Vote!

Oh, I missed this one….

I didn’t vote. I know. It doesn’t make any sense! And look what happened. Tom Harkin is still my Senator.

Just think: If only 750 Democrats had moved to Minnesota and voted, Al Franken would be Senator-elect Al Franken. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that moving to Minnesota doesn’t matter!

A game: Think of other verbs for which it does not sound like nonsense to urge people to do it unconditionally. Then consider whether “vote” has similar properties.

Tyler on Voting

Most of what you do is for expressive value anyway, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about voting, if indeed you vote.  The people who think they are being instrumentally rational by not voting are probably deceiving themselves more.  They are actually engaged in an even less transparent form of expressive behavior (protest against the voting system) and yet cloaking that behavior under the guise of instrumental rationality.  The best arguments against voting are simply if you either don’t like voting or if you don’t know which candidate is better.  High-status people hardly ever offer the latter justification, even though the split of opinions among high-status people suggests that not all high-status people can in fact know which candidate is better.

In other words, both voting and not voting are motivated by the thought that you are better than other people.  I am glad that we have an entire day devoted to this very important concept.

I would amplify Tyler’s remarks and say that if you are at all inclined to not vote because it is instrumentally irrational, then you are probably a very well-informed and intelligent voter, and ought to feel especially good about voting, if you do. I’m not voting today, but that’s simply because I didn’t change my registration when I moved. I like voting. I usually do vote on big elections, and I vote expressively. I’m a bit disappointed to not do it this time around, since I would like to almost vote for Barack Obama before finding myself paralyzed by the Holy Spirit and then finally voting for Bob Barr. I would also like to vote for absolutely every Republican running for absolutely every other office. I learned a new phrase this weekend in NYC from an ex-roomie : “cognitive Madisonian.” I’m one of those.

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.

Some Nuance on "Bad Voters"

I’d like to emphasize that my crazy gloss on Jason Brennan’s fastidiously logical academic paper is my crazy gloss. Please do read the paper [rtf], which I think is outstanding.

Let me weigh in on a few objections that have come up in the comments. First, the general thrust of the argument is just to show that civic-mindedness need not require political involvement. Indeed, Jason gives what I find to be a powerful argument to the effect that civic-mindedness sometimes requires not participating in politics. That’s what I take to be the point of the paper. If you can show that voting is sometimes morally wrong, then you’ve got a killer argument that it cannot be morally mandatory.

Now, Jason certainly has no interest in keeping people who want to vote from voting, and neither do I. He’s just pointing out that there are conditions under which it would be wrong for a civic-minded person to do so. (We’re both libertarians, very comfortable with the idea that people should be free to do things they ought not do.) If you accept some reasonable assumptions about the aim of democracy, and accept standard reasoning about moral duties regarding collective action problems, then you probably should accept Jason’s conclusion

If you were to watch our diavlog, you’d find that the we cover the paradoxical elements of the argument. Many of the people most likely to be vote badly–out of ignorance, prejudice, groupthink, etc.–may well be least likely to judge that they will judge badly, while those most worried about their own biases, and most likely to be moved by an argument like Jason’s, are probably least likely to vote badly.

So what’s the practical upshot of the argument? I take the upshot to be that widespread conceptions of civic engagement that fixate on political participation in general, and voting in particular, should not so blithely be given the moral high ground in popular discourse. We should not make poorly-informed people feel embarrassed or ashamed at not voting, or pressure them into it. Indeed, if Jason is right, they should take some pride in not voting, and we ought to congratulate many people for staying away from the polls.

I concluded my post with a potential explanation of why this change in norms will not in fact happen. I argued that the Democratic party in particular would have a lot to lose, since the least-educated lean Democratic, while the media and the intellectual class also overwhelming favors the Democrats. The cognitive elite who dominate media and academia are part of an active coalition with the least educated, and they need them to turn out if they’re going to get into power and stay there. If you don’t think it is true that the least educated Americans are much more likely than average to vote Democratic than Republican, and that journalists and academics are overwhelmingly more likely to vote for Democrats, then I would like to introduce you to something called Google. I don’t bring this up in a completely bizarre and pointless attempt at suppressing the votes of people with a high school education or less. I bring it up to explain why, in the present climate, the idea that it is not the civic duty of absolutely everyone to vote is totally doomed. I would like to think that the dispassionate discussion of democratic politics is possible.

But for those of you who are convinced that American democratic politics is a momentous battle of good versus evil, and that anything said about politics must reflect some kind of coalitional motive, let me point out that I have often aired my preference for Obama over McCain, though I will probably vote for Bob Barr.

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.

The Benign Rule of Ben Bernanke and the Ideal of Democratic Equality

Tyler Cowen writes, “The economic fallout from these events [the crashes, the bailouts, the nationalizations] is dominating the headlines.  The intellectual and ideological fallout we are just beginning to contemplate.” Here’s what I’m beginning to contemplate.

If a high level of income inequality is a side-effect of voluntary exchange according to just rules, then what’s the problem? Market liberals tend to suspect there is no problem. What I’ll call “democratic liberals” think there’s a huge problem: the threat of economic inequality to democracy. Market liberals support democracy and democratic liberals support markets. The main disagreement, I am convinced, concerns views over the point of democratic institutions and their function in securing liberal values.

Some apparent democratic liberals are so fixated on the intrinsic value of deciding things collectively that any liberal commitments they may have turn out to be completely incidental. (Benjamin Barber is a good example. There’s a good bit of liberal rhetoric, but he is a Rousseauvian “forced to be free” democratic communitarian — a straightforwardly illiberal view in my book.)  I think of those people as “democracy fetishists” and I set them aside.

Non-fetishistic democratic liberals see a certain ideal democratic system as either instrumental to or constitutive of a society guided by authentically liberal values. In either case, sound democratic institutions are necessary to the security of our basic liberties. Democratic equality, according to which each citizen has an equal voice in determining the rules under which they must live, helps ensure that no group is able to dominate, oppress, and exploit other citizens. “One man, one vote” is a fundamental principle of democratic equality, but it’s usually seen as insufficient. Adult citizens may be on equal footing when it comes to votes, but we are very far from equal in “political resources” — all the means at our disposal for shaping the ultimate product of the democratic political process. Campaign finance rules are generally meant to secure relative democratic equality by limiting the inequality in certain political resources. One of the chief arguments for public financing of primary education is that citizens require some development of their intellectual capacities and a certain fund of knowledge in order to be able to effectively defend their interests in concert with others my means of the democratic process.

And then there is the idea that simply limiting economic inequality through redistribution will limit inequality in political resources, and thereby limit the ability of the rich to rig our institutions to their advantage. Paul Krugman, an archetypical democratic liberal (and one who understands markets very well, thank you), thinks this is already happening. For Krugman, it is so urgent to combat economic inequality because the liberties of most are threatened if the super-wealthy few are able to capture the institutions meant to secure the liberties of all.

But I don’t get it. First, there is often an assumption of class interest that is clearly false. The self-interested voter hypothesis does not do well generally. And the wealthy are very far from unified in their politics. As Gelman et al point out, the poor tend to vote pretty much alike (Demmocrat) but the rich are quite divided. Judging from their book, the best way to cut it I think is this: rich people who go to church are Republicans. Rich people who don’t are Democrats.  But isn’t this a distraction?

It seems to me that money is a relatively insignificant source of inequality in political resources. I’ve shared a house with two different guys who have clerked for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Those guys probably had more influence in determining the effective policy of the U.S. government, just as a matter of doing their day-to-day work, than it is ever possible to buy with campaign ads. A JD from Yale, Harvard, Chicago, etc. is a ticket to professional networks that exert immensely disproportionate influence on the political process. Or consider Tyler’s other former debate partner, Randall Krozsner, now on the Fed Board of Governors. Could the wealthiest man in the world hope to influence American economic policy more than Krozsner? Unlikely. Indeed, Ben Bernanke’s Fed is basically unilaterally controlling the American and world economies without asking any of us for input. But the point is not the Bernanke is the most powerful man in the world. The point is that MIT and Harvard economics Ph.D.s have political resources that money cannot buy. Neither Marty Feldstein nor Paul Krugman need be in government to matter more to economic policy than a billionaire could dream. I don’t mind this. I like the technocratic elitism of the U.S. economics and legal bureaucracies. But then it’s hard to get exercised simply because some people are really really rich.

It strikes me as comical that our economy is now more or less ruled by a benign technocracy almost entirely outside democratic control, but most democratic liberals choose to complain that some billionaires are getting bailouts. If the problem with economic inequality is the threat to democracy due to large inequalities in political resources, shouldn’t democratic liberals be freaking out over the fact of the Federal Reserve, or about the immensely disproportionate influence on public opinion and policy by New York Times columnists and ulta-elite academic economists? It seems to me that if you’re not completely fliping out over these things, you can’t be genuinely interested in democratic equality. So if you insist on flipping out  over income inequality anyway, it can’t be a certain ideal of democracy that’s animating you. You’re going to need a different story to tell.

Here’s my story. Roughly meritocratic inequalities in political resources are OK. We want the democratic process, which cannot be counted on to yield high-quality policy, to be constrained and guided by legitimate experts. But then if wealthy people are better-educated, and better-educated people are more likely to make quality decisions about policy, than a democratic system more responsive to the wealthy than to the poor is more likely to deliver quality  policy (i.e., policy that does what it is intended to do). And if wealthy, better-educated people are more likely to be committed to liberal values overall, and there’s evidence that this is the case, then money-based inequalities in political resources may deliver liberal goods more reliably than a system under strict and comprehensive democratic equality.