The Negative Externality of Voting

by on October 14, 2011 at 6:30 am in Books, Economics, Political Science | Permalink

Here is Jason Brennan:

How other people vote is my business. After all, they make it my business. Electoral decisions are imposed upon all through force, that is, through violence and threats of violence. When it comes to politics, we are not free to walk away from bad decisions. Voters impose externalities upon others.

We would never say to everyone, “Who cares if you know anything about surgery or medicine? The important thing is that you make your cut.” Yet for some reason, we do say, “It doesn’t matter if you know much about politics. The important thing is to vote.” In both cases, incompetent decision-making can hurt innocent people.

Commonsense morality tells us to treat the two cases differently. Commonsense morality is wrong.

…In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that…voters should vote on the basis of sound evidence. They must put in heavy work to make sure their reasons for voting as they do are morally and epistemically justified. In general, they must vote for the common good rather than for narrow self-interest. Citizens who are unwilling or unable to put in the hard work of becoming good voters should not vote at all. They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes.

Swedo October 14, 2011 at 6:48 am

Hopefully the bad voters will cancel each other out.

On the other hand, democracy may not be the best of systems. Being controlled by another democracy may be even better. No special interests and no political correctness.

Ben Hughes October 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

“Hopefully the bad voters will cancel each other out.”

A great book to check out is Bryan Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter”. He explores this possibility then rejects it due to *systemic* biases.

Cahal October 15, 2011 at 8:51 am

Honestly Caplan’s book is one of the worst things I have ever read. The reasoning is:

– Liberarianism is great
– Democracy hasn’t resulted in it
– Voters are stupid

Jonathan Aldred’s ‘The Skeptical Economist’, though obviously not aimed directly at Caplan, is a good rejoinder to it.

TGGP October 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Caplan’s book does not assume libertarianism is correct (that’s something that Daniel Klein actually objected to). He says laymen should defer to the consensus opinion of experts, and then uses economists as an example because he is more familiar with that (although he thinks voters also have systematically wrong beliefs about epidemiology and a variety of other topics).

His reasoning is based on an extension of the common theory of “rational ignorance”, which has already been applied to voting, to “rational irrationality” in which people will hold less accurate beliefs while they pay little cost for holding them (creationism being a common example of such a belief).

Cahal October 16, 2011 at 11:01 am

Caplan has, naturally, internalised a lot of neoclassical economics as fact, so he assumes that since voters aren’t free market economists they are ‘irrational’. He then proceeds to mock them.

msgkings October 16, 2011 at 12:15 pm

@ Cahal:

Some voters are eminently mockable. Like the ones Caplan does.

Tracy W October 14, 2011 at 11:26 am

The history of the British Empire isn’t the strongest argument for that, for example Ireland only really took off once independent.

Finch October 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm

> Being controlled by another democracy may be even better. No special interests and no political correctness.

To the extent that people have a hard time successfully making decisions for others, this is doubtful. The more removed you are from the situation, the less helpful your insights will be.

Werner October 14, 2011 at 6:58 am

at least in Germany (or any other system with proportional voting and minimum threshold clauses), there is a price for not-voting : The radicals will get their flocks to the poll, if the well minded, but not confident voters stay at home, it lowers the entry barrier for radicals. And as posted by Swedo, the non confident or non “educated” voters for larger parties cancel each other out.

NeedleFactory October 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Again, as pointed out by Ben Hughes above, Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter” refutes the idea of ignorant voters canceling each other out. In your case, there is no reason for the percentage of adherents of “larger parties” to be the same when measured by (a) all voters or (b) educated voters.
In other words, we cannont assume that relative “sizes” of parties is constant as “voter competence” varies.
A question to ponder: are educated voters over- or under-represented in minor parties (e.g. Greens, Libertarians)?

John Personna October 14, 2011 at 7:11 am

I’m tired of “violence” as equivalent text for “law enforcement.”

matt October 14, 2011 at 7:26 am

The state is the state because it has a monopoly on the use of force. What is ‘the use of force’ if not a euphemism for the threat of violence?

david October 14, 2011 at 9:02 am

Legitimate monopoly on the use of force. If you want to dispute its legitimacy, by all means, but don’t pretend that the main point is instead its use of force.

If you come onto my property and I chase you away with a stick, I am threatening you with violence, too. But that does not illegitimize my use of force.

Doug October 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm

“but don’t pretend that the main point is instead its use of force.”
Why not? That is the main point. Voters sometimes make bad decisions, and those decisions are made worse because they are backed up by violence against anyone who resists those decisions. To take an egregious example, voters once elected representatives who enacted fugitive slave laws. Those who disobeyed that law (who were doing the right thing by almost any moral standard acceptable today) and were caught *were* subjected to violence.

To take a more recent example, voters have banned assisted suicide. Dr. Kevorkian was incarcated–he was taken away by men with guns and locked in a steel cage–for breaking this law, and many people believe that what he was doing what was not only right, but his moral obligation. Regardless of your viewpoint on the subject, you must acknowlege that *if* the decision to prohibit assisted suicide is a bad decision, the fact that it is backed up by the use of violent force makes the decision worse than it would be if it depended only on voluntary compliance. Whether you contend that the use of violence is “legitimate” or not does not affect the fact that the violence will necessarily compound any original error made by the voters or their representatives.

D October 14, 2011 at 6:33 pm

The problem is that people who use the word “violence” impugn all law, not just errors by voters or their representatives. In a functioning democracy, the errors are the exceptions, not the rule.

Sometimes the exceptions are really bad, as in your example, but they are still exceptions. No libertarian rails against state power used against murderers and rapists.

another matt October 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm

The main point is not the violence, though: it’s the necessity of rule of law, which means the necessity of enforcing law. Government exists not because it threatens violence on all its citizens, but because the majority of its citizens accept its authority without violence.

Violence or force is worthless when a large enough fraction of society decides to abandon the compact, abandon the framework that we put up with stuff we don’t like to live in a society. The state is the state not because of the violence it can mete out, but because we the people have invested it with that authority and many others and we voluntarily and collectively submit to it. The use of force is limited to those cases where individuals flout the rule of law.

matt October 16, 2011 at 5:23 pm

The original quote didn’t say anything about the use of force being illegitimate. Neither the original post, the excerpt, nor I, have argued that it is illegitimate.

John Personna October 14, 2011 at 9:09 am

Most of us can be pulled over for a speeding ticket without fear that we are going to be beaten down. When it does happen there is outrage and national news. That because law enforcement is not usually violence.

James October 14, 2011 at 9:21 am

“No, officer, I don’t think I was driving at an unsafe speed despite what the law says, so I reject this ticket.”
“Like hell I’m coming with you, I want to go home!”
And so on.

In any situation where you’re being accused of breaking the law by an agent of the state, you can expect to see threats of violence if you resist for long enough. The threat isn’t immediate and explicit, because that wouldn’t help most law enforcement encounters, but if there were no implicit threat of violence for disobedience then I sure wouldn’t put up with speeding tickets, nor would most others.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 9:39 am

There are penalties for wrongful arrest or detention, and searches without probable cause. Whether these penalties are imposed is a matter of public policy, not an issue of monopolized force.

This ‘monopoly of force’ is nonsense. We gave up our natural right to retribution in exchange for similar protection from retribution and rule of law, but we never gave up our right to defense of self, property, and others.

NAME REDACTED October 14, 2011 at 9:51 am

@Thoma Hawk

The state doesn’t have a monopoly of force. It has a monopoly to initiate force. Thats to use force against individuals who haven’t used force against anyone else.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 10:06 am

@Name Redacted

And why would anyone ever want government to do that?

Matthew C. October 14, 2011 at 11:21 am

I guess to keep them from smoking weed, or having s*x for money, or millions of other victimless crimes. . .

John Thacker October 14, 2011 at 11:50 am

Yes, that’s why the original excerpt said “and threats of violence.”

John Personna October 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm

If the original had only said “threat of violence,” or better yet “threat of force” it would have been stronger. It was “violence and” which detached the claim from our (US, peaceable) reality.

John Personna October 14, 2011 at 12:44 pm

(Perhaps citizens in peaceful societies forget what violence really is. See also machetes, dismemberment.)

Doug October 14, 2011 at 2:02 pm

“Most of us can be pulled over for a speeding ticket without fear that we are going to be beaten down.” Many of us cannot.

The Anonymouse October 14, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I am tired that the sky is blue. I would prefer something else.

RZ0 October 14, 2011 at 7:15 am

I agree. I’ve always thought that if your past voting record is bad enough, you should be banned from voting again – kind of the way we revoke a driver’s license for too many DUIs.
For example, I think that anyone who voted for George W. Bush twice and Sarah Palin once should not be allowed near a ballot box. Talk about careless behavior!
But I bet a lot of readers of this blog disagree, which is kind of the point.

AndrewL October 14, 2011 at 8:13 am

why vote at all? What is this “common good” that Brennan talks about? I suppose you and Brennan are the only two people who know what it is and are in complete agreement over it and thus everyone else who has a differing opinion is dumb and did not work hard enough to come to their conclusion and are therefore wrong to vote. So why waste time with some silly formality such as voting, why don’t you just tell us what we need to do.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I don’t think the author’s idea is that, if we analyze the problem enough, we’ll all come up with the same conclusion on what constitutes “the common good”. I believe his position is that, since voting imposes significant costs on third parties, people have a moral obligation to think seriously about how they vote. Since relatively few people think seriously about their votes (is anyone going to argue with this assertion?) these people are not fulfilling a moral obligation.

Leaving the moral for the more practical, it might be viewed as a case of Condorcet’s Jury Theorem. As the number of unbiased estimators approaches infinity, the probability that the average is correct approaches one. However, if the estimators are biased, the probability that the average is correct approaches zero.

So how do you get the biased estimators out of the pool? Markets do a good job of this sort of thing (look at research on prediction markets, for example), but the application to politics is problematic. So, does “heavy lifting”, imposed by moral code, diminish bias and thereby improve voting results? I am doubtful, but it is one possible approach.

Miraj Patel October 14, 2011 at 9:22 am

What determines a “bad” voting record? You can’t base it off of the politicians voted for considering their performance is subjective. You have a problem with people who voted for GWB and Palin and I am sure there are some of their supporters who think you have a “bad” voting record if you voted for the candidates that ran against them.

Nonnynon October 14, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Just hold a vote on which votes should count as bad votes and which counts should count as good votes, and then use the results of that vote to determine who gets to vote in the actual election.*

*this only works if I go first

8 October 14, 2011 at 7:28 am

Universal suffrage is a bad idea.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 11:58 am

It’s incredibly elitist and non-pc to say so, but I agree.

And it doesn’t have to be as complex as evaluating for ‘bad’ voting behavior. Simply apply intelligence testing to voting rights. Not every dumdum is a ‘bad’ (disengaged, useless, etc) voter, but obviously the smarter your voting electorate, the better your outcomes.

I’ve come to believe that the democratic system set up here in the late 18th century worked so well for so long because suffrage was NOT universal. You had to be a landowning white male to vote in the early years. This didn’t guarantee that each voter was of a higher caliber, but it undoubtedly made the average or median voter of greater quality and intelligence. In this day and age of course you wouldn’t need to restrict based on race or gender, or wealth. But I think restricting voters AND candidates to IQs of 100+ (sorry Perry and Palin!) could only help outcomes.

It goes without saying that this will NEVER EVER happen.

Doug October 14, 2011 at 2:04 pm

While Perry and Palin do not seem particularly bright, the notion that they have sub 100 IQs is absurd.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Really? 100 is average. I defy you to back up a claim that Rick Perry is above average intelligence. Palin is probably smarter than him, but even she ain’t triple digits.

Tom October 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Of course I would not rely on your assessment, not being qualified yourself.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm

@ Tom

Hilarious! Perry’s not dumb, I am! You really got me there, Mr. Rickles.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Is this really necessary? You have no actual idea of how intelligent Perry or Palin are. Even if we were to agree on a definition of intelligence (e.g. “Whatever it is that I.Q. tests measure”.) why should I believe that your guesses regarding how individuals would score on that test would demonstrate neither significant error or bias? Indeed, if all we need is for you to render a judgement based upon things you’ve read or seen on your T.V., why do we have tests at all? Perhaps we can simply define intelligence as “that which msgkings says is intelligence.”

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 8:29 pm

None of this is ‘necessary’, we’re all bloviating on a blog. I guess I have a hunch, those two come across as below average in the brains department. Someone has to be. Why wouldn’t it be a former beauty queen and a redneck who got bad grades at Texas A&M? I’m not saying they are imbeciles or morons (medical terms actually), but if you don’t see a difference, based on their histories and presentations, between those two and say Gingrich or Romney or Huntsman or Cain or even Bachmann, I really don’t know what to say.

Just yakkin’ here. Do you work for their campaigns?

txslr October 14, 2011 at 9:05 pm

So you are applying the Law of Small Numbers? The average IQ in the population is 100, so the average for any subset must also be 100, so the IQ of the one in that subset whose “presentation” is is poor by your personal assessment must have an IQ below 100? BTW, how many IQ points do you subtract from Steven Hawking because of his presentation?

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 10:32 pm


OK, you’re right, Palin and Perry are Steven Hawking-level geniuses. My mistake.

Tell your super at the Perry campaign to give you a bonus this week.

Michael October 14, 2011 at 7:07 pm

“I’ve come to believe that the democratic system set up here in the late 18th century worked so well for so long because suffrage was NOT universal. You had to be a landowning white male to vote in the early years. This didn’t guarantee that each voter was of a higher caliber, but it undoubtedly made the average or median voter of greater quality and intelligence.”

What is the evidence for this claim that you are “undoubtedly” sure of? Have you considered the possibility that the reason those voters had more collective success (measured by the rate of prosperity increases) is because they were voting in an era when America had a vast amount of untapped resources as well as access to new resources (justified through the now rejected theory of Manifest Destiny), not because propertied white males were somehow a more intelligent population than a fully diverse pool? Do some of the moral decisions that the voters supported — the system of slavery, the subjugation of Indian land, etc. — not make you question their “undoubted” superiority?

It’s amazing how “smart” voters are when a country has access to vast resources to distribute, but how “stupid” and “self-centered” they become when the resources become more scarce.

msgkings October 16, 2011 at 12:02 pm

I didn’t say they were more successful back then, just on average by restricting suffrage as they did back then they probably had an electorate somewhat smarter on average than the total pool of Americans.

Every single person lives FAR better lives today than in 1776, and that’s with a lot less ‘resources to distribute’, that wasn’t at all my point.

I’m not surprised someone referring to something called a ‘rejected theory of Manifest Destiny’ would have trouble getting my point.

Cahal October 15, 2011 at 8:53 am

Lol at the idea of taking IQ tests to vote. Libertarians really don’t know anything about politics (though they think they have it all figured out, naturally).

msgkings October 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Not a Libertarian. And I’ve stated very clearly multiple times that IQ testing for voting and running for office, while a good idea, will never happen. Because I do know something about politics.

efp October 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I’ve been saying this for a while. You should have to apply to be a voter, and pass some sort of civics test. You should, for instance, at least know the powers and responsibilities of the offices you’re voting people into. That would disqualify about 80% of the electorate.

I’ve also been thinking, in a given year, you should be qualified to vote for a limited number of races, so you can actually pay attention to them.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Take a look at the civics test and oath of allegiance that new citizens must take.

It should be mandatory for all voters.

James C October 16, 2011 at 1:51 am

i disagree. universal suffrage is fine. its when suffrage becomes mandatory that it becomes a problem. there are countries where everyone is required to vote, so you end up having people who are illiterate being forced to vote.

now, if the government offered people the option of not having to pay any federal taxes in exchange for forfeiting the right to vote in federal elections, im curious how many would NOT take up that offer.

Paul October 17, 2011 at 10:02 pm

What other issue is there to vote for? I’m being somewhat sarcastic….

Paul October 17, 2011 at 10:36 pm

you pay taxes, you get to vote. you get paid by the government (welfare or employment), you have a conflict of interest and no vote.

matt October 14, 2011 at 7:35 am

My friend John has some pretty wacky views about politics that I don’t agree with. I don’t think we should let him vote. But why would he agree to that? It would be totally irrational for John to agree to forfeit his vote and just accept whatever the rest of us decide. Each of us is in that situation – it would be irrational for us to trust our fate to all of the others.

Torben October 14, 2011 at 7:50 am

If you really want to look at voting from an individual point, then there is no point in voting anyways. But if you’re voting for the “common good” or w/e, you might as well be mindful whether or not you’ll be making an informed decision.

Bernard Guerrero October 14, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Nonsense, Torben. I don’t necessarily have the slightest interest in common with you, and I invariably vote with a mind to my own interest and not yours. This is not pointless; I would generally rather get my way regardless of either relative numbers on either side of a question or any arbitrary “common good”, but going to war over each and every issue (or in practice almost any issue at all) is inefficient and dangerous. Much better to toss potsherds into a basket or draw straws or what have you, and live with the usually annoying-but-tolerable results.

The purpose of democracy is not to come to “good” or “correct” solutions, even if you can rationally define such a thing in a world of conflicting interests, chance, idiosyncratic utility functions and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. The purpose of democracy is to generate stability by allowing for the possibility of change in the power structure while fostering “buy in” from the voting electorate in the meantime.

Doug October 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I think the point is that if you are acting out of pure rational self interest, the time spent voting is almost certainly better spent doing almost anything else, as the chances of your vote having any impact on the outcome of any election is very close to 0.

Bernard Guerrero October 14, 2011 at 2:47 pm

I don’t think that can be Torben’s thinking, because a vote towards the “common good” would be just as wasted in the sense of having very little chance of being a deciding vote. Voting only makes sense in either case if we postulate some other mechanism, such as voting in order to maintain credibility with other voters whom you are attempting to influence or the like.

Torben October 14, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Yep, that was my point. If you’re only woting out of self interest, you should be smart enough to see why it’s pointless anyways. So if you don’t vote out of self interest but want to further the “common good” (and believe that voting is important w/e) you might as well be smart enough to only do so if your decision is well informed (so that you could actually make a good argument for why this was good vote).
Besides I don’t find the original passage that controversial. All he’s saying is that if you vote and recognize that it has influence on everyones life, please be at least well informed.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:17 pm

I generally agree, but I would say that the ides of “democracy” actually is that if you turn decisions over to a vote of the general public they will, almost magically, yield a good decision – or at least a reasonable decision more often than not. Of course, the founders didn’t believe this, which is why the rejected democracy as a form of government and instead adopted a constitutional republic with democratic features.

will October 14, 2011 at 10:19 am

Matt, some people do have wacky views. But to say “it would be irrational for us to trust our fate to all of the others.” is not to look clearly. Think of your mothers obstetrician, your dentist, the plumber, the bridge engineer, any engineer, farmers, people who work to make food, shelter and our air safe. Surely we are better off over all when we look to smart experience people in important situations rather have everyone vote on your dentistry? Maybe I mess read your comment. It is irrational to give our trust via the vote the way it seems done now. Voting means trusting fate to others, we as a nation are just bad at it and have not been getting quality principles people to trust in.

Paul October 17, 2011 at 10:07 pm

my self-interest determines what I believe to be best for the common

Andreas Christoffersen October 14, 2011 at 7:50 am

This view inevitable leads to a technocratic view on politics. And from there the conclusion that there is one right way of doing things. Politics is a legitimate batlleground for conflicting interests. And the dumb have interests too. So no – I don’t agree.

however – it might be a good idea to raise the voter age to 21.

Jayson Virissimo October 14, 2011 at 8:37 am

Do 0-20 year old people not have interests?

Paul October 14, 2011 at 9:00 am

Yes, they exist to have debts transferred upon them by the direct and indirect benefitors of the welfare/warfare state. Those young who should craven, early conformist/capo talents will be fast tracked to positions of tactical authority over their generationalists.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 9:48 am

So the voting age should be 0?

Illegal aliens should be able to vote because our policies affect them?

Foreigners should be able to vote in our elections because US policy affects others?

People under 21 have interests, but they generally don’t have any wisdom, experience, education or intelligence. Lowering the voting age was a big mistake, in my opinion. Callow youths shouldn’t be deciding on public policy.

But i don’t support universal suffrage either. We should have a loyalty oath, civics test, education requirement, income requirement, and public service requirement.

NAME REDACTED October 14, 2011 at 9:53 am

“So the voting age should be 0”
Thats the only age thats consistent with democratic philosophy.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 9:56 am

Then I think fetuses should have the right to vote. Or is that feti?

Lou October 14, 2011 at 11:31 am

It’s a fourth declension noun, so the Latin nominative plural would simply be “fetus”. In English, “fetuses” is the correct plural form.

GiT October 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm

No, it isn’t.

Right Wing-nut October 14, 2011 at 11:29 am

This veteran has a thing or two to say about raising the voting age.

It’s enough of an outrage that men entrusted with multi-million dollar killing machines are no longer entrusted with alcohol. Now you would take away their ability to even vote for or against those who would draft them and send them to war? Are all men slaves in your eyes?

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 11:58 am

This veteran agrees with you. As I state later in this post, I think suffrage should be given only to those with demonstrable responsibility, education, service, maturity, and loyalty.

Robert Heinlein’s vision in Starship Troopers was one where only discharged veterans had the right to vote and hold public office. It’s a move in the right direction.

Age is an arbitrary determinant. There are incredibly mature and intelligent 19 year olds. There are incredibly immature and uneducated 30 year olds. But age and maturity are strongly correlated. And certain experience are worth many times as much as a year of education.

So how about raising the voting age with a military service exception? I’m open to all suggestions for improvement, including persuasive arguments the franchise age should be lowered. I think lowering the voting age was a political ploy and not much thought went into it.

Andrew October 14, 2011 at 12:08 pm

@ Thomas Hawk,

“People under 21 have interests, but they generally don’t have any wisdom, experience, education or intelligence. Lowering the voting age was a big mistake, in my opinion. Callow youths shouldn’t be deciding on public policy.”

Look at voting turnout for people in the 18-21 year old bracket. Even if what you say about wisdom, experience, education, and intelligence is true (which I doubt), the 18-21 year old age group doesn’t vote enough to even impact policy decisions. This group has NEVER been relevant in national policy decisions.

Maybe its the other end of the spectrum, senior citizens, who shouldn’t be making public policy decisions? They certainly go to the polls more than anyone, gain alot from their votes, yet are suffering from many of the deficiencies you attribute to young people (other than experience).

Urso October 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm

“Maybe its the other end of the spectrum, senior citizens, who shouldn’t be making public policy decisions? ”

One of the great problems with the current American political system is that an outsized portion of the electoral power is wielded by those who know they won’t have to deal with the long term consequences of their decisions.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm

I don’t necessarily disagree.

But long before I took away the right of “seniors” to vote, I’d take away their privilege to drive. They’re a public menace.

Back to voting, I think there is a strong consensus among this group that something is awry in the manner in which we vote. A lot of the problems could be attributed though to government exceeding its specified powers, a non-parliamentary legislature, and plurality voting rules. We could “fix” government to the point where we don’t necessarily have to fix voting.

When the two wolves aren’t allowed to vote the sheep as dinner, we no longer have to worry about self interest, external costs, or the voter qualifications of wolves.

prior_approval October 14, 2011 at 8:07 am

Does it read better when a single word is changed? –
‘Dictatorial (or tyrannical, or totalitarian, or monarchical, or … well any system that doesn’t rely on elections) decisions are imposed upon all through force, that is, through violence and threats of violence.’

No, actually, changing that single word shows how nonsensical the original version was.

And this is just too much (which is why it is essentially quoted in full) –
‘They must put in heavy work to make sure their reasons for voting as they do are morally and epistemically justified. In general, they must vote for the common good rather than for narrow self-interest. Citizens who are unwilling or unable to put in the hard work of becoming good voters should not vote at all. They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes.’

I know that the proud commonwealth of my birth felt exactly the same about an entire group of people (who can be, not too amazingly, recognized on sight) being allowed to ‘pollute the polls with their bad votes.’ As a matter of fact, that same group of people was also prohibited from polluting schools, pools, drinking fountains – just in case that group of people could ever be in a position to do be treated as equal citizens. Strangely, that group of voters was assumed, in Virginia, to be voting for their narrow self-interest, for example to oppose the entire legal framework that kept them from voting.

It is almost as if, for some hard to understand reason, democracy can only work when people actually care about their interests, and pursue them within the legal framework a democratic system.

Though in keeping with the satirical nature of this site, it is reasonable to assume that soon, we find an article talking about how workers have no reason to strike, unless the strike meets the high standards of those who would be inconvenienced by a group of people refusing to work.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 9:50 am

Society is satire. This site is a mirror.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Please note, the author does not say that these people should not be allowed to vote – that is to say, that they should be prohibited from voting by violence or threat of violence. He is arguing that voting without putting in the work is immoral, and that people should voluntarily refrain.

It is always interesting to me that people so often confuse admonitions against certain types of behavior with government restrictions on those behaviors.

mw October 14, 2011 at 8:22 am

this idea sounds great–to implement this system, i assume you won’t mind if “common good” gets defined by a group of people excluding libertarians

Finch October 14, 2011 at 9:38 am

It’s the “common good” part that troubles me. This is exactly the thing people are lousy at figuring out.

Vote selfishly, vote just for yourself, and at least you’re more likely to be accurate. At least you’ll have fewer excuses. But when you vote for my interests, dollars to doughnuts you’ll get it wrong.

Becky Hargrove October 14, 2011 at 8:34 am

Except that the person I like does not have a chance and can not even be heard in the debates. So my best option, instead of voting, is to work every day to influence a better world where candidates who might actually make a difference can come forth and have a chance to win.

Paul October 17, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Go ███ ████!

Brian October 14, 2011 at 8:34 am

Some of the commenters seem to be reading the linked piece as arguing in favor of wacky-views John or some group that is amazingly enough recognizable by sight being prohibited by the State or by other people from voting.

I didn’t read it that way. I read it as an argument that we each of us have a moral duty to vote on the basis of sound evidence and, when we are unwilling or unable to do so, not to vote. But I do not read the author to suggest anything other than that this discipline is self-imposed discipline by our own consciences. What’s wrong with that? Or, otherwise stated, isn’t that how we should vote? I know I don’t go into the booth and start checking boxes at random on elections on which I don’t feel adequately informed.

That the author’s argument might be used as one premise in an argument by someone else that argues for an inappropriate suffrage limitation does not seem to me to be an adequate reason for denying the accuracy of the more limited point made by the author. The suffrage denier’s argument will have to depend on at least one other premise, and the accuracy of the other premise(s) are still fair game.

Mitch October 14, 2011 at 8:59 am

It also highlights the distinction, not made in the public service ads, between voting and well-informed voting.

Tracy W October 14, 2011 at 11:37 am

I agree with your reading.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm

As I have noted elsewhere here, I agree.

But then…perhaps we could use the ability to understand what this author is saying as a test that you must pass before being allowed to vote? /sarc

Mike Huben October 14, 2011 at 8:44 am

The idiocy of his argument is made clear by this sentence:
“Electoral decisions are imposed upon all through force, that is, through violence and threats of violence.”

All human society has always operated through violence and threats of violence. If anything, using electoral decisions is a way to reduce the violence.

“I argue that citizens must vote for what they justifiedly believe will promote the common good, or otherwise they must abstain.”
Oh, they must, must they? And who is going to enforce that? Just like consumers must make economically rational decisions?

“Citizens who are unwilling or unable to put in the hard work of becoming good voters should not vote at all.”
And the rest of us can vote to enslave these disenfranchised citizens? Their selfish interest in remaining free is irrelevant unless they get a voting license from you?

“First, in markets, deals are voluntary… In contrast, in politics, deals are not voluntary.”
Flat out wrong. In politics, you can change your deals: more to another territory. The difference is granularity: how much is bundled together. It’s essentially the idea of adhesion contracts.

This clown starts with so many incorrect ideas that he’s never going to make sense.

AndrewL October 14, 2011 at 8:51 am

+1, Well said.

John Personna October 14, 2011 at 9:12 am

“If anything, using electoral decisions is a way to reduce the violence.” Yes.

I_am_a_lead_pencil October 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

“If anything, using electoral decisions is a way to reduce the violence.”

The mechanism (electoral decisions) provides the veil of morality necessary to justify ever greater increases in violent intervention through legislative codification.

“…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
— C.S. Lewis

NAME REDACTED October 14, 2011 at 9:55 am

“The mechanism (electoral decisions) provides the veil of morality necessary to justify ever greater increases in violent intervention through legislative codification.”

This happens a lot in Africa. Plus democracy gives incentive to genocide as killing your opponents’ base is a possible win condition.

Andrew October 14, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Michael Mann’s book, The Darkside of Democracy, provides pretty compelling evidence that pretty much every democracy in the modern world was founded on genocidal violence.

@ Mike, while your view that using electoral decisions can reduce violence is true at times, at others its outright false. The arguments against Democratic Peace have been made soundly and convincingly over recent years in top IR journals (Alexander Downes’s research comes to mind in particular). While voters can reduce violence, they can just as easily cause it when they popularly support an unjust war. You also assume that leaders don’t act covertly, that they can’t influence public opinion, etc. Because I’m lazy and the arguments are too long for this forum, I urge you to check out some of the papers on Downes’s site, found

Dan Weber October 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Before democracy, each side would line up their soldiers and kill each other until someone surrendered. Now we line up the soldiers, do a count, and then go back to our lives.

That’s a pretty good change. On the other hand, if you assume democracy gives you anything else besides changes-of-power without war, you are getting yourself into big trouble.

Andrew October 14, 2011 at 9:08 pm

@ Dan.
“Now we line up the soldiers, do a count, and then go back to our lives.”

I really don’t know what you’re getting at. Democracies have participated, often times unjustly, in some of the bloodiest wars in human history.

Dan Weber October 18, 2011 at 11:11 am

I’m talking internal, not external. When the only way to change power was to have a civil war, that’s what you’d get.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 10:05 am

We made Al Capone mayor of Chicago.

If you submit to oppression, I won’t kill you. Some bargain!

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm

There is nothing in:

“Electoral decisions are imposed upon all through force, that is, through violence and threats of violence” which contradicts

“all human society has always operated through violence and threats of violence. If anything, using electoral decisions is a way to reduce the violence.”

As others have noted here, the author nowhere calls for a prohibition against the ill-informed voting. He is making a moral argument – if you are not willing to do the “heavy lifting” you owe it to your fellow citizens to refrain from voting.

As for “In politics, you can change your deals: more to another territory”, that’s a little like saying that if you don’t like your prison, escape. The U.S., for example, does not recognize renunciations of citizenship. So you owe taxes in the U.S. for your income regardless of where you are or where you go. Maybe they will never catch you, but that is hardly part of a voluntary arrangement.

Mike Huben October 14, 2011 at 6:28 pm

People who make moral arguments and pretend that they are not advocating doing something are lying.

And yes, you can renounce your US citizenship: many do it each year.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Your first statement is transparent nonsense, which I believe you should not post. I suppose that means I support sending jack-booted thugs to your house to beat you to a pulp. To deny it I would have to lie, which would be immoral, which means that I really want the government to lock me up if I lie. Sure that makes sense.

Or maybe you just misread the article and don’t want to admit it.

BTW you can renounce your citizenship all day long, but the government doesn’t have to accept it. Governments routinely refuse to do so.

Nate October 14, 2011 at 8:47 am

Anyone who votes for the common good instead of their narrow self-interest probably doesn’t qualify as an expert on politics.

Lynne October 14, 2011 at 8:51 am

These arguments about who should vote always remind me of a twist on that famous rhyme about taxation:

Don’t disenfranchise thee!
Don’t disenfranchise me!
Disenfranchise that feller, behind that tree!

Everybody always has a good idea of who shouldn’t be allowed to vote and why- and wonder of wonders, it’s always somebody else, not themselves!
I have yet to hear anyone say: “I’m really an ignorant doofus and I should never be allowed to vote.”
Funny how that works.

Jayson Virissimo October 14, 2011 at 9:15 am

Here: I am not wise or moral enough to run other people’s lives better than they can.

Cahal October 15, 2011 at 8:57 am

Nobody is asking you or politicians to be omniscient, the same way safety engineers are not expected to be invulnerable.

Erik October 14, 2011 at 9:28 am

Everyone including me is an ignorant doofus and should never be allowed to vote.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 9:54 am

We are all ignorant doofuses and I vote for Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

Nick October 14, 2011 at 8:55 am

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who is to say that these are negative externalities instead of positive externalities? Maybe it is the well-informed voters who vote against the *real* common good. Shouldn’t we at least suspect that “informed decision” != “better decision”?

The question of whether the “wisdom of the crowds” is better than “expert opinion” for choosing leaders is an empirical one, yet I see no proof of this assertion.

Tracy W October 14, 2011 at 11:41 am

How would you define expert opinion? Would for example the electors in the Holy Roman Empire count?

Nick October 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm

*I* wouldn’t define “expert opinion.” But I shouldn’t have to. It is up to the proponents of the theory that the externalities of “everybody votes” are negative, not positive, to prove it, and to do that, they need to compare it to something. That “something” would be some subset of the population that they deem to be “well-informed,” by the definition that they want to use. I just used the term “expert opinion” as a label for whatever that subset of universal suffrage they would like to use would be.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Brian Caplan has done exactly that in “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, which I found pretty compelling.

Tracy W October 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm

You are the one who asked for empirical evidence. How can anyone supply that if they don’t know what you consider expert opinion to be? (Universal suffrage is a bit less subjective than expert). My experience with these sort of debates is that if I don’t get definitions sorted out up front any empirical evidence I dig up just gets rejected because the other party claims they meant something different, so as far as I am concerned, if you want empirical evidence you do indeed have to define what expert opinion is first.

Slocum October 14, 2011 at 8:56 am

The small ‘c’ conservatism of the lightly informed masses serves as an essential brake on the grand schemes of the technocrats (and their enthusiastic, wonkish lay supporers). The technocrats are frustrated by this–and I am more than OK with their frustration.

Is it time to trot out Buckley’s quip about phone books and the Harvard faculty?

NAME REDACTED October 14, 2011 at 9:56 am

“The small ‘c’ conservatism of the lightly informed masses serves as an essential brake on the grand schemes of the technocrats (and their enthusiastic, wonkish lay supporers). The technocrats are frustrated by this–and I am more than OK with their frustration.”

Unless of course they are systematically biased against the status quo?

The Engineer October 14, 2011 at 9:05 am

The author seriously underestimates the difficulty of getting agreement on what “the common good” is.

Brian October 14, 2011 at 9:16 am

How does his argument depend one way or the other,or make any estimate of, the difficulty of getting agreement on what is the common good ? I read him as arguing that my moral duty is to vote for what I, on the basis of sound evidence, believe is the common good (or, when I am unable to form such a belief, not to vote — at the risk of raising my hand as a doofus, I admit that I don’t vote when I don’t know enough about the candidates or issues).. As I understand the author’s argument, I don’t have to get anyone else’s agreement on my conception of the common good in order to be acting a moral manner by voting,.

The voting process or the representation process may or may not yield an agreement about what the common good is, but that issue is downstream of the one the author writes on, depending on the design of the institutions for aggregating votes into polcies and representation

Finch October 14, 2011 at 9:41 am

It depends on individuals being able to figure out the common good.

Which they can’t.

Turkey Vulture October 14, 2011 at 9:10 am

I think “the common good” has a pretty clear meaning. In fact, I know exactly what the common good is, and we could dispense with this whole democracy thing by just making me Philosopher King.

Toby October 14, 2011 at 9:10 am

Comparing voting to brain surgery is a bit of a stretch, and in any case the whole post may be irrelevant. Evidently Brennan sees voting as an act that has consequences. Maybe yes, maybe no. “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” (Emma Goldman)

Dave October 14, 2011 at 9:13 am

This reminds of the African story of why the chicken is the sacrificial animal of choice: All animals were headed to a meeting with the gods, but the chicken decided he could not bothered to attend this meeting. He asked the animals to convey his good wishes to the gods, and added his declaration to support and abide by the resolutions of the meeting. As it turned out, the meeting was meant as a forum to discuss the rampant harassment that man had begun to cause them since he learned to offer blood sacrifice to his gods.

After a long debate, the animals accepted and passed unanimously, a resolution to offer the chicken to man as his primary sacrificial animal. This has remained so till this day!

Rely on those who know about the “common good”, at your own peril. You’ve to go to the polls and express your self interest, however you have come to that decision.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

The literature on this is very old. In the Public Choice lit they have articles on “optimal majority”. As the proportion of votes needed to pass a law rises, it raises decision costs. However, as his proportion rises, the costs on the losers – the external costs – grows. A bare majority has the largest number of dissatisfied people. A dictatorship will have low decision costs and high external costs. Unanimity has high decision costs and low external costs. The optimal majority varies according to characteristics of each vote or issue, not always 50%+1. The urgency of the issue raises decision costs dramatically. The importance of the issue raises the external costs.

When government can do only a limited number of things, them external costs are eliminated, but decision costs are (nearly) infinite. Optimal majority is moot when the outcome is patently oppressive.

Always remember that the smart, the rich, the successful, and the brave will always be in the minority. Universal suffrage is the biggest problem with democracy. It’s one of the reasons we live in a Republic. Look at states and cities that pass laws through voter initiative. In my experience they are fiscally unsound and they vote on ridiculous propositions.

Philip Crawford October 14, 2011 at 9:49 am

“In general, they must vote for the common good rather than for narrow self-interest”

In my experience, voting and self-interest seem highly correlated.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 9:59 am

Then the only people who have demonstrated the honor of the vote are those who have voted against their self interest. This doesn’t include Warren Buffett because by his own argument the marginal utility of his additional taxes is very small.

nelsonal October 14, 2011 at 11:24 am

The marginal utility of new life insurance and annuity busines, may not be small, however.

John Thacker October 14, 2011 at 11:52 am

Have you read Bryan Caplan’s book on the subject? He disagrees.

darren October 14, 2011 at 9:49 am

I said this at college when Diddy et al were doing their Vote or Die thing on campus, but everyone just wanted a free T shirt.

Dan October 14, 2011 at 9:53 am

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Churchill

The Anti-Gnostic October 14, 2011 at 11:48 am

That quote gets rolled out a lot and people seem to think that should end all inquiry. Democracy is just a process. All government is the same: a monopoly that exercises offensive force over a given territory. Whether that government makes policy by diktat or democracy doesn’t really matter. The only thing that really matters is the policy, unless somebody has evidence that democratic governments make better policy choices than non-democratic governments.

South Africa is more democratic now than at any time in its history. Consequently, people are fleeing the violence and corruption of its democratic majority. The US is democratic, and a majority of its voters don’t pay taxes.

Dan October 14, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Democracies are more stable over the long term, and when combined with capitalism, more prosperous. Yes you have a lot of problems like the tyranny of the majority. But the tyranny of the majority is a lot better than the tyranny of the minority.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Or tyrrany of the singular.

Anyone reminded of Spock? “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”

Doug October 14, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Even Spock eventually recognized that the needs of the one sometimes outweigh the needs of the many.

Dan in Euroland October 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Define stability. Seems like just a cursory glance at history indicates that Monarchies last longer. (Rome, Ottoman, Britain, etc.) Athenian and Roman democracies devolved, the same thing happened in Europe after WW1.

What really creates stability is economic growth. But that is not dependent upon the form of gov’t just the policies implemented.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm

@ The A-G

“The US is democratic, and a majority of its voters don’t pay taxes.”

False on many levels: EVERYONE pays some kind of tax (federal and state income, property, sales, payroll…), which you seem smart enough to know but not ethical enough to avoid ignoring for class-bashing purposes.

And really, since less than 60% of eligible persons vote in presidential years (less than 40% in off years), I am certain that a majority of those actual voters pay many kinds of tax, including the Federal income tax.

The Anti-Gnostic October 14, 2011 at 1:58 pm

The issue isn’t payment, it’s net payment.

Dan Weber October 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm

It’s odd that people read Churchill’s saying as an endorsement of democracy. Democracy is probably the least-bad form of government, but that’s far and away from it being a good form of government.

In lots of debates, lots of people act as if “democracy” is a reason to do something. (Usually when the crowd agrees with them.)

John Thacker October 14, 2011 at 10:01 am

They must put in heavy work to make sure their reasons for voting as they do are morally and epistemically justified. In general, they must vote for the common good rather than for narrow self-interest.

Bryan Caplan would agree with the overall thrust, but I’m guessing not entirely with this statement. His objection is that people are very bad at voting “for the common good” and that voting on the basis of “narrow self-interest” would actually lead to more “common good” than when people try to vote for “the common good.” He takes as examples free trade and ag subsidies; the latter for example depend on support by non-farmers for survival.

eccdogg October 14, 2011 at 10:17 am

I don’t think the author is calling for limiting anyone’s ability to vote.

He is only saying.

1) You should vote for the common good how ever you view it and not for naked self interest. For instance I think the mortage interest deduction is bad policy, but I personally benefit from it. In that case I should vote against it. If I thought it was good policy I should vote for it even if I rented.

2) You should not vote unless you are reasonably informed about the candidates and the issues at stake.

He is arguing against the idea often promoted that “The important thing is that you vote, not who you vote for” or that the low turnout rates in the US are a travesty.

Thoma Hawk October 14, 2011 at 11:00 am

I’m not sure I disagree since I vote in this fashion and have chosen not to vote on occasion. Gathering information is costly, and parties do a fair job of reducing I.formation costs through platforms and internal stakeholder ratings, commentary and controls. Rational ignorance does not imply complete ignorance. In a two candidate race, I can guess with great accuracy which, if either of the candidates will represent either my personal interests or the “common good”. Brand loyalty is a cost minimizes information costs, eliminates irrelevant alternatives, and minimizes regret on average.

joan October 14, 2011 at 11:19 am

Both your vote and your money gives you power to get what you want, the difference is that everyone has a vote, but rich people have more money. When Jason Brennan: starts spending his money for the common good I will start voting for it, but in the mean time I will look after my self interest and expect other people to look after theirs.

Tracy W October 14, 2011 at 11:34 am

Huh? What’s the logic behind that one? And why Jason Brennan in particular?

MPS17 October 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

I totally agree that we shouldn’t pressure people to vote. People should vote about which they have strong convictions.

As to whether to vote “selfishly” or not, I think this is a delicate issue on which one should not get too preachy. What if I took this principle to the market? That is, company X makes the better product for the cheaper price, but it would be selfish of me to buy that, since company Y is struggling and will have to fire people if more don’t buy their products? The market would break down. The market works — better than central planning — because people are more knowledgable and keenly aware of their own interests, than those of others, and the “selfishness” of those interests is compensated for by the participation of everyone. So it is with voting. The added layer of complexity is I care about my fellow citizens, and so I receive psychological rewards for knowing that life is good for everyone in my community, as opposed to just me, and so this “selfish” interest may cause me to vote in ways that account for what I perceive to be others’ interests.

Matt October 14, 2011 at 10:47 am

My problem with this is that it is really quite difficult to translate voting into any sort of results. In 2000 I might have decided to vote for Bush based on my desire for a humble foreign policy. Whoops! Since politicians are people, and liars, you never know what they are really going to do once in office.

AndrewL October 14, 2011 at 11:24 am

I think it’s a feature as much as it is a bug. Bush could have bombed the entire middle east right into the stone age, but he couldn’t due to popular unrest. Obama is steering the US into the stone age, but those damn uncooperative republicans are not cooperating! So as long as we have this largely ineffectual system of government, It can never really get TOO bad…

Dan October 14, 2011 at 1:23 pm

It can never really get TOO bad…

Famous last words…

Kevin October 14, 2011 at 11:02 am

Cue Brian Caplan…

Winston October 14, 2011 at 11:22 am

Mr. Brennan doesn’t seem to display a great grasp of public choice economics.

Barry October 14, 2011 at 11:47 am

What Mr. Brennan has come up with is absolutely no solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Voter turn-out rates are so low in this country you’d think most eligible voters had already absorbed his wisdom somehow. Even if you accept his premises that 1) we have a duty to vote for the common good, and 2) that we should be reasonably informed before casting the ballot, the question remains: by what measure? By what measure can you say a man is reasonably informed? And who decides what is for the general good of society? The educated man in the suit may very well be more informed about the current election than the man who scrubs his floors, but it’s difficult to imagine them taking the same view of “the general good.”

I am K October 14, 2011 at 11:50 am

If I could +1 this a million times, I would

txslr October 14, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Brennan would say that you should use your own judgment regarding whether you are well-informed and refrain from voting if your answer is that you are not. I very often pass on voting for minor officials whose names I have never heard prior to entering the voting booth. Would my voting based on the results of a coin-toss or the candidates’ placement among the list of potentials fulfill some sort of civil moral obligation to participate in the process?

Clay October 14, 2011 at 11:53 am

I disagree with the idea that your vote should be based on evidence… who would judge what evidence is and is not qualified? I like the idea of limiting who could vote, but I would regulate it more by motivation. Make it harder to vote… more difficult for those with means than for those without. The real tragedy isn’t that people vote without knowledge, it’s that the swing votes are made by people who don’t really care. If the electorate isn’t buying in to the process, that can lead to a greater portion of us concluding that it’s illegitimate. Moreover, by allowing participation by those who care you tell the angriest among us to put up or shut up.

Jack Burton Mercer October 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm

You lost me at “vote for the common good.” That is open to wide interpretation, most commonly toward socialist thinking. The “common good” is rarely interpreted as the government doing less, which right now would have the greatest positive impact to the society.

Salem October 14, 2011 at 12:25 pm

To all those sceptical about Brennan’s argument:

In the article, he likens electoral voting to voting in a jury. What would you think of a juror who slept through a murder trial, then insisted on voting at the end? And then justified his vote not on the basis of guilt or innocence, but his personal interests – e.g. the lawyer for one side or other had promised him money down the line? And what would you think of a system that refused to punish such bad voting?

Or if the analogy is a bad one, why?

Dan October 14, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Because any proposed system for eliminating jurors based on their ineptitude simply makes it so there are fewer jurors, with more power, and then they are more prone to corruption. Not to mention the fact that someone has to make a decision on which jurors are inept – its called jury stacking, it happens in courts already.

eccdogg October 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm

That is the thing though I don’t see him proposing any such system.

He just says that if you are a juror who is going to sleep through the trial and sell your vote to the lawyer then you should recuse yourself. And we should not go out of our way to convince such people to show up for jury duty.

Dan October 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I see what you are saying – but the cynic in me just thinks that any system that removes people from the voting pool will not be tight enough to keep out the malicous ones that will actually cause harm.

“If you outlaw guns only the outlaws will have guns”

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm

+1, sadly.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Of course, however, the author does not suggest a system that removes people from the voting pool.

Matt October 14, 2011 at 12:33 pm

That last paragraph worries me. Most of the people I know that have strong political beliefs are the ones least likely to consider the idea that they are wrong and the most likely to cling to one or two “facts” they hear on the ______ show. It seems like the most opened minded people would have the least amount of confidence in their belief system. This would make them the most likely to stay home given Mr. Brennen’s prompt.

Pick your favorite (or least favorite) ideologue. Do you spend as much time as they do engrossed in political considerations? I know I don’t. I am not an economist nor am I a sociologist nor a poli-sci professor. They spend their whole lives dedicated to political and social issues. I do not. Still, I do not feel comfortable with the average of those three peoples votes ruling my life.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm

That’s why he’s got the wrong metric. He’s right that voting should be restricted, but not based on desire for ‘the common good’ or preparation or involvement…simple intelligence will suffice.

Matt October 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm

This also seems like the wrong metric. It simply ignores my biggest fear in any liberal democracy – arrogance in voters. In fact, one of the saving graces of modern politics is that ignorance and arrogance are often at odds with each other. Both of them are bad, but I think having only one of them would be worse.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm

I hear you, but I have less distrust of elites. Arrogance is often backed by real competence. Ignorance is plain bad. I can’t subscribe to any philosophy that has a problem with greater intelligence being unequivocally better than lesser. Doesn’t make you a good person to be smart, but then again neither does being dumb. And the smart ones can figure out what the heck a budget debate is about.

anonymous... October 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Greater raw intelligence, sadly, is no guarantee whatsoever of sound decision-making. Smart is not the same as wise.

Too-clever people often end up outsmarting themselves. They construct elaborate intellectual houses of cards, rationalizing sheer nonsense until it actually begins to make sense to them. They chase mirages and flights of fancy and sometimes even go down the rabbit hole of outright nutjobbery.

Time is no cure; it only exacerbates the problem as they tie themselves in knots of confirmation bias. Ten years of deep thought and “heavy work” leave some people dumber than when they started.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm

@ anonymous

In some cases yes, I tend to agree. But I’d wager that the instances of smart folks overthinking themselves into bad decisions are less common than ignorant folks just making bad decisions the old-fashioned way.

I’m never going to be talked into disbelieving smart > dumb.

David Welker October 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm

What interests me is how one can take such an obvious point and write a book about it. Yes, we already know that how other people vote affects us. I feel bad for the trees that were killed for this “insight.”

In terms of encouraging people to vote, it should continue to be done. The stereotypes about the political parties are largely correct. If you do not know the policy details, find someone who shares your values and look how they vote.

Justin Runia October 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm

That’s all well and good that you can come up with a reason to write off electoral results, but who decides if you are competant to vote? There’s plenty of people who think they’re smarter than they are, are you seriously recommending reinstating literacy tests at the polls?

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 2:52 pm

As I posted earlier, I would indeed recommend some kind of testing to determine voting eligibility. Maybe not literacy tests, but IQ tests would be nice. Then the people who think they are smarter than they are would find out they are wrong.

By the way this needs to apply to candidates too.

But as I also posted, this is all just internet wanking. No reductions in suffrage will ever happen, for somewhat obvious reasons. The original post at least is saying each person should voluntarily decide if they are informed enough to vote.

anonymous... October 14, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Are you certain you’d end up with a better, rather than worse, electorate? Surely you’ve heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Absolutely I have, good point, and a better poem quote (Yeats, right?)

Can’t be certain (I guess I’m one of ‘the best’! :-)) but I think it’s a reasonable assumption.

So set the bar at IQ = 90+ or something. Can’t hurt, even if it doesn’t help much.

As I said elsewhere, this is all jibberjabber. Nothing of the sort will ever happen.

eccdogg October 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm

“That’s all well and good that you can come up with a reason to write off electoral results, but who decides if you are competant to vote? There’s plenty of people who think they’re smarter than they are, are you seriously recommending reinstating literacy tests at the polls?”

I think what Brennan is suggesting is that each person should decide if they are competent.

He wants people to ask 2 questions before voting. 1) Am I reasonably well informed 2) Do I plan to vote for what I believe is the common good and not just what is good for me.

If you can answer yes to both then go ahead and vote. If not you should reconsider or become more informed and try to vote for what you think is in the best interest of society.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 5:19 pm


The Anonymouse October 14, 2011 at 5:29 pm

1) Certainly. The difficulty lies, of course, in measurement, self-delusion, and single-issue voters.
2) Certainly not. When I vote in my own self-interest, I have a passable chance of being correct. When I vote in your interest, I will almost certainly get it wrong.

Avg Voter October 17, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Of course I’m well informed and will vote for what I believe is the common good. By the way, I hear the average person thinks they have above average intelligence.

Ari T October 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm

No incentives to vote correctly, unfortunately.

Bryan Willman October 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm

This whole conversation ignores Real Politic – you either have a mechanism that let’s majorities express their will, or you have some variant of civil disorder or civil war.

What voters “should do” or “would competently do” is irrelevent. The issue is for voting to work well enough to avoid endless warfare at one level or another.

Most adducing policy arguments make 2 mistakes:
a. They assume they are “right”, when in physics there is no such thing.
b. They assume it would matter that they are “right” and those who differ are “wrong”, if there were such a thing as “right”.

If 70% of population become devote followers of the tea party, various progressive/liberal voices will find themselves very frustrated, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. If the political process doesn’t allow such a force of belief to be addressed, one may assume either massive repression (widely used throughout history) or violence (widely used throughout history) would result.

A terrible realization is that societies can survive and carry on for long times, indeed thrive, in spite of commiting (what to me at least) are obvious moral and economic errors. (Slavery? Slavery was legal until the civil war? How did the US not collapse in the face of such a moral and economic error?)

Or, see the Very Long pattern of social orders with a very heavy emphasis on controlling women as though they were a natural resource rather than people. Never mind voting, what about deciding whom to marry and whom to have sex with? Parts of that error still continue.

There is no “we gave up … for …” – that’s just a nonsense post hoc explanation of the physical reality of our lives. It’s like saying we gave up “flying by waving our arms in exchange for not falling off the Earth when we sleep” – there was no choice, there was no giving up, it’s just the power structure that emerged.

The real question is “How to foster better voting, better policy, more freedom and less oppression” in the real world.

Matt October 14, 2011 at 4:04 pm

You just said there is no ‘right’ policy and then say that slavery was a moral error. Which is it!?

txslr October 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm

As a small point of disagreement, slavery came very close to short-circuiting the creation of the union, was a constant source of friction and not occasional violence after, until, after less than a century, it tore the nation apart in a civil war that current estimates tell us resulted in nearly a million deaths on both sides.

Significant? Perhaps.

Joshua October 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Uninformed voters are noise in the system. This may improve the signal via stochastic resonance.

txslr October 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm

This is a theory that Bryan Caplan has examined and rejected. He may be wrong, but it is far from obviousl

Veridical Driver October 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm

What is missing in all this talk is the difference between “Democracy”, and “Liberal Democracy”.

Once you take away the concept of limited government, Democracy is simply Popular Dictatorship. The whole prosperity and freedom that people enjoyed relative to other forms of government came from the fact that government was limited to managing those things that where inherently collective (i.e roads, national defense, criminal law, infectious disease, etc.), and left most everything else for people to manage themselves.

With Liberal Democracy, it was very difficult for people to vote selfishly, because the functions of the government where so universal to the all people had the same common interests.

But now that we have abandoned the concept of limited government, and generally accept that government should be free to do absolutely anything so long as there is a slight majority, it is very easy to vote selfishly. 51% have absolute power over the 49%. Why would anyone vote for policies that benefit everyone or the majority of people? Clearly, if you want to extract rents/advantages/privlidges or whatever, it makes sense to have the absolute smallest majority possible and stick it to the other half. “Social Democracy” (or Totalitarian Democracy, as it should be called) derives its maximum advantage by minimizing the number of people who “win” in an election. It is far more profitable to be representing the 51% taking advantage of the 49%, than it is profitable to be representing the 99% taking advantage of the 1%. Social Democracy promotes mass inequity of power.

Dennis Tuchler October 14, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Taken seriously, this essay tells us all to give up and not vote, because we can’t fulfill the requirements.

The essay on which this post was based is confused and, probably, irrelevant to any effort to improve voting. Those who should read it won’t understand it. That includes intelligent voters who are ideologically tight enough to be proof against any contrary information.

What amount of information is sufficient to validate a vote; how does one become confident in the information being taken into account? What counts as the common good? Unless one identifies one’s good as the common good, or is so selfless as to take the common good as one’s own, (and has sufficient information as to what it is) the requirement that one seek that good is meaningless.

Foobarista October 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm

This guy weakens his argument by his assumption that “the common good” is well-defined, obvious, and is a reasonable guide to voting. My guess here is that he’s just another in a growing list of lefties who are upset that “their team” isn’t absolutely in charge at all time, so we should just get rid of democracy (or have some sort of “test” for electors, which would mean true power would revert to those who create and administer the tests).

Carl the EconGuy October 14, 2011 at 5:10 pm

“Common good” cannot be defined without a decision rule. And only unanimity qualifies. It’s a common good iff we all agree on it, otherwise we’re into interpersonal utility comparisons with indeterminate weights. And under all non-unanimity decision rules, it’s irrational to vote — as Gordon Tullock has pointed out many times. The probability that you will be the deciding vote is so close to zero that it’s dumb to expend the effort to vote. If you’re not going to be the deciding vote, why bother? Besides, democracy is unstable — see Arrow. The only really strong argument in its favor is that it only takes a simple majority to throw the rascals out — and that is a really, really important consideration. For the rest, I vote for unanimity — OK, compensated unanimity, if you insist. Meanwhile, we limp along.

Millian October 14, 2011 at 8:53 pm

First crippling flaw. Poorly-informed people have legitimate interests in society that differ systemically from those of well-informed people. And even ignoring the objective levels of information of voters, people who consider themselves poorly-informed are systemically different from people who consider themselves well-informed. Clashes between interests inform our notion of the common good. Therefore, one should not abstain simply because one considers oneself to be poorly-informed. Rather, one should make one’s best judgement.

If a policy is good but unpopular, politicians will try to introduce it anyway and rely on the policy to have worked sufficiently to dodge the unpopularity at the next election. The only policies that become easier to achieve, in the world where poorly-informed people abstain en masse, are policies that are 1. good in the long-term and 2. unpopular among poorly-informed people. But information itself is contingent on our experiences of policies.

Second crippling flaw. The most significant characteristic of democracy is that you can threaten incument office-holders with removal from office. This threat has lots of theoretical benefits, like the heavy penalisation and therefore the reduction of incidence of grand corruption. However, if the number of voters falls due to intrinsic motivation, then strategies to buy elections work better, because they rely on the extrinsic motivation engendered by money (for example). This is a reason why women’s suffrage helped everyone. It made election-buying more expensive as a strategy to fight against democratic outcomes.

msgkings October 14, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Millian wrote: The only policies that become easier to achieve, in the world where poorly-informed people abstain en masse, are policies that are 1. good in the long-term and 2. unpopular among poorly-informed people.

I like the sound of that world, especially #1! Sign me up for a world where we are more likely to have good long-term policy!

jsnodgers October 15, 2011 at 3:35 am

I would really love for Jason Brennan to actually go into some practical side to this theory. At the moment I don’t see how it does anyone any use at all. I don’t think there’s a tremendous number of people that simultaneously fall into all the individually small groups of 1) People that would hear this theory 2) People that will believe this theory 3) People that this theory would apply to (possibly not a small group, but still a narrowing) 4) People who then would correctly believe this theory applies to them.

At a start, it would seem that it’s more likely that people reading obscure political and philosophical theory would likely be people that are informed about how politics work. As such if there’s some p chance of convincing people not to vote with this argument, then you’re likely to turn away a greater quantity of well informed voters away from the polls than ill informed voters.

It could be argued that there should be a p1 for discouraging well informed people, and a p2 for discouraging ill informed people, but I don’t see that substantially altering the math of this argument, unless you want to argue there are somewhat equal number of people that are ill informed and well informed that would read such a theory, and that p1 is substantially smaller than p2, rather than vice versa. I would be unlikely to agree with either assertion.

Further, if you’re the type to believe that there’s more bad voters than good, than dissuading an equal number of bad and good voters actually results in there being a higher percent of bad voters in the votes remaining.

One a similar but less math oriented vein, if you were to take to the street and start trying to tell this information to people, a logical presentation of this sort I would see that as being more likely to convince a rational rather than irrational person, simply by the fact that an irrational person is unlikely to accept a rational argument that they should not vote. So again you’re more likely going to be turning away the voters that you actually want at the polls. A similar argument goes for people that vote unethically. Making the argument and spreading the idea seems to essentially defeat it’s own goal.

Occasionally people also take this a step further and say there should be some factor in determining who should vote. Because god knows if we can’t trust the government to do anything else, we could certainly trust it to determine who does and does not have a right to vote them into office.

jsnodgers October 15, 2011 at 3:42 am

Short version:

How is this argument meant to reach ill-informed people, convince irrational people, and persuade unethical people, rather than occasionally incorrectly convincing someone interested enough to find or listen to it, rational enough to see it’s merit, and ethical enough to put society’s best interest first.

jeu de baccarat October 15, 2011 at 5:13 am

i think vote it’s the best think that human than ever do

anonymous... October 15, 2011 at 7:42 am

The author’s “jury” analogy is flawed.

Serving on a jury is not equivalent to voting in a general election. It is (roughly) equivalent to serving as a legislator. Hearing a case at trial is equivalent to carefully considering the merits of a piece of legislation.

Voting in an election corresponds to selecting members of a jury, rather than actually serving on the jury yourself.

I might not be competent enough to serve, but I might still be competent enough to judge which other people are competent enough to serve.

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