Vote Did You Say?

I am finally beginning my promised series of posts arguing that we do not have a moral duty to vote. In this post, I address arguments in favour of such a duty based on the idea that elections are an information-gathering mechanism. When the information collected through elections is incomplete because some people did not vote, governance will be defective and likely skewed. To avoid these problems, everyone has to vote. Such arguments come in distinct flavours, and I will address two of them specifically, but they also suffer from common problems.

* * *

The first and perhaps more common version of the information-based argument in favour of a duty to vote starts with the premise that by voting we provide those who look at electoral outcomes ― including, first and foremost, the politicians whose jobs depend on them ― with information about our needs and preferences. People who stay home fail to do that, and politicians ignore them in their decision-making as a result. Thus Susan Delacourt has written that “a disengaged public makes it easier to govern — or worse, ignore troublesome issues and constituencies (youth, for instance).” The tendency of some groups not to vote, and the (alleged) tendency of politicians to ignore their (alleged) interests as a result is a particular concern of those who favour this argument.

Jason Brennan has addressed this concern in some detail (he calls it the “demographic argument”) in a post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. The most important point he makes there is that “the argument seems to presume that voter[s] vote for their self-interest. But we have overwhelming empirical evidence … that they don’t vote their self-interest. Instead, they vote altruistically, for what they perceive to be in the national interest.” And while the people who do vote are likely enough to be mistaken about what is in the interest of those who don’t, people who tend not to vote and, in particular, “[t]he disadvantaged are much more likely to be mistaken in their beliefs about what it takes to help them,” (emphasis Brennan’s) because their levels of political ignorance are even higher those of the people who do vote. If these people vote out of a sense of duty, politicians might start taking their expressed preferences into account (though as I’ll explain below, that’s doubtful), but that won’t make them better off. A duty to vote will thus not make for better or fairer governance.

* * *

The other version of the information-based argument in favour of a duty to vote gets off to a better start, because it assumes that voters are indeed non-selfish. As Andrew Coyne has put it,

Voting isn’t like buying a soft drink. When you cast your vote, you aren’t just making a choice about you and your needs. You’re helping to make a collective decision about providing for everybody’s needs. The broader the sample of voters, the more representative of everybody it is likely to be — rather like the census — and the greater the combined stock of experiences and insights brought to bear. Conversely, if some “free ride” on others’ willingness to vote, the whole of the community suffers. You owe your fellow citizens your counsel, in other words. You benefit because they vote. You owe them no less in return — just as you owe them your share of the cost of public services.

The trouble with this reasoning (Prof. Brennan has called it the “public good argument”) is that the problem of political ignorance is even more acute for it than for the “demographic” one. If what we care about is collective wisdom, then some people ― especially, as it happens, people who tend not to vote, but also, in reality, a great many of those who do ― would actually help the community not by voting, but by staying as far away from the polling stations as they can.

Now, people who find this argument attractive will often say that the whole point of a duty to vote is that it will get people to become more engaged with and less ignorant about politics. Trouble is, as Prof. Brennan points out that, that “there are a bunch of empirical studies on this looking at various natural experiments, and the answer is no, compulsory voting doesn’t cause uninformed voters to become any better informed.” And it’s pretty obvious why this should be the case. Acquiring information relevant to voting is difficult. There is a lot to learn, both about the world and about what the politicians plan on doing to it. Learning takes time, energy, and ― a non-negligible point ― a willingness to confront “inconvenient truths” that make you uncomfortable with your prior beliefs. As Ilya Somin pointed out, it is “rational for most voters to stay ignorant, given the low chance that their knowledge will make a difference.” It is telling, I think that the defenders of a duty to vote mostly just say that it will spontaneously cause people to become better informed and more engaged ― not that there is in fact a duty to do so. They realize that, unlike the duty to vote, a duty to become a competent citizen is a very onerous one. (Of course, it is also possible to be an informed and engaged citizen without voting. I’ll develop this thought further in a separate post.)

* * *

The arguments and counter-arguments I have canvassed so far all presume that voting is a reasonably effective information-gathering mechanism. To think that voting tells politicians what the voters want or that it is a way of aggregating their wisdom about how best to run government, you need to think that it produces a relatively intelligible message, and also that politicians are able and willing to actually understand and act on this message. But these assumptions are unfounded.

Voting in an election is actually an incredibly bad way of sending any sort of message to anyone. It is a choice between, realistically, two or three options; perhaps a few more, depending on the voting system and the circumstances of each election, if you pretend that every candidate has a chance. And each of these few choices ― certainly each of the ones that have any chance of winning ― comes with a full panoply of policies (however vague) on all sorts of topics (however trivial), boasts (however exaggerated) about its leader’s character , and insults (however unfair) for its opponents. A vote can be based on any of these policies, boasts, or insults, singly or in combination. Or it can be based on whose name came first on the ballot, or some other utterly irrelevant consideration.

So how do we know what message a given set of electoral outcomes conveys? If, say, the Conservatives win on October 19, will it be because they hate the niqab, because Stephen Harper is the devil we know, or because Justin Trudeau is just not ready? That’s a trick question: nobody will know the answer. As Hans Noel explains in a very useful essay called “Ten Things Political Scientists Know that You Don’t,” “[t]hese narratives are created after the fact by people who want you to think one thing or another.” Even if the adage vox populi vox dei is true, an electoral outcome is no more than a Pythia’s mumbling ― to be interpreted by self-interested priests.

Things get even more muddled once we account for the possibility that people who show up at the polling station out of a sense of duty will not actually vote for anyone at all. Canadian advocates of mandatory voting tend to favour the inclusion of a “none of the above” option on the ballot. And those who believe that there is a duty to vote will typically say, like Mr. Coyne, that “[y]ou could … decline the ballot, or spoil it, or otherwise register your dissatisfaction with the choices on offer” ― you just need to show up. Needless to say, if you are voting “none of the above” or, a fortiori, if you are spoiling your ballot, you are not sending much of a message, whether about your own interests or what you think the country’s interests are. (By the way, Australia, a country from which the proponents of mandatory voting often say they draw their inspiration, does not have a “none of the above” option, and actually forces voters to rank all the candidates to cast a valid ballot. If both a Communist and a Marxist-Leninist are running in your riding, you need to say which you like more. Although there no Communists and no Marxists-Leninists in Oz. Their parties are actually much crazier than that.)

If you think that I just dislike democracy, or our version of it, you are mistaken. I share Churchill’s opinion that democracy is an imperfect political system, and indeed the worst one ― except all the others. I appreciate the blessings of political choice ― such as they are. I just don’t think that an electoral system’s purpose is to send any deep messages to the politicians or to anyone else. It’s to provide a mechanism for choosing people who will make decisions and, importantly, to ensure that the people in charge know that they are replaceable on relatively short notice, which tends to keep them somewhat honest. Our political system does that reasonably well. Pointing out that it’s useless at something it’s not meant to do is not a criticism at all.

There actually exists a much better mechanism for aggregating people’s preferences and putting their knowledge in common. Unfortunately, politicians tend to impede rather than support its functioning, and do their utmost to ignore its lessons even when these are clear. It’s called the market. (Nobody thinks, however, that a person is “free riding” on the market’s information-gathering by refusing to participate in it and thus contribute his or her “insights” about what the prices in that market should be.) Mr. Coyne points out that “[v]oting isn’t like buying a soft drink.” That’s quite true, but not in the way Mr. Coyne suggests.

As prof. Somin often says (sorry, I’m too lazy to track down a specific post for reference), when people make market decisions, they have a strong incentive to become informed about the choices available and their consequences, because the decision they make will affect them a great deal. Voters lack this incentive, because the chance of a single vote affecting anything is very small. (That is true, by the way, under any voting system ― not just first-past-the-post.)

Moreover, the market allows for much more fine-grained decision-making than do elections. Getting a can of Coke in preference to a Pepsi doesn’t commit you to, say, buying an iPhone instead of a Samsung, and leasing a Ford car instead of just taking the bus. But voting does ― you cannot vote for, say, the Conservative policy on health transfers, the NDP policy on anti-terrorism legislation, the Liberal policy on marijuana, and none-of-the-above on kowtowing to the dairy cartel. Indeed, voting for a party is the equivalent of committing to Coke, Apple, and Ford for the next four years.

Again, that’s not to say that we should scrap voting altogether. The market isn’t the best mechanism for making every decision. But so far as information-gathering is concerned, it is greatly superior to voting. If we really cared about having as much information as possible about people’s preferences, and about maximizing the use of their individual knowledge for the public good, our governments would regulate less, and let the markets decide more. Instead, even when the market sends very clear signals, such as that many people prefer Uber to the taxi cartels, politicians turn a blind eye to these signals, unless they actually try to stamp them out by regulating even more.  Politicians, I conclude, are not actually interested in information about what people want. They will say otherwise, of course, but actions speak louder than words.

* * *

Making the case for a duty to vote on supposed information-gathering properties on the electoral process is a perilous exercise, because elections are simply not are intended to aggregate information. They serve to choose Parliaments and, indirectly, governments. A vote does not communicate much of a message either about a person’s own needs and preferences or about his or her views as to how the country ought to be governed. When you vote, nobody can tell what it is that you are trying to say. Besides, when people make their views clear in the marketplace, politicians tend to simply ignore them, or even try to eliminate the market’s information-gathering abilities. The information-based case for a duty to vote is not a persuasive one.

But, you might say, it’s not the real case for a duty to vote. Please stay tuned. I’ll address other arguments over the next few weeks. And if you’re worried that I might not address you personal favourite, please get in touch, and tell me about it!

7 thoughts on “Vote Did You Say?

  1. I’d like to preface my statement by saying that I believe voting is important, and I view it as MY personal responsibility to do so. That being said, i in no way wish to force others to follow suit.

    Everything you write, Leonid, is true, and I can’t really debate any of it. As someone who has watched government for most of his adult life, and not just the political theater of Parliament, but the actual functioning of government from the departmental side (in other words, the functional Executive), it’s amazing how little most elections affect how bureaucracies actually work. To be sure, different governments have different priorities, they have their own policies and programs, and in some cases, as the Tories have been accused of, they can affect the way departments communicate with citizens, or even each other.

    But all in all, the vast engine of government is designed specifically so that the ever-changing and ever-fickle winds of electoral change have a fairly minimal impact. The running joke of the wonderful British 80s program, Yes Minister, is just how little impact Ministers, and by extension Parliament has on the business of government.

    That being said, the one singular aspect of elections that I think make them important is that they have proven, at least in the Western world, to be a remarkably trouble-free way dismissing the political arm of government. When you consider that throughout history politicians, however they were labeled, were usually disposed of being insurrection, coup or invasion (indeed, our system of government owes a good many of its properties to William III and Mary invading England at Parliament’s “invitation” to permanently oust the last of the absolutist Monarchs). The brilliance of democracy is that it gives the electorate the means of replacing the politicians at remarkably little cost.

    When some nation in the developing world tosses out the latest Generalissimo, whether the lights will come on, the garbage will be picked up and police officers will still patrol the streets is often an open question. The brilliance of our system is that I am in no doubt that the day after the election, regardless of who wins, or even if we cannot be sure who has won (a strong possibility this time around), I know that if I dial 9-1-1, I will be put in touch with the emergency service that can help me, and that when I go to pay a parking ticket, someone will be there to take the money.

    So really, elections are very important, but just not in the way that political parties like to claim they are. As you say, it’s not as if we can pick and choose from a menu of policies. Voting for a party means voting for everything one likes and everything one hates about their platform, their leadership, one’s candidate and indeed all the other candidates of the party that might win. But that vote does confer legitimacy upon an elected assembly, both the government and the opposition, and one does question if voter turnout were to shrink well below 50% whether that legitimacy would remain intact.

    Parliament, like so many aspects of human affairs, is as much about a large group of people believing in a semi-mythical accounting of its purpose. A government is like a Pope, it only has power because enough people are willing to assert that it does.

    • Aaron, thanks for your comment! As I said in the introductory post, I think that people should vote if they see a party that is better, or even less bad, than the others. And they should at least think about voting strategically if they see a party that is worse than the others. And I think that you are right about the importance of elections as mechanisms for transferring power, and have a great way of describing that too. The question is whether that can translate into a duty (whether or not enforceable by the state ― that’s a separate question) for every person to vote at every election. Here I’ve addressed one argument. There are others, including the legitimacy argument that you outline. I will address it too, probably in the next post in this series. I’ll try not to delay it too long!

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