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“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.
‘If You Don’t Vote, You Can’t Complain’
For someone who complains about politics, policy, and politicians for a living, the prohibition on complaining by nonvoters strikes close to home. Again, this Election Day cliché is intuitively appealing. If someone invests in an enterprise, we generally recognize that he has more right than an outsider to determine the course of that enterprise. And voting feels like an investment: It takes time and perhaps costs money.
In his 1851 book Social Statics, the English radical Herbert Spencer neatly describes the rhetorical jujitsu surrounding voting, consent, and complaint, then demolishes the argument. Say a man votes and his candidate wins. The voter is then “understood to have assented” to the acts of his representative. But what if he voted for the other guy? Well, then, the argument goes, “by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.” And what if he abstained? “Why then he cannot justly complain…seeing that he made no protest.” Spencer tidily sums up: “Curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted—whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this.” Indeed.
Whether there is a duty to be civically engaged, to act as a good citizen, is a separate question from the issue of voting. But if such a duty exists, there are many ways to perform it, including (perhaps especially) complaining. According to Mankiw’s argument, the ignorant voter is a far less admirable citizen than the serial-letter-writing Tea Partier who can’t be bothered to show up on Election Day.
The right to complain is, mercifully, unrelated to any hypothetical duty to vote. It was ensured, instead, by the Founders, all of whom were extraordinary bellyachers themselves.
‘Voting Is Fun’