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Paternalism

Consistent Paternalists Should Back Restrictions on Voters, Too

In an important new article, political philosophers Jason Brennan and Christopher Freiman explain why standard justifications for paternalistic restrictions on consumers also apply to voters.

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Over the last twenty years or so, a vast academic literature has arisen, attempting to justify various paternalistic policies on the grounds that cognitive biases lead consumers to make systematic mistakes. Even before then, such policies as the War on Drugs and restrictions on smoking were justified in part by claims that shortsighted irrationality would otherwise lead people to make foolish choices they would later regret. In a notable new article, political philosophers Jason Brennan and Christopher Freiman argue that supporters of such policies must, if they wish to be consistent, also take a paternalistic approach towards voting decisions. After all, voters are prone to cognitive biases as much as consumers - perhaps even more. Here is their summary of their thesis:

Recent findings from psychology and behavioral economics suggest that we are "predictably irrational" in the pursuit of our interests.Paternalists from both the social sciences and philosophy use these findings to defend interfering with people's consumption choices for their own good.We should tax soda, ban cigarettes, and mandate retirement savings to make people healthier and wealthier than they would be on their own.

While there is an extensive literature arguing for paternalistic interference
with people's consumption choices, little has been said on behalf of paternalis
tic interference with people's voting choices. Brennan's work in defense of epistocracy, for instance, focuses on the ways in which incompetent voters wrongly harm others.Our thesis is instead that the standard arguments offered in support of restricting someone's consumption choices for their own good also imply support for restricting someone's voting choices for their own good. Indeed, the case for paternalistic restrictions on voting choices is in many ways stronger than the case for restricting personal consumption choices. So, paternalists face a dilemma: either endorse less interference with consumption choices or more interference with voting choices….

We begin with a sketch of the social scientific research on cognitive bias and its effects on decision making (section I). From there we explore how this research informs recent philosophical defenses of paternalism: due to the pervasiveness of cognitive bias, paternalists claim, the state will frequently be positioned to better advance the aims of citizens than citizens themselves (section II). Next, we show that the same considerations that purportedly count in favor of paternalistic interference with citizens' consumption choices also count in favor of paternalistic interference with citizens' voting choices (section III). We then consider a variety of objections, including the claim that political liberties occupy a special status that shields them from coercive restriction (section IV). In closing, we acknowledge that the extent to which paternalists ought to endorse interference with the vote is an empirical question but insist that they are committed to such interference in principle (section V).

Brennan and Freiman do not necessarily support paternalistic constraints on either voters or consumers. Their point is that consistency requires those who support the former to also back the latter - or at the very least be open to it.

The form of voter paternalism Brennan and Freiman seem most partial to is Brennan's own theory of "epistocracy," outlined in his important book Against Democracy. The idea is to give better-informed members of the electorate extra influence relative to others. I have expressed various reservations about epistocracy here and here.

But, as the authors recognize, there are also many other ways to implement paternalism in the voting sphere. For example, we can give greater power over government policy to scientists and other bureaucratic experts, or use "sortition" to transfer some decisions to randomly selected subsets of voters who are then given incentives to become better-informed about the issues at stake.

We actually already have some paternalistic constraints on voting. For example, we deny the vote to children, largely because we think they are too ignorant and otherwise incompetent to be good voters. The same goes for denying the franchise to some of the mentally ill (as many states do). Immigrants are not allowed to become citizens with voting rights unless they pass a civics test most native-born Americans would fail.

We also, of course, turn over control of many public policy decisions to experts at least partly insulated from electoral constraints. Among the most significant examples is the Federal Reserve's control over monetary policy.

A consistently paternalistic approach to voting rights might systematize these restrictions, and in some cases expand them. For example, if it is acceptable to exclude immigrants who can't pass a civics test from the franchise, why not apply the same standard to natives? If children are barred from voting because they are likely to be ignorant, irresponsible, or immature, why not take the same approach with comparably ignorant and immature adults? If monetary policy is too important and too complicated to be entrusted to officials directly accountable to voters, perhaps the same is true of other areas of policy.

Brennan and Freiman explain why voter ignorance and bias are actually likely to be much greater than that of consumers:

[T]he assumption of voter competence is even more doubtful than the assumption of consumer competence. A priori, we would expect that every flaw in consumers to be worse in voters because the expected cost of an uninformed and biased consumption choice is higher than an uninformed and biased voting choice. A consumer bears most of the cost of their decision to smoke.

But unlike consumers, voters never have unilateral decision-making power. Their votes are thrown in with everyone else's. Except in very tight elections, how individual voters vote (or whether they vote at all) has almost no effect; the expected utility of voting one way is the same as voting the other….

A massive body of evidence, collected over seventy years, indicates that the majority of voters are uninformed. We will spare you the details, but voters tend to be ignorant of political matters ranging from their local representative, which party controls Congress, or changes in economic performance, to changes in social indicators such as unemployment, recent changes in legislation, or the branches of government. They are not simply ignorant; rather, voters many have systematically mistaken beliefs about both basic political facts as well as basic social-scientific issues.

Voters, like consumers, are also subject to a variety of biases. Some biases are the same as those at play in the marketplace. Take motivated reasoning. Plenty of studies show that political partisans are selectively skeptical—they will accept evidence that confirms their preexisting policy commitments and reject evidence that threatens them. Just as a consumer may be motivated to rationalize their preference for an expensive luxury car, voters are motivated to rationalize their preference for the platform of their favorite party. So even when they are presented with relevant information, these voters will not update their beliefs appropriately….

Experimental evidence suggests that both political leaders and ordinary citizens are much more biased in their evaluation of political information than consumer information. Political ignorance is also likely to be deeper and more severe than consumer ignorance (I cover some of the relevant evidence in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance). To the extent that is true, the case for voting paternalism is actually stronger than that for consumer paternalism.

Brennan and Freiman effectively rebut a number of arguments suggesting that paternalism with respect to voting is inherently worse than consumer paternalism. One they do not consider is the danger that voter paternalism will be used in ways that discriminate against racial, ethnic, and other minorities.

There is, of course, a long history of invidious exclusion from the franchise on such grounds. But consumer paternalism has a comparably awful record of bias. The history of the War on Drugs is suffused with racism. Paternalistic regulation of sexual activity was for decades heavily influenced by homophobia.  Perhaps we can cleanse consumer paternalism of such prejudices. But, if so, maybe we can do the same with voting paternalism. At the very least, we cannot just assume that the latter is inherently more tainted by bigotry than the former.

My own view is that the cognitive biases used to justify consumer paternalism are overblown, and the dangers of paternalistic regulation in this field often underestimated. Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman's recent book  Escaping Paternalism: Rationality, Behavioral Economics, and Public Policy,  provides a compelling exposition of both points (I reviewed it here).

For many of the same reasons as those outlined by Brennan and Freiman, I think voter ignorance and bias is a far more serious danger than consumer error. But I am skeptical of paternalistic solutions to the problem. I would instead prefer to shift more decisions to frameworks in which people can "vote with their feet," and thereby have stronger incentives to seek out relevant information and assess it in an unbiased way. Expanding foot voting opportunities can diminish the danger of voter ignorance and bias without concentrating vast power in the hands of a small elite, and without giving the government broader authority to determine who is and is not a competent voter.  This approach could also mitigate  some of the partisan hatred and irrationality that currently poison the political process.

Of course, there are a variety of other possible strategies for addressing voter incompetence without resorting to paternalism. For example, some scholars are more optimistic than I am that we can greatly increase voter knowledge through education or by reforming media coverage of politics. But, as Brennan and Freiman point out, believers in the efficacy of such strategies should also be committed to using them as a substitute for consumer paternalism, as well.

NEXT: "And Whomever You Ask in Russia / Everyone Will Say: 'Merci to the Leadership!'"

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  1. Start by banning the printing of ballot, backing up the trucks at 3 AM, and dumping just enough to change the outcome. Ban the harvesting of votes from impaired people in nursing homes by Democrat operatives. Stop the 2000 mules who stuffed street ballot boxes.

    https://2000mules.com/

    1. I strongly support paternalistic restrictions in voting. No one should be allowed to vote for anyone who has passed 1L or has been an Ivy indoctrinated scumbag. No lawyer should be on any bench, in any legislative seat, nor hold any responsible policy position in the executives. These are all smooth talkers. The voter falls for their mental games. The voter needs protection by the victoms of these cult criminals and Commies.

      As an added protection all enacted rules must apply to the enactors. End all immunities.

      1. Hi, Ilya. Experts in decision making analysis support the Wisdom of the Crowd, not of the self interested, elitist, worthless experts based on their feelings. Example, your expert jihad against cigarettes will bankrupt Social Security.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisdom_of_the_crowd

  2. So we enter a new age of priesthoods. Only the priests are able to determine what is good for us.

    Mr. Musk, please sign me up for the Mars Colony.

    1. Low voter competence is already built into the Constitution, with things like supermajorities required to change it.

      This stops demagogues with the gift if gab from whipping the winds of political passion into a successful power increase.

      If it's a good idea, it will seem so to most people, not a simple majority, and it will seem so several years down the road when heads are cooler.

  3. Democracy leads to the legalization of plunder. It is nothing to gloat about with glossy phrases about its “greatness”.

    Because of its dangers and pitfalls, governments are supposed to be severely limited and the worst tendencies of democracy mitigated.

    All the safeguards built into the US Constitution have been eroded to the point where now, rather than a government of enumerated powers, we have a government of nearly unlimited powers save the tiny handful of proscriptions spelled out in the Bill of Rights.

    This is not a recipe for a harmonious society and the current political animus is evidence to support this assertion. That is because elections load real guns and aim them at real people. If you disobey the commandments handed down by elected officials, beefy men with shaved heads and Ray-Ban sunglasses will come to take you away. If you resist them, hot lead will fly. Elections are scrambles for control over the service weapons that propel those rounds. In such contests, every faction is trying to point the gun barrels at someone else.

    One faction democratically seizes power and influences policy. Members of vanquished factions are shot, caged, or looted at a higher rate. Some of this loot becomes the spoils of war for the victorious: government checks and freebies of various kinds. But then a coalition of aggrieved factions wins the next election, and the tables turn. The expropriators are expropriated until power changes hands again. All take turns as victims and victimizers in an endless round of reciprocal violence.

    In this war, all sides are net losers, save one: the government. What we have with an interventionist democratic state then is a Hobbesian state of affairs: a formalized proxy civil war of all against all. This kind of war is the health of the State, too. Democracy has the same impact on the human psyche as military war, only more low-grade and chronic.

    Since lives and livelihoods are on the line, political battles also induce desperation. The desperate times offer an excuse for desperate measures: for excluding political enemies from the moral community.

    In order to overwhelm political enemies, voters resort to the same kind of rank tribalism as do jingoists. Instead of nations, the relevant collective “herds” are political parties, interest groups, “movements,” etc. Partisans shout down any disloyal dissent emerging from within their ranks.

    Democratic politics is a vital power ritual for the government. It makes the government all-important, all-relevant, all-preoccupying; this is especially so during election season. Each side’s enemy candidate is demonized as an existential menace who can only be warded off by throwing all support behind your party’s candidate. “Candidate X is not perfect, but we must stop Candidate Y!”

    Using democratic politics to foment civil strife is how the government divides and more fully conquers its subjects.

  4. I'm not sure that preventing infants from voting or removing fentanyl from supermarket shelves is the same as preventing some people from entering the country, Somin.

    In fact, having now read the entire thing, the linked article is a giant festival of tu quoque and strawmen genocide.

    And, hmm, looking at the authors and their other works, I am unsurprised to discover they are also open borders advocates.

    1. Brennan's "epistocracy" idea is one of the dumbest suggestions ever. It's impossible to take him seriously.

    2. Ok, I need to temper my criticism a bit. I spent some time reading one author's forums, and that author's positions seem more nuanced than this paper (or Somin's association) presents.

      This article is still terrible, but the authors, while publishing some strange things, are better than what this particular example presents.

    3. Indeed....

  5. Brennan and Freiman do not necessarily support paternalistic constraints on either voters or consumers. Their point is that consistency requires those who support the former to also back the latter - or at the very least be open to it.

    If that is a fair characterization of Brennan and Freiman, then they are willing to make fools of themselves as political philosophers for the sake of trying to score petty points against consumer paternalism. They should at least have mentioned that to get at consumer paternalism, they propose to overturn the American form of government entirely, and substitute something unspecified, but probably dictatorial.

    Paternalism about consumer choices is not the same as paternalism about voting. Consumer activity is legitimately subject to government regulation under the Commerce Clause. It can be practiced under a system of representative government, overseen by a popular sovereign which rules at pleasure. Nothing in government is structurally amiss if that happens.

    Voting is a sovereign power, not some consumer choice. Nobody in government, under this nation's system, has the slightest authority to deprive of voting power any member of that collective sovereignty, or to impose individualized qualifications on any voter. The sovereign People could do that, but that has not happened.

    Whether this argument is a dessert topping, a floor wax, a rhetorical flourish, or a truly crackpot proposal, Brennan and Freiman ought to be embarrassed. Apparently without a thought in the world, they put it in writing, and published it world-wide, over their own names.

    The link did not work for me, by the way. I relied on Somin's OP. Hope I was not wrong to do that.

  6. I think the argument here relies on a sly equivocation that then begs the question on voting preferences.

    When people are making the case for "paternalism" in the context of consumer choices, the core justification isn't some generalized ignorance that consumers have about what they do. That is, we don't justify auto-enrollment 401(k) and IRA plans on the grounds that people don't understand how much compound interest can build their wealth over the years. Rather, we are looking (or, perhaps, ought to be looking) at a kind of mismatch between current actions and desires. If you were to ask a person with disposable income whether they would like a healthy and economically secure retirement, they almost certainly would say yes. But they may not choose the right level of savings, or the right kinds of investment products, to achieve that goal, choosing instead to prioritize other immediate consumption. The justification for paternalism (if there is one) comes from the state's being in a superior position to evaluate and correct that mismatch, ideally through options that "thumb" the scale without limiting individual liberty.

    That's a subtle distinction, but I think it's an important one, when it comes to voting. Because these authors seem to treat trivia questions, like, "Who is my representative? What policies does he stand for? What are the branches of government?", etc., as demonstrating a kind of voter ignorance that ought (in their framing of the argument) similarly justify state "paternalism" over the franchise. But I believe this misconceives what a voter is doing, when they vote. All that a voter is doing, by voting, is expressing a preference for one candidate over another, and in a two-party system like ours most of the time that's just like saying, "I want more of the same," or, "I want something different." And people are well-situated to know the way that policies have impacted their lives, even if they might have at best hazy ideas about the link between specific policies and benefits or harms they have experienced.

    In other words, I think that the authors are assuming that a person, when they vote, is saying, "I want to put into place policies X, Y, and Z, in that order of priority," and that, due to ignorance and biases, they may need some paternalistic "guidance" to help them make the "correct" choice in achieving that result. (I.e., "Vote for Candidate A, who actually supports X, Y, and Z, rather than for Candidate B, who is obsessed with culture war issues and wants to block efforts to implement X, Y, and Z.") But I think that imports a particular way that certain voters - highly-educated and highly-engaged politically - think about the franchise. For most voters, it's just about approving or disapproving a status quo - and they feel that status quo in a clear and direct way.

    That aside, it might be interesting to note how much paternalism does shape elections in this country, as evidenced by fights over placement of names on ballots, voter outreach efforts, even redistricting. It is definitely not a benign paternalism, being highly engineered to benefit the parties that put such machinery into place. But as long as we're strawmanning consumer paternalism, we should note the ways in which our system already shapes and influences how people vote - to our detriment.

    All that having been said, I also am not sure I follow the authors right down to the reductio they intend to indicate. As noted above, I think the only consumer paternalism that can really be justified is one that seeks to "nudge" people in the direction of their own personal preferences, allowing them to decide otherwise if they so choose. We can show a 25-year-old how saving 10% of their income today in a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds can provide for a healthy retirement, but we shouldn't stop him from blowing it on crypto, hookers, and blow.

    Similarly, I'd think that a "voter paternalism" could work along the same lines: a voter indicates what matters to them when they are voting, and a simple algorithm can show them which candidates line up with their stated preferences. So, for instance, if what you care about is high inflation, gas prices, crime, and getting back to normal after COVID, and you're sick of hearing about "wokeism," such an algorithm could point you to the candidates who actually have plans for addressing inflation, gas prices, and crime and moving on from COVID, rather than those who have no plans for anything except banning books and punishing their political enemies, and that the only candidates saying anything at all about wokeism are on one side of the spectrum. People may not like what an algorithm like that might show them about their political preferences, but they remain free to vote in whatever way they choose. Even if it's for crypto, hookers, and blow.

    1. The problem with asking people to vote on a sophisticated basis, ordered preferences on multiple issues, is that, in the end, they only have one vote per office. One vote simply can't represent an ordered set of preferences, no matter how much thought you put into voting.

      So the best a voter can possibly do is to pick some single metric, be it "Are things getting better or worse?" or selecting some particular single issue, and screw everything else, you vote on that.

      And, anyway, assuming the voter is doing some weighted calculation across multiple issues, it's flatly impossible for the paternalist to know what each voter's weights are for each issue, and craft an individualized nudge for just that voter.

      In the end, all the paternalist is doing is taking their own personal preferences, and imposing them on the voter. And, honestly? That's probably all they meant to do in the first place, and claiming to be helping the voter achieve their own goals is just pretext.

      1. In the end, all the paternalist is doing is taking their own personal preferences, and imposing them on the voter. And, honestly? That's probably all they meant to do in the first place, and claiming to be helping the voter achieve their own goals is just pretext.

        Exactly.

  7. I think the consistency argument here is weak, as it often is when advocates claim their opponents have to fo exactly what they say or be labeled inconsistent.

    There is a perfectly good distinction between allowing voters to legislate paternalistic polices — these are things voters themselves decide are in their own best interests - and imposing paternalistic constraints on voters themselves from outside, e.g. by judicial fiat. Freedom of speech and an open opportunity for political participation acts as a safety valve to cover the possibility that the paternalists are themselves mistaken.

    With open political discourse and participation, the possibility remains open that unwise paternalistic legislative policies can be identified as such and repealed. But paternalism covering the political process itself cannot be so easily repealed if it proves to be unwise. It tends to prevent the political process from self-correcting.

    One of the assumptions behind democratic federalism is that we’re never actually as certain we are right as we think we are. There have to be mechanisms creating a possibility of change when we discover basic assumptions we’ve always believed are wrong. An open, non-paternalistic political process that allows people to try paternalistic policies at retail allows for self-correction and change if we should find out we’re wrong.

    But political paternalism, which limits the kind of change that can be made, is strong medicine. If we’re wrong it’s very hard to go back. It should be used sparingly, and reflect a near-consensus within society.

    1. More fundamentally, many policy choices are matters of case-by-case wisdom, not overarching, all-or-nothing ideology. Sometimes paternalism is wise. Sometimes it is unwise. People who concern themselves with the pragmatic wisdom of policies have to learn to innoculate themselves against the inevitable hobgoblins that are going to be bandied about by little minds and their foolishness.

      1. I like your reference to an often misunderstood classic. It sums it up quite nicely. For those that want or need the full quotation:

        A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance" 1841

      2. many policy choices are matters of case-by-case wisdom, not overarching, all-or-nothing ideology.

        Exactly.

  8. Maybe each option can be tried out over a successive number of years. After all the options have been tried, a determination can better be made as to which worked the best.

  9. "So, paternalists face a dilemma: either endorse less interference with consumption choices or more interference with voting choices"

    I wonder which horn of that dilemma they will be grasping? (no, I don't really wonder at all)

    "use "sortition" to transfer some decisions to randomly selected subsets of voters who are then given incentives to become better-informed about the issues at stake."

    Can any of you legal experts think of a system which does this? Because I got nothing. /sarc

    1. Sortition? Wasn't Renaissance Venice ruled partially that way? A bunch of random people selected to vote for other randomly selected people who in turn select people to select people who voted for the Doge? Or something like that.

      1. So the Venetians selected people by *blind* chance, get it? Venetian blinds?

        Seriously, folks, in the U. S. I was thinking we might consider restoring jury trial for more than the occasional case.

    2. "use "sortition" to transfer some decisions to randomly selected subsets of voters who are then given incentives to become better-informed about the issues at stake."

      In practice this likely just means, "Give us a smaller set of voters who we can more comprehensively propagandize, and ideally keep away from information that might lead them to oppose us."

  10. We should tax soda, ban cigarettes, and mandate retirement savings to make people healthier and wealthier than they would be on their own.

    I don't know what they are referring to when they talk about "mandating retirement savings," but I suspect it's the idea that employers should enroll employees in 401(k) plans and the like by default, with an opt out option, rather than just having an opt-in system.

    Whatever one thinks of that, it's not "mandating retirement savings."

    1. "I don't know what they are referring to when they talk about "mandating retirement savings," but I suspect it's the idea that employers should enroll employees in 401(k) plans and the like by default, "

      I suspect it is a reference to the lie that was used to sell Social Security to the American people.

      1. I don't know enough of the history of how Social Security was pitched to voters at the time, but I wouldn't think many people at all now think that Social Security is or is intended to be sufficient retirement income for the average American. I've always thought of it as a program to be sure that no one is left destitute in their old age, and as a starting point for everyone else able to save on their own. I certainly have never expected SS to provide enough for me once I retire. If anything, I think it is the critics of SS that mistakenly imply that people are getting back their own tax money from the program.

        1. When SS was instituted, most people were dying well before the retirement age, and it was sold, IIRC, as a way to keep one's widow out of poverty, and the occasional elderly gent who outlived his capacity to continue working. It was supposed to function more like a tontine than a pension.

          Except that it started paying out before any money had gone in, and the excess revenue wasn't actually invested, just spent, and it only functioned because population growth meant more people were paying in than living to collect, by a large margin. Economically, it was indistinguishable from a Ponzi scam.

          The chief difference is that Ponzi scams actually have to have a great rate of return during their growth phase, because 'investing' in them is voluntary. As SS isn't voluntary, it never had to have a great rate of return, and after a while the rate of return absolutely sucked.

          1. The chief difference is that Ponzi scams actually have to have a great rate of return during their growth phase, because 'investing' in them is voluntary. As SS isn't voluntary, it never had to have a great rate of return, and after a while the rate of return absolutely sucked.

            No. The chief difference is that Ponzi schemes are fraudulent. The people 'investing' in it think that their money is going to be invested in something that will generate a return, when in truth, it is just going to the pockets of the people running the scheme, with just enough paid out to early participants to keep them from figuring out that they have been duped.

            Like I said, people that don't understand that SS is a pay-as-you-go system are often being misled into that by critics of SS that either ignorantly or dishonestly compare it to a Ponzi scheme. The thing about SS is that demographics aren't stable, cost of living and other forms of inflation create problem, and the like. For the first few decades of SS's history, revenues and benefits closely matched. It was only when demographics shifted, along with other fiscal and monetary problems of the late 70's and early 80's, that things weren't lining up. That is when Pres. Reagan and Congress made some big changes to the payroll tax rate and benefits formulas to build up the Trust to hopefully weather the eventual retirement of the Baby Boomers.

            But it didn't quite work, as the fund is projected to be depleted sometime in the mid 2030's without any changes. At that point, the law would only allow the SSA to pay out benefits equal to what it takes in. (~75% of what those retirees would otherwise get under current formulas)

            I am skeptical of your claim that "most" people died before retirement age in 1935 when SS was instituted. From what I can see from quick searches, the median age in the U.S. at death was almost 70 then. I'm sure that if only people that lived to adulthood and began working and paying taxes were included, it would be significantly higher than that. So "most" people should have had several years or more of receiving benefits before passing on.

            The one criticism of the SS fund that I see value in is that the excess was simply used by the Treasury with special bonds given to the SSA (presumably with below-market interest rates) to be able to legally redeem them in times when revenues were short of promised benefits.

  11. Good one, you almost had us there, believing this was real.

    This is what comes of people trying to make jokes off of the
    election and continued prominence of Donald Trump. The jokes
    get to realistic.

  12. To repeat a criticism I've made before, lots of voting behavior is value-based. The idea, implicit in the Brennan approach, that it is about rational policy judgments, is nonsense.

    Imagine, for example, a voter who knows little of fiscal policy, foreign affairs, etc., but is convinced that abortion is a dreadful thing, and should not be legal.

    Should we deny that voter the franchise unless he/she demonstrates thorough knowledge of human reproductive biology, etc.? Of course not.

    The whole thing is idiocy.

    1. Agreed. Consumer paternalism is based on a determination that choice X is bad, so choice X will be banned or made inconvenient (in the case of "nudge" theory). Imposing some form of mandatory civics education on voters is different in that it doesn't involve suppressing a particular voting choice (nor should it).

      The assertion that one cannot support paternalistic consumer rules without also supporting some unspecified mandatory voter education is ridiculous. Apples to oranges.

  13. If requiring people to demonstrate knowledge of firearm safety can be justified as a condition for gun ownership, then requiring people to demonstrate knowledge of covics and history can be justified as a prerequisite for being able to vote in elections.

    1. If requiring people to demonstrate knowledge of firearm safety can be justified as a condition for gun ownership, then requiring people to demonstrate knowledge of covics [sic] and history can be justified as a prerequisite for being able to vote in elections.

      I make spelling and grammar mistakes as well, or I could make some snarky reply about requiring proofreading as a prerequisite for posting comments.

      On point, the question then becomes one of what questions about civics and history are going to be required and who decides what the correct answers are? Literacy tests are an example of the kind of racially biased voting restrictions Somin mentioned in the article, which would be a good example of the civics and history ever voter should know about. The chances that a civics and U.S. history test prior to voting would be free of discrimination are low enough to reject the idea on that basis alone.

      1. JasonT20 — I wish everyone with a point to make could as conclusively prove it as you did with your point about being prone to typographical mistakes yourself. Imagine smiley-face here.

  14. I think it’s obvious that the paternalism is self-serving. It’s self-serving on the consumer side because the paternalists are building a fiefdom for themselves as the protectors of consumers from consumers' choices.

    And on the voting side, they have the media so manipulating voters is easy. They’re helped by more casual voters blindly doing whatever CNN or the community organizers say. And more total votes means more opportunities to put a thumb on the scales at the counting table or anywhere else in the process.

    1. Why is it only CNN or community organizers? Can't casual voters blindly do what they are told by Fox News or OAN and the community organizers of the far right?

      1. If it wasn’t also The NY Times, Google, Washington Post, Twitter, Facebook, ABC, CBS, NBC, and many, many others — all of which have decided that lying to voters and hiding news from voters is a clever tactic instead of a betrayal of their core mission — then yeah, it would only be CNN.

        Also, studies have shown that conservative voters are a lot more informed than other voters: https://theweek.com/articles/476186/are-republicans-better-informed-than-democrats?amp

        But the original post is about paternalism. It’s the progressives who want to treat adults like children, unable to live our day-to-day lives without progressives ordering us about and making safe spaces. So whatever you’re saying about Fox News doesn’t seem to relate to the topic.

  15. Talk about reporting history as "news".
    The democrats have been doing this for us in secret and openly for decades.
    If these guys expect consistency from the fascists, they need to read more history books.

  16. April Fools Day was last month.

    In addition, the obvious rebuttal is simple.

    If the people don't like the paternalistic laws/choices that are made about the War on Drugs, or other items...the people have a choice. They can vote in new representatives to change the laws. That's the power of democracy...the laws can change, in response to the people's vote.

    But if the people don't like the paternalistic laws/choices that eliminate their ability to vote, as Somin would propose...there's no legal recourse.

  17. The practical problem is that if you don’t trust the voters to make policy, then who gets to make policy instead?

    It’s one of my objections to the anti democratic institutions we already have like the Senate and the electoral college. Sure, the majority makes mistakes, and lots of them, but why would anyone think the non majority is more likely to get it right any more often?

    1. if you don’t trust the voters to make policy, then who gets to make policy instead?

      Why, the highly-qualified experts, like . . . Prof. Somin! (And maybe Nina Jankowicz.)

    2. The Senate isn't precisely anti democratic, though. Rather, the House measures raw support, and the Senate measures how that support is distributed.

      For instance, if somebody proposed a law where all coastal states would be exempted from federal taxation, it would clearly be beneficial to a majority of the population, but it would fail in the Senate, because non-coastal states are a majority of the states.

      If just barely over half the voters support a policy, and that support was uniformly distributed, then every Senator would find that a majority of their voters supported it, and it would clear the Senate easily. At the other extreme, a policy that was supported by the 9 largest states would have the support of a majority in the House, but be hilariously doomed in the Senate.

      It's not anti-democratic. It's anti-locally concentrated support. You need a majority in a majority of states to do anything.

      At present that works against the Democratic party, because the Democratic party is trying to do big things with a narrow popular majority that's very localized in a few states. It used to benefit the Democratic party back when it had a wider appeal.

      1. Brett, if I were of a mind to, I could probably come up with arguments in favor of two senators per state that you have overlooked, but that's not the point. The point is that if you are going to tell the majority that it can't elect the Senate it wants, you need to be have a far better rationale than any I've heard so far for why minority dominance is any more likely to result in better policies. You are correct that it slows things down, but that is not the same thing as showing that we actually get better policies, or that the policies that were slowed down wouldn't have been beneficial. For every bad bill that's been killed in the Senate there's probably a good bill that got killed there too.

        And your example of not taxing coastal states is a perfect illustration of why minority rule isn't necessary. Such a bill, if it passed, is plainly unconstitutional and would promptly be thrown out by the courts. The way that you protect minority interests is by having a Constitution that restricts the kind of legislation that can be passed -- no discrimination against religion, no suppression of speech -- rather than by making majority opinion largely irrelevant to *any* legislation.

        1. "you need to be have a far better rationale than any I've heard so far for why minority dominance is any more likely to result in better policies."

          But the Senate doesn't produce minority dominance. If you only had the Senate, sure, a minority could push something through. But you have the House, too, and bills have to pass BOTH chambers, and the House is proportional to population.

          What you're calling "domination" is just the ability to block things at the federal level, nothing more. Well, if something is only regionally popular, why insist on doing it nation-wide? Do it locally!

          "And your example of not taxing coastal states is a perfect illustration of why minority rule isn't necessary. Such a bill, if it passed, is plainly unconstitutional and would promptly be thrown out by the courts."

          The only reason it might be struck down is because of the anti-majoritarian elements of the Constitution we're discussing. And it probably would NOT be struck down; Have you read the 16th amendment recently?

          "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."

          1. He thinks that NOT enacting laws to meddle in everyone's life is minority rule if he can get 51% of voters in a few big states to go along with it.

            1. What I think is that not passing a law is every bit as much setting policy as is passing a law. Is there any serious doubt, for example, that failing to repeal the income tax constitutes a policy decision?

              That being the case, you and I have different ideas about what is, and is not, good policy, but I see no reason why yours should be set in constitutional concrete. If blocking laws you consider meddlesome is good policy, you should make that happen by winning fair elections (meaning no one's vote counts more than anyone else's vote); not by having rules that favor the status quo.

          2. I doubt it would pass the Equal Protection Clause. What rational basis is there for taxing North Dakota but not California?

      2. Party politics played a role in why there are the states of North Dakota and South Dakota rather than a single state of Dakota. (There were also tensions between the two regions of the territory that didn't relate to Republican vs. Democrat, but the admission of states was a function of Congress, subject to presidential veto, so that made it a national political issue as well.) The original plan was for Montana, New Mexico, Dakota, and Washington to be admitted as new states together, with the expectation that it would be the former 2 voting for Democrats and the latter for Republicans. That fell through when the composition of Congress changed, and New Mexico was dropped all together and North and South Dakota formally split and admitted as separate states. Worked out well for the Republicans at the time to gain an extra 2 Senate seats and more Electoral College votes.

        Most of the controversy over the current status of D.C. (no representation for its residents in Congress - instead, they are ultimately governed by the Senators and Representatives of every other state, with the locally elected government subject to the laws of Congress) and Puerto Rico hinges over the fact that any Senators from these areas if admitted as states would almost certainly be Democrats. (Though it is also an open question of whether Puerto Ricans want it to be a state as opposed to independence or maintaining the status quo.)

        The structure of the Senate with 2 per state, regardless of population, has a similar effect to gerrymandering. It allows for the geographic distribution of citizens to determine the representation in ways that cut against majority representation. I understand your point that broad support for a policy shouldn't just be concentrated in certain geographic areas, but the fact is that this happens anyway. Since "red states" and "blue states" are not geographically mixed, when the GOP controls the Senate, it is southern and 'heartland' states (or flyover country if you want to belittle them) that get their way in that body, just as much as when it is the 'coastal and urban elites' that get their way when Democrats have control.

        As Krychek_2 points out, it is every bit as much a 'policy' to prevent the passage of laws that make changes as it is to pass a law changing things. Both involve choices over what the policy should be. If some people want a law that protects the environment, but it would require the government to limit certain industrial activity, resisting that and preventing such a law from being passed is still an exercise of political power just as much as passing the law would be.

        Building a stable majority to implement policy should be difficult. I think we would agree on that. But the structure of the Senate and gerrymandering make it easier for a minority to wield political power instead of having to build such a majority. That is why some people, including me, refer to the Senate and gerrymandering as "anti-democratic".

        1. Rereading what I wrote, I notice that I fall into the same trap I often criticize others for succumbing to. I refer to "states" that "get their way" in Congress. Of course, states aren't people. It is people that have power and rights, not states. It is a convenient shortcut to use the word state in that way when really, the intent is to describe the desires and goals of the people living in that state. The state has fixed boundaries and is an abstract entity. The people living in a state have many different views and are free to move in or out of the state (their circumstances and resources permitting).

  18. We then consider a variety of objections, including the claim that political liberties occupy a special status that shields them from coercive restriction (section IV).

    The main objection I would have to their conclusion is that consumer protection efforts (what they and libertarians seem to call "paternalism") from the government can be corrected if they are found to be unjustified. Namely, voters can elect different people to government that will correct the errors. If voters have their ability to vote curbed in ways that are not justified, then there is no one left with the power to correct those errors.

    Consequently, this is also why voting rights are every bit as essential to guard, if not more so, as our right to speech.

    Brennan and Freiman effectively rebut a number of arguments suggesting that paternalism with respect to voting is inherently worse than consumer paternalism. One they do not consider is the danger that voter paternalism will be used in ways that discriminate against racial, ethnic, and other minorities.

    There is, of course, a long history of invidious exclusion from the franchise on such grounds.

    In some ways, there is an even more dangerous problem than the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, discrimination in voting rights that has been attempted or succeeded in recent years. It is the simple attitude from the politicians, pundits, and voters of a given side to express the belief that the policy differences between the two sides are so extreme and on issues so important to the very survival of the nation that other side simply cannot be allowed to have power. That goes way beyond any ideas of paternalism and into authoritarianism. "Election security", "low information voters", or whatever else simply become excuses to insist on their side having control regardless of what the majority of voters actually say.

    1. JasonT20 — the problems you wisely critique in your final paragraph are in part attributable to your notion that, "voting rights," are in play. Voting should not be counted a right. In that status it is too vulnerable.

      Governments state and national are unavoidably empowered to balance rights against each other, while policy-making or judicial decision-making are practiced. Thus, we see advocates of procedures to enervate voting power for some, justified as necessary to vindicate for others a concern about election security.

      A better (and in originalist terms more-accurate) view of voting is that it is far more than a right. It is a sovereign power. The sovereign People exercise voting as a constitutive power, to control and constrain government. Government has no legitimate power to control or constrain the sovereign.

      Results of completed elections are sovereign decrees. No one in government is empowered to contradict them, or in any material way use government power to influence them.

      American constitutionalism makes the sovereign People all-powerful, and bids them to rule at pleasure. To suppose any power in government to balance or constrain that sovereign power is wrong. To suggest that is to stand American constitutionalism on its head.

      1. A better (and in originalist terms more-accurate) view of voting is that it is far more than a right. It is a sovereign power. The sovereign People exercise voting as a constitutive power, to control and constrain government. Government has no legitimate power to control or constrain the sovereign.

        I agree. That is a much better way of thinking about the nature of democracy. Of course, from the Founding, government constrained the power of the sovereign people by choosing who could vote. So, as an originalist argument, it would seem to be another case of the Founders expressing an ideal, but coming up well short of implementing things in the same idealistic form that they conceived.

  19. As they point out-few voters actually consider what politicians think about certain policies that will affect them, other than high profile issues like guns or abortion. The politicians they elect don’t think much about them either and will vote as they are told by party leaders and special interest groups. Would this change if only people - let’s say 10% of current voters- were randomly selected to vote each election? Maybe it could work if their identity were kept secret and they had to pledge not to disclose that they were a voter, so they wouldn’t be targeted by the candidates and PACs.

  20. Who watches the watchmen?

    Voting is a way to allocate power, so the people in charge of creating the voting restrictions will be extremely prone to either outright corruption, or motivated reasoning, in deciding who gets to vote. You can only avoid that by basing your voting restriction on something *very* easy to measure, like age.

    Much less power is allocated by being in charge of any other type of paternalistic restriction (mostly only the direct power inherent in it being a restriction at all). So paternalists can consistently oppose restrictions on voting beyond what we have now, yet support other kinds of paternalism.

  21. "A consistently paternalistic approach to voting rights might systematize these restrictions, and in some cases expand them. For example, if it is acceptable to exclude immigrants who can't pass a civics test from the franchise, why not apply the same standard to natives?"

    OK, I generally agree with Prof. Somin but this is too far.

    First, "paternalism" is completely anti-American (theory not practice); you know, that whole "We the People. . .," thing.

    Second, there have to be some lines about what immigrants (both legal and illegal), can and can't do.

    This whole blog is, "It's a bad idea but even if it's a bad idea, then it should be used consistently."

    Ugh....

  22. I respect the criticism of government programs via this bank shot, but it's conflating means with ends.

    'This policy, arrived at via democratic means, is good' does not require 'this policy is so good I think it's too important to leave to democratic means' to be consistent.

    I also think the comments here make it clear a more robust definition of paternalism is needed.

  23. The phrases "important new article" and "Jason Brennan" don't belong in the same sentence.

    1. Prof. Somin has a habit of attaching "important" to a lot of things, like "important book" and the "important new article" you mention. It is an affectation that doesn't really do the job of making the subject seem more "important". I would recommend that he resist the urge to use that adjective so much. It stands out for the wrong reason most of the time.

  24. I, for one, am grateful that Prof Somin has been able to bring together people across the political spectrum and get them to agree that this idea is really dumb.

  25. There are two major problems with both the source article and this post.

    First, they're comparing paternalism that *reduces* choice in consumerism to paternalism that *prevents* choice in voting. Yes, we have restrictions that permit some people to buy things that others can't (e.g. alcohol). We also have restrictions that prevent everyone from buying certain things (e.g. illegal drugs). But, outside of extreme situations such as complete mental incompetence, we don't remove anyone's ability to buy some things.

    In contrast, the main examples offered for voting paternalism are cases where certain people - immigrants, felons, minors - aren't allow to vote for *anyone.* That's a very different category of restriction.

    Which leads to the second, larger problem. We actually have lots of "paternalistic" restrictions on voting that are much more comparable to paternalistic consumerism. We do that by restricting who you can vote for (just like we restrict what you can buy). E.g. you can't vote for a 25-year-old to be US president. (OK, if you want to be pedantic, you can vote for one, but your vote won't count.) You can't vote for someone for local office if they reside in another state. You can't vote for non-US citizens in the large majority of cases.

    And of course, there are many restrictions on who can appear on the ballot. E.g. candidates often have to gather some number of signatures from the relevant district to appear on the ballot. Those don't technically prevent someone for voting for a non-balloted candidate, but they still have the practical effect of restricting voters' choices.

    So I submit that the article authors' argument, that supporters of consumeristic paternalism should also support voting paternalism, is a non sequitur. Virtually everyone *already* supports voting paternalism. (It's written into the US Constitution, for that matter.) Of course, the authors could still argue that there's an imbalance between the levels of paternalism in consumerism versus voting.

    But that would require actual careful analysis. Why go to all that trouble when you can just make emotional appeals, right?

    1. I agree with what you’re saying-that voter choice and consumer choice are very different. But I think that the goal shouldn’t necessarily be to restrict who can vote, but if the number of voters were selected randomly for each election (sortition), would this perhaps lead to voters and candidates taking their decision more seriously and change the circus that modern politics has become. Jurors are randomly selected for criminal trials among all adults 18 and older and while it doesn’t necessarily lead to good outcomes perhaps it’s time to try this with voting. I know those who want to allow 14 year olds and mentally I’ll homeless people to vote will scream bloody murder, but then you also won’t have much incentive for candidates to have MAGA like rallies and riot over “stolen” elections. So each side will give up something.

    2. "they're comparing paternalism that *reduces* choice in consumerism to paternalism that *prevents* choice in voting . . . we don't remove anyone's ability to buy some things."

      The federal government has prevented/removed (pursuant to what power delegated in the Constitution, I don't know) everyone's choice to buy, sell, or manufacture, say, an automobile that doesn't have all kinds of arbitrary and ridiculous efficiency standards. Or, a reasonably designed gas can.

      1. Poor phrasing on my part. My apologies.

        What I mean is, yes the govt prevents or restricts people from purchasing certain things (e.g. your examples). But it (virtually) never prevents someone from buying anything at all. I.e. everyone has the ability to buy at least some things.

        With voting, the govt also prevents or restricts people from voting for certain things. E.g. people who reside in CA can't vote for the governor of NY. But unlike with purchasing, the govt *also* prevents some people for voting for anything in a public election. E.g. foreign nationals, minor, many felons don't get to vote at all.

        To be clear, I'm not saying that foreign nationals or 12-year-olds should be allowed to vote. My point is that the govt already acts paternalistically with respect to voting, in that it limits who & what people can vote for. And it goes even farther than it does with consumerism, in that everyone has the right to buy at least some things, but not everyone has the right to vote.

        So, it's a bit silly to argue that "consistent paternalists should back restrictions on voters, too." Pretty much everyone *already* agrees there should be restrictions on voters.

  26. Has anybody considered applying "sortition" to jury pools? It seems to me that juries faced with deciding the possible bankruptcy of large companies (in the form of questions such as "Does drug X cause cancer?" or "Do Nissans accelerate by themselves?") ought to contain at least a few actual experts in the science involved, rather than just the stupid people whom plaintiffs' attorneys try to select today.

  27. A good compromise is only male property owners have the franchise.

    1. "A good compromise is only male property owners have the franchise."

      That proposal surfaces far more often at this blog than in most other contexts.

      Why?

  28. The authors seem to have invented representative democracy. Which is hardly novel.

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