Julia Maskivker believes not only that we should vote, but that we must vote. Even when confronted with two unappealing candidates, or with ballot propositions whose effects we will barely feel, or with the fact that our single vote might never tip an election, we must vote.
Do we have a duty to vote or do we have a duty instead to vote well? What is the purpose of voting? What is voter fatigue?
The Duty to Vote, written by Julia Maskivker
An Economic Case for Democracy, written by Anthony Downs
The Ethics of Voting, written by Jason Brennan
Ranked Choice Voting, A Better Way to Vote?, Building Tomorrow Podcast
Voting as a Moral Wrong, written by Aaron Ross Powell
Bonus Election Day Episode: Should Libertarians Vote?, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:11 Aaron Powell: It’s a pretty common belief among Americans that everyone ought to get out and vote, that civic duty demands that you head to the polls on election day and pick a candidate. People who refuse to vote, whatever the reasons might be, get criticized for not living up to their responsibilities as citizens. But is this attitude justified? Is it in fact the case that each of us ought to vote and that we’re doing something wrong if we abstain? And if you have such a duty, what does it entail? Is every vote a good one, no matter who you vote for, or how much, or how little you know about politics and policy? Do we have a duty to vote or do we have a duty instead to vote well? Our guest today is Julia Maskivker, Associate Professor of Political Science at Rollins College. Her new book is The Duty to Vote. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
00:56 Julia Maskivker: Thank you so much for having me.
00:58 Aaron Powell: So given the title of your book, I think I may already know the answer to this question, but I have to confess that I haven’t voted in an election in 20 years.
01:07 Trevor Burrus: And I’ve never voted.
01:09 Aaron Powell: Am I doing something wrong?
01:12 Julia Maskivker: I would say so. [chuckle] I would say you’re doing something morally wrong if the reason why you’re not voting or never voted is that you simply don’t care, or couldn’t care less. If that’s the reason, I think you are doing something wrong.
01:29 Trevor Burrus: So is it the voting that’s required, does it have characteristics to it? Can I go in and write in Mickey Mouse into the right-hand spot of the ballot and then… Would that be accomplishing the duty, or would it be a more immoral action than not voting?
01:47 Julia Maskivker: No. Yeah, that’s a good question. My case for the duty to vote is not a case for the duty to vote simpliciter. It’s a case for the duty to vote well, or minimally well. That is, you should vote responsibly with the minimum amount of information of what’s at stake in the election. So in that sense, it’s a little bit more demanding than just showing up at the polls. That would not be a good thing to do in my view.
02:19 Aaron Powell: So I wanna unpack some of that, because there’s a lot of things in there that are… What does minimal mean, what does well mean, and so on. But before I get to that, I guess ask a broader question, which is just, what is voting for? Like, if we’re supposed to be doing this thing, we’re doing it for some reason. So what’s the value of doing it?
02:40 Julia Maskivker: Yeah, sure. So, voting, in my view, it’s an instrumental activity. We may vote for several reasons, but the most important one should be that we wanna affect collectively I mean. As a country, as an electorate, we wanna affect the quality of institutions, and more particularly, we wanna affect the quality of policies, or policy outcomes, as political scientists would say. So voting has a point, it has a function. And simply put, you could say that at a minimum, you could say voting gets the bums out, right? It leaves them out of a job, if you will. Voting puts governments in power and it makes them lose power. So in that sense, it achieves justice or at least the avoidance of injustice in that respect.
03:40 Aaron Powell: And does this mean that the duty is… So we could think about voting in two ways, I think, related to what you’re saying. Which is, one, is voting in the aggregate, the process of having elections in which some portion of the electorate votes accomplishes a certain set of things, whether that’s leading to better policy, or at least changing government, or whatever, so voting as like a general category of activity versus voting on an individual case basis. So whether like, I, Aaron, or Trevor have an obligation to participate in this activity. And there might be slightly different moral considerations there. And just to clarify what I mean for our audience, farming is something that we need… The world needs people farming and it would be bad if nobody farmed. But at the same time, that’s not an argument that any individual person must become a farmer.
04:41 Julia Maskivker: Right. There are a lot of arguments there that need to be unpacked. I would say, first, obviously, the most sort of basic piece of political wisdom, or political science wisdom, is that, yeah, your single little vote will not tilt the election. At least in large elections, your vote really will not make a difference. We know this from reading many political science accounts of voting, in particular scientist Anthony Downs in his celebrated book, An Economic Case for Democracy, he argued voting is irrational because from an individual standpoint, you won’t make a difference. Fair enough. I don’t argue with that argument, I think it’s correct. What I argue in the book is that, collectively speaking, as a collective activity, when many people vote, voting may have a discernible impact in the election. And for that reason, we have a moral duty to partake of that collective activity that is voting. We have a duty to partake of the collective activity that elections make possible.
05:57 Trevor Burrus: So does it matter… For example, will the duty change… ‘Cause if we [06:03] ____ there is some that [06:04] ____ collectivity here, and so if you are a Republican in California with very little likelihood of actually having anything change even if everyone got together and did it at the same time and every Republican got out and voted, versus being a Republican in Alabama, would that vary your duty?
06:27 Julia Maskivker: The problem with the American political landscape is that you have the Electoral College, which is not a reality in many other countries. Right? So it is true that your vote may be heavier, or may matter more in some states than in others, and it may be the case that it may not make a difference what you do in states like California.
06:55 Trevor Burrus: But even for a house member, like a Republican in California, without the Electoral College, even if every Republican got together and did that, they probably wouldn’t do anything to change the election.
07:06 Julia Maskivker: Well then, we have to think about what structural reforms also should go hand in hand with this case with the moral duty to vote. I devote a whole chapter to this issue in the book. Just because the wrong type of institutions or problems like gerrymandering exist, it doesn’t mean that voting in the abstract, as a moral duty, makes no sense. You may say, “Well, in the case of the United States, the duty doesn’t seem to be as effective as it should be,” but that doesn’t mean that this is the reality in other countries or that it should be the reality all the time.
07:42 Aaron Powell: Does this argument apply more broadly? So, if there is any… There are lots of things that I can do in the world to make the world a better place, both politically or non-politically. They’re just to kind of improve the lot of myself and others. There are many activities I can take. And some of those activities have a very low probability of actually making the world better. A vanishingly small one, but there’s always a chance. Does the argument you’re articulating mean that in every instance where such an opportunity, even if the probability is vanishingly small, presents itself, I have some degree of obligation to do it?
08:30 Julia Maskivker: Right. No, that’s a great question. Of course there are many ways in which we can better the world. It’s funny because opponents of my view usually say, “Well, there are many other things that are much more effective than voting.” And in the book I question that argument. I say, “Well, you wanna fight global poverty by donating to charity. I’m sure your single donation will not make a shred of a difference, or you wanna fight climate change by driving an ecologically-friendly vehicle, I’m sure your action… Doing that will not really change the quality of air in the area where you live.”
09:10 Julia Maskivker: So I don’t think that it’s extremely clear, or at least patented clear, that many other activities are much more effective from an individual point of view than voting is. But that was not the question. The question was, do I think that if you’re obligated to help society by voting, then you’re also obligated to help society by doing anything else? I don’t think that’s the case. My argument is that voting is morally unique in a sense that many other activities are not because voting installs people in power. Voting authorizes governments to govern, to do their job juridically and legally. So it is a very distinctive, morally and practically, activity that many other ways of helping others do not achieve. And because of that, we do have a special obligation to do that that we may not have when it comes to other ways of helping people.
10:18 Trevor Burrus: Is it problematic when the use of voting to legitimize or authorize authoritarian and violent regimes… It’s sort of interesting that your worst dictatorships on the planet are usually called the people’s republic of something…
10:37 Julia Maskivker: Oh, yeah.
10:37 Trevor Burrus: And they claim to be democratic and… Often it’s a complete farce. But in places where people did vote, and upon that person taking power, they commit extreme acts, horrible acts, immoral acts, but then claim that the people voting is actually what allows them to commit the horrible acts. Is that a problem in terms of using democracy to legitimize those kind of behaviors?
11:01 Julia Maskivker: Oh, well, of course. My argument does not cover cases of non-democratic government, of course. I mean, elections put in power tyrants and authoritarian rulers, but elections also put good rulers in power. They do both things. We can’t say elections don’t matter, or we shouldn’t resort to them, because sometimes, many times, tyrants are put in power through them. That will be ridiculous. Then, what’s left? How do you choose now?
11:38 Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s interesting. Even if they’re not a tyrant, if the government is doing something… For example, one reason that I don’t vote in many of these elections is, for example, I think the drug war is the most immoral thing the federal government has ever done except for slavery, and if I’m given a choice of a candidate both of whom want to fight the drug war, and so I don’t actually have the moral choice available to me. And the other issues, maybe not even as important, that they vary on this one, or they have little differences here… So even voting for one of them is a method of actually authorizing in a way that feels immoral to me, authorizing the drug war. And if all the candidates are for the drug war, then if I have to vote for one of the candidates, I am authorizing it in some way. That’s the way I view it, and that’s why I don’t do it.
12:10 Julia Maskivker: Well, yeah, that’s a fascinating point. It’s the question of lesser evil voting. Should you vote for the lesser of two or more evils or should you always vote on principled grounds? And I’m actually writing a paper on that right now. Listen, I agree with you about the drug war, but I do think that some rulers, or some candidates, or some politicians are much worse than others. Case in point, the President of the United States.
12:10 Trevor Burrus: [chuckle] Yeah.
12:58 Julia Maskivker: I think… I may not like the present candidates because I’m opposed to their policies on the drug war, or on abortion, or the welfare state, or whatever that is, but I may believe that some of them are much better and much more preferable than what we have currently in power. And because of that, I am going to exercise my right, fulfilling my duty of Samaritan help, as I explain it in the book, and I will vote so that the greater evil is ousted from the seat of government. And I think you should do that too.
13:37 Aaron Powell: On that then, that’s a question of principled voting, ‘cause that kind of raises an interesting point about your vote as… There’s two ways that we can think of your vote as valuable. One is the instrumental, which you’ve mentioned, which is your vote goes towards determining who wins the election and then who wins the election is going to set policy and we would rather that someone who’s gonna set good policy, or at least not as bad policy, wins the election. So its vote is instrumental. But another value of the vote is, and this kind of ties in to, I think, what Trevor was saying, is voting as signaling, effectively.
14:15 Aaron Powell: That you’re saying like, even if my side loses… And there’s questions about whether mandates are real things in political science, but we can say that a candidate who wins overwhelmingly, that looks like he has more of the support of the public than a candidate who barely ekes out a victory. And so there could be a case where you say like, “Look, even if I vote for a candidate who I know is not going to win, if they get a substantial portion of the vote, enough that they’re noticed, that kind of signals to politicians that ‘Hey, there are people out there who care a lot about this particular answer on these issues.’” But there’s a tension there obviously. There’s the tension of voting… A vote for the person who I think it’s worth signaling that their values matter might mean not voting for a person who’s a lesser evil but has a slightly greater chance of winning. And so how do you go into an election, go into the choice, weighing those things against each other?
15:22 Julia Maskivker: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a great question. Listen, I think the devil is in the details. It all depends on how evil the greater evil is [chuckle] and how important it is that he or she is ousted. I would say that the signaling function of the vote is a very important one. I would say it’s also an instrumental one. At least in the long term it is, ‘cause you do wanna affect policy outcomes in the long term by telling the politician you’re voting against that he or she is doing something wrong and therefore should change their actions or policy preferences. But I do think that when the situation is abysmal and the danger is great and serious, you do have a duty to leave the signaling objective aside and vote to oust the potentially tyrannical or unjust person in power. I think that should be your duty.
16:28 Julia Maskivker: So it depends on what the circumstances are. It depends on the magnitude of the greater evil, it depends on how serious and menacing the threat is. So I can’t give you a straightforward answer, it all depends on what the situation in the particular context is. In this context today, I think that the signaling goal should take the back seat to the more urgent need to end this administration’s tenure.
17:09 Aaron Powell: And then what about the strength of this duty. So tease out kind of how strong this duty is. ‘Cause we can have lots of duties that then range very much on these are ones where under no circumstances should you violate this duty and then we can have minor ones where it’s just like, if the opportunity is this, you should take it. So the strength of this duty compared to the costs of voting. And we’ll still get into what it means to vote well and what goes into that, but just the simple act of voting has costs. It takes time, it takes more time if you can’t do a mail-in ballot, some people have to take time off of work. There are opportunity costs involved in voting. Is there a point at which the costs can be sufficiently high to mean that it’s kind of okay to violate the duty?
18:00 Julia Maskivker: Alright. Yeah. So many things here. First, I don’t argue that the duty is never to be overridden. There may be personal considerations, personal situations that justify the person not voting. The most trivial or simple example that I give in the book is that, well, if you’re caring for a sick relative on election day, maybe your duty to stay and take care of them instead of go vote, other more sort of serious dilemmas may present themselves. The issue of… Sort of the more abstract or analytically interesting issue of opportunity costs in voting is… I have much to say about that. What I argue is that, well, of course, the opportunity cost of voting may be higher for some people, but that’s not necessarily a natural fact. We as a society may make those costs higher for no reason, for no justifiable reason. Say, if we make election day on a Tuesday, well, it may be a bad idea to do that for working people. Maybe a holiday or a Sunday will be a better option like the rest of the world does it.
19:13 Julia Maskivker: Hurdles or obstacles that today exist, like government ID being required by certain people that may not have the means to have these documents in hand all the time, all these things can be reformed. They’re not necessarily an act of nature. But the issue of opportunity costs also has a different dimension. Usually, my opponents argue that, well, voting is really costly because you have to get that right information to do so responsibly and that is really a high cost. The argument is… Usually, the assumption is that because you need to know a lot. A lot of economic knowledge, political science knowledge, a lot of technical, if you will, knowledge. It almost seems as if you need a PhD in order to be a good voter when you read these accounts against my position or against voting more generally.
20:08 Julia Maskivker: I challenge that line of argument in my book. I do not think that voting minimally well for regular citizens in society it requires PhD type of knowledge. I do agree that it requires some type of knowledge but I don’t think this knowledge is extremely hard or difficult to obtain under the right circumstances. I also argue that the opportunity costs of voting are not necessarily costs that will make or alter our ways of living life as we deem best. Voting really doesn’t alter our plans of life in a profound significant manner as, for example, not being able to drive a highly polluting vehicle does. Some people may say, “Well, you know, I do want clean air in my community, but I do not wanna quit driving my highly contaminating car, because I enjoy driving it so much. So I won’t.” Well, you may say, “Well, that’s not really a good thing to do, but I understand why you do that. It’s your way of life. It will be costly for you to stop doing that.” But voting, in episodic elections, every four years, I don’t think that carries the same burden. So for those reasons, I don’t think that the argument that voting is costly flies that high.
21:36 Trevor Burrus: Do people who are going to vote for Donald Trump have a duty not to vote?
21:42 Julia Maskivker: Well, yeah, that’s a good question. We do have a duty not to vote badly. This is Jason Brennan’s position in his book, on The Ethics of Voting. Who can argue with that? Of course, you have a duty not to harm others. You have a duty not to do things that will affect others negatively for no justified reason. But that doesn’t leave you morally off the hook. You do have a duty to vote responsibly. If you can’t do that, or won’t do that, then you won’t, but the fact that you’re not ready to fulfill that duty, or you can’t fulfill that duty, doesn’t mean that the duty doesn’t exist. Say, if I’m driving drunk down the highway and I slow down because I’m aware that I’m drunk and I don’t wanna run over people, I don’t deserve praise for being a careful drunk driver, I shouldn’t have gotten drunk in the first place, right? So my first duty would have been to not drive under the influence of alcohol. So the first duty that I’m arguing for is a duty to get enough information to vote responsibly. The fact that some people won’t be able to do that, or won’t want to do that, doesn’t mean that the duty is not stringent.
23:07 Trevor Burrus: You mentioned though every four years, a bit ago, and so does it matter to the election? ‘Cause you… We talk about President in a lot of different ways, but there’s of course a lot of voting systems you can imagine, ones that exist in the world and hypothetical ones of different sort where you vote every day on very minute things in your life of which the government… Or you vote four years. But what about, say, school board elections, or these kind of local elections that are on off years, which have different levels of… Comptroller, state comptroller, dogcatcher, things like this. Does the duty still exist in the same way there?
23:45 Julia Maskivker: Yeah, good question. No, no, my case is this. You have a Samaritan duty to vote to help others, right? In the same way as if you’re driving down the road and you see someone having a heart attack and it wouldn’t be costly for you to stop and call 911 on your cell phone, if you don’t do that you’re a bad person. I say, if you don’t vote to help society in the way in which a good Samaritan would, then you’re morally delinquent in a way. So Samaritan duties of aid are only stringent or valid if they’re not costly enough. Now, voting every time there’s a single election at the communal or local level, which happens a lot in this country, would run afoul of that Samaritan requirement.
24:32 Julia Maskivker: In order to be a good Samaritan, you need to be a hero. Samaritan duties of justice are supposed to be easy, or relatively easy to fulfill. And from a political science perspective, there’s this phenomenon that we call, or refer to as voter fatigue, which as I said before is quite common in many districts in the United States. Too many elections at the same time, too many things to vote for at the same time, people get confused and tired, fatigued. Actually, political science work suggests that if elections were not that frequently put on top of each other on the same ballot, people would probably be better equipped to know or understand what they’re voting for.
25:18 Aaron Powell: There does seem to be though, with these smaller elections, a counter-balancing factor. Which is, if a large portion of our reason to vote is instrumental, that we are… The Samaritan duty that we’re executing is to improve the world through better politics and policy are the smaller the election, or the fewer people who participate in it, the more likely my vote is to actually have an instrumental effect. So as you said, the chances of my vote determining the presidential election are effectively zero, but the chances of my vote determining a local school board is higher than zero. And so, does that increase the strength of the duty in the sense that I can have more effect, and even if the thing I’m voting for… A school board is not gonna necessarily impact lives as much as the President, although it could. In this country we often underestimate how much politics happens at the local level, and how important local people are, but would that cut against this thing of voter fatigue being a cost that maybe trumps the duty and instead says like, “Look, no, you can actually be more effective in a local, and so in some ways it may be more important for you to vote in local elections and skip the Presidential one?”
26:43 Julia Maskivker: Right. Yeah, listen, it’s true that the fewer people voting, the more effective or pivotal your vote will be. There’s no doubt about that. But as you said, it’s not clear that an election for the school board will have the same effects, or even comparable effect, in terms of justice or good governance, as voting for a Senator or a President. So I would say, again, the devil is in the details. I would say, no, there’s really no comparison between arguing that presidential elections have a clear impact on the quality of governance and this local or low-level elections, collectively they may amount to something important, but again, that would entail that you would have to vote in each one of them, and that would be too burdensome. I don’t have a problem admitting that, and my argument does not argue that you should go to such lengths in order to fulfill your duty of Samaritanism towards society. It would not be correct to say that it would.
27:51 Aaron Powell: Let’s then turn to that question. So let’s stipulate then that, yes, we have a duty to vote, but you’ve mentioned several times that you have a duty to vote well. I think you… In the book you say you also have the duty to acquire what you call a minimal epistemic competence and vote with a sense of the common good in order to support fair governance. So let’s go into what that actually entails. If we’re asking people to vote well, we’re asking them to acquire sufficient knowledge, what do we mean by that? How much do people need to know? Because I sit here, I’ve been working at the Cato Institute for 10 years, I’m kind of as immersed in the American political scene as you can get in that time, and I still feel like there’s huge amounts about policy that I don’t know. And most people aren’t gonna do what I do, and in fact, I recommend most of you don’t do what I do, but what’s that level that’s required before it’s acceptable to step into the voting booth?
28:53 Julia Maskivker: Right. So, yeah, that’s a good question, where is the cut-off line? I said before, you don’t need to be a PhD in economics or political science in order to vote well, but at the same time, you need to know something. So what’s the cut-off line, if you will? So, obviously, there’s no mathematical answer to that, but there’s a huge literature on voting behavior and political psychology that deals with this question. And it’s a literature that actually detractors of my position pay very little attention to and don’t really explain, which is the heuristics literature or the cognitive shortcuts literature that people like Lupia or McCubbins Michigan argue that in order to vote minimally well, there are some things that people should know, but not all type of political knowledge is necessarily… Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to have. So you may really not need to know who your representative is in Congress or in the Senate, but you may need to know whether they are Republican or a Democrat, and you may need to know what the main ideological differences between these two parties are.
30:09 Julia Maskivker: And by these, I mean really, roughly, the main differences. And that may be sufficient to cast a minimally informed vote. And people do this all the time. They may not necessarily know anything about labor economics, or taxes, or what causes inflation, but they may know that they’re Democrats, and so they’ll go and read a New York Times editorial, and they’ll know more or less where to stand. This is a heuristic or a cognitive shortcut that a lot of people may take. A cognitive shortcut is an action that is supposed to save us effort and work necessary to acquire information, because we may not have the time or the capacity to do this by ourselves. So it’s a way of saving time and effort that is effective enough to give us the information that we need.
31:10 Trevor Burrus: It seems interesting, because there’s a… From our perspective, if you’re especially working in this sort of DC world, I see your point about heuristics, and I think it’s… A lot of people can do basic voting if they just know party, and things like this, but of course, in Washington, the fact that these parties… What’s actually going on underneath the party lines, the kind of things that people don’t pay attention to, and the people in power don’t want them to pay attention to this, because if these things were exposed, or if they were widely known, it would be a huge issue, so they sort of bank on the fact that people are ignorant enough to just go off of party, and will not vote actually well enough, maybe, when it comes down to some of the big issues, because they’ll just go straight D ticket, or a straight R ticket, and leaving all these other things in place. So they’re sustaining a system, in many ways, of complete injustice, and of immorality, because of the sort of rational ignorance that comes with voting in the heuristic thing in order for them to do their dastardly deeds behind the scenes.
32:20 Julia Maskivker: Oh, I agree completely with you. There’s a high degree of elite domination, or media frames, newspapers or TV outlets, news outlets, sort of hammering our heads with a particular type of discourse, and political scientists study this. The idea here is that there is an array of reasons, structural reasons, why people may not know as much as they should know or may not be interested in politics as not just, it will be good that they were. Opponents of my position never talk about this, never talk about the structural problems in the way in which the political system is designed. It’s sometimes also the economic situation may cause some of these problems if there’s too much income inequality. The poor may not know as much as their relatively better off because education and income level, they go hand in hand. But detractors of my position never talk about this. All they do is emphasize a sort of individual level cognitive flaws that millions of citizens evince. And, listen, I don’t disagree with the fact that voter ignorance is a bad problem. It would be blind… It would be really, really idiotic on my part to do that, to not recognize that problem.
33:47 Julia Maskivker: What I argue in the book is that the conversation has been a little unbalanced. There are grounds to not be that pessimistic about the possibility that this problem can be assuaged, right? We can work on particular reforms. Political reforms, educational reforms that may increase the level of political knowledge across the population.
34:13 Aaron Powell: From the perspective of, I guess, call it common good voting, which seems to be the end goal, that’s what we want. Is, we want more people to vote, and we want them to vote in a way that advances the common good. Do people who look more the way that you think more voters should, so possess more knowledge of this stuff, do they vote closer to the common good than people who maybe are beneath that epistemic cut-off and probably shouldn’t have voted?
34:45 Julia Maskivker: Okay. This is a contentious question. Right? What is the common good? Because you and I may have the same educational level, maybe equally smart, and we may probably disagree on substantive issues on what the common good is, right? So I do recognize this problem, and I tackle it in the book, in the chapter on what it means to vote with care. I do argue that voting with the common good in mind entails one thing, it doesn’t entail agreement on policy issues, or even what justice is really, but it entails a particular mindset or perspective. I call it the fair-mindedness, or impartiality perspective. Where you try to put yourself in the shoes of others, and you ask yourself, “Well, would this policy, or this candidate, or this party, what they’re proposing, would it be acceptable mostly to many other citizens, or am I choosing this simply because it benefits me? Am I voting only on the basis of my self-interest and advantage, or am I being mindful of the needs of others?”
35:53 Julia Maskivker: So this is, if you will, a way of thinking, it doesn’t necessarily result in agreement on policy, or even philosophies of justice, but I argue that this mindset is enough. And we know from political science research from decades and decades ago, and even today, that people vote with the common good in mind, we call it sociotropic voting. So this is not a high bar. Now, you need more than this. You also need epistemic competence, which is basically knowledge, information, factual. So I go back to what I was talking about before, the literature on cognitive heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, I think should be paid much more attention than it is by detractors of my position. I think there’s a lot of hope there. And also this idea that a lot of what people don’t know, or don’t care to know, is not an act of God, or a fact of nature. These things can be changed if the right political reforms are undertaken.
37:11 Julia Maskivker: So for example, we know that civic education has disappeared from American schools’ curricula almost. This wasn’t the case decades ago, and we actually know from political science studies that people used to know more before. Or at least cared before, or voted more often before than they do now. So I think there are a lot of things… Details that have to be talked about that are not necessarily paid attention when we argue, “Well, there’s no duty to vote, because people don’t know what they’re doing.”
37:30 Aaron Powell: Well, I guess what I’m curious to try to tease out is the relationship between those characteristics you’re discussing. So people saying “I’m voting out of a sense of the common good. I’m voting not selfishly, but I’m voting for the benefit of everyone. And that I have a certain degree of political knowledge.” So the relationship between those characteristics of the voters and the actual things that they vote for, and so whether increasing those gets us… Again, their goal is to have election results that produce more of the common good than the alternative election results. Is it the case that people who vote for candidates or policies that we might consider contrary to the common good, are they in fact doing that because they’re voting either selfishly, what they perceive to be selfishly, or because they’re ignorant, or instead, are they doing it because they know stuff about politics and they think that they know what’s best for people, but they have different conceptions of those things?
39:07 Aaron Powell: And so what I mean is, would people right now who are, say, ignorant voters, or the kinds of voters who you think probably shouldn’t vote, if they were to be better educated in… They’ll get more civics classes. Do we have evidence that they would vote better, or would they simply vote the same kind of policies that they have now, but I guess they would be better at arguing for them?
39:35 Julia Maskivker: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. So the problem of self-rationalization… Several things, right? Someone may vote for an idea of the common good that’s really selfish and self-centered or self-serving, and they some sort of rationalize it and find a way to justify it on the basis of what other people need. This happens all the time. Now, the question you asked is, would this type of people, or the people that vote for things that are contrary to the common good, if they were to know more or become more knowledgeable, wouldn’t that be worse for democracy, because now they will be able to justify it better? Sure, that’s a possibility.
40:20 Julia Maskivker: From the perspective of my theory though, I do argue that this impartiality argument, this requirement to vote, if you will, with an open mind, in a fair-minded way, not everything goes here. There are certain policy outcomes, or results, that would not be allowed by this perspective. So, say, if I think that the common good requires that women will never be allowed to serve a public office, or that gay people will never be allowed to marry, then that clearly falls outside of the orbit of the impartiality logic. Basically, that’s not the common good. You don’t understand what the common good, and you’re doing something very wrong when you vote with that idea in mind. So that’s the philosophical part.
41:13 Julia Maskivker: Now your question is more practical or empirical. I don’t know what would happen. It may be the case if that happens. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the duty is not stringent. Maybe it means that we should do a better job of educating these people, or identifying them, and trying to persuade them that what they’re doing is wrong.
41:35 Aaron Powell: I can imagine someone listening to this, and I’m gonna kind of overstate your case to clarify. So I know this isn’t actually what you’re arguing. But someone could listen to this and think that the view that you’re articulating is at some level anti-democratic. Because the purpose of democracy is for people to get together, a citizenry to get together, and hash out what they believe to be the common good, and the best way to achieve it, and then, through voting, a particular conception of that wins out, and that’s the one that we institute, at least until the next election. And that’s the purpose of democracy is, because we know that there are disagreements about this stuff. And what you’re saying is basically… And, again, I’m overstating, unless you agree with a particular conception of the common good, you shouldn’t participate. And so, the purpose of democracy is simply to advance this particular conception of the common good, and there’s something wrong with voting when we get something else, which would seem to run counter to the perceived purpose of democracy.
42:49 Julia Maskivker: Right. Well, yes, that’s an excellent question. Listen, my view of the common good is a thin view of the common good, if you wanna call it that way. I do believe that certain things are incompatible with it. Like when you don’t treat other people as free and equal, or you think violating their basic rights is what the common good requires, then, yeah, I’m willing to admit that I don’t think that’s the right way of conceiving of the common good, and if a democracy were ever to produce that type of consensus, I would be very willing to say that that’s an unjust result. Now, a liberal just democracy with the right type of institutions should not be able to produce this type of consensus. We have institutions such as division of powers, judicial review, the Bill of Rights, right? So in a sense, your description of what a democracy can produce, this is a description of a sort of very simple, unchecked, rudimentary democracy. You may say, “Well, it has existed in history.” Yes, of course. That doesn’t mean that’s the democracy we should strive for.
44:10 Julia Maskivker: Basically, there are ways to limit, or we should think about ways to limit the tyranny of the majority, and that’s not necessarily inconsistent with democracy. If you go to the Madisonian model of democracy, you go to Federalist 10, for example, pragmatically Madison talks about the problem of faction, that’s what he was trying to protect us against, right? Majority is passionate. Majority is producing results that violate or jeopardize the rights and liberties of individuals.
44:49 Trevor Burrus: In a situation of being, let’s say, a Libertarian, and trying to figure out what you’re gonna do in a given election, and there’s also a Libertarian candidate that could have purposes for… Longer term purposes maybe for building out the candidacy and having more people understand what Libertarianism is so you could vote for the Libertarian candidate and affect the election maybe negatively by not voting for one of the major party candidates, or you could also decide not to vote for also the purposes of signaling in the way that you see, that, say, when Mitt Romney ran in 2012, there was a lot of people who said the problem was that a lot of Republicans didn’t come out ‘cause he didn’t excite them.
45:30 Trevor Burrus: And so, by not coming out, they actually sent valuable information. You could say, “I’m not even gonna vote in this election because I want them to know that I’m disgusted with the choices that they’re being offered to me.” So then, political scientists actually look at the non-voters the people that usually would vote, but didn’t vote for some reason, and they actually take that into consideration when they decide who is going to run in the next election. So you can intentionally, in an informed way, not vote, either for the purposes of signaling that, or vote for a third party candidate for the purposes of signaling information too that could ultimately make the world a better place. So that would seem to me to be fulfilling the duty in its own way.
46:13 Julia Maskivker: Yeah. Yeah, too many things here. Good question. It’s funny because I would say that, it’s not really easy for… I think we have a better system than the US system to register who’s dissatisfied with democracy or the candidates and it’s the blank vote, which ironically, it’s very common in countries where voting is compulsory, like mine. I come from Argentina. Voting is compulsory there. You have the option to not vote for anyone, but instead of sitting it out, you go and you vote in blank. The government counts those votes and then everybody has a very precise idea of who’s mad. I don’t think that’s the case in the United States. People stay home and don’t vote for many reasons. Some of them can’t, don’t have the transportation needed, others don’t really care, don’t even know there’s an election, who knows? There’s so many reasons. So you can’t really trace it back to dissatisfaction. You may as well trace it back to apathy or ignorance. You don’t have that problem with the blank vote.
47:14 Julia Maskivker: So that’s one thing. The other thing… Your question takes us back to the problem of lesser evil of voting, which is something I find fascinating. I’m trying to work on it right now. So again, I do understand… The dilemma here is this. Unfortunately, there’s only two parties in this country, which is a problem, right? You would say, people have the right to have more than two parties to choose from, and a lot of people feel dissatisfied, or that their policy preferences are not necessarily honored. I understand that. So it’s not the duty of the citizen to always try to fitting in what’s available, it’s the duty of the system to provide the citizen with enough choice. So there’s a dilemma there, right? Because then, how do you do that? Well, you sit it out and you vote for the non-electable candidate, that’s your first preference, because you just wanna send a message. You’re saying, “I’m angry at this. I want more choice.” Or I want this person to be able to make it, even though you know he or she won’t.
48:20 Julia Maskivker: But it all depends on how catastrophic the background in which you’re doing this is. I argue, if you’re gonna take the luxury of voting in this way to signal your dissatisfaction, or to signal your preference for a minor candidate, and in that sense you’re letting… That action is too costly. You’re letting democracy potentially fall with it. I don’t know if enough people do that like you do, then collectively, you did something very wrong. Even though your reasons or your motivation may have been laudable, the consequences of it are going to be bad. And so you shouldn’t. But again, the devil is in the details, as I said before. It all depends on how catastrophic the background is.
49:13 Aaron Powell: You’ve mentioned Jason Brennan’s work a couple of times, and he’s been an occasional guest on this show. And for listeners, I’m curious how you distinguish… Like, what the difference is between your position of, again, that citizens… That the duty to vote entails this acquiring a minimal epistemic competence. And his position of the epistocracy, which is that we should be… That the people who should vote are the knowers, because the result is gonna be more common good. Is there… It seems like there’s… Maybe there’s a degree difference, but that they’re somewhat similar. Am I reading that correctly?
49:53 Julia Maskivker: Sure. I think the difference between Jason and I is not really as big as it would seem. We both have an instrumental approach to this issue, but we take different sides of the question. I think he clearly has… He doesn’t have any faith in the capacities of the average voter. So he thinks that anything that comes from the representative should be sort of checked by an epistocratic body. He ends up arguing it’s something like a supreme court that should have a veto. The power to veto any legislation that comes from the representatives of the people, that’s what he ends up arguing for. So in that sense, it’s a very different approach. Generally, I think… He thinks that political knowledge, or political expertise, is very hard to obtain, and that everyone voting, or planning to vote, should know a great deal of everything that’s at stake. That’s what I challenge. I think that’s not accurate. I think there’s plenty of political science research that challenges that view, and I do not think that he supports that argument with enough research to make it credible.
51:15 Trevor Burrus: I’m not sure if I’m totally convinced. I said in the beginning that I’ve actually never voted. Not only because… I mean, I would be much more in favor of voting for… Previous question with Aaron, like, school board and things like this of which the cost of obtaining the information is pretty high, but the possibilities of affecting the election could be pretty high too. And I just don’t know… I don’t know enough about local politics. And on election day, I might decide to do something different, because I haven’t learned enough about all these things and go and volunteer in a charity rather than voting. Ultimately, that’s obviously what I’m wondering, is why… If it is a vicious trade-off, if let’s say I can’t do both, why shouldn’t I volunteer at a charity?
52:05 Julia Maskivker: Right. So, yeah, that’s a good question. I actually end up… I do argue in the book that maybe my argument sort of justifies the idea that we have more duties that we would like to admit at first. I have a fanciful example that I use in the book to illustrate this point. Think about it in these terms. So you’re waiting for the bus with your very good friend who is in crutches. He’s had an accident. There’s no one around, only you two. Your friend needs help boarding the bus. He can’t do it by himself. But at that point in time, your friend also has a lot of credit card debt. So the bus is coming, approaching, you see it coming, and before you help him board the bus, you say, “You know what? I’m not gonna do this, I’m not gonna help you, but here’s a check for $1000, so you start paying off your credit card debt.” Isn’t that amazing, what a good friend you are? Of course your friend is very grateful because he needs the money, but he also needs the help boarding the bus. You should do both. [chuckle]
53:08 Julia Maskivker: So in that sense, I say maybe what this ends up justifying is that we have more duties to help others that we might think of, or care to admit, but the fact is that, morally, it’s unique. Voting is morally unique because it helps install governments that can affect positively or negatively the lives of millions. So it want you to say, “Hey, I don’t have to help you, because I just gave you a check.” Well, there’s reason to think of viewing it in a way that maybe it’s not the best. Morally speaking, you just left your friend stranded there. I think voting presents us with the same type of situation. It may be true that you have other duties, maybe you should donate $100 a year to help starving children in Africa, as Peter Singer, a philosopher at Princeton says, we should do that, But that doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook when it comes to voting. So in that sense, yeah, maybe my argument sort of justifies a more morally demanding picture of what duties we have towards others that you guys would like to accept. And I’m okay with that. [chuckle]
54:41 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts, or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.