you to pay taxes for the protection services it chose not to deploy on your behalf.

So, in summary, it looks like in general our relationship to our governments lacks any of the features that signify a consensual transaction.

None of this is to say that governments are unjust or illegitimate, or that we ought to be anarchists. There are other reasons to have governments. Nor is it to say that democracies are not in some way special. Democracies in fact do a much better job than alternative forms of government of responding to their concerns and interests of most of their members. But it’s a stretch to say that democracy rests on the consent of the governed, or, more precisely, it’s a stretch to say that you consent to democratic rule.

Check out Jason Brennan’s recent post on Why Smart Politicians Say Dumb Things.

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 History of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Democracy, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

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.

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.