Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bad Voters Should Opt Out

In yet another great diavlog, Will Wilkinson talks with Jason Brennan about his thesis that some people should refrain from exercising their right to vote. The argument seems clear enough: people who vote badly make the world worse, and you shouldn't do that without damn good reason. (See also the discussion at Crooked Timber.)

Now, you might claim that people are obligated to vote well. But as a matter of non-ideal theory, it doesn't follow that they should vote (simpliciter). Whether they should vote depends on whether they actually would vote well or badly. Clearly the ordering of the possible actions, from best to worst, is:
(1) Vote well
(2) Don't vote
(3) Vote badly
Merely saying 'vote', simpliciter, does not provide sufficient information to determine whether it's advisable or not. That's true even if you think option 1 is obligatory, because committing an egregious wrong [3] rather than a minor wrong [2] is all the worse -- not something to be advised.

In any case, I don't think there's any good reason to think that voting is obligatory. Most positive demands aren't. [See also my post 'Against Moral Mindfulness'.] Perhaps we have an 'imperfect duty' to serve the common good in some or other fashion, but there are obviously any number of ways to do that, and there's no particular reason to privilege voting above all the rest. (Jason makes this point nicely towards the end of the diavlog.) It takes a fair bit of time and effort to become a responsibly informed citizen, and it's not hard to imagine better things one might do with those resources.

Curiously (you might think), I actually think there's a strong case to be made for compulsory voting -- or rather compulsory attendance at a voting booth on election day. But that institutional recommendation is compatible with the above moral directives. Anyone likely to vote badly can fulfill their legal and moral obligations alike by turning in a blank ballot.

Finally, I want to raise some doubts about one of Will's claims. He infers from Jason's thesis that "many voter participation initiatives promote pretty straightforwardly immoral behavior." A couple of thoughts:

(i) They're not encouraging people to vote badly, but simply to vote. My above discussion suggests that this is neither determinately good nor bad, but rather morally ambiguous behaviour. Some people they encourage will go on to do good, others will do something bad. Hopefully the former group is larger. This brings me to my second point:

(ii) Encouraging a particular form of "immorality" in others is not necessarily itself a bad thing, if you can foresee that this will have good effects. As Will points out, the effect of voter turnout drives is to increase the Democrats' electoral chances. One might plausibly consider this to be a good thing. There are significant numbers of people who act immorally in voting for Republicans. (That's not to say every Republican supporter is unjustified or immoral.) It's not obvious to me that there's anything wrong with attempting to counterbalance their wrongdoing, even by means of encouraging comparably ignorant Democrats, so long as the people pulling the strings are really (and reliably) acting for the best. Two 'wrongs' might make a 'right' after all.

Update: Jason has more up at Public Reason.


  1. WRT to bad voters strengthening the prospects of one party: the policies offered by *both parties* adapt to the expected response of the electorate. If the dumbest 80% of Republican and Democratic voters abstained, both parties would support abortion rights, free trade, more scientific research, effective foreign aid, more efficient taxation, etc, in order to woo smart voters.

  2. Voting for the Republicans is immoral? I'd argue, from a position of Natural Law, that voting for the Democrats is immoral (or either party). The Democratic platform is one of economic socialism and the interference of government in the economic freedom of individuals. You could follow the classic Rothbard libertarian ethics to get to a claim that voting in general is immoral if the only options are between two forms of state (period).

    How would you construct the argument that voting for the Republicans is flatly immoral whereas supporting the Democrats is not?

  3. Brandon, you appear to confuse (i) my claim that many but not all instances of voting-for-Republicans are immoral acts (according to the stated criteria of causing a bad result without good reason), with (ii) imaginary claims about what's "flatly immoral".

    In any case, I don't want this thread to devolve into partisan wrangling, so just conditionalize out my first-order political assumptions. If it's true that voting Republican in current circumstances would lead to foreseeably worse results, then Democrat-favouring turnout drives are desirable, etc. It's this abstract claim I'm interested in here.

    P.S. Off-topic (e.g. partisan) comments are liable to be deleted.

  4. While I agree that voting is not, and should not be regarded as, obligatory, I don't think the argument you note here, "people who vote badly make the world worse, and you shouldn't do that without damn good reason," is very helpful in this sort of case, because it seems to me that 'voting badly' is being used ambiguously here. What makes the world worse is voting for things that have bad consequences; but 'voting badly' can mean either doing this or voting without reasonable effort to make oneself sufficiently informed, and the two are not the same. They aren't wholly unrelated, of course, but once one takes into account the fact that they aren't the same, the argument becomes much less straightforward. For instance, people are often called upon to vote in cases where, even being reasonably informed they could not possible tell whether the consequences will be good; and people can end up voting reliably for good choices without being reasonably informed if, for instance, their interests happen to be connected with good choices for independent reasons.

  5. Brandon - I take it 'voting badly' is being used here objectively, i.e. 'voting for things that have bad consequences'. (Though it's excusable, of course, if one has good reasons for expecting the consequences to be better.) You're right that an important implication of this view is that it potentially endorses correct votes from uninformed people (e.g. those 'rock the vote' democrats Will was confusedly complaining about). So one needs to be careful about who is assumed to be a "bad voter" -- contra Will, I expect that young urban voters actually tend to do a better job at the voting booth than rich businessmen, for precisely the kinds of 'independent reasons' you point out.

    But perhaps that's too objective, and we should instead state the argument in terms of reasonable expectations. The key question then is whether a voter has reason to expect their participation to make things better or worse. Carl suggests a reason for taking non-voting to be the preferable default position, unless one has good grounds for thinking themselves more competent (and unbiased) than average.

    Carl - that's an important point. Still, encouraging ignorant votes for the less-bad party may be the best option available to us, even if it would be even better if we could solve the collective action problem and discourage ignorant voters from both parties equally. For the worst result of all would be to have a largely ignorant electorate which supports the worse party.

    But in any case, I actually find it pretty plausible that some targeted subcultures (e.g. young urban voters) are probably better than average policy-wise in any case, so including them not only boosts the prospects of the less-bad party but also improves the electorate (relative to one that's dominated by small town voters, at least).

  6. The basic point here, that ignorant voting can hurt, seems surprisingly hard for most people to accept. What is up with that?

  7. Misguided egalitarian sentiment?

    Maybe also a pragmatic sensitivity to historical abuses (especially race-based voter suppression / disenfranchisement). People easily confuse "X is bad" with "let's coercively prohibit X!" And some who know better might just suspect bad faith.

  8. I think Richard has the right diagnosis here: people are reluctant to accept that ignorant voting can hurt because this is precisely the justification that has been used in the past to try to argue that women and blacks ought not to vote (and hence ought to be discouraged from voting). And so here, as with other sensitive issues, people are not generally going to budge unless they have solid and clear evidence otherwise.

    Incidentally, it seems to me that we have been sloppy in this discussion. We need to distinguish between making the world worse than it was and making the world worse than it otherwise would be. It's clear that the former happens all the time with ignorant voting. But equally clearly the former is not automatically a reason for not voting, since we could be in a tragic situation in which anything we do will make the world worse, and are therefore confined to making sure the least bad of the alternatives come about. The latter, on the other hand, involves all sorts of complicated counterfactuals (to take just one example, would it be better for ignorant voters not to vote or for elections to reach record-low participation levels because almost no one whose interests were at stake in the election had the time to inform themselves properly of the issues?); and thus I think it has to be recognized that "ignorant voting makes the world worse than it otherwise would be" is not quite so straightforwardly obvious as it might seem.

  9. Right, I had in mind the counterfactual notion, but (as you note) those claims are always open to question.

  10. It's tempting for clever people to believe this: that if the unwashed masses can be moved by stealth into a better political dispensation - one that the clever people know is good for them while they do not - then in time they'll grow to accept it, and see that the clever people were right all along.

    Experience suggests this approach often leads to disaster. There are many examples of good policies being forced upon backward societies, either by colonial powers or by local despots. But these good policies are always vulnerable to extreme reactionary reversal, because the argument for them has never been won at grassroots level. A tantalizing opportunity for the would-be demagogue is created by precisely those most opposed to demagoguery. For example: the (generally vile) Shah of Iran implemented many good policies regarding the role of women. Yet today, after the revolution-turned-reaction of 1979, Iranian women are in a worse state than under the Shah.

    It's an absolute precondition of democracy that opinions are not immutable (if they are, an election is no more than a census). This means that people sometimes elect a bad candidate, suffer his bad policies, then learn and vote differently next time. But they need the learning experience of seeing what happens when the bad policies they voted for are implemented.

    George Orwell notes that some ideas are so absurd, only very clever people are capable of the mental gymnastics required to believe in them. Stupid people lack the mental agility for such high-order self-deception. Catholic Inquisitors probably had the highest IQs of anyone in medieval Europe; Lenin was a genius; only intellectuals thought Cultural Revolutionary Maoism was the right thing for western societies to try in the 1960s; and so on.


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