New on Free Will: Polluting the Polls with Jason Brennan

The election’s coming up! So all public-minded folk should register to vote and get ready to hit the polls, right? Well, maybe not.

In this week’s Free Will, I chat with my friend, Brown philosopher Jason Brennan, about his forthcoming paper, “Polluting the Polls: When Citizens Should Not Vote” [rtf]. His argument is simple and compelling. (This is my indelicate reconstruction, mind you.) People should be public-spirited, and act with the common good in mind. When enough people vote badly–from ignorance or bias, for example–the result is often bad policy. The quality of policy matters to the public good. Higher-quality democratic decisions, and better policy, can be secured if bad voters choose to abstain. Because the personal cost of not voting badly is so low, a public-spirited person shouldn’t do it. And it seems that a lot of people are quite likely to vote badly. So there are many people who, if they care about the common good, ought to choose not to vote.

I completely agree with Jason. (He may not agree with where I’d go from there, however.) I think that many voter participation initiatives promote pretty straightforwardly immoral behavior. That’s not because I think that the state or democracy is illegitimate. It’s just that people shouldn’t do things that help make the world worse when the cost of not doing it is practically zero.

Here’s how I explain the intensity of media propaganda about voter participation in cynical political economy terms. There are more Americans inclined to vote Democrat than Republican. But the poorer and younger Democratic-leaning voters are also least likely to show up at the polls. Therefore, promoting the idea that it is a civic/moral imperative to vote disproportionately benefits the Democratic party by getting higher levels of participation from the poorer and younger voters, at whom much of the marketing blitz is focused. And, of course, the American media establishment overwhelmingly favors the Democratic Party. However, higher levels of voting from these groups pretty much ensures greater electoral pollution. Were most Americans Republican-leaning instead of Democratic-leaning, but the media was exactly the same, I predict we’d see an outpouring of sympathy for positions like Brennan’s from intellectuals and media elites. But, as it is, it’s in the electoral interests of Democrats to scream “disenfranchisement!” any time someone correctly notes that, far from delegitimizing an election, very low voter turnout can improve the quality of democratic choice.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center