Democracy and Voting 16:41

Is democracy a means to an end, or is it valuable in itself? Brennan discusses democracy and voting.

Further Reading
Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting

Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Brennan: We’ve been talking a lot about institutions and the standards by which we might judge them to be just or unjust, better or worse.  So let’s take a step back and think about how we think about evaluating things in general.  We think about evaluating say a hammer like what makes this a good hammer.  Usually, you think of it in terms of its functionality like it has a role to play, a job to do, and it’s good if it helps you do that.  We imagine it pounds the nails.  That’s what makes a good hammer.  When you think about other things let’s say a painting, you often think you don’t care about whether it’s functional.  You care about how beautiful it is, how sublime it is, what it symbolizes, or perhaps who made it.  And then when you think about say a person, people can be functional.  Some can be useful, some can be sublime, etc, etc.  But persons are also ends in themselves.  They have a kind of value as ends in themselves that perhaps hammers don’t have.  

So what about democracy?  We think about democracy and the value it might have.  Is it more like a hammer?  Is it more like a painting?  Or is it more like a person?  Is it an end in itself?  Is it something that you care about because it’s beautiful or because of who made it, or some symbolic reason, or is it just functional and that’s why we care about it?  So there are two basic kinds of use or answers to the question of what kind of value does democracy have.  People who are called instrumentalists hold that political institutions like democracy are valuable as hammers are valuable.  There are some ends of justice that ought to be achieved that are independent of whatever procedures we use, and we just pick whatever form of government best gets us to those ends.  Other people were called proceduralists, they think that democracy is an end in itself or just in itself, or it’s just because it symbolizes something or expresses the right kind of ideas.  So there are lots of proceduralist arguments.  

Let me go through a few because I’m a little bit skeptical about proceduralism and more into instrumentalist on myself.  So when people try to argue what’s so important about democracy, why is it a good thing to have, one of the most obvious arguments is that it imbues you with the ability to protect yourself.  When you’re in a monarchy, you’re kind of at the mercy of what the king wants to do.  But when you’re a democracy, you have a vote and that vote protects you.  It protects you from government, and well, you influence government.  And the thought here is then that vote is instrumentally valuable to you.  But the worry about this is that it doesn’t look like votes do very much.  It doesn’t look like there’s chance of your vote making any sort of difference.  So economists debate to some degree what’s the probability that your vote will be decisive but they all agree that in most cases, the probability is vanishingly small.  On the most optimistic assessment I know of, you have as high as like a one in 60 million chance of changing the election of the outcome of the presidential election, but then only if you’re voting in one of a few swing states.  Otherwise, your chance is vanishingly small.  On a different economic model, your chances are thousands of orders of magnitude below, I mean again, vanishingly small.  You have a better chance of winning Powerball than you do of changing the outcome of a presidential election.  

So everyone kind of agrees that typically, votes don’t make much of a difference.  In which case, it doesn’t look like votes are going to be valuable for that kind of reason.  It might be useful to give lots of people votes, maybe then that will result in better government or something like that but it doesn’t look like it’s useful to you in particular to have your vote.  The government’s going to do whatever it’s going to do regardless of whether you have it.  Also, even on this view that like votes are useful in order to protect yourself, they’re only going to protect you if you knew how to vote in the first place.  So it’s not enough to know “Well there’s one person who’s going to help me with my interests and the other person’s going to undermine.”  I mean it does not appear to be the case.  You have to know who those people are.  And the problem is that when you look at what people know, they’re largely ignorant of these facts.  So starting about the 1950’s, researchers at Columbia University, and then later the University of Michigan, started cataloging what Americans know and don’t know about politics.  And basically, they don’t know anything.  And even now with the advent of the internet, the information is much easier to acquire, they still don’t know anything.  It hasn’t changed at all.  People don’t know generally who their senators are, who their representatives are, they don’t know what happened in the past four years, they don’t know trends.  So for example, the end of the Clinton era when crimes have been dropping dramatically, people thought crime was going up.  They’re usually unable to estimate unemployment within a five percentage point ratio.  They don’t generally know how much is being spent on most things.  They can’t identify who we went to war with recently.  A large percentage of Americans don’t know we fought in the Revolution.  In 1964, they surveyed Americans asked is the Soviet Union part of NATO?  NATO, the alliance created to fight the Soviet Union?  There were a large percentage of Americans, nearly 50 said yes.  So people don’t know a lot about politics.  The reason isn’t because they’re stupid.  The reason is because they just don’t care.  And the reason they don’t care is because they recognize that their individual votes don’t count for very much.  It doesn’t make sense for them to acquire information about politics.  It’s not worth their while.  One way of thinking about that is suppose I told you that somewhere in this building, I’ve hidden a million dollars, and I have the instructions for how to find that million dollars in that book right behind me.  I’ve written into the words like the instructions are how to find the million dollars.  In order to find it, you have to read say some history book, just one book.  Well you’d probably read it because you’ll get through it and maybe you really don’t care much about the information there but you’re looking for that key to that million dollars.  Now on the other end, if I told you I’ve hidden a billion dollars somewhere in DC and you’ll be able to find it, I’ve hidden the information about where that billion dollars is in the library at Georgetown which has 2.8 million books.  Now it’s not worth your while to read the books because you could spend your entire life reading and you’ll never find that information.  Effectively, that’s what’s going on with people when it comes to political information.  They don’t acquire or they don’t consume political information because it’s not instrumentally useful for them to do so regardless of whether they’re selfish or altruistic in their motives, it doesn’t make sense for them to invest in political information because that information doesn’t pay off.  So a sort of scary thing about democracy is that it incentivizes people to be ignorant.  

And what would actually take to be a good voter in the first place?  If you think about it, it’s actually kind of hard.  It requires a lot of information.  It’s not going to be enough to know this candidate prefers one policy and this candidate prefers another, like this candidate is in favor of free trade and this candidate’s in favor of protectionism because you’d also need to know something about the likely outcomes of those policies, if they managed to get their way, what will happen if we have free trade versus protectionism?  To know that, you need to know some economics.  Further, it’s not enough to know that one favors one thing and one favors another and what those things are likely to do.  You need to know something about how likely is it if I elect this candidate that this candidate will be able to implement the policies he or she advocates?  Well to know that, you need to a lot about political science.  So to be an informed voter is actually tremendously difficult.  It requires a lot of information.  And when we survey voters, it looks like they don’t have it.  So again, it doesn’t seem like having the right to vote is instrumentally useful for that reason.  

Another argument that people give on behalf of why voting might be sort of an end in itself or democracy might be an end in itself is that it in some way makes you more autonomous.  You become partial authors of the law like the law isn’t just a thing imposed upon you but by participating in the electoral process, you are in some way partially the author of the law.  And maybe that’s an idea of autonomy but it’s a pretty desiccated view.  When you think about how autonomy works, it doesn’t usually look like that.  Like let’s do an experiment.  I want to check to see if I have autonomous control over my own hand so I’m going to will to move my hand and let’s see what happens.  It looks like I have autonomous control over it.  Now let’s do another experiment.  I’m going to will that it become dark outside right now.  No, it’s still light.  So I conclude based on my experiment I do not have autonomous control over the sun.  Now when it comes to democracy, does it look more like this or more like that?  Well, unfortunately, it looks a little bit more like the second case.  I can will that we elect a candidate who has certain preferences but it seems like no matter what I do whether I vote or don’t vote, whether I vote for one person or the other, whether I give money one way or the other, it doesn’t make a difference.  I could reverse all my political stances and have the same exact outcome either way.  So it doesn’t appear that any individual has autonomous control over democracy.  And that’s not really a bug of democracy, that’s supposed to be a feature.  I mean the whole point of democracy is to disempower individuals and instead empower collectives.  The hope is that by empowering collectives, the majority at the moment, that will in some way tend to protect people in ways that empowering one person the way a monarchy does doesn’t.  

So Robert Nozick kind of made fun of democracy a little bit in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  He has a story called the Tale of the Slave which I’ll condense right now to kind of illustrate this idea that democracy doesn’t really make you autonomous.  And here’s how it goes.  He says, “I want you to imagine that you’re a slave living in a manor and you’ve got a master.”  And then what’s going to happen over the course of the story is that there will be a series of incremental changes in how you’re treated by the master, and then he sort of asks the reader to raise his or her hand when he or she no longer thinks she’s a slave.  So it starts off here like a normal slave.  Your master’s very cruel and beats you whenever he or she feels like it for no particularly good reason.  And life stinks.  But then as the master gets older, he becomes a little bit kinder, a little bit wiser, and he says, “Henceforth, I will only beat you if you break rules.” And he posts the rules on the wall and he actually sticks to it.  He only beats you or punishes you for breaking those rules and otherwise never punishes you.  Later, the master realizes that it’s not that useful to keep you on the manor so he sends you out to town.  He says, “You can go live in town and work in town but you have to give me four-sevenths of your income and send it back to me.  I also retain the right to change this rule at any time.  I can call you back to the manor for its defense, and I can have control over what you eat and how you eat, and what things you consume and how you live.”  But the master doesn’t always exert all that much control over you.  So you’re living out in town, and then after a while, the master gets kind of sick and he’s right about when he’s about to die, he decides to do something weird with his will.  It turns out he doesn’t just own you as a slave, he has ten thousand other slaves.  So as he dies, he bequeaths his property right and all ten thousand one slaves to all the slaves except you.  So the ten thousand one slaves are now owned by the ten thousand slaves collectively except for you.  You don’t have any ownership rights.  So these ten thousand slaves, they end up treating you exactly like the master did.  You’ve replaced your one headed master with a ten thousand headed master.  So they continue to do the same things.  You get to live on town, you send them your income, they can change the rules at any time, but they tend to stick to it.  And after a while, they realized they’d like some of your input because you know some things.  So whenever they’re making decisions about how they’re going to create rules for themselves and for you, they’ll invite you to come and they’ll ask for your advice.  And after a few years of you doing this, you give such good advice that as a reward, they say, “You know what we’re going to do?  Whenever we’re indifferent, whenever we’re split five thousand, five thousand, we’ll let you decide what to do.”  And the way they do this is they have you write down your opinion on a piece of paper and they stick it in the box and then they take a vote and whenever it’s split five thousand to five thousand, they open up the box and look at what you want.  After a few years, they never actually been split five thousand to five thousand so they just decided to throw your vote in all the time.  

So most people when they read this regardless of their political disposition, they go “It doesn’t seem like we ever stopped being slaves.”  And Nozick’s saying, look, he’s not trying to say that living in a modern democratic nation state is exactly the same thing as being a slave.  That would be a really bad hyperbole.  But it does have some disturbing features which is that when you think about your relationship to government, it is kind of like that.  It’s that it has control and you don’t.  What you say doesn’t matter.  It looks as if what’s unsettling about the master-slave relationship and the tale of the slave, some features of that is inherent in how we live now.  So democracy again, it’s not empowering individuals, it’s not giving you autonomy, it’s not giving you control over your life.  What it’s doing is it’s giving the collective control over the rules.  Maybe that’s a good thing to do but if it is, it must be because it just turns out empirically that democracies do a better job protecting individual liberty than the alternatives.  And perhaps there’s some explanation for that.  But it doesn’t look like it’s because democracy sort of justifies an end in itself because it makes you equal or because it gives you power, or because it gives you autonomy.  

Question: Would you say that we have some sort of moral obligation to vote like we owe it to people in the past who have like fought for this right to go out and actually go to the polls and vote or no?

Brennan: Yeah, that’s a good question.  People make that argument a lot.  That’s sort of what other people have fought and died or marched or whatever for this right so you have an obligation to exercise it.  But it’s kind of like akin to saying, well, people have fought for your right to free speech so therefore you’re obligated to buy a book, I’m sorry, write a book; or people have fought for your right to assemble so you’re obligated to march.  Think of it like the goal is it might be important that you be given these rights but it isn’t required that you go and actively exercise them all the time because we don’t think that with other kinds of rights.  When people try to argue “Is there an obligation to vote?” there are all sorts of reasons that people give on behalf of that obligation and one of the most common arguments is something like “You’re benefiting from good government.  You sort of owe a debt to society.  Maybe you should discharge or repay that debt by voting.”  My worry though with those kinds of arguments is that they never specifically get you to voting.  It seems like if I have this obligation to repay society for the good that it’s done me, I can do that in all sorts of ways instead of voting.  In fact voting doesn’t seem particularly good at that like I could be an auto mechanic and that would do even more good.  If they say we have some obligation to promote the common good of society like you should be civically virtuous and promote the common good, it looks like there are all sorts of other things that you can do as well besides voting.  So what’s so special about voting?  I’m just not sure.  I think what tends to happen in modern democratic nation states is that we treat the right to vote as being sort of like a metaphorical badge of honor.  So like the Nazis required the Jews to wear Stars of David that sort of signified their inferiority.  And we use the right to vote to sort of signal equality.  It’s as if it’s a medal we give to everybody to say, “You’re one of us.  You’re a full member of the nation state.”  I’m sometimes worried about whether that makes sense to do that whether we should imbue voting rights with that kind of symbolic power.  But I tend to think like we should treat voting as an instrument to achieving justice and that’s all it is.  

Question: So I wonder if you’re being a little I guess too kind to the idea of voting.  Is there any merit do you think to the argument that by voting and participating in this, you’re kind of ultimately participating in all the bad things that happen or that the government will do in causing that and so is there a moral argument against voting?

Brennan: Right.  There are a lot of people especially those with the anarchist bend that make this sort of argument.  They say what the government is doing is evil.  We should dispense with monopolies and violence altogether.  And if you’re voting, you’re kind of perpetuating the mission.  There are some worries about that.  One is well your individual vote doesn’t make enough of a difference.  It’s not like if I just decide not to vote today, the government will collapse and be replaced with utopian anarchy.  As individuals, we do very little; collectively, we might be able to do something.  And given that we’re in a particular kind of system, it seems like we should just ask “What’s the most instrumentally viable thing to do?”  If we can form a block and collectively get the government to do something that’s a little bit more just, seems weird for someone to complain, “Well that isn’t the ideally just thing to do.  You’ve made things better but you didn’t make things perfect.”  So I guess I’m not that worried about deciding not to participate for that reason but there might be some other reasons not to participate.  I mean it’s kind of surprising we often say to people, “It doesn’t matter if you know anything or not.  Just go ahead and vote.”  But why do we say that?  What if your voting makes things worse?  What if you’re just voting completely out of ignorance and you’re not well informed and you pick a candidate who’s worse for everyone else?  It seems kind of problematic to me in some ways.  I mean again your individual vote doesn’t make a big difference but if lots of people do that, we get stuck with the worse quality government that we otherwise might have.

Topics Philosophy