Jason Brennan has written a book (The Ethics of Voting) in which he (apparently) makes the case that it is unethical for some people to vote. I say “apparently,” because I haven’t read it, and so am working from a blog posting about the book (on the publisher’s website). I’m also working more-or-less from memory, because this is less about his thesis and more about an idea it spurred in me.
To begin, Brennan argues that “most people have a moral duty to abstain from voting.” Voting outcomes are imposed through coercion; if you (through incompetence, negligence, or malfeasance) contribute to a bad outcome that is imposed on others, you have acted unethically. Thus, the “politically incompetent” should not vote.
This thought seems to spur all sorts of moral outrage. But should it? How many times have you watched a “reality” television program and thought, “Those people can vote–in elections” with a sudden accompanying depression? The votes of those who decide how to vote based on coin flips, skin color, how “nice” the candidate’s name or appearance is, or even secret messages they find encoded in Oliver Stone films count the same as yours or mine. Ever watch “Jaywalking” episodes with Jay Leno? People who can’t identify our nation’s geographic neighbors or spell (let alone understand) “comparative advantage” cast votes that influence our foreign policy. Two final words on the subject: Paris and Hilton. If you’re not frightened by now, we truly are desensitized.
I should point out that we already make this decision in some cases. We have decided that children should not vote, presumably because they lack the cognitive capacity or experience necessary to link consequences to actions or to appreciate their gravity. We do not, to the best of my knowledge, allow the insane to vote (again, understanding and evaluating consequences), and felons are often excluded as well (presumably because they have already shown an inability to put common interests in peace and good order over their individual desires).
Of course, this is where the rubber hits the road: identifying those who shouldn’t vote. I suspect this is the source of the moral outrage (or at the very least, discomfort). Making the claim that some people shouldn’t vote carries with it the suggestion that the claimant already has a list in mind, whether based on skin color, ideology, or pocketbook (and before you make assumptions, folks have advocated both directions on most of those). Perhaps we instinctively sense that no one should be entrusted with the power to decide who shouldn’t vote, because of the moral hazard (the incentive to do the wrong thing) involved. After all, isn’t the fact that you don’t agree with me evidence of your faulty mental processes? I’m sorry, Dave–I can’t let you vote that way.
In fairness to Mr. Brennan, he does not advocate someone else making that decision. His quest is to educate voters to self-select, and is fully aware that those most likely to fail the self-administered exam are those least likely to administer it (or to administer it correctly). My first thought, though, was that our Founders weren’t terribly convinced of the abilities of the common voter, either. Granted, the Progressives were quite certain—after all, they voted for Progressives, so that proved they were able—and so they undid some of the protections the Founders built.
Take, for example, the idea of indirect election (such as we once used for the U.S. Senate, and tried to use for the U.S. President). How does electing someone to elect someone change the political calculus? I happened also to be reading The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith when a friend forwarded me the link to Brennan’s blog. One of the points in the book is that leaders pay attention to those who are necessary to keep the leaders in power. In autocracies, that group is smaller than in democracies, and that produces differences in policies. Essentially, democratic leaders have to bribe much larger groups of people
Granted, the policies in democracies tend to be better for most of us than those in autocracies. This need to provide favors to a wider range means we have less strip mining and more siphoning. That is, rather than stripping assets (and liberty) to transfer to the inner circle (be it junta or politburo), we get budget deficits and a slow occluding of the arteries of freedom (that’s me, not BDM and Smith).
Is there, however, a way to do better? Can we improve on the Progressive ideal of mass democracy? Indirect elections may be able to help us. Granted, I doubt they will be a panacea, and that’s assuming we tame the devils in the details. After all, the Progressives campaigned to let the sunlight of popular democracy into smoky back room for a reason. But let’s look at what we might gain, before we start filling it full of holes.
In essence, indirect election can change the question from “which candidate promises me the most?” to “which person do I trust to choose a candidate for me?” Electors cannot promise favors once in office (assuming those chosen as electors cannot also be candidates), because their office is transitory, and consists of only one activity—casting a vote for a candidate
Likewise, the office holder does not know whose support they must cultivate, whose favor they must curry. So long as electors are not continuing positions, but are chosen to cast a vote and discharged as soon as they have, there is no group whose particular support is necessary to staying in office. The office holder must deliver (and the candidate endorse) policies with the broadest possible benefit, because this maximizes the likelihood that an elector will view them favorably.
The weaknesses of this are that, much like the Electoral College, electors must not be beholden to any interest, including parties. As it stands with that institution, parties choose loyal members, and voters choose between parties. Electors should not be able to promise how they will vote, otherwise we re-establish the link allowing office holders to identify narrower slices of the public to serve. This will make electors not a screen for particular interests, but a conduit, and give them the incentive to bargain their services (to collude, as party machines). This means, in all practicality, that electors should not be able to campaign.
So how do we elect people who cannot campaign? One solution would be to select people by lot, as with juries. We might then also wish to have voir dire, allowing opposing parties to object to particular selections, and a judge to arbitrate their objections. Certainly not incorruptible, but a model with a respectable track record.
Another alternative would be to reduce the scale of voting. Allow people to vote in much smaller groups, and allow them to list the three people they know whom they’d trust to vote on their behalf. Then take the top finisher (or top few). Electors would not need to campaign—the problem, though, is that they likely would, just informally. Since they would know their intentions, they would have reason to contact parties or candidates for support, and again create narrow alliances in whose conflict the public good will be disregarded.
Obviously, the idea has limitations, but it also has some promise. If only we can figure out how to hold it to its promises.