More on Voting Well

Brown political philosopher Jason Brennan chats with the Guardian the about what it means to vote well.
I owe a lot of my thinking on this to Jason, and we both owe a lot to Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter.  
I was just on the radio, News Talk Radio 580 CRFA in Ottawa, talking about this. I consider this my effort at civic engagement as a potentially future Canadian.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

38 thoughts

  1. “The idea that ours is a culture in moral stagnation or decline is simply preposterous.”
    What about the monsters who want to raise labor standards in the third world? Last I checked, “nationalist liberal egalitarians” were peddling “morally unserious arbitrary nonsense”.
    C’mon man, make up your mind!

    1. Moral progress proceeds through moral criticism, such as the kind contained in Dr. King’s letter.
      For the record, I want to raise labor standards in the “third world.”

      1. “Moral progress proceeds through moral criticism…”
        Hm. If the issues you had with “liberal egalitarians” were primarily moral in nature, this would be a powerful argument. It seems to me, though, that you would agree that their unseriousness stems from their failure to address the consequences of capital flight, which is an economic issue, not from a failure to agree with us that sweatshops/trash sifitng are bad.
        It’s kind of hard to take your concern for the global poor seriously when you expend such rhetorical energy impugning the moral character of others who you claim share you concerns. How are you not a concern troll here?
        By the way, comparing this contribution to the debate on global poverty to Dr. King’s letter shows that you, sir, (as Colbert might say) have huge balls.

      2. “Capital flight” is not a non-moral issue. The fact that you frame it in those terms implies that you are making a moral error, which is that capital (including human capital) in some sense belongs to the jurisdiction in which it originates. What I argue is that upgrading sweatshop conditions — even at its best, where there is no loss of employment — has a trivial effect on the welfare of the poor compared to relatively small increase in the freedom to access wealthier labor markets. Please read Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come.
        A small contribution is still a contribution, isn’t it?

      3. Forgive me if I have created the impression that I am claiming that capital flight is a non-moral issue. What I’m saying is that to the extent that capital flight has results that are harmful to the cause of economic empowerment of the poor it should be regulated. This isn’t a judgment concerning where capital “belongs”, but rather to observe and criticize the results of completely untethering it from other forms of capital (i.e. social, human, natural). Since, in this case, it is easier to regulate the movement of financial capital than it is to give billions access to wealthier labor markets, the preponderance of moral obligation seems to lie on the capital side of the equation at this point. Your moral error, as I see it, is to see an equivalence, given the current situation, between capital regulation and immigration liberalization regarding both costs and effects. This is compounded by the enthusiasm with which you condemn those who reside on the same coin as you, but are simply focused on the other side of it (an inelegant metaphor, but time’s a wasting…).
        You’re welcome to move that pile of sand with tweezers, and to point proudly at your accomplishments so far, but I’m more inclined to criticize you for ignoring the shovel at your feet.
        I will, however, look into your reading recommendation, and, just to be clear, I do favor liberal immigration policies.

  2. “moral progress is still in such poor repute among intellectuals.” Examples please. You measure moral progress as the, oh, for a trivial example, FOR or AGAINST Prop 8?
    You’ve confused the CAPACITY to do harm with the WILL to do harm? How old are you? I would expect this from my 17 yo.
    Wait, this must be performance art? “mush-headed followers”? That’s it, it’s some risible entreaty.
    I’m an Obama supporter, here in hard red Texas, and I’ve got to say, mush headed is among the light-weight-i-est of slings my way. Here, let me try: It’s rare to see such addlepated commentary promulgated as insight, even with an obtuse reference the “Whigs”. Ah CATO! You’ve filled a void with the demise of the strip Peanuts.

    1. @James
      Prop. 8 actually isn’t a trivial example. The California court determined that the marriage laws were unconstitutional and violated basic rights in that state. You may not like it, but we’ll assume the California court knows the state constitution fairly well and that what they deemed was true. What’s frightening about Prop 8 is that a mere referendum – a majority of the popular vote – could take away people’s constitutional rights. If you find that small potatoes, you’re scary.
      As for the snark against WW, not to judge you or anything, but I think you mean “abstruse” not “obtuse.” I myself wondered a bit at the Whiggish, since while they were associated with a drive towards modernization, progress etc. they were also somewhat protectionist, no?

  3. I’m afraid you and I don’t get to say this:
    “…we have become better. The idea that ours is a culture in moral stagnation or decline is simply preposterous. Martin Luther King Day is an excellent time to expose the silliness of the moral stasists and declinists. It’s an excellent time to celebrate the profound and rapid progress we have made, and can continue to make.”
    You and I are young, male, and white; we’ve not been long at the center of any kind of personal or systemic target. This isn’t about feeling bad or guilty. Perception emerges from experience, right? So how can we make these kinds of statements, judging how life has changed for someone else, let alone a group of people, extending to other times and places?

  4. uvasig – I'm a 31 year Master of Arts candidate at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan. Prior to moving to NYC, I lived in San Francisco for over eight years. My primary interests are politics, sports, music, and culture. I'm graduated from the University of Virginia in 1999 with a degree in Foreign Affairs.
    Mike P says:

    Interesting post. I’m an occasional reader of your site and often find your posts thoughtful and provocative, and as I’m a registered Democrat and enthusiastic supporter of the new president, I find it interesting to always see things from another political perspective.
    That said…I agree with you that a lot of people have become parodies in their fawning over Obama, but I’m really, really TIRED of being cast as a, “starry-eyed, mush-headed followers.” It’s as if people think you have to be a total Kool-Aid drinker to support the man. One can have considered reasons to support Obama and those reasons don’t lead them all to think Obama is some sort of political messiah. Enthusiasm for a new direction does not have to equate to being a follower of a political cult, which seems to be the only way that some people can refer to people who backed Obama.
    I look forward to reading your thoughts as the new administration progresses.

    1. Mike P… I really didn’t mean that all Obama supporters are starry-eyed and mush-headed. I favored Obama over McCain during the campaign myself. I meant that lots of Obama’s supporters ARE starry-eyed, mush-headed, and culty as I’m sure you can agree (especially if you watch the Demi and Ashton video embedded below), and those people in particular need to be told to get a grip.

  5. uvasig – I'm a 31 year Master of Arts candidate at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan. Prior to moving to NYC, I lived in San Francisco for over eight years. My primary interests are politics, sports, music, and culture. I'm graduated from the University of Virginia in 1999 with a degree in Foreign Affairs.
    Mike P says:

    Will, no argument from me on those who’ve gone off the deep end, of which there are certainly many.

  6. Will, with respect, your post reads like a prime example of why the original cynics … never got anywhere, politically or in terms of ‘moral progress’.
    “Organized aggression”? “Mush headed followers”? Your lame attempt at any disambiguation, if that was your goal, is hamstrung by your tone, if not your entire philosophy of moral progress.

    1. Amicus,
      I don’t think that people who stop thinking because they’re distracted by the tone (many as they are) comprise Will’s target audience.
      I, personally, like the color and the snark in some of Will’s pronouncements. I don’t always agree with him, but I always appreciate getting a sense of how annoyed or excited certain ideas and people get him. And, it’s often funny.
      I think we can all agree that he’s unelectable as a politician. But, I suspect that most people who like to think about the ideas he writes about find it more pleasant than dry, scholarly, arguments.
      And, maybe some of those people will help influence the masses towards progress.

      1. Amicus:
        In the name of Barbara Millicent Roberts, I can’t believe it’s true – Irony, snark and wit have overrun the Intert00bz? No. I suppose since John Stewart hasn’t been invented yet, WW should go back to quoting Quine?

      2. I haven’t read enough Wilkenson to know, honestly; but he couldn’t go wrong with better quidditas/quiditties, from Quine or otherwise.

      3. Sorry, if I don’t find the leeway you do.
        Frankly, I’m rather frustratingly bored to see the continual equation of “liberal” with “mush headed”.
        And I don’t see any intellectually superior or insouciant position of Will’s that makes it interesting analysis to more or less label ‘liberal moral progress’ (or Obama) as something like Le Bon Doctor, Malgre Lui.

      4. I didn’t read Will to imply that “liberal” and “mush headed” were equivalent.
        I think he sees some (the ones he’s going to be hard on) of Obama’s followers as “starry-eyed” and “mush headed”. That seems uncontroversially true to me. Some are.
        And, I haven’t seen anything he’s written that implied that either ‘liberal moral progress’ or Obama were farcical.
        You seem to be bringing some of these ideas with you, rather than finding them here.

      5. Really? Just bringing them with me?
        I think you are finding more in the text than is there.
        Is there something positive or decent about Liberals or Liberalism that is clearly and unequivocally brought forward in this piece?
        If there were, it might substantiate your qualification, “some”, but really I don’t see it.

      6. How can you not see it?
        The main point of the post is about the tremendous moral progress we’ve made in terms of civil equality. The civil rights movement was largely a liberal project, and Will enthusiastically supports and praises it.
        It’s the personality cultishness that he insults. That’s richly deserved.

      7. Who is “we” in your writing and in Will’s?
        As I say, it’s not in the text: “thanks to MLK, to those who marched beside him [any mush-heads?], and to the tens of millions to whom he gave such a powerful voice [any starry-eyed?], we have become better.”
        Where is the positive nod to liberals or liberalism, in that? Or here:
        “I think I’m not being cynical about liberal democratic politics when I concede that it is a very advanced, civilized, and relatively peaceful form of organized coalitional agression.”
        Is that “enthusiastic” praise for liberals/liberalism or a liberal project?
        No, the tenor is, ‘boy, I’m sure proud of where ‘we’ve’ got to”, despite those contemptible, mush-headed liberal followers of Obama, etc.
        Here, I’ll go a step further. Without the “mush heads” or “starry-eyed” of their day, do you think there would be Wilkersonian pride today?

      8. … the personality cultishness …. That’s richly deserved.
        When I think over the leaders of the past, say, 50 years, and those who truly worked to develop personality cults for themselves and used it to wield significant power, I cannot help but think that Mr. Obama is … bush league, when it comes to ‘personality cutlishness’…
        I guess we just differ in our assessments.

      9. I’m guessing that we also differ in who those might be. Despite your reference to Bush (I just don’t see it), my first thoughts were Kennedy and Clinton.
        And, of course, if you’d gone back further we’d have to acknowledge FDR.

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