Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: The Ethics Of Voting

I recently finished Jason Brennan's The Ethics of Voting, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the subject. His basic thesis, which boils down to "ignorant voters shouldn't vote", has a rational appeal to it. Misinformed voters voting in large numbers tends to lead to bad outcomes, so the less often that occurs the better it'll be for everyone. But, at the same time, in making that case he relies on some arguments which I find to be troublesome. His is fundamentally a substantive account of the ends of voting, resting heavily on the notion of promoting "the common good". Given that I'm skeptical that such a creature exists I'm going to have to find a way to square that particular circle if I'm ultimately to endorse his conclusions.

Brennan makes things a little easier for me in this regard by stressing that his is a purely a theory of private behavior; he explicitly rejects the idea of using some sort of legal regime to restrict the franchise only to well-informed voters. And he does so for exactly the right reasons: it's not that the ill-informed have an inalienable right to vote, but rather that we can't expect any sort of real-world implementation to be administered with the requisite degree of virtue. Since he's not trying to enshrine substantive principles in law I have much less of a beef with him than I might otherwise.

What remains is our disagreement over "the common good", whether it exists and, if it does, whether it can be reliably identified. Brenna anticipated this objection and spends some time discussing exactly what he means by the phrase starting on p. 113. He ultimately reduces the common good to the "background conditions and institutions needed for each of us to pursue and achieve our conceptions of the the good"1, quoting Linda Raeder's statement that

[T]he common good in a "great society" such as an advanced liberal society - one characterized by an extensive division of labor and knowledge and integrated by common economic, legal, and moral practices - consists on [sic] the fulfillment of the fundamental values implicitly held by all its members: the preservation of the social order as a whole, the abstract, enduring structure within which all individual and organizational activities must occur."2

I'm personally in agreement with Brennan and Raeder; that seems like a decent conception of "the common good". But it's also clear to me that the details of what constitutes the common good will vary (perhaps widely) from person to person. Is it necessary for voters to share a conception of the common good, or is it sufficient that voters merely vote for their conception of the common good? Brenna seems to be making the weaker claim, saying that "the common good" should be thought of "as a variable to be fill in by the correct theory of the ends of government"3.

This seems acceptable to me. The correctness of a vote is, to some extent, an empirical fact. If a voter claims a specific set of preferences we can assess (at least in theory) whether eir votes promote those preferences. Voters who vote contrary to their expressed preferences (probably) do so out of ignorance, which means that we can objectively say that ignorance is an undesirable quality in a voter without making any strong claims about the end of government itself. Circle squared, QED.

With that fundamental objection dealt with let's talk about some of the interesting bits of the book. Regular readers of this blog know that I've given up voting for 3 primary reasons:

  1. Ignorance: I share Brennan's take on uninformed voting and doubt that I meet the threshold for casting an informed voting.
  2. Uncertainty: I'm not entirely certain, at least in the context of an individual candidate, that we can say with any confidence what policies that candidate will actually pursue.
  3. Moral censure: It seems to me that to participate willingly in a system is to ultimately endorse its outcome. Since I think representative democracy as it's currently practiced in the US (i.e. the two-party system) had serious, fundamental flaws I choose not to validate it by participating.

Brennan addresses items 1 and 2, but (surprisingly) doesn't touch on item 3 at all.

With regards to item 1 he points out that it's not necessary to have direct and immediate knowledge of all the issues at hand in order to vote well; one need only be able to "reliably discover who the trustworthy experts are and vote with expert opinion"4. All this requires, according to him, is "significant knowledge and some critical thinking ability"5, but I remain unpersuaded. Identifying the trustworthy experts in a particular field takes a lot of time and effort; doing so for a wide variety of fields (economics, social science, and history, to use his examples) is even more daunting. Let's consider history, for example: I'm still trying to figure what to make of Niall Ferguson. The War of the World seemed lucid enough to me, but knowledgeable people think he's totally off-base. I could take this third-party testimony to heart, maybe balance it with the third-party testimony of his supporters, but if I did that it's far from self-evident that I would actually know (in the sense of "justifiably believe") anything more than when I started. In light of this sort of consideration I think the bar for responsible voting might be higher that Brennan acknowledges.

As for uncertainty, Brennan cites Bryan Caplan6 in support of the thesis that "politicians generally attempt to give people what they ask for"7. I haven't read any of Caplan's work, so I can't say whether it supports that conclusion or not, but as a counter-example let me present one Barack Obama. His history prior to becoming POTUS could reasonably lead one to conclude that he'd respect civil liberties, wouldn't be a big drug warrior, and would be reticent about the conduct of war. While these extrapolations are reasonable they are also, of course, totally incorrect. Conversely, the current 2012 GOP field says lots of crazy-ass shit, so crazy that they can't possibly mean it... you hope. In either case you've got a situation where there's a mismatch between the policies which were/are being espoused and the policies which were/will be enacted. Perhaps this disconnect represents a relatively new development, but it still seems to be the case that predictions about what policies a given candidate will enact are uncertain enough that they fail to meet the criteria of "justified belief" laid out by Brennan.

As for my final reservation about voting, that participating endorses a fundamentally flawed system, Brennan is basically mute, though he sort of sidles up to the issue in his treatment of third parties and compromise voting. He waffles a little bit in this regard, noting that third parties basically never get elected, so even if their policies would lead to the best outcomes (were they to get elected) it might better promote the common good if a compromise candidate with a real chance of winning is selected instead8. A little later on, however, he also notes that this sort of behavior may promote the continual selection of compromise candidates and that the long-term common good might actual be better promoted by people voting their sincere preferences9. This seems like something that can be tested empirically, which means it should be right up Brennan's alley, but it may be the case that no one's bothered.

One final observation before I bugger off: I'm vaguely annoyed at his summation. He basically says "I've proven my point that ignorant voters shouldn't vote. You'll have to look elsewhere for suggestions on how to deal with that particular problem.". Yes, sure, fine... no one is going to hold his feet to the fire and make him talk. But he's not dumb and he's clearly done a lot of research to put the book together, so he probably could venture a helpful suggestion or two if he were move to do so. Absent that I'm going to take a stab at the problem based on some of the information he's presented.

Ultimately the problem is that the ratio of bad votes to good votes (using his definitions) is too high. In such a situation we have two, non-exclusive options: reduce the number of bad votes or increase the number of good votes. Based on the material Brenna has presented it seems like it's fairly difficult to increase the number of good votes. It takes lots of time and effort to be well-informed enough to vote and, perversely enough, the more likely you are to be a good voter the less likely you are to actually engage in politics10. Which makes me think that there's more traction to be had in reducing the number of bad votes, since getting people to stay home seems more effective than trying to make them smarter. This, in turns, leads us to ask what motivates bad voters to vote in the first place.

Interestingly enough, Brennan has a decent amount to say on that topic. One probable reason that people choose to vote at all is that its "cheap altruism"11; it makes them feel good about doing something positive while imposing a negligible cost12. Additionally, the "folk theory of voting ethics" 13 holds, contra Brennan, that one has a duty to vote but no duty to vote well. All of which suggests that part of the problem is the prevalence of democratic fundamentalism (to use Bryan Caplan's phrase) in the US; people treat democracy as an ends in itself and voting as some sort of civic sacrament. Democratic societies drill this view into children at an early age14, so its no wonder that they hold that view as adults. Wouldn't it be a fine bit of irony if the way to improve the democratic process was to stop taking it so seriously?

1 P. 114
2 Ibid.
3 P. 115
4 Pp. 104 - 105
5 P. 105
6 P. 180n21
7 P. 10
8 P. 130
9 P. 132
10 P. 176
11 P. 162
12 Which, if true, might be justification for the imposition of a very modest poll tax.
13 P. 3
14 P. 155
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