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.