(Page 2 of 3)
No individual vote is likely to determine the outcome of an election; nor is it likely to result in a material gain for the voter. Does that mean people who vote are irrational, evil, or stupid? Not necessarily. Or at least not all of them.
In October 2000, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw penned a column for Fortune called “Why Some People Shouldn’t Vote.” During his years-long stint as a columnist for the magazine, this was the only article the editors refused to run. The column, which he published on his personal blog years later, suggests that “the next time a friend of yours tells you he’s not voting, don’t try to change his mind.”
Mankiw’s argument draws on a 1996 article by economists Timothy Feddersen of Northwestern University and Wolfgang Pesendorfer of Princeton University that cites the phenomenon of “roll off”—people who make it all the way inside the polyester curtains on Election Day and then leave some blanks on their ballots—to illustrate the point that people who believe themselves ill-informed routinely choose not to vote, thereby increasing the quality of voters who actually pull the lever for one side or the other. There is some additional evidence for this claim: Education is one of the two best predictors of voter turnout (the other is age). Better-educated people are much more likely to vote, which suggests that the pool of voters is better informed and more qualified to make election-related judgments than the pool of nonvoters.
“A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters,” Mankiw writes. “If this is true, then the less educated should show up at the polls less often. They are rationally delegating the decision to their better educated neighbors.”
What Mankiw doesn’t go on to say, perhaps because he fears insulting his readers, is that people aren’t particularly good at knowing whether or not they are well-informed. Many people who follow politics closely hold views that are dangerous and wrong (see George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan’s October 2007 reason cover story “The 4 Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters”). Even if everyone who had the slightest suspicion that he was not knowledgeable enough to vote stayed home on Election Day, millions of people would still be casting ill-informed votes.
Demographically speaking, if you’re reading this, you’re probably closer to the top than the bottom of the distribution. But you still have very little knowledge of what a politician will do once you send him to Washington. The gap between the promised and real consequences of electing one guy over the other is very difficult to anticipate. Even jaded libertarian types, for instance, were hopeful that President Barack Obama would be better than his predecessor on issues such as civil liberties and the war on drugs. Look how that turned out. You don’t know as much as you think.
‘Rock the Vote’
Encouraging more ignorant people to vote is not just pointless, argues Jason Brennan; it’s morally wrong. There is no duty to vote, but many people may have a duty not to vote. Boosting turnout among citizens who are young, uneducated, or otherwise less likely to be engaged—the primary targets of get-out-the-vote campaigns—is likely to have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to fail in that duty.
To explain why we might worry about casting an uninformed vote even when no particular vote is likely to be decisive, Brennan conjures this terrifying thought experiment: Imagine you come across a firing squad about to kill an innocent child. Assume all the bullets will strike at the same time and that there’s nothing you can do to stop them. You are invited to be the 101st member of the squad. What do you say? Brennan posits a framework to deal with this kind of hypothetical, the “clean hands principle,” which states that “one should not participate in collectively harmful activities when the cost of refraining from such activities is low.”
None of this is to suggest that the government should test voters or use some other legal means to limit voting. Instead, this is a private moral concern for each voter. If you believe your vote is likely to be ill-informed or that a particular race is likely to yield an unfair, unjust, or otherwise bad outcome, you should refrain from participating in a collectively harmful activity, thus keeping your hands clean. Get-out-the-vote campaigns promote precisely the kind of morally condemnable ignorant voting we should be discouraging.
This is the perspective that informs those “Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages the Bastards” bumper stickers. Washing one’s hands of the whole system is a good way to ensure that they remain clean, even when the politicos are dirty.
‘What If Everybody Stopped Voting?’
What if the arguments against voting were so persuasive that everyone stopped voting? This worry, which channels the categorical imperative of 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, posits that if everyone behaved as the nonvoters do, the whole system would fall apart. A certain minimum level of participation is necessary for elections to appear legitimate.
This objection is natural and intuitive. The force behind it is reflected in the Golden Rule and many other moral systems. But there’s no reason to think that one person’s choice not to vote, or even to write a magazine article making the case against voting, will dramatically alter the behavior of the tens of millions who currently vote.
Even if individual voting behavior were universalized, an anti-voting stance could easily be reframed to deal with this narrow hypothetical. One ought not vote, say, unless one’s vote has a nontrivial chance of determining the outcome of an election. If someone found herself in an electorate with zero other voters, she could happily vote (perhaps a write-in of her own name) without violating the general anti-voting principle.