Mar 24, 2011

Should Everyone Get to Vote?

One of my philosophical colleagues, Kevin Timpe, posted a link to a paper and got an interesting (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) discussion going on Facebook.  The paper is Jason Brennan's "The Right to a Competent Electorate," coming out soon in in International Philosophical Quarterly.   Brennan argues what is guaranteed to be a controversial position, that "the practice of unrestricted, universal suffrage is unjust," and proposes replacing democracy with an "epistocracy" (i.e. a rule by the knowledgeable and competent).

Both the implications and elements of the argument itself are bound to not only raise objections, but actually set people off, push the buttons triggering anger, ire, indignation.  And, that, I think, will be reflective of the very problematic of democracy and voting that the paper touches on, but does not resolve, because those sorts of responses will occur -- even sometimes on the part of educated, well-informed, intellectually virtuous (or at least not vicious) citizens to whom such arguments and proposals would restrict voting or full political participation, for reasons I'll discuss below.


The passage that started the fairly brief Facebook conversation, which got me thinking more about an issue that has been relegated to the back of my mind for some time, runs:
People who exercise power over me—including other voters—should have to do so in a competent and morally reasonable way. Otherwise, as a matter of justice, they ought to be excluded from holding political power, including the power to vote
It's not a radically new idea, if you think about it.  As a matter of fact, I have myself expressed the wish that voter turnout would be low during elections, both so that my vote would count for a marginal bit more, and so that some of the poorly informed voters -- and in this country, if one would like to be reasonably well-informed, it's not onerous to do so, even while holding an job, raising kids, even while watching a moderate amount of daily TV, so I have little sympathy for those who aren't informed to some degree --would in fact keep out of the process.  Forestalling objections that would inevitably arise through citing past restrictions of the franchise, Brennan takes pains to distinguish his meritocractic proposal from any which would exclude potential voters on other, more sinisterly discriminatory bases, gender, for example, or race.

In the course of the discussion, another participant (whose name and links I'll give here, if I know he'd like the publicity) raised some very important questions and objections.  The Devil really is in the details, and Brennan's carefully constructed arguments really have no more chance of becoming more than a philosopher's admittedly more rational but equally airy Lucianian cloud-cuckoo-land than does the ideal state outlined  in Plato's Republic (well, actually with that one, some did hope to realize it, now that I think about the matter, including Plato himself and the later neo-Platonist Plotinus).  Some of the objections are well worth mentioning here, though I'll discuss them more down below, after we take a slight detour.

These are some great points and questions, from a non-philosopher:
I think everyone would agree that we want people to vote who know for what or whom they are voting. However, the problem comes when some people are not given that right.

Do you think that in screwed up American politics that there is a possibility that there could be a radical change of government without bloodshed and revolution? The populace will not accept something they see as so far removed from what they are accustomed. Many will not understand it, others will try to exploit it for their own gain, and some will simply just resist because it is different.

Remember, we're dealing with the same incompetent voters who will not suddenly become competent on this issue. So I guess my question is very broad. To be more specific, I would ask, what would come first? Would there need to be a test created? Would there need to be education of the masses or the politicians? Would there need to be a revolution? I don't know where to start from a practical perspective.
And there's the real crux:  "I don't know where to start from a practical perspective."  why is that?  Is it just a failure to brainstorm out a solution, to imagine a possibility?  Not at all! In fact, what is wanted in this sort of matter is less imagining, less brainstorming, less working out abstract, philosophically airtight arguments that meet the objections of a portion of the the literature or generic, faceless opponents -- which is really all Brennan does engage.  Now, this does not mean at all that philosophers have nothing to contribute -- in fact, I'd say that I already hear several voices repeating down the corridors of the past their words of wisdom about these sorts of matters -- Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and J.S. Mill.  I'll just mention a few of their insights here without trying to be in any way systematic or exhaustive, really opening up questions and problems rather than elaborating a solution.  I'll mark though, that if Hobbes were able to speak here, he'd taciturnly observe that there's a gulf of difference between fancy, imagination, or wit and rigorously thinking matters through, working out the real details of that "practical perspective."

John Stuart Mill, as I pointed out in my small contribution to the discussion, actually proposes, in Considerations on Representative Government -- a work everyone starry-eyed about Mills' enlightened liberal sentiments in On Liberty ought to peruse, to glimpse some of the other side -- that we ought to apportion more votes to those of demonstrably greater intelligence.  He says a number of other interesting things leading up to that point, in passages which I will reproduce here, with a minimum of my own commentary.  First, a general set of remarks:
The positive evils and dangers of the representative, as of every other form of government, may be reduced to two heads:  first, general ignorance and incapacity, or, to speak more moderately, insufficient mental qualifications, in the controlling body; secondly, the danger of its being under the influence of interests not identical with the general welfare of the community
Now, riffing off his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, a remark perhaps a true today as it might have been then:
political life is indeed in America a most valuable school; but it is a school from which the ablest teachers are excluded; the first minds in the country being as effectually shut out from the national representation, and from public function generally, as if they were under a formal disqualification.
Mill proposes turning the tables, arguing that there must be some sort of basic qualifications to vote going beyond ability to fog a mirror or have one's name show up on a precinct's voter roll.  He even notes that circumstances will place some in a better situation to develop the necessary qualifications, "elementary acquirements," and argues in favor of universal education.  but, he does not allow anyone to use a relative paucity of educational opportunities as an excuse for not acquiring -- which is quite possible in late modern western liberal democracies -- the necessary educational attainments to be able to continually inform oneself, to reason well, to resist the blandishments of fallacious, interested arguments, and thereby to vote competently.  He also does suggest a differential in the weight of votes.
In all human affairs, every person directly interested, and not under positive tutelage, has an admitted claim to a voice and, when his exercise of it is not inconsistent with the safety of the whole, cannot justly be excluded from it.  But though everybody ought to have a voice -- that everyone should have an equal voice is a totally different proposition.  When two persons who have a joint interest  in any business differ in opinion, does justice require that both opinions should be held of exactly equal value?
Clearly, not, in Mills' book.  How should they be evaluated in relation to each other? (By the way, for those who have only read his essay Utilitarianism, this is an implication of Mills' doctrine)
If, with equal virtue, one is superior to the other in knowledge and intelligence, or if, with equal intelligence, one excels the other in virtue, the opinion, the judgment of the higher moral or intellectual being in worth more than that of the inferior;  and if the institutions of the country virtually assert that they are of the same value, they assert a thing which is not.
At this point, notice that there are two key differences between Brennan's proposal and Mills.  Brennan argues for restricting the franchise, for taking the dangerous vote out of the hands of those epistemically unworthy of it. Mill is in favor of extending the franchise of his time, but argues that votes must be weighted.  What does Brennan focus on?  The dimension of human existence and worth Mill calls intelligence and knowledge.  But, equally important for Mill is moral virtue.  These are, of course, intimately intertwined, as many earlier philosophers have noted.

Now, we run into that bedeviling and ever-problematic "practical perspective" -- how do we apportion the votes?  How do we differentiate?  What criteria do we use?  Mill feels the weight of this problem, and proposes a solution:
If there existed such a thing as a really national education or a trustworthy system of general examination, education might be tested directly.  In the absence of these, the nature of a person's occupation is some test.
Starting from the manual trades and working our way up through the "liberal professions", and granting that mere holding of a position is not enough but diligent discharging of that occupation is needed, Mill would assign an increasing number of votes.  And then he adds offhandedly:
All these suggestions are open to much discussion in the detail, and to objections which it is of no use to anticipate.  The time is not come for giving to such plans a practical shape, nor should I wish to be bound by the particular proposals I have made.  But it is to me evident that in this direction lies the true ideal of representative government; and that to work toward it, by the best practical contrivances which can be found, is the path of real political improvement.
Now, just imagine what steps would be taken "in this direction," whether towards Mill's giving more votes to the better qualified, or towards Brennan's shrinkage of the franchise to those who are qualified.  I can think of two problems right off the bat.

The first is that the very proposal would be poorly received by any who thought that their votes might count for less or be taken from them -- and the more poorly informed they are, the more swayed by interest, passion, mere opinion, bias, or other obstacles to good political reasoning, the more easily they would be whipped up against any such proposal.  Most likely, there would be riots, and yet more tears would be rent in the already threadbare fabric of our political and civil society. Let's call this, a la Swift, the threat posed by the Yahoos.

The second is a much deeper problem.  Let's say that the Yahoo predicament was happily resolved.  Only those of reasonable intelligence, not subject to outright manipulation or self-deception, unblinkered by private or group-interest, only they could take part in the political process. Who would design the tests for being well-informed, for not being contaminated by biases?  Who would determine what criteria would count?  Here's where something that both Plato and Aristotle explicitly discuss becomes highly relevant.

What are political communities?  Among other things, sharings (koinoniai) in moral values, in perceptions of them, in realizations of them:  the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, the noble and the base, the useful and the harmful.  And yet, what is it that we disagree most bitterly about (not only we, but in Plato's Euthyphro, even the gods)?  Precisely these same moral values.  Are we going to have any more agreement about epistemic values?  Aren't these tied ever so closely, intricately, inextricably with moral values, with the political (partial) instantiations of those values, or at least certain visages and shapes (fire-cast shadows on a wall?) of them?  Would any group really resist the temptation to enhance their position, to ensconce themselves, to emplace their values into any examination, any qualifying test that might possibly be contrived?  And if that is the case, could such a commonwealth long last (I choose Hobbesian language for a reason?)

I fear not.  And that is unfortunate indeed, because in many respects, Brennan and Mill are right.  It is unjust in some sense to have manifestly unqualified voters mucking up the process, available for any pied piper on left or right (or even of that sort of corruption that transcends the spectrum by going even lower) who wants to play on their emotional, imaginary, interested strings and strum the right ideological chords.  But, our non-philosopher interlocutor is right -- one must also say how this situation could actually be remedied.  And that is tough to do.