Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Ethics of Voting

I just started Jason Brennan's The Ethics of Voting, and it looks very interesting.  Why?  Consider:
At base, democracy is just a decision-making method.  In politics, democracy is a method for deciding when and how to coerce people into doing things they do not wish to do.  Political democracy is a method for deciding (directly or indirectly) when, how, and in what ways a government will threaten people with violence.  The symbol of democracy is not just the ballot--it is the ballot connected to a gun.
Democracy is good because liberal, constitutional democratic governments perform well compared to the feasible alternatives.  People living under liberal, constitutional democratic governments tend to have higher standards of living, greater educational levels, longer life expectancy, higher exposure and access to culture and diversity, greater reported happiness and life satisfaction, more freedom of all kinds, and more wealth than people living under alternative regimes.  From a humanitarian point of view, liberal constitutional democracy is a clear winner, at least compared to the alternatives we have tried.
I like both these paragraphs, and I suspect students in just about any of my courses will find these views familiar.  I'm especially fond of the clarity about the nature of government expressed in the idea that "democracy is not just the ballot--it is the ballot connected to a gun."

I also think I like Brennan's ideas about what ethical voting means.  Here are the propositions he says he argues for in his book:

  • Citizens have no civic or moral obligation to vote.
  • Citizens can pay their debts to society and exercise civic virtue without being involved in politics.
  • People who lack certain credentials (such as knowledge, rationality, and intellectual virtue) should abstain from voting.
  • Voters should not vote for narrow self-interest.
  • It can be permissible to buy and sell votes.  It is not inherently wrong to do so.
Perhaps by the end of his book I will decide against these views, but they seem right to me at this point.  I especially support the idea that a person does not have a moral obligation to vote, but if a person chooses to vote, then I think a person has a obligation to vote in support of an informed, justifiable view of  what is in the common interest.

I even like the last idea that it is not inherently wrong to buy and sell votes.  After all, it would be unusual for an economist not to support the idea that there was no better means of aggregating individual preference than voluntary exchange.