If You Don’t Vote, You Have No Right to Complain

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:

Robert Reich
October 27

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:

  1. Citizens have a duty to vote.
  2. 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.



  • Jason Colby

    To whom is Reich talking here? (Either your link is broken or something is awry on my end.)

    Is he talking to Democratic partisans who have come to see him speak? Then a plausible-and-charitable interpretation of his words could be something like:

    “You clearly want to see liberals and Democrats elected. If not, why would you have made the effort to come hear me? If you’re willing to put in this much effort to merely hear words about how great liberals and Democrats are, then surely you should be willing to put in the rather less onerous effort of registering that opinion on Election Day.”

    But, more likely, Reich isn’t making any sort of philosophical truth claim at all. He’s merely exhorting people to get out and vote… for his side. Is this rational? Well, to the (still small) chance that Reich’s efforts to increase turnout will be the difference in an election, we’d have to add the personal benefits that Reich gets from being publically part of the Democratic Party’s GOTV efforts.

    So I agree with your general analysis, but am unsure if it applies in this particular.

  • Pedantic quibble: It is slightly more reasonable to vote than to play the lottery, since the expected impact of voting is near-zero, while the expected value of a lottery ticket is unequivocally less than zero.

    I know. Sorry.

    • Libertymike

      Ryan, one could plausibly argue the reverse of your assertion, from an anarcho-free enterprise-individualist perspective: it is slightly more reasonable to play the lottery than to vote, since the expected impact of voting is unequivocally less than zero, while the expected value of a lottery ticket is near-zero.
      If one votes, all one does is specify which faction of the state’s thieves will confiscate your property and propagate progressivism whereas the lottery ticket still carries with it the possibility of being a winner, however remote the possibility may be. Voting carries with it no possibility of winning anything other than Hail Caesar.

      • WraithKenny

        Your “anarcho-free enterprise-individualist perspective” is strangely anti-market and pro-authoritarian. Rather then a “rational actor” you use your own subjective judgement as an objective value and impose it on the individual (like price-setting), in order to justify your conclusion…and you mistakenly suggest a lottery ticket’s near-zero value is positive.

        • Libertymike

          How is my anarcho-free enterprise-individualist perspective “strangely anti-market and pro-authoritarian?”
          What value have I “imposed… on the individual?”
          If, as you contend, a lottery ticket’s value is near zero, how could I be mistaken in asserting that a lottery ticket’s value is near zero?
          I ask because you did not support your asseverations with any facts.

          • Veblen Girl

            Your assertion that a lottery ticket’s value is near zero was in clear juxtaposition to your assertion that voting’s value is unequivocally less than zero, clearly implying that a lottery ticket’s value is not unequivocally less than zero. You of course have it backwards. Because both the cost and the unlikely benefit of the lottery ticket are purely monetary, the expected value is a matter of simple arithmetic and thus unequivocal. On the other hand, neither the cost nor the unlikely benefit of voting are purely monetary. Is the benefit of avoiding another September 11th, divided by a trillion, worth the time it takes to drive to the polling station? Not in my opinion, but it’s certainly not unequivocal.

    • Jason Brennan

      Ryan, I’m not sure of that, because it does take time and effort to vote. To vote well takes even more time and effort. And voting badly has very slight negative expected utility.

    • adrianratnapala

      JB’s larger point, and his point about payoff is right. But I still don’t like the “probability of decisiveness” formulation. I like to see my side win elections, for the same reason I like to see Australia in in cricket (which definitively *not* happening right now, PAK 514/4!). But the serious business of democracy is in shifting actual policies. Which is about the median voter.

      Suppose all everyone in a country voted according to a single parameter called their “leftness”. The parties Left and Right choose the leftness of their policies in order to attract at least 50% of votes. I.e. the try to match the threshold where the median voter is. Suppose the median voter has dM more leftness than the next voter to her right. Then by choosing to vote instead of abstain, you shift the threshold by about dM/2; which is about your fair share in a democracy of equal participants.

      • Veblen Girl

        There are two problems with that model. One, the set of attractable votes is really not the same as the set of voters who voted in the last election; indeed, a reliable partisan voter can neither be attracted nor repelled, whereas one who abstained because of their party’s policies can be attracted if those policies change. Two, the parties’ policies are really not primarily for the purpose of getting votes; when they want votes, they take the money they got because their policies coincide with elite interests, and they spend that money on uninformative TV commercials and whatnot.

    • j r

      You can’t really judge these two acts based purely on an objective expected value calculation. You have to take into account the subjective utility for voting or for playing the lottery.

      In 2008, I did not vote in the presidential election, because I did not like any of the candidates. In 2012, I voted for Gary Johnson, not because I had any expectation that he would win or even that my one vote would signal anything. I did it because it felt good to vote for someone who was relatively close to my basket of policy preferences.

      Likewise, whenever the Mega Millions goes over about $150 million, I buy a ticket. I’m not making an expected value calculation based on the probability of winning. I just like to pay a dollar to engage in completely irrational fantasizing about what I would do if I did win.

      • Jason Brennan

        Yes, that’s right. Here we’re just talking about the expected utility in terms of the effect on policy.

        G. Brennan and Lomasky think most people vote because they want to express themselves, or because they think it’s a duty.

        • j r

          Sure, but i still question the purpose of that discussion.

          How many significant digits do you have to use before the expected value of either vote or lottery ticket is anything other than zero?

  • martinbrock

    I doubt that voting for the POTUS contributes to the common good or to the welfare of my fellow citizens. Assuming that my vote has any effect at all (which is unlikely as you say), I can only protect someone from the greater of two evils, but can I really know which of the two major party candidates is the lesser evil? I can imagine that I know, but do I really know? I doubt that too. I doubt that the two candidates know which of them is the lesser evil.

    By accepting the conventional wisdom, that voting does matter and does somehow constitute “democracy” (the rule of people by themselves), I suppose I do more harm than good, because the conventional wisdom seems to be false. I can easily imagine countless alternatives, to voting in the U.S. at this time, that would enfranchise people to rule themselves far more effectively without empowering a parasitic elite to nearly the same extent.

    These alternatives aren’t on the ballot at all, so why am I not ethically bound to communicate the alternatives to my fellow citizens with the scarce time I might otherwise expend on the established, electoral process, unless I have little real interest in my fellow citizens but only seek whatever rent seeking advantage I can gain through the process?

    • WraithKenny

      Strange that free market folks hate voting, since the question is, “who will decide” is answered by the “market” (of voters). Either the wisdom of the crowds–the idea that the body politic does, in fact, know better then the candidates–is true, or the fundamental premise of free markets is false. If we can’t trust citizens to be informed and vote well, how can we expect consumers to be informed and purchase well? These are analogous. Free elections and free markets.Their opposites are monopoly of arbitrary political power and economic power. (Interestingly, if there’s a flaw or exploit in democracy, then we should look to a corresponding one in free markets.)

      • martinbrock

        Voters in a majoritarian plebiscite in a two party state don’t meaningfully decide anything. When a voter choose Romney over Obama, maybe he gets Romney and maybe he gets Obama, but he has no further control over any decision either candidate makes, and his decision can only be a product of the least information platitudes the candidates can think to utter, because they don’t utter anything else.

        When a consumer in a market chooses Wendy’s over McDonalds, he actually gets Wendy’s rather than McDonalds, and someone else choosing McDonalds instead, at the same moment, is irrelevant. See the difference? I don’t trust you to choose my burger for me, and I need not trust you.

        The most salient difference is that the state is a monopoly. The state is the nexus of all monopoly.

        • WraithKenny

          Your hyper-individualism is blinding you.

          Consumers in capitalism don’t meaningfully decide anything. When a consumer choses Wendy’s over McDonalds, maybe Wendy’s had more economic distribution, maybe McDonalds does, and the consumer has no further control over any of it (choosing the economic winner). When a voter chooses Romney over Obama, he actually gets his vote counted. Further, his choice of which food joint can only be a product of the least information platitudes the advertisements brainwash him with and the chemically addicting additives he’s been exposed to, because brand selection can’t be anything else.

          I don’t trust you to choose my political leaders for me, and I need not trust you. See the difference?

          • martinbrock

            I’m not an individualist at all. I’m an intentional communitarian. In the nineteenth century, before the rise of Marxism and similarly statist systems, I’d have been happy calling myself a “communist”, and I still prefer “mutualism” to “capitalism”.

            I’m a “left libertarian” here, so I don’t defend “capitalism”. Historically, “capitalism” has variously described productive means organized by people exercising relatively weak property rights and a system in which capitalists seek ever expanding rents through a state. The latter is the opposite of what I defend.

            Your characterization of my choice of Wendy’s over McDonalds is nonsensical, particularly when we realize that I chose neither today. I drove through at Chick Fil’a, but I could have chosen any of hundreds of options within easy driving distance of my office Our office favorite is a Jamaican restaurant called “Kelly’s” that’s no part of any chain.

            Wow. I’d have gotten my vote counted if I had bothered to vote for either Romney or Obama. Trouble is: I didn’t want either candidate, so I didn’t care which tally I increased.

            No, I don’t see the difference. When you vest the power to make decisions for you in a person selected in a majoritarian plebiscite, you do trust others to choose the people making these decisions as a matter of fact, and when you choose one product among many in a free market, others do not make this decision for you as a matter of fact.

          • WraithKenny

            My initial response was in reference of “the conventional wisdom” of “Each assumes the other is, but they can’t both be right, and if our system makes any sense at all, the two of them presumably know better than the rest of us. ” which was written in the context of a libertarian site.

            I happen to also be for “productive means organized by people exercising relatively weak property rights.”

            My remixing of your second response was to illustrate the difference between “choosing the economic winners via capitalism” (context, libertarian site) and “a single purchase” and also highlight the similar difference of “choosing political leaders” and “a single vote”, to show how you jumbled those.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t understand your problem with the statement you quote. I am very much a libertarian, but you seem to have a very narrow idea of what “libertarian” describes.

            I see potential agreement here, but we need to discuss “weak” property rights vs. “strong” property rights. Vesting in a single executor over a vast, hierarchical, authoritarian bureaucracy the power to decide the disposition of trillions of dollars of productive means is not my idea of “weak” property rights at all. The property of this bureaucracy is vast, and its power is incredible. Adding a committee of a few hundred legislators prescribing acts of the authorities, however these legislators are selected, doesn’t weaken the property rights at all. It only changes the manner in which the rights are exercised.

            I don’t want winners chosen via capitalism. I don’t winners chosen at all. I want every interaction to be as voluntary as possible and thus as beneficial as possible to the people interacting. That’s what “libertarianism” means to most people accepting the label. It doesn’t mean what you imagine as “capitalism”.

          • WraithKenny

            My idea of “weak” is that if someone is starving without food, and you have food and are not starving, “property rights” are not “strong” enough to justify the state backing you up in denying the starving person the food. “Weak” would be closer to the anarchist/communist tradition, as opposed to the “strong” propertarian, of popular U.S. libertarianism.

            Voluntariness is subjective, ethereal, and perspective/context dependent. Consider the voluntariness of hypothetical anti-murder law. How much value would such a voluntary law have to the population? Voluntariness is not an indicator of worthiness by itself.

          • WraithKenny

            Were we’d likely disagree is on the “weak” property idea is when it comes to the commons. The bureaucracy is needed to manage the commons since no individual can claim “strong” rights to it.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t imagine any commons. I imagine all natural resources subject to the standards of one community or another. A community’s standards may entitle individual members exclusively to govern particular resources within the community, but this mode of governance is only one of countless possibilities. I don’t expect any particular system of property rights to prevail everywhere. I rather expect a wide variety of property rights.

          • martinbrock

            In the liberal archipelago that I imagine, a starving person may take any food from anyone at any time. In the worst case scenario, this person’s community imprisons him for theft, but the person may leave the prison by leaving the community for any other community. If, by the standards of any other community, this person should not be imprisoned for taking food under the circumstances, then the person may find relief in another community.

            Voluntariness is certainly subjective, but its not nearly as ethereal as you suggest here. The standards of a community are voluntary, not optional. Membership in the community requires adhering to its standards. In a community ruling out murder, obeying this rule is not optional, and the community may impose any penalty, short of death, for violating the rule, but it may hold a convicted murderer in the community, subject to the community’s standards, if another community will accept him.

            Voluntariness is not nearly as mysterious to me as “worthiness”. I have no idea what you consider worthy.

          • WraithKenny

            I get the point of a reduced set of choices, but that merely moves the analogy to monopoly, which has the same concerns between democracy and capitalism. It could be argued that the process starts earlier with participation in primaries, and also the party hierarchy, similar to participation in business groups and boards etc. Get involved earlier in the process and still vote.

          • martinbrock

            I rarely get involved in politics, but I was involved early in the Ron Paul campaign, not because I ever expected him to be elected but because I wanted to associate with other people who like Paul’s way of thinking about U.S. foreign policy.

            I don’t vote, because I don’t want to be any part of deciding what the state orders you to do. I don’t want to make laws governing you at all, except to forbid you to impose your will forcibly on others.

          • WraithKenny

            Your mode of government is still your will, which you’re OK with imposing on me via state force (forbid), if I disagree. It’s of the same moral quality as any other on those grounds.

          • martinbrock

            I’m a minarchist rather than an anarchist, so I don’t pretend to impose no rules on you. I only claim to impose minimal rules on you, essentially ruling out only your imposition of rules on others without their consent. You may formulate any rules you like and offer to others an opportunity to join a community organized by your rules, but may not force people to join this community or hold anyone in the community against their will.

          • WraithKenny

            So it’s only other people’s imposition of rules that is ruled out by your rule: your imposition of that rule is OK though. It’s fine to prefer one’s own rules, but let’s not pretend that just because it’s your preferred way, that it’s morally, or rationally, superior.

            (P.S. To be fair you didn’t make that claim, other’s did.)

          • martinbrock

            Yes. I cannot expect to be free of rules imposed upon me, and I can expect you to be free of rules imposed upon you, without ruling out this imposition. With this exception, I prefer my own rules only for myself.

            I’m an ethical subjectivist. Morality is a subjective preference of individuals and has no other meaning for me. The non-imposition principle that I describe is not an ethical principle. It’s a political principle enacting the greatest possible diversity of ethical principles. I don’t say that a tyrant is “wrong”. I only say that his impositions limit the choice of others with a different, subjective sense of “right”.

          • WraithKenny

            On minarchism, I’ve read Nozick, and failed to see the upside of such a minarchist state. It reaches a sort of “singularity” in which all rights accumulate into one political body, who are then no longer constrained by such limits, and can implement *any* sort of system of rights, which would then be said to be “morally justified” via “just process” (including social democracy or even totalitarian dictatorship). Seems a worthless thought experiment, especially given the arbitrary nature of it’s axioms.

            But I prefer the principle of the rule of law, as It doesn’t have unnecessary arbitrary limits of vague voluntariness, nor objections to things I simply like, like universal human rights.

          • martinbrock

            Nozick’s night watchman state is not minimal, because it imposes standards governing individual property rights that free communities need not accept. A minimal state imposes only free association. Free association neither implies nor rules out individual property rights, but it does rule out title in perpetuity.

            Any state risks the outcome that you suggest, and all existing states exemplify this risk. I don’t pretend to have a solution to this problem, but I imagine the emergence of a liberal archipelago from the bottom up, not from the top down. I don’t imagine ever “winning” liberty in a political contest for control of a state on the scale of the United States.

            Free association is no more vague than any standard you associate with “rule of law”. The rule of law is meaningless without specifying particular laws, and “universal human rights” is similarly meaningless.

        • WraithKenny

          “Let the market decide” but not “let the electorate decide” because…the electorate is made up of stupid people, but the market is made up of the same people, erm, I mean, smart people. No, wait, the political elites bend the political system in ways the economic elites can’t monopolize the…oh wait…Well, politicians can influence markets far more then lobbyist can manipulate greedy politicians with economic incentives… oh. crap.

          • WraithKenny

            Yeah, no. I don’t see the difference.

          • martinbrock

            I say nothing about the electorate being made up of stupid people.

            If you think that economic elites don’t bend the political system, you are totally out of touch with reality. Economic elites dominate the political system, because they are its principal products.

          • WraithKenny

            To this point, I’ve been saying that democracy and free markets operate on the same principles, and that it’d be absurd to favor or oppose one, and not the other.

            I certainly believe economic elites can corrupt the political. The comment I wrote was mimicking the contortions that certain libertarians go though to reconcile preferring capitalism without democracy.

            Economic elites do dominate the political system but that is corruption of democracy, a symptom of elevating capitalism over democracy.

          • martinbrock

            In reality, economic elites don’t corrupt the political process as much as they constitute the political process. Where “capitalism” has been nominally lowered below “democracy”, economic elites typically have been more powerful, but I don’t defend “capitalism”, because the term historically describes rent seeking rather than the freest possible markets.

            Libertarians who champion “capitalism” don’t seem to understand this history, and some nominal “libertarians” are only conservators of established propriety, just as nominal “socialists” and “communists” have only championed the substitution of one ruling class of economic elites for another.

      • Wilson263

        Elections aren’t markets. In a market, you pay a cost to get a product or service (or something) for yourself. This incentivizes smarter, but not necessarily perfect, decision making. In an election, you pay (basically) nothing in order to have have an approximately zero probability of choosing a basket of policies for yourself, but also other people. This creates an incentive for expressive, irrational voting.

      • Reverend Draco

        Not voting is a vote for “None of the Above.” In the last presidential election, “NOTA” got 44% of the votes – more than Obama (26%) or Romney (24%).

        The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

  • Bob_Robert

    I figure if I’m forced to pay taxes, then I can complain. Voting has nothing to do with it, even citizenship has nothing to do with it.

  • Russell Arben Fox

    Why are these sorts of counter-arguments so invariably statist? Why do they, again and again and again, trot out the statistical impossibility of an individual vote in the presidential election having any effect on the electoral college and the selection of the POTUS as their starting point? In other words, they all start at the top of the American system, rather than begin with, you know, where American citizens actually live. Someday, I want to see someone deny the notion that there is a duty to vote–due to a claimed mathematically-impossible-to-bridge-distance between the individual act of voting and outcomes–while starting with school board elections, city council elections, county commissioner elections, and the like. (If there already has been someone who has used this kind of utilitarian calculus to deny the responsibility to vote for you local sheriff or state legislator and the other leaders to define the quality of life where you and your family actually live, please point it out to me; I really like to read it.)

    • Jason Brennan

      Russell, see Democracy and Decision, chapter 4. On the Lomasky-Brennan model, your vote is unlikely make a difference even in local elections.

    • WraithKenny

      It’s due to the hyper-individualist’s inability to see any non-individualistic qualities. A mind that accepts the “worthless individual vote” argument would be very skeptical of evidence that a ton of feathers–feathers!–could possibly weight the same as a ton of bricks…after all feathers are light, and each individual feather has “the statistical impossibility” of having an impact on weight. Hyper-individuals have brain-damage that prevents them from seeing group qualities that cognitively disagree with their individual qualities…they have difficulty with quantity, scope and proportion.

  • agauntpanda

    So, I haven’t done the homework here, but I am curious as to how this view reconciles with what I understand to be Prof. Brennan’s view that most people have a duty not to vote. If voting ignorantly meaningfully increases the chance that bad policies will be enacted and hurt society, isn’t that a conflict with the idea that voting is basically inconsequential?

    • Jason Brennan

      Yes, that’s right. In the Ethics of Voting and “Polluting the Polls,” what makes my work philosophically interesting is that I have an intuitive way to argue that voting badly is wrong even though individual bad votes don’t matter. If individual bad votes did make a big difference, it would be less interesting to show they’re wrong.

  • The link you give to argue against mandates only addresses the idea of issue specific mandates based on exit polls, but that’s not the best concept of a mandate or the one that matters here. It seems difficult to argue that a politician who wins by 10 percent will act differently from one who won by 5 percent, who will act differently from one who won by 1 percent. An example here would be the bipartisanship of the pre-9/11 Bush administration (working with Ted Kennedy to pass NCLB) versus the far more strident position taken in 2005 (“I have political capital and I’m going to spend it” on Social Security reform). So votes do have an ultimate effect, both in terms of how a politician acts, and on what the slate of candidates looks like in the future. Withdrawal from the voting pool will necessarily move this effect in the direction you don’t agree with, at least if you would have made an informed choice.

    • Jason Brennan

      Yeah, it’s just one short paper. But the mandate theory is dead. The view you’re describing has been researched at great length, and roundly rejected. It’s even on the AP government exam–there’s a question to the effect of “Why are political scientists skeptical of electoral mandates?”

      Now I need Sean II to show up here and tell me that just because fifty researchers using 50 different data sets got the same result, that doesn’t mean anything, because he never took stats and “social science” is an oxymoron.

      • I’m going to assume you know the literature better than I do, but it seems like “dead” is an overstatement or you mean something somewhat different than I do by “mandate.” That short paper cites Grossman, Peterson, and Stimson’s book, Mandate Politics, as its justification for dismissal of mandates. The publisher’s summary of that book (found here: includesthe following:

        “Only three elections in post-war America (1964, 1980 and 1994) were declared mandates by the media consensus. These declarations, however, had a profound if ephemeral impact on members of Congress. They altered the fundamental gridlock that prevents Congress from adopting major policy changes. The responses by members of Congress to these three elections are responsible for many of the defining policies of this era. Despite their infrequency, then, mandates are important to the face of public policy.”

        If by using the word “mandate” I unwittingly glued myself to something other than this kind of mechanism, I’m happy to adopt whatever makes the definition Grossman et al. use instead.

      • M S

        When you say that the theory he described has been researched and rejected, which one are you talking about? The idea that politicians who win by greater margins have more political power coming out of those elections, or the idea that politicians act as though they have more political power? Oliver’s example of the 2005 Social Security reform efforts, for instance, supports the second but not the first.

      • Jason Brennan

        I didn’t realize he wasn’t actually coming around anymore.

      • Sean II

        Besides, the real Sean would probably have said something more like, I dunno, that social science’s response to the mandate theory of elections boils down to the so-trivial-it’s-cute discovery that politicians break promises. GTFO! No way!

        He might also have gone a step further, to point out that this is a fairly perfect example of the academic silliness he always took pleasure in mocking:

        Step 1) Intellectuals get together and believe something so absurd only an intellectual could, like the mandate theory of elections.

        Step 2) Intellectuals follow a very complex path (yes, preferably involving some cargo cult methods) on their way to discovering the mandate theory of elections is, shockingly, wrong.

        The fun part, of course, is that both Step 1) and 2) give intellectuals lots to write and talk about, which sure beats working.

        Now that’s the sort of shit Sean might have said if he were still around. Thank god he’s gone.

        • Jason Brennan

          The mandate theory of elections is a very popular view propounded by journalists and the popular media constantly. The average person believes it. Instead, it’s only the intellectuals, or, rather a small subset of them, that recognize it’s not true.

          • Sean II

            Journalists believe it, but unfortunately they count as intellectuals.

            Average people don’t believe it, except in the trivial sense that they’ll tell a pollster/survey taker anything you like if the wordplay sounds good.

            But ask an average person straight out – “Do you think politicians typically keep their promises after the election is over?” – and they’ll give the right answer sure enough.

            So at best what you have here is a case where the upper echelon of intellectuals is bravely debunking a ridiculous notion taken seriously by no one except intellectuals of the next echelon down. Not quite as bad, but still quite trivial.

          • Jason Brennan

            The mandate theory isn’t about promise-keeping. It’s about whether winning by a high margin increases a person’s effectiveness in office, making him more able to do what he wants to do.

          • Sean II

            What an odd response. Of course the mandate theory is about promise keeping.

            The only way you can measure a “person’s effectiveness in office” is by comparing what they promised before the election to what they delivered after. The mandate theory claims that if a guy promises X and then wins big, he’ll be able (or at least better able, in proportion to the size of his victory) to deliver X once elected. This, of course, is not really what happens.

            The whole empirical case against mandate theory rests on the comparison between promises made and promises not kept. Meaning…when an average person says “politicians don’t keep promises” he is in fact saying the same thing as a social scientists who says “the weight of evidence tips overwhelmingly against mandate theory”.

            The evidence against mandate theory just IS a tally of unkept promises.

  • Bruce Hunt

    The author is right at several points, but I don’t think he addresses Tocqueville’s argument that our collective engagement in elections promotes freedom. The mechanical act of voting elevates the degree to which we pay attention, think about issues, debate them with others, value the right to vote, value political freedom, despise being ruled over, etc. etc. If we pull in and tune out, we’ll get more and more comfortable trading away our political freedom in exchange for the promise of less interruptions in our private indulgence of petty pleasures. The author, I suppose, might be okay with this to a certain point, insofar as it allows those who don’t “vote badly” to have more influence?

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I certainly have a right to complain that I have very limited and mostly repugnant choices.

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  • WraithKenny

    The comments here seem to be a lot of arguments that systems where the judgements of many individuals exercising rational decision-making are trusted as a process to decide important things, like political power distribution (or economic power distribution) are very, very bad systems. It’s nice to know that libertarians don’t think market competition or electoral democracy are good ideas. Progressives are the bad guys because they like these ideas?

    • j r

      It’s nice to know that libertarians don’t think market competition or electoral democracy are good ideas.

      I have to assume this is trolling.

      • WraithKenny

        Yeah, a little bit trolling, but it’s born of frustration reading these anti-democracy rant comments below.

        • j r

          OK. Let’s try this. How do you feel about the influence of money in politics?

          • WraithKenny

            Don’t like it.

          • j r

            OK. If you expressed your opinion about not liking the ability of some people to use their relative wealth to exert undue influence on elections and policy and someone accused you of being authoritarian and “anti-democracy,” I am assuming you would judge them as being rather daft.

            That is pretty much how you sound to the folks here.

            Some people here are anarchists, so calling them anti-democracy has its own problems. Others however, just believe in limiting the power of government, democratic or otherwise, to override individual preferences and choices.

            It should be obvious that criticizing some aspect of our present democratic government does not make one “anti-democracy.”

          • Guest

            lol, now you are trolling me.

          • WraithKenny

            Anarchists are not the target of my comment, and this is self-evident by the fact that anarchists don’t advocate for a system of property distribution based on rational-actor markets.

          • WraithKenny

            The anarchist libertarian is the only flavor of libertarian that is intellectually honest, even though I don’t personally prefer it, I respect it. The other flavors are just dishonest.

          • martinbrock

            I’ve never met an anarchist without a state hidden behind a curtain somewhere.

          • Libertymike

            Here is one.

          • martinbrock

            Maybe you are one, but you’ll need to convince me. Suppose you homestead an acre of land. You’re the first person to set foot on this land. You clear, till and plant this land, and you harvest crops. As you take these crops to market, I show up some friends and guns informing you that the land is ours that you owe us half of your harvest for our good works, which we perform after satisfying ourselves with what we take. What happens at this point in your anarchy?

            I’m not asking you to title my friends and me. You may title us “thieves” or “politicians” or “agents of Satan” for all I care. None of these titles is relevant to my question.

            If you’re calling upon your own friends in this scenario, then our guns are bigger than yours. If your friends have other friends with even bigger guns, successfully defending your claim to the land over ours, then I’ll accept the existence of these more remote, indirect friendships and concede that you defend your claim from me and my friends, but I won’t agree that you system has no state, because I don’t know what else “state” could mean.

          • Libertymike

            In responding to your hypothetical, I will accede to some, but not all, of your premises and conclusions.
            I will accept that you and your friends are thieves.
            I will accept that you and your friends are prepared to use violence in order to steal my property.
            I will accept that you and your friends do not have a valid claim to my property.
            However, I will not buy your conclusion that self-defense when exercised with the voluntary assistance of others equals statehood.
            If A and B agree, voluntarily and without coercion (no fees, no taxes, no cops, no soldiers, no schools, no IRS, no federal reserve, no national guard, no public employee unions, no minimum wages, no immigration bureaucracy, no sales taxes, no income taxes, no estate taxes, no excise taxes, no I-9 forms, no 2503 forms, no Homeland Security, no Secret Service, no White House, no stinkin’ democracy, no FCC, no FEC, no DSS, no NORAD, no EPA) to defend each other from C, it does not thereby follow that A and B have formed a state or when they act to defend each other from C’s larcenous ways, that they are acting as a state.

          • martinbrock

            Assuming that you and your friends effectively defend your claims, you are a state regardless of how you label yourselves and regardless of how you label anyone else.

          • Libertymike

            No and your circumlocution will not carry the day.

            If A and B agree to defend each other against C’s larcenous ways, how does that equal statecraft? Particularly where, as I set forth above, the following applies:

            (1) A and B are individuals;
            (2) A and B freely and voluntarily enter into their agreement to defend each other from C;
            (3) A and B do not impose any fees, fines, levies or taxes, of any kind, against each other, at all;
            (4) A and B’s agreement to defend each other is not enforceable by themselves or any other party;
            (5) A and B can cancel their agreement, at any time, for any reason;
            (6) A and B do not create any armies, bureaucracies or other parasites to enforce and finance their agreement.

            Anarchy is not limited to single individuals.

          • martinbrock

            C is not a party to the agreement between A and B. Labeling C “larcenous” doesn’t materially change anything. It may indicate the standards that A and B impose, but the standards are not unimposed for this reason.

            You may have the last word.

          • Libertymike

            Thank you.
            Perhaps the last word should be a question: By your conception of my description of A and B’s agreement, could not one argue that, for you, any contract necessarily constitutes statecraft?

          • martinbrock

            I offered you the last word, but I assume that you want me to answer the question.

            An enforceable agreement presumes a state if parties to the agreement impose its terms on anyone and everyone, not only on the parties to the agreement. Every state involves agreements of this sort. Parties to the agreement constitute the state, i.e. they are the state’s constituents. Other people subject to forcible terms of the agreement are subjects of the state.

            If a hundred people claim exclusive use of a hundred, contiguous parcels of land and join forces to impose their exclusive use of these parcels on the rest of humanity, the hundred people constitute a state. Their justification for excluding others without their consent is a separate issue. Every state justifies itself. These statements are not controversial in common parlance or among political theorists. Only self-described “anarchists” using words idiosyncratically see no “state” in this scenario.

          • martinbrock

            “Larceny” is defined by the agreement between A and B, and C is not a party to this agreement. A and B constitute a state imposing upon C whatever standard of “larceny” their agreement defines. Their agreement is the constitution of their state.

          • WraithKenny

            My comment is simply that a lot of these comments are in fact anti-free-market and pro-authoritarian. You are saying that yes, some libertarians are anti-free-market (anarchists) and pro-authoritarian (archo-capitalists). I say to you some are both (crazy and/or stupid).

      • WraithKenny

        The idea that important decisions could be made by many intelligent rationally thinking individuals working together is an admirable one, shared by the ideas of free-markets and democracies. I’m for both of these things, which share that core idea, and so I’m for that idea.

        There are many here that are against this core idea, which is strange to an outsider. Libertarianism that includes mutually exclusive ideas together, is just a word without any meaning. So to be clear: some libertarians are for free-markets but not democracy. I’m calling those out specifically.

        • martinbrock

          People with mutually exclusive ideas should not associate with one another insofar as these ideas conflict. What libertarians call “free trade” is definitively the space of interactions in which our these ideas do not conflict.

          If we can’t live on different planets and never interact, we can at least leave peacefully together on this planet and interact only when the interaction is objectionable to neither of us. That’s libertarianism in a nutshell.

          If your mere existence, anywhere in the Universe, is objectionable to me, that’s my problem, and I expect any political system ever to solve if.

  • Jaybird

    There should be a political party out there with the tagline “Vote for us if you want to complain about the government.”

  • Vivek Iyer

    Oh dear. Brennan really believes the following ‘ In The Ethics of Voting, I systematically refute all of the best arguments on behalf of a duty to vote.’
    He does no such thing.
    Should you refuse conscription into an army if you have justified true belief that your compliance won’t alter an inevitable and catastrophic defeat?
    Nope. A great Math maven, Andrei Weil ran away from conscription in France for a deontological reason based on a mis-reading of the Bhagvad Gita. Fortunately he didn’t end up at Auschwitz because he was in prison as a deserter.
    Brennan probably is ancestrally Irish and Catholic. I ask him to think about the notion of synteresis. I have only recently come across the notion that the Japanese Peasant Sage/Economist Ninomiya’s notion of ‘saving’ as ‘concession’ is foundational to a General Eqbm theory immune to the Sonnenschiem Mantel Debreu infirmity. Indeed, though information theoretic problems remain, no Preference Revelation problems obtain under this rubric.
    There is no reason why Golden Path gross substitutability shouldn’t be seen as what Human are evolved to do.
    All that stands in the way is false Churches- like your BHL cult

    • Sid Vicious

      You make a claim but provide no argument to back it up.

      Brennan says ‘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.’

      What is wrong with that?

      • vivek Iyer

        The very best argument to vote is that determining to do so, and making your choice, is homologous to serving on a Jury- w.r.t which Lord Jesus Christ made the relevant Scriptural quotation- viz ‘ye are as Gods’ when the Jews asked him to speak with “parhessia’.
        Brennan’s analysis aint event relevant to machine choice and is any case fucked because
        1) nobody knows what will contribute to the common good
        2) Economists know incidence not who pays is important. We don’t know in advance of a mechanism design experiment who will free ride. Indeed, assuming human beings evolved and were not created, the relevant math- Hannan consistency, regret minimization etc- shows Brennan to be a specious, worse, hopelessly out of date argument.
        3) ‘have a duty to promote your fellow citizen’s welfare’- is just foolish unless some underlying synteresis obtains. See my can hypokeimenon be a predicate.
        My hope is that Brennan, at Georgetown, will come back to the Universal Church.
        One where he needn’t pretend to be a female Jewish attorney called Debbie Dresner and can just fucking go to confession same as did his estimable ancestors.

  • Alex

    Everyone with half a brain knows that Politicians follow the money.
    They don’t represent the will, or the best interest of the people anymore. They are bought and paid for by the Big Corporations, and follow corporate interests.

    I don’t vote because I understand this. I don’t vote because I know my vote is a minority compared to the big Corporations money. I know that my best interests will not be represented.

    I don’t vote because I choose not to have a Master, or a Leader who claims the right to Tax me without Representing me. Therefor it is ONLY the people who don’t vote, who have the right to complain. I didn’t vote for a Master, so I choose not to be Governed by a Master. In fact, if I don’t vote, I choose not to be Governed at all. I will have chosen the only option I am Not given, which makes me more free than those who vote for a Leader to chose for them. I don’t need someone else to vote for to change my country for me. I will be my own Leader, thanks.

    Some might confuse the absence of Government with “Anarchy”, however Anarchy is an absence of Rulers, but Not the absence of Rule. It is an absence of Government, Not an absence of Law, and it is an absence of Masters, Not an absence of Leaders.

    • Alex

      Sorry, Spelling mistake on the last paragraph.
      “”Anarchy is an absence of Rulers, but Not the absence of Rule(s).”””

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  • Jimmy

    I don’t feel like America deserves me vote or have my patriotism at all because of how hard to near impossible they have made it for my loved one to even visit here, and my one vote is not going to do a darned thing to change that in the next 150 years…If it wasn’t for my family here, I would relinquish my citizenship and move to a country near Asia. Now, if someone said, hey sonny, if you vote, we guarantee your girl can come over here within a year, than yeah, sure, whoever it is has my vote, but thus far I can not even get an entry level job in this blasted country and I’ve been looking for a very long time.

  • Connolly Ryan

    Congratulations to the 85 percent of younger people and two thirds of
    Americans overall who chose to not vote this past Tuesday: not only did
    you enact your conviction that democracy no longer exists, but you’ve
    also just given a majority of politicians who do not believe that
    climate change exists the green light to suck the remaining green out of
    our planet and right into the pockets of the filthy rich. Way to “get
    with the pogrom” you silly spineless imbeciles. May the Spring-times of
    your offspring be blackened by the End Times you have just helped to

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  • N Body

    There’s even a nice T-shirt for this:

  • Reverend Draco

    When it comes to the “right to complain,” I stand with George Carlin. . .

    “I have solved this political dilemma in a very direct way: I don’t
    vote. On Election Day, I stay home. I firmly believe that if you vote,
    you have no right to complain. Now, some people like to twist that
    around. They say, ‘If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain,’
    but where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest,
    incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything
    up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You
    caused the problem. You have no right to complain. I, on the other hand,
    who did not vote — who did not even leave the house on Election Day —
    am in no way responsible for what these politicians have done and have
    every right to complain about the mess that you created.”

  • MyNameIsn’tEarl

    I always heard the term “If you don’t / can’t Vote” then you have no right to bitch, complain or express your opinion about the USA. And to this day as I’m much older, I believe that to be 100% true. I have a Russian friend who has the strongest political views of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s also a Sexist, Racist, Bigot, Misogynist pig who treats women like objects and is extremely immature. And not the oh he’s fun so he’s immature, but totally uncensored immature 24/7. It’s too bad he’s not a citizen. His opinion would count. People who can’t won’t vote need to STFU immediately. Or you know, get out of our country. So stop spewing propaganda and conspiracy theories at me you dumb truther. 1/4 people are stupid, 1/4 believe 9/11 was an inside job. Get it?

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  • Kylie Michelle Fraser

    “my one individual vote didn’t matter”

    Multiply your one vote by the 100 million or so that say the same thing. That’s 100 million votes which certainly can influence things.

    It seems also that when people here talk of voting, they only focus on presidents. What about Congress? Governors, state Congress members, city officials and county officials? Cannabis has been made legal in several states by voters.

    If you can’t even bother to take five minutes to vote, sure you CAN cousin, but the validity of that complaint is nil.

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  • NicolasBourbaki

    Dear prof. Brennan. Wouldn’t this same line of argument also show that the argument from lesser evilism is wrong? I mean for those who say that you have a duty to vote for the lesser evil (rather than not vote at all or vote for a candidate with a far lower chance of being elected such as Johnson or Stein, e.g. but who are otherwise far less evil than the main two candidates)? If my personal vote hardly counts towards affecting the outcome what responsibility do I have towards that outcome? And why then if it is a negligible contribution shouldn’t I vote my conscience?

    I am asking this because there’s a washingtonpost article using your work to support the notion that we must vote for the lesser evil (or rather I take it the lesser evil among two main party candidates).

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  • Rippy

    Okay, I recently came to the thought about this, I am thinking to refuse to vote because neither seems to appeal to me. When I see what is going on, I decided to just say, “meh,” and walk back into watching Doctor Who, Anime and Star Wars, because why should I matter? It isn’t as if I’m hurting my nation by deciding that I would much rather be in a fictional stupor than deal with the reality of losing my own thoughts. I don’t complain much but honestly, I don’t see a problem with just looking at November as a curse and just give them an empty ballet and just say, “Whatever,” not like my party will win anything or do any good, it isn’t like it did any good in 2016, it was just a joke and I’m done.