UPDATE: I had Reich’s nickname wrong in the original post–please note that this is about the Robert Reich at Berkeley, not the Rob Reich at Stanford.
Here’s Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and now a professor at Berkeley, asserting a common trope:
I could write three whole books on what’s wrong with this kind of thinking; in fact, by the end of this calendar year, I will have done so.
Reich is repeating a common idea: you don’t have the right to complain unless you vote. I assume here Reich means you forfeit your liberty or permission right to complain, not your claim right. That is, he’s asserting that if you don’t vote, you should not complain, not that if you don’t vote, then it would be permissible for the government to stop you from complaining.
But why would you forfeit your right to complain if you don’t vote?
The most obvious explanation is that if you don’t vote, you didn’t do something that could influence government in the way you want it to go. You didn’t put in even minimal effort into making a change. If you can’t be bothered to act on your discomfort with politics, then you should shut up.
By analogy, suppose I complain to my wife: “It’s too damn cold in this house. Damn, I hate how cold it is.” She asks, “Well, did you turn the heat on?” I respond, “No, I can’t be bothered to get up, walk over to the hall, and turn up the thermostat.” She asks, “Did you at least put on a sweater?” I respond, “No, I can’t be bothered to go to my closet and fetch a sweater.” She would justifiably respond, “If you can’t be bothered to put in this minimal effort, you shouldn’t complain. I don’t want to hear any more out of you.”
But voting isn’t like that! The problem is that individual votes don’t make any difference. On the most optimistic assessment of the efficacy of individual votes, votes in, say, the US presidential election can have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if you vote in a swing state and vote for one of the two major candidates. Otherwise, the chances of breaking a tie or having any impact are vanishingly small. (Reich votes in California, and even on the Edlin-Gelman-Kaplan model, his vote doesn’t matter.) On less optimistic but more widely accepted estimates of the efficacy of individual votes, individual votes have a snowball’s chance in hell of making a difference in any major election. (Even then, keep in mind: This applies only to voting for candidates from the two major parties, candidates who appeal to the mass of ignorant and irrational voters. If you’re voting third party, your vote generally matters even less than that.*)
So, the analogy of a person complaining about the cold but being unwilling to turn on the heat or put on a sweater doesn’t apply. Reich is really saying something like this:
I ran into someone this morning who complained about how poor he is. I told him, “If you’re not playing the lottery everyday, you forfeit your right to complain about being poor.” The problem with poor people is that they don’t buy enough Powerball tickets.
Perhaps Reich instead means something like this:
- Citizens have a duty to vote.
- If a citizen doesn’t discharge this duty to vote, she loses her (permission) right to complain.
But why accept either of these claims? Let’s start with claim 2. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that citizens have a duty to vote, why hold that failing to discharge this duty would somehow deprive them specifically a permission right to complain? (Keep in mind, you can’t use the argument I just refuted above.) Why not instead hold that they lose their permission right to listen to Taylor Swift, or their permission right to watch his movie?
But the more pressing problem is the view that citizens have a duty to vote. In The Ethics of Voting, I systematically refute all of the best arguments on behalf of a duty to vote. The very best arguments on behalf of a duty to vote hold that you have a duty to vote because you 1) should contribute to the common good, 2) shouldn’t free ride on the provision of public goods provided for you by your fellow citizens, or 3) have a duty to promote your fellow citizens’ welfare. But, as I point out in that book, if any of these duties exist, these are all very general duties that can be discharged any number of ways besides voting. Voting isn’t necessary; it’s just one of many possible ways to promote the common good, avoid free riding, or promote citizens’ welfare. Further, voting isn’t sufficient to discharge those duties, because many people vote badly, in ways that on a collective level tend to undermine the common good and harm their fellow citizens. Reich shouldn’t advocating that people vote. He should instead advocate that most of them abstain.
*P.S. Don’t talk about “changing the mandates”. Mandates don’t exist; they’re just a popular myth.