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

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

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

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

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

Does Compulsory Voting Lead to Moderation?

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

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

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

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

Is Voting an Enforceable Duty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Argument for Compulsory Voting

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

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

As Galston summarizes the argument:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.     Therefore, compulsory voting produces more representative government.

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

9.     Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind every meal you eat, there is a story

Louise Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands and author of Hamburgers in Paradise, talks about that story here:


An interview with Eberhard Faber on “Building the Land of Dreams”

Faber jacketNew Orleans, iconic city of Mardi Gras, gumbo and jazz, was once little more than a sleepy outpost at the edge of Spain’s American empire. By the 1820s, with thriving cotton and sugar industries, the city was well on the way to becoming the urban capital of the antebellum South. Looking the ideological struggle, class politics, and powerful personalities that accompanied its transformation, Building the Land of Dreams is the narrative biography of a fascinating city at the most crucial turning point in its history. Recently, Eberhard Faber took the time to answer some questions about his book.

What inspired you to become a historian?

EF: It took a long time for me to become a professional historian; I was a touring musician for almost fifteen years before going back to school to study history. But I was always fascinated by history. As a kid I remember reading William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. During my music years I remember reading Robert Caro’s The Power Broker in the back of the tour bus. History is simply a way of looking at the world and trying to understand it. I’ve always looked at the world this way.

As far as how I got interested in New Orleans and the South, it happened early in grad school at Princeton; I wrote a research paper for Linda Colley about the short-lived British colony in West Florida formed in 1763, and all the sources that I read pointed to New Orleans as a crucial strategic point in that era. The next year I wrote a paper for John Murrin about the South in the War of 1812, culminating with the Battle of New Orleans. The year after that I moved down to New Orleans for what was to have been a year of research; we got hooked and live here still.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing Building the Land of Dreams?

EF: Well, so many things. But perhaps it would be the biographies of the many people who moved to New Orleans in the months following the Louisiana Purchase, from the northern United States but also from across the Atlantic: England, Ireland, and France especially. In the book I call them the “generation of 1804” because they arrived right after the Louisiana Purchase. They were a varied cohort, and they fought amongst each other a lot, but I found their energy, ambition and idealism very appealing. One common characteristic was that they were all sincere believers in the world-changing possibilities of republican rule. They thought this radical experiment that the United States had only recently embarked upon was going to rewrite everything about human history. In New Orleans they ran into a conservative creole planter class that believed in none of those things, and they had a rude awakening of sorts. It’s a fascinating encounter.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

EF: I think it has been a very common assumption that the United States imposed certain changes on Louisiana after 1803. That the course New Orleans and its wider region took, in the early nineteenth century, was an outcome of the policies of Thomas Jefferson and other American statesmen. What Building the Land of Dreams shows is that there were already very powerful entrenched interests in the area and that they, not the United States, ultimately had the power to dictate outcomes. What Jefferson and Madison could do was actually very limited; while the creole elite, on the other hand, initially threatened by republicanism, figured out that it actually gave them tremendous power to design the regimes – of law, of slavery, and race – that they had long wanted under colonial rule.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?

EF: Well, as far as my work in particular, I don’t think enough people know it for any major misunderstandings to have developed. As for the profession, I think there is a very wide gap between what the general public thinks of as “history” and what historians do in colleges and universities. If you go into a book store, many of the history books will be about military history (and at least half of those will be about the Civil War) and of the rest, a good portion will have Presidents on the cover. This leads many people to believe history is mostly about battles and Presidents, whereas in fact the field is so much bigger than that. The fact that it’s not understood is the fault of the field, of course. We need to do a better job of reaching the public and engaging their interest in historical issues.

What is your next project?

EF: I have two. One is a biography of the lawyer, legal reformer, and politician Edward Livingston, who was Mayor of New York and then fled from a scandal in 1803 to New Orleans. He ended up deeply entangled in New Orleans politics and power struggles and plays a major role in Building the Land of Dreams. I read almost all his personal papers in the course of writing the book and would love to focus on him exclusively for my next project.

The other one is totally different: a history of the music industry in the United States since the invention of the gramophone in the 1890s, with an emphasis on the parallel history of the rise of American capitalism.

What would you have been if not a historian?

EF: Well, that’s easy, since I was a musician (guitar player, songwriter, bandleader, arranger, record producer) for fifteen years before turning to history. I still play actively, too, within the limits imposed by writing and teaching. If the question is what would I have been if I was neither a musician nor a historian – well, my original hope was to be a professional baseball player, but at 5’ 5” that was never entirely realistic.

What are you reading right now?

EF: I’m currently reading Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. It covers some of the same historical ground as my book – even including the word Dreams in the title! – but from a very different attitude and perspective. I find it alternately infuriating and revelatory. Either way it’s certain to become an important part of the discussion on the antebellum South. Other wonderful books I’ve read lately include Sarah Carr’s brilliant exposé on the New Orleans public school system since Katrina, Hope Against Hope; Robert Gordon’s classic history of Stax Records, Respect Yourself; and Greg Iles’ epic Southern mystery novel Natchez Burning.

What was the most influential book you’ve read?

EF: I always come back to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, an allegorical novel about Europe before the Great War. Although it’s fiction, it contains great intellectual history, and combines themes that are essentially historical with deep exploration of human psychology. The same is true of War and Peace, which also had a profound effect on me: a meditation on the meaning of history and the sources of historical change, inextricably intertwined with such “interior” issues as the nature of human suffering and the attempt to find meaning in the universe. All historians should read these books. They remind us of the spiritual dimension behind the often dry academic debates that tend to cloud the field.

Meanwhile, in the realm of historical scholarship, I could mention so many – Henry Adams, Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Genovese, Gordon Wood, Rhys Isaac, William Cronon, Alan Taylor, my mentors Linda Colley and Sean Wilentz – but the one book that truly did influence me more deeply and permanently than any other was Richard White’s The Middle Ground. I don’t even think I’m very much like White as a historian, temperamentally and aesthetically; he’s a burrower, while I’m a wanderer; he eschews drama completely, while I am simply incapable of living without it. But the method, the dedication, the integrity, the matching of evidence to ideas, the rigor of the concepts, the sense of change over time, in that book, all of that is just so beautiful to me, and it remains a very distant and unreachable benchmark of sorts.

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

EF: I like to write in libraries. I really love a nice library: the sensation that you are being enveloped in quiet and ideas and books, and that your work is going to merge into this enormous sea of scholarship that surrounds you. I wrote most of the first draft of Building the Land of Dreams on the C Floor of Princeton’s Firestone Library, 3 floors below ground level, in a tiny carrel. I wrote most of the revised version at the Community Coffee shop at the corner of Jefferson Ave. and Magazine St. in New Orleans (which is appropriate, because developing Thomas Jefferson’s part in the story was one of the biggest changes in the second draft).

As far as method and process, I think research and preparation is really 80% of the task, the actual writing is the final 20%. I spent lots of time on research; I read Edward Livingston’s papers in their entirety (140-some boxes worth), I read the New Orleans Conseil de Ville records in their entirety from 1803 to 1819, I have read pretty much every piece of secondary literature on early Louisiana ever written. It all goes into a big database (although, life being what it is, there’s always lots of stuff that never makes it into the database, too). By the time I actually start writing I have a very good idea of what I am going to say, including exact phrasing in many cases. The phrases have been building up in my head during showers and long drives for the months prior to writing them down. When I actually get going I write fast, and I write a lot. I have to trim a lot, too, eventually. The final version of Building the Land of Dreams is probably about equal in size to the pile of stuff that got left out and discarded along the way.

The whole project took almost seven years from beginning to end – three of which were spent working on the project pretty much full time, and four of which were spent balancing the writing and research with teaching.

Why did you write this book?

EF: I think I wrote the book because I had the very good fortune to have the institutional backing of Princeton University and Loyola University New Orleans; because I have a wonderfully supportive family; because I have a terrific network of colleagues and peers including a handful of close friends in my grad student cohort, my mentors at Princeton and in New Orleans, and the brother/sisterhood of Louisiana historians; in short because I am a very fortunate person in many ways. Good work doesn’t just spring from the genius of the author, but from very particular social circumstances in which the author is embedded. When I switched from a music career to an academic one, I knew I still wanted to be a creative person. I was lucky to find a great topic I could throw myself into and a great network of supporters to help me towards the finish. And lastly, in the final phase of turning this from a “project” into an actual book, I have also benefited greatly from the support and advice of Brigitta van Rheinberg, Quinn Fusting, and everyone else at Princeton University Press.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

EF: Building the Land of Dreams – well, the phrase “Land of Dreams” comes from two places. One is William Blake’s poem, from the Pickering Manuscript, written around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Blake never traveled to New Orleans, but the poem suggests the expanded mental universe of possibilities in the midst of the Age of Revolutions – and those world-changing possibilities were very much a part of the mental landscape of early 19th century New Orleans in the years after 1803. The second source, of course, is Spencer Williams’ “Basin Street Blues,” made famous by Louis Armstrong’s 1926 recording, which led to the “Land of Dreams” becoming one of the Crescent City’s many nicknames – and which, in the line about the banks of the Mississippi being “the place where dark and light folks meet,” also speaks to the central place of race in the city’s history and in my understanding of it.

The book’s jacket is a painting by John Boqueta de Woiserie, A View of New Orleans Taken from the Plantation of Marigny. It was painted in 1803, in celebration of the Louisiana Purchase and the American takeover, and it shows an eagle hovering over New Orleans, with a banner in its beak that reads “Under my wings/everything prospers.” It shows the enormous optimism with which some people, at least, greeted the prospect of American rule; the linked faith in personal liberty and material prosperity; and an unironic faith in the American promise that seems, in this cynical era, all too naïve. The book is the story of the various ways that promise was both betrayed and fulfilled.

Eberhard L. Faber teaches history and music industry studies at Loyola University, New Orleans. Previously, he spent twelve years leading the New York-based rock band God Street Wine. He blogs on New Orleans history and other topics at

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).

Watch the new trailer for Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “On Stalin’s Team”

On Stalin’s Team by professor of history Sheila Fitzpatrick overturns the idea that Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union alone, arguing that he was in fact well backed by a productive group of loyal and trusted advisers and friends, from the late 1920s, until his death in 1953. Through Fitzpatrick’s extensive research, first hand accounts from Stalin’s team members and their families are exposed, illustrating the fear and admiration for the infamous leader that ran through the tight-knit group. On Stalin’s Team offers a rare glimpse into the political and social arena of the Soviet Union, detailing the inner workings of Stalin and his loyal team. Check out the video here:


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.

Martin Sandbu talks euro scapegoating and his new book “Europe’s Orphan” with the Financial Times

Has the euro  been wrongfully scapegoated for the eurozone’s economic crisis? In his new book, Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt, leading economist Martin Sandbu says that it has, arguing that the problems lie not with the euro itself, but with decisions made by policymakers. Sandbu was recently interviewed by Martin Wolf, Financial Times chief economics commentator. You can watch the video here:

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k10627 In Sailing the Water’s Edge, Helen V. Milner and Dustin Tingley analyze how the different tools of foreign policy, including foreign aid, international trade, and the use of military force, have been used by the US since World War II. They shed light on the different forces at play that have helped to shape our foreign policy, particularly the relationship between the president, Congress, interest groups, and the public.
k10423 Be sure to check out The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece by Josiah Ober. Ober brings to the table new sources in making his argument that ancient Greek superiority was no accident—it can be explained by innovations in politics and economics. You can read chapter one here and a Q&A with the author here.
k10567 Finally, don’t miss Empire and Revolution by Richard Bourke. At 1032 pages, this ambitious work cuts through many misconceptions about Edmund Burke and his ideas using a wide range of sources. Readers will be left with a thorough understanding of one of the preeminent statesmen of the late 18th century. We invite you to read the introduction here.

For more information on these and many more titles in political science, scroll through our catalog above. If you would like to receive updates on new titles, you can subscribe to our email list.

A Q&A with Richard Layard and David Clark, authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketHow can mental illness—an affliction that affects at least 20 percent of people in developed countries, reduces life expectancy, and wrecks havoc on educational potential—remain chronically under-treated? The answer is simple: mental and physical pain are not viewed equally, and even in a relatively progressive culture, the former remains profoundly stigmatized. As a result, most who suffer from mental health issues suffer in silence, or receive inadequate support. Can this change? Richard Layard and David Clark say it can.

In Thrive, Layard and Clark look at the practical politics of increasing access to mental health care, arguing that the therapies that exist—and work—are available at little to no cost. Recently, both took the time to answer some questions about the book, and the transformative power of mental health care.

What is the message of your book?

Depression and anxiety disorders are the biggest single cause of misery in Western societies. They also cause enormous damage to the economy. But they are curable, in most cases, by modern evidence-based psychological therapy. The shocking thing is that very few of those who need it get any help and fewer still get help based on evidence. In England such help is now becoming available to many of millions who need it. As we show, this help involves no net cost to society. It’s a no-brainer.

What is the scale of the problem?

Surveys of households in rich countries show that around 1 in 6 adults have depression or anxiety disorders severe enough to cause major distress and impair the person’s functioning. Only a quarter of these people are in any form of treatment, most usually medication. This is shocking. For surveys show that mental illness is the biggest single reason why people feel dissatisfied with their lives – accounting for more of the misery in our societies than either poverty or unemployment do.

What is its economic cost?

Mental illness accounts for nearly a half of all absenteeism from work and for nearly a half of all those who do not work because of disability. This imposes huge costs on employers and taxpayers. Mental illness also increases the use of physical healthcare. People with a given physical illness of a given severity use 50% more physical healthcare if they are also mentally ill. This is a huge cost to those who fund healthcare.

Does psychological therapy help?

In the last 40 years considerable progress has been made in developing effective psychological therapies. The most studied therapy is CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a broad heading for therapies which focus on directly influencing thoughts and behaviours – in order to affect the quality of human experience. In hundreds of randomised controlled trials CBT has been shown to produce recovery rates of over 50% for depression and anxiety disorders. For anxiety, recovery is generally sustained; for depression, the risk of relapse is greatly reduced.

The range of therapies which have been shown to work has been surveyed internationally by the Cochrane Collaboration and in England by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Besides CBT, NICE also recommend for all depressions Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) and, for mild to moderate depression, Brief Psychodynamic Therapy, Couples Therapy and Counselling. Modern psychological therapies have also been shown to be effective in a wide range of other mental health conditions.

Do these therapies really cost nothing?

Yes. If delivered to a representative group of patients they pay for themselves twice over. First, they pay in reduced invalidity benefits and lost taxes due to invalidity. We know this from a series of controlled trials. Second, they pay for themselves in reduced costs of physical healthcare. Again we know this from controlled trials. It is so partly because the typical cost of an evidence-based course of treatment is only about $2,000.

How can these therapies become more widely available?

Two things are needed. First, there have to be enough people trained to deliver these therapies. This is the responsibility of universities and colleges, including of course supervised on-the-job training. Second, there have to be effective frameworks where trained people can be employed. The evidence is that recovery rates are higher where people are employed in teams where they can get supervision, in-service training, and clear career progression.

Those who fund healthcare have in the USA and UK the legal obligation to provide parity of esteem for mental and physical healthcare, and this requires that they are willing to fund high quality evidence-based therapies that are made easily available and provide the necessary duration of treatment, based on evidence. Insurers never fund half a hip replacement and they should not fund only half a proper course of psychological therapy.

What can be learnt from the English experience?

The English National Health Service has in recent years developed a totally new service to deliver evidence-based psychological therapies. (It’s called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)). This service has, over six years, trained altogether 6,000 therapists and is now treating nearly half a million people a year, with a recovery rate of 46% and rising. The prestigious journal Nature has called it “world-beating”.

How can we prevent mental illness in the first place?

First we must of course treat it as soon as it appears. This is often in childhood, where the same evidence-based treatments for depression and anxiety disorders apply as in adulthood. For children’s behaviour problems, parent training and family therapy are recommended.

But we must also reduce the overall prevalence of mental illness. This requires major changes throughout society. First, more support and education for parents. Second, schools which give more priority to the well-being of children. Third, employers who treat their workers with appreciation and encouragement and not as income-maximising machines. Fourth, more positively-oriented media. And finally, a new citizens’ culture giving more priority to compassion, both as an emotion and as a spring for action.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords.  David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Read chapter one here.

Weekly Wanderlust: Yellowstone

Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, and home to some of the oldest and most awe inspiring sites in the United States. Commonly known for tourist attractions such as the geyser Old Faithful, Yellowstone is a complex geothermal area containing half the world’s natural geysers. It is also a highly valued protected ecosystem, home to some of the most amazing wildlife, from grizzly bears and wolves, to herds of bison and elk. The human story of Yellowstone spans more than 11,000 years, making the area an important archaeological site as well.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Excelsior geyser

Excelsior geyser


Whether you plan to camp, hike, fly-fish, or immerse yourself in the region’s history, you may want to check out Justin Farrell’s new book, The Battle for Yellowstone for some background on the park’s moral, cultural, and spiritual roots.

Farrell jacketYellowstone is globally recognized as the crown jewel of modern environmental preservation. But the park and its surrounding regions have recently become a lightning rod for environmental conflict, plagued by intense and intractable political struggles among the federal government, National Park Service, environmentalists, industry, local residents, and elected officials. The Battle for Yellowstone asks why it is that, with the flood of expert scientific, economic, and legal efforts to resolve disagreements over Yellowstone, there is no improvement?

Justin Farrell argues that the battle for Yellowstone has deep moral, cultural, and spiritual roots that until now have been obscured by the supposedly rational and technical nature of the conflict. Tracing the moral causes and consequences of large-scale social change in the American West, he describes how a “new-west” social order has emerged that has devalued traditional American beliefs about manifest destiny and rugged individualism.

Justin Farrell is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. You can read a Q&A with him here.

Photos of Yellowstone courtesy of Claudia Classon

Leah Wright Rigueur discusses Ben Carson’s comments on “Black Lives Matter”

The Loneliness of the Black RepublicanLeah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican, appeared on CNN’s “Top of the Hour” with Brooke Baldwin to address Ben Carson’s allegation that “Black Lives Matters” is creating strife. Check out her commentary here.

The Loneliness of the Black Republican provides a new understanding of the interaction between African Americans and the Republican Party, and the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism.

Leah Wright Rigueur is assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The introduction is available here.




Five Days in August — remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6 and 9, 1945, 70 years ago this week, the terrifying images of mushroom clouds rising over devastated cities were seared into the public consciousness. Atomic bombs, the result of an unprecedented collaboration between some of the greatest scientific minds of their generation, had decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly, and in the days and months that followed, thousands more would suffer and die from radiation sickness and burns. The shocking display of military power and the vast human toll was unlike anything the world had seen. Whatever “nuclear” meant prior to August 6, it entered the lexicon that day as a term synonymous with uncontrolled destruction.

Five Days in AugustMost Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. But according to Michael Gordin’s  Five Days in August, (now available in e-book), the allied military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential. In fact, they were unsure whether the bombs would explode at all. But in the wake of the blasts and unparalleled ruin that did in fact occur, in the minds of many, physics became the science of war.

An interesting Princeton University Press historical note from

On the evening of 11 August 1945, just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the US government released Smyth’s 200-page document under the ponderous title, ‘A General Account of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945’. Quickly dubbed ‘the Smyth report’, copies flew off the shelves. The original Government Printing Office edition ran out so quickly that Princeton University Press published its own edition late in 1945, under the more manageable title, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, which sold more than 100,000 copies in a year.

The information contained in the Smyth report was heavily restricted for security reasons. But in a post-war and early cold war climate, atomic secrets were a hot commodity. Even today without the apocalyptic dread of The Day After, nuclear power remains a political and military preoccupation, as nations face the threat of terrorism, the problem of waste, and the danger of meltdown.

Gordin writes in Five Days in August, “Each generation has grappled intensely and repeatedly with understanding the implications of nuclearism for its future, but the struggle has always been caught  in terms fixed, as if in amber, with the speed and suddenness with which World War II ended.” For more on the moral questions left in the wake of these five days, and a look at the confused final months of World War II, sample Chapter 1, titled Endings, here.