Democracy, Current Events

Civic Enemies

In the market, most of my fellow citizens are my civic friends, part of a great cooperative scheme. One of the vile and repugnant features of democracy is that it transforms these people–people who should be my civic friends–into my civic enemies.

Today most Americans will do something morally rotten–they will vote, despite being misinformed, uninformed, and irrational about politics. As a result, innocent people around the world, including my children and me, will have to suffer the consequences of bad government. As I say in the introduction to my “The Right to a Competent Electorate”:

Many of my fellow citizens are incompetent, ignorant, irrational, and morally unreasonable about politics.  Despite that, they hold political power over me.  These can staff offices of great power and wield the coercive authority of the state against me.  They can force me to do things I do not wish to do, or have no good reason to do.

As an innocent person, I should not have to tolerate that.  Just as it would be wrong to force me to go under the knife of an incompetent surgeon, or to sail with an incompetent ship captain, it is wrong to force me to submit to the decisions of incompetent voters.  People who exercise power over me—including other voters—should have to do so in a competent and morally reasonable way.  […]Or so I will argue.

The problem here isn’t that people disagree. On many matters, reasonable people will disagree. My theory of voting ethics doesn’t require that you get the correct answer, but rather than you be epistemically justified in voting for what you vote for. From “Polluting the Polls”:

As a first pass, we might say bad voting occurs when citizens vote for harmful or unjust policies or for candidates likely to enact harmful or unjust policies.  However, this seems too strong.  One might vote for what is in fact a harmful policy but be justified in doing so.  For instance, imagine that the past two hundred years, thousands of independent political scientists, each of whom exhibits all the characteristic epistemic virtues, have amassed overwhelming evidence that a particular policy will be good.  Yet, sometimes the best evidence is misleading–it points in the wrong direction. The policy might still end up being harmful, though everyone was justified in thinking it would be beneficial  We shouldn’t characterize people who vote on the basis of strong evidence as having voted badly.

No, the problem with my fellow citizens isn’t so much what they vote for by why they vote. The overwhelming majority of them haven’t put in the proper care to develop their political beliefs in a rational way, on the basis of the best available evidence. They are like drunk drivers who force me to drive with them. They are like incompetent surgeons who force me to go under their knives. They are like jurors trying a capital murder case, who find the defendant guilty without having paid attention to the evidence, or because they evaluated the evidence in a bigoted or irrational way.

Those who exercise power over others have a moral duty to do so competently and in good faith. The overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens will violate this duty today. This makes them my enemies, when they should have been my friends.

  • martinbrock

    The problem with a few hundred people ruling hundreds of millions of other people through an authoritarian, hierarchical bureaucracy is that a few hundred people rule hundreds of millions of others through an authoritarian, hierarchical bureaucracy. Any rules determining how the few hundred become the few hundred are irrelevant, so the competence of voters is also irrelevant.

    A few hundred Einsteins with the best of intentions would still be selfishly parasitic if not tyrannical, because with all of their intellect and good will, they can’t possibly know enough to rule hundreds of millions of people. A person can only rule with the knowledge in his own head, and even with all the 21st information technology he can buy, a single man’s senses have very limited reach, and his head has very limited capacity.

    • Jason Brennan

      I don’t advocate total rule by 300 people, though. More like the top 5% of voters.

      • martinbrock

        If the top 5% (however they’re determined) somehow enact rules governing all 300 million, you still have the same problem. How can these rules account for the specific circumstances to all of the ruled?

        All politics is local.

      • Robert Gressis

        I could be wrong, but if the top 5% of voters ruled us, wouldn’t we be socialist? Maybe I don’t know what you mean by top 5%.

  • indeed a very sad day…but it is not the people who are our enemies but the general ignorance still prevailing in this country ( and worldwide, besides Iceland maybe)…the press has done a sublime job of suppressing and distorting information to the general public. Our media does not encourage people to think but rather numbs them down….and as we libertarians all know by now, our mainstream media is owned by the 6 major corporations who are also running our government….we didn’t manage to break the vicious cycle this time, but we have definitely put a dent in it….thank you for this heart felt article

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  • j r

    I am slowly coming around to this way of thinking, which I at first dismissed out of hand. It does, however, remain an argument that needs to be made with a certain amount of nuance. In other words, the more forcefully you make it, the more likely it is to come apart. Here is what I mean.

    Democracy tends to work best when people are informed. With this, I absolutely agree. Normative beliefs aside, a good citizen is one who works to enhance his ability to make and to understand positive political and economic arguments. For instance, knowing the relationship between tax rates and government revenue and economic growth is good, aside from whatever opinion you hold on whether taxes should be high or low. I want low taxes, but I’d rather live in a place where most people understood the economics and had split views on taxation than in a place where most people shared my views, but had no understanding of the economics. (Here, as an aside I will say that this is my personal preference. It’s not clear that this would be a universal preference.)

    At the same time, democracy is based on the idea of universal enfranchisement. That is, all human beings have the right to self-government, not just the wise, fair, knowledgeable and selfless. In other words, all those who are “incompetent, ignorant, irrational, and morally unreasonable about politics” have just as much right to suffrage as you do. To deny them that, would be, for lack of a better word, undemocratic.

    So, there is your tension. Democracy is best when exercised by those who are best at exercising it. Putting aside the circularity if that statement for a second, it raises a more important question: why support democracy at all? Why support universal enfranchisement if you’re starting from a position wherein universal enfranchisement is an obviously inferior form of organizing a society?

    This tension is manageable so long as your desire for a certain kind of electorate remains at the aspirational level. That is, so long as you posit it as something along the lines of ‘democracy is great, but would be better if more voters would educate themselves.’ It seems like you want to go much further, however, and characterize the present situation as something akin to oppression by a mob of dullards. If you really believe that, again, why democracy? Why not just go straight to oligarchy or anarchy?

  • Sean II

    After giving it much careful thought (get it?), I find that Brennan’s epistemic justification principle doesn’t hold up very well.

    To build on one of his own analogies, no one would ever say: “Dr. Franchise is not an effective surgeon. Patients are about as likely to die under his knife as they are to die untreated. But he studied really hard through many years of medical school, and he adheres to an internally consistent, elegant philosophy of disease. He is not correct in his clinical decisions, and it would be too much to demand that from him. But we should all take comfort in knowing that he is epistemically justified.”

    If someone votes for a bad guy, who goes on to enact bad policies, why should it matter how cleverly he can argue on behalf of his mistakes? Why should I forget, on that basis, that they are mistakes?

    Imagine a three person electorate, including Mr. Brennan, Mr. Neocon, and Mr. Progresso.

    Mr. Brennan votes not to bomb Iran. Mr. Neocon votes to bomb Iran, for some vague reason having to do with “national greatness”, and quite possibly because he just doesn’t like muslims very much. Mr. Progresso ALSO votes to bomb Iran, but he does so thanks to a subtle understanding of history, a passionate desire to avert another anti-semitic holocaust, and some pragmatic, complex arguments having to do with regional nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East.

    According to Brennan, there’s an important moral difference between Mr. Neocon and Mr. Progresso, because the latter has epistemic justification for his vote while the former lacks it.

    According to me, both of those guys suck because they just bombed Iran, and it doesn’t matter if they have different reasons for doing it.

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  • Hume22

    Although I sympathize with the idea that law-subjects have moral reasons not to vote if they are uninformed, I have two concerns.

    First, you write “they will vote, despite being misinformed, uninformed, and irrational about politics. As a result, innocent people around the world . . . will have to suffer the consequences of bad government.” I am concerned with your causal claim here, although not in the sense that “my vote” caused such-and-such. What is the counterfactual, and what is the justification for the counterfactual? Is it a counterfactual perfect government or is it a counterfactual government made up of self-interested politicians who pander to the self-interest of a very small number of ‘educated’ law-subjects? What empirical support do you have for the claim that ‘democratic’ government produces better outcomes if 95% of the electorate abstained?

    Second, at some point in the electoral process it seems as if it just does not matter *at all* whether you are informed or not, unless you are of the view that in every single election *no* reasonably informed person would have voted for Candidate X and *every* reasonably informed person would have voted for Candidate Y. Here’s what I mean. If we are at the point where two candidates are on the ticket, and Ideal Voter A could justifiably select Candidate X and Ideal Voter B could justifiably select Candidate Y, then it seems like an Ideal Voter could select Candidate X or Candidate Y. So now the question becomes: what difference does it make, from a moral point of view, whether or not you are actually epistemically justified? Unless you are of the mindset that in every election one candidate is decidedly unjustifiable, completely unreasonable, then it seems like there is reasonable disagreement over the candidates. And if that is the case, why does it matter if a single voter is adequately informed in casting their vote between two reasonable candidates?

  • This is from my forthcoming diatribe, “The Right to A World That Exists to Serve Me”:

    “Some of my fellow citizens are ivory tower moral philosophers who believe, in the complete absence of any empirical evidence, that they have a priori intuitions into categorical truths about the ultimate nature of what is right and what is wrong. They also claim the power to predict, on the basis of ideal theory alone as practiced in their towers, and seemingly without benefit of any personal, real world experience of the actual behavior of people and firms in the commercial world, or careful empirical research on the actual functioning of market institutions, the outcome of the radical deregulation of those agents and markets. Despite that, they hold political power over me, are permitted to vote in elections that decide the fates of more practical, experienced and mature people, and are even permitted to educate some of the nation’s young people. They can staff academic positions of some power and wield their access to the minds of the gullible against me, and even undermine the intellectual foundations of American democracy if they are so inclined.”

    • purple_platypus

      “They also claim the power to predict, on the basis of ideal theory alone
      as practiced in their towers, and seemingly without benefit of any
      personal, real world experience of the actual behavior of people and
      firms in the commercial world, or careful empirical research on the
      actual functioning of market institutions, the outcome of the radical
      deregulation of those agents and markets.”

      Who are you describing here, leftists or Libertarians? (Or both?) The shoe seems to fit either way.

    • Thanks for writing this. I can now tell you that you have a duty not to vote.

  • BallsAndStrikes

    Put this in the “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others” file. Yes, uninformed voters are bad. But there is no means of fixing that problem that is not worse.

  • Since access to education and information in unequal capitalist societies is, as a matter of fact, correlated with wealth and income, Brennan’s view implies that an even higher proportion of the wealthy than the poor should vote than is actually the case, with the rather predictable consequence that policy in a democracy where people accepted and acted on his arguments would track the interests of the wealthy (or best case scenario, their skewed perception of the common interest) even more closely than is actually the case.

    • This is a pretty lame criticism.

      First, my theory of voting ethics says that citizens may vote only if they vote in good faith, for what they justifiedly believe will serve the right ends of government, and only if they are epistemically competent. So, if people were following this theory, governments everywhere would do much better by the poor than they do now. At best, your objection amounts to imagining a world in which people *believe* themselves to be following my theory of voting ethics but in fact systematically violate it. Whoop-dee-do.

      Also, you’re assuming that the poor know enough to vote for policies that support their own interests. There’s not good reason to think that. In fact, as I document in my forthcoming book on compulsory voting, the poor are systematically misinformed about basic matters. The conclusion, ugly as it may be, is that if we want to help the poor realize their preferred outcomes (e.g., they get richer), we need to ignore many of their preferred policy preferences.

      Finally, take a look at Martin Gilens new book Affluence and Influence. One conclusion: even if the poor voted more, it doesn’t mean that politicians will listen to them.

  • SimpleMachine88

    I’m sure they think you’re an idiot too. I take it you can judge who is or isn’t informed?

  • J. Anderson

    I don’t really understand this piece. It seems to be made up mostly of deeply arrogant insults. I also can’t imagine why anyone would bother giving arguments against such a piece. For instance, if Brennan were to walk into a typical American bar and announce that, according to his moral theory, no one in that room should be allowed to vote except for him, then it would seem to me to be a very proper and justified response for someone to simply punch him in the nose. I really don’t think Brennan’s beliefs merit much more than that in way of response.

  • Damien S.

    “Many of my fellow citizens are incompetent, ignorant, irrational, and morally unreasonable about politics”

    And of course we can all agree on who is incompetent, ignorant, irrational and morally unreasonable.

    Or, you know… not.

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