Vote, if you want to, and are willing to think carefully about it.

by Harry on March 5, 2008

As I said the other day, I had an interesting assignment of responding to Wendy McElroy’s talk “Don’t vote: it’s a waste of time and its immoral”. When my colleague Lester Hunt asked me to respond he was a bit disappointed to find that I don’t think there is a strong obligation to vote – in fact, when I gave him the 3 minute summary of my views he said “But that’s perfectly sensible” and looked rather depressed. So, here goes with a very rough account of what I said in response to her arguments (beefed up a bit to compensate for the fact that you didn’t hear her arguments, though there are brief accounts in the college paper, here and here).

I’ve always been a bit mystified by the view of voting as a sacrament that I sometimes hear from students and public commentators, perhaps reflecting that I come from a country in which it really isn’t regarded that way. And like Wendy I am mortified by the “Just Do It!” attitude to voting, and way that voter registration drives by non-profits corrupt the culture of democratic debate (so that everything is about getting people to vote, rather than inducing them to deliberate). So I found Wendy’s talk refreshing, and I think there is a lot to be said in favour of some of her “waste of time” arguments against voting. I was relieved, in fact, that she made the argument that voting is immoral, because at last she made an argument I really, really, disagreed with, so have something to say.

First, though, some of the points of agreement.

In the US, indeed, voting in general elections at the Federal level is often a waste of time. I’d present this as a criticism of the system as insufficiently democratic, myself. Congressional seats, especially, are so large that it is impossible for holders of those seats to represent constituents in any meaningful way, and the gerrymandering process is designed to make it the case that most people’s votes don’t count.

The role of money in US elections, especially at the Federal level, combines with the bizarre and exclusionary ballot access laws in many States, and the winner-takes-all electoral system, to crowd out smaller parties and make it unduly difficult for different ideas to influence debates. Again, this is undemocratic, and is contingent – many democracies have more open practices, and relatively few have entire branches of government for which being a millionaire is effectively a qualification (last time I checked there were only two non-millionaires in the Senate).

Finally, whereas campaigning really does matter in well structured institutions, voting is very strange – the chance that your vote will, in fact, be decisive is almost zero (usually). Suppose it takes you 30 minutes to vote. Even if you earn minimum wage, it would almost certainly be better to work that 30 minutes, and donate the proceeds to Oxfam. All I can say about this is that most people who don’t vote do not, in fact, spend the time they gain from not doing so working for a wage they donate to Oxfam.

But I am much less impressed with McElroy’s other arguments. The second kind of argument, which she calls ‘political’, is that voting legitimates what the government does. Turning on its head the common saying that “if you don’t vote you have no right to complain about what the government does” which, I agree, is completely wrongheaded, she argued that if you do vote you forfeit the right to complain. She used the analogy of a game of Russian Roulette – if someone shoots you, then you have a right to complain, but if you consent to a game of Russian Roulette, and end up getting shot, you have no right to complain. I don’t think the analogy works, for two reasons. First, I doubt, as I’ll explain later, that consent has the kind of magical properties that she thinks it does – consent does not always legitimize outcomes, and sometimes outcomes are legitimate without consent. Second, though, I don’t think that voting counts as consent. In the Russian Roulette example, if your consent legitimates the outcomes it does so because we presume you have a range of games available to you – you could have chosen to play table football, but you chose Russian Roulette instead (for the thrill, perhaps). But in politics voting is the only game in town – and it is not the case that by not playing it you escape responsibility for its effects. If, because you refrained from voting, some terrible outcome occurs, you are responsible for that, like it or not. You have to decide whether and how to vote based on the likely effects of that decision because you just implicated in how things go.

The most fundamental disagreement between us, though, concerns the moral argument – Wendy’s claim that even if it weren’t a waste of time voting would be immoral. As I understand what she said, the idea is that voting is an attempt to impose one’s will, coercively, on others; but coercing others without their consent is always immoral. So, and this is something that is often overlooked by defenders of voting, Wendy is right that voting, whether in a referendum or in a representative election, usually involves attempting to wield coercive power over others, and that many of those others are non-consenting. But I do not agree that it is thereby immoral, because I do not agree that wielding power over non-consenting others is always immoral. Sometime it is entirely acceptable, and sometimes it is morally required. And, as I said before, even when you don’t vote, you are sometimes responsible for what happens if by voting you could have prevented it.

Consider the following stylized case where coercion is obligatory. Bob has inherited a house from his father. But it turns out that his father stole it from Andrea’s father. The government forces Bob to transfer the house to Andrea. Bob does not consent. Is the government doing wrong? I think not; it is doing no more wrong than Andrea would be doing in seizing the house herself in the absence of government action. Why? Because the house does not, rightfully, belong to Bob, but to Andrea.

So, the first big disagreement is that when justice demands a distribution that can only be achieved through coercion it is not immoral to use coercion.

I gave a case that was quite uncontentious, because it involved an uncontroversial injustice—stealing. But I hold, and could, if I had more time, defend, a theory of justice which gives a great deal of weight to the idea that inequalities of income and wealth are only justified when they benefit the less advantaged members of society. Given this theory of justice, we are justified in voting for coercive redistribution whenever it will benefit the least advantaged without doing violation to other, more weighty, values.

Now consider a second case, this time where coercion is permissible but maybe not obligatory. Imagine that it turns out that rail travel is enormously more efficient than road travel, but that because roads have been so heavily subsidised up to this point, road travel is more easy and convenient and people are generally unwilling voluntarily to make the investment in rail travel needed to make it competitive. Suppose that most people are willing to make a contribution to that benefit as long as others do, so they vote for a tax to subsidise the development of the relevant infrastructure. A small number of people really are unwilling to pay – they have to be coerced. It seems to me that, as long as the tax demands are sufficiently small that the hold-outs are not made substantially worse off by them, and as long as basic rights of theirs are not violated independently of the coercion used, it is not immoral to make force them to pay their share to this common project.

Note that this second case proves less than some might think. Many US government subsidies are not of this kind – they are straightforward cases of rent-seeking—of corporate entities using government coercion to extract unearned incomes. Haliburton, large pharmaceutical corporations, corn-producers, etc, they all do it. To be sure, they are doing something immoral when they use coercion simply to enrich themselves without regard to the common good. But that is no surprise.

At the foundation of this disagreement are two, deeper, disagreements. The first is that the view that coercing people is always wrong involves an unnaceptable level of status-quo bias. People are not entitled to immunity to coercion, even on libertarian grounds, given that their situation is shaped by past unjust coercion. Two wrongs do not make a right, but coercing to rectify past wrongs is not a second wrong, but a right. The second is deeper still. Wendy seems to hold a very stringent view of self-ownership—that, basically, people are entitled to do whatever they want as long as they do not harm others. I think that view is quite wrong: in fact we have very stringent obligations to our fellow human beings, so stringent that they are enforceable. How our lives go is, in great part, not a matter of personal choice and that is not only as unavoidable feature of the human condition, but a welcome one. This is not the place to work out this disagreement, but I just mention it so you see that it stands in the background.

So? I don’t think that what I have said implies that you should vote, at least in our deeply flawed democracy in which you really might do better by working the 30 minutes it takes you to vote working at minimum wage and giving the proceeds to Oxfam.

But it does imply that it is ok to vote. But I’d like to emphasize a corollary of the fact that voting is an act of coercion. When you vote, you have a very stringent obligation to deliberate responsibly about the effects of your vote, and about whether those effects are morally justifiable or not. You should deliberate about the moral issues at stake in the elections, and come to have a tentative, but warranted view, about what justice requires, as well as about what the likely effects of policies your candidate is likely to implement (and whether they are morally justified).

Reasonable and carefully deliberating people will disagree both about fundamental matters of justice—I know this because my colleague Lester Hunt is a libertarian of sorts, whereas I am a socialist of sorts, and I take it as a fixed point that both of us are reasonable and deliberative. They can also disagree about the likely effects of many policies. So I am not suggesting that if everyone deliberates we will all agree—I am just saying that you’d better have good reasons, which you can, yourself, represent, for forcing other people to do what you judge is the right thing to do.

A rather simple heuristic. Suppose, that like me and like most of the people in this room, you have good reason to believe that you are a beneficiary of social injustice – for example, you are, or expect to be, high in the distribution of income and you enjoy, or expect to enjoy, a range of unearned benefits that could instead have gone to benefiting people who are less advantaged than you are through no fault of their own. Then you can look at whether your vote, if effective, is likely to benefit you materially relative to people who are significantly less well off. If so, then you can think hard about whether the policies you are supporting can be justified in some benefit they really are likely to bring to the other, less advantaged, people.

Consider a gathering I was at a couple of years ago. I listened to the members in the gathering whining about how high taxes were. I knew, though, that all of them has household incomes in excess of $150k, and that most of them (ironically) had incomes that were derived from government contracts. I know there is a genuine case for tax cuts, and I understand the leaky buckets problems with redistribution policies, and I am sympathetic to lots of public choice criticisms of government programs, especially in the American context. But none of these things were what my interlocutors had in mind—they were complaining that the government was taking some of the money even after the taking of which they were in the top 0.001% of wealth-holders in the history of humanity. It was the banality of self-interest that motivated them, not the carefully thought-out public choice worries about rent-seeking (which, indeed, several of them were beneficiaries of).

I’m not saying that you should never vote your self-interest – victims of injustice should, indeed, vote their self-interest. But when you do it should be because moral reasons press that on you, not because it is your self-interest. Coercing other people when there are good moral reasons to do what you are forcing them to do can be moral, and can even be obligatory. Coercing them in order to secure benefits for yourself is mere thuggery. So, for that matter, is coercing them out of mere prejudice. I imagine a lot of voting is self-interested and prejudiced, and I hope that the thugs cancel each other out; I’m not saying we should prevent anyone from voting, but that we should not, ourselves “just do it”, but should think carefully about the moral reasons in play before doing it.



geo 03.05.08 at 9:46 pm

our deeply flawed democracy

Concerning which, the very best book I have come across is 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy by Stephen Hill (PoliPoint Press). And the best website is


rea 03.05.08 at 10:38 pm

I don’t think that what I have said implies that you should vote . . . But it does imply that it is ok to vote.

In the American system, at least, dominated by 2 major parties, not voting (or voting for a minor candidate with no real chance to win) amounts to voting for the major party candidate whose views are farthest from your own. The US rightwinger who sits out the ’08 election because he doesn’t trust McCain is, in effect, voting for the Democrat; the supporters of Clinton or Obama who sit out the general election after their preferred candiate loses the nomination would be, in effect voting for McCain. And we all know about 2000 . . .


Patrick 03.05.08 at 10:53 pm

I have an African American colleague who says that she votes primarily to honour those who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to gain her the franchise–in the women’s suffrage movement and then the civil rights movement. She says she casts her ballot in everything from school board elections to federal contests for that reason, and votes even when she doesn’t think it makes much difference. (I assume she educates herself, and she’s widely knowledgeable, so that’s not an issue.)

It’s not an argument that I’d make, but it seems to me that it’s a perfectly coherent and defensible one.


cb 03.05.08 at 11:05 pm

The US rightwinger who sits out the ‘08 election because he doesn’t trust McCain is, in effect, voting for the Democrat; the supporters of Clinton or Obama who sit out the general election after their preferred candiate loses the nomination would be, in effect voting for McCain.
I hear this argument a lot, but it’s simply not true. The person who sits out is withholding his/her vote from both candidates, not actively voting for the other one. If 5 people are voting, 2 for candidate A, 2 for candidate B, and the last person abstains, A’s supporters will accuse him/her of effectively voting for B, B’s supporter’s will accuse him/her of effectively voting for A, but neither charge will be accurate. If this person had really voted for the other candidate, the election would be over 3-2 with a clear winner; as it is, either A or B will have to pressure the Supreme Court to steal the election.


mq 03.05.08 at 11:08 pm

Harry — I love how you turned this into a chance to question the philosophical foundations of libertarian individualism, which in a fuzzy/inchoate form is a philosophy shared by many.


Russell Arben Fox 03.05.08 at 11:36 pm

What mq (#4) just said, Harry–this is an excellent piece, not the least reason for which being that you used it to get at the kind of fetish of self-ownership that underlies so many “smart” criticisms of even seemingly innocuous collective actions, like voting. Henry’s tax arguments with Megan McArdle went along the same lines, as I asserted here (complete with rejoinder from Jacob Levy).

I grant all your points about how campaign money, gerrymandered districts, and raw size has made American democracy corrupt and unweildly, and thus the force of your arguments against voting. But let me make a very modest case for the “Just Do It!” approach to voting. You want responsible deliberation; but deliberation–despite the hopes of certain Kantians–is not a purely rational process, enabled by education and mental effort. Dealing with other people responsibly, accustoming oneself to sometimes winning and sometimes losing, is a habitus, something that requires practice and involvement. You’re not going to get that, or at least won’t necessarily, if you hold yourself aloof from the voting process. So, I would suggeting getting out and voting so you can come to understanding of what it implies and demands, and hence so that in time you can learn how to do it more deliberately and wisely.


Peter Hollo 03.06.08 at 12:22 am

cb@4, at the risk of saying something obvious, I think the point is that if you’re the sort of person who would vote for A rather than B, then by withholding your vote, you’re contributing to the success of B. B’s supporters could never claim that you’re helping A by not voting, because if you did vote, you would be helping A.

If you’re truly a swinging voter, then non-voting could be considered neutral. But this argument is usually presented to someone who considers him/herself (or is considered by the interlocuter) to be at least broadly a supporter of one side.

That’s also why a vote for Nader was (and is) a vote for the Republicans (in most lefties’ cases), given the winner-takes-all system in the US. Whether the Nader voters really won the election for Bush depends on the exact numbers, but the argument itself is valid, if the Nader voters would have preferred a Gore administration to a Bush one. That’s why Nader stressed so strongly (and in my view, from the sidelines in Australia, erroneously) that there was no difference between Bush and Gore (and hence it didn’t matter).


Peter Hollo 03.06.08 at 12:24 am

(Oh, and thanks for the fascinating article, Harry! These are significant matters even in a country like Australia where voting is compulsory. I’ve always felt that voting is pointless if the voting public are uninformed, or misinformed, and the “best” politicians are unscrupulously adept at manipulating the ignorant voting masses.)


Matt McIrvin 03.06.08 at 1:53 am

I don’t know the situation in the UK or elsewhere, but in the US this issue is inevitably associated with race, and I think that’s the source of the crawling suspicion I tend to feel when people say “only well-informed, thoughtful deliberators should vote”. Historically this exact argument was used to justify thinly disguised Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise black people (e.g. literacy tests). It’s still used as a justification for turnout-suppression measures that disproportionately affect the poor and minorities, such as requiring explicit voter registration long in advance.

I can’t help but think that even in a nonracist society, promoting voting as the province of well-informed deliberators would have the effect of discouraging participation by less-educated and therefore less-privileged people, with a consequent effect on government priorities.

So, to me, complaining about corrosion of the deliberative process by the elevation of voting to a universal sacrament is a little bit like complaining that affirmative action isn’t race-blind. Yes, this is a problem, but it’s a remedy for something worse that in many ways is still with us.


harry b 03.06.08 at 2:06 am

Thanks for the kind comments.

matt — I don’t say that only well-informed deliberators should vote (and not that only they should be allowed to vote), but that if you are going to vote you should inform yourself and deliberate carefully. Nor did I complain that elevation of voting to a universal sacrament corrodes the deliberative process. It is bizarre, and a mistake, but that’s an aside – what corrodes the process is the influence of money on campaigns, the structure of the deliberative process, ballot access and voting laws, etc. And there is, unfortunately, no warrant to the assumption that well-educated people are more likely to deliberate in response to the moral reasons in play. Sure, other things being equal, education makes you better informed. But in our society being well-educated correlates very closely with all sorts of other priviliges that, I suspect, undermine people’s ability to respond to the moral reasons in play. (I’m not saying that you are making that assumption, just that the argument that because only well-informed responsible deliberators should vote education levels are relevant to who should vote only works on this, false, assumption).


amit 03.06.08 at 2:48 am

Peter Hollo, re: Nader, you might want to check out this documentary called “An Unreasonable Man.”


Ben Goff 03.06.08 at 3:30 am

One might argue that one has an obligation to vote even if one does not have perfectly thought out the effect of the vote. First, you have little information as to the events that will occur durning the representative’s term in office. It best you can hope for is to select a representative of good judgment (judgment like yours). Second, there seems to be an accuracy to the judgment of large groups. (betting on the results of elections as a method of predicting the outcome is more accurate that well thought out polling. Although you may not have perfect knowlege of what you are voting for, you have some knowlege unless you are living in a cave and can and should make a choice based on imperfect knowlege. Third, even if your vote is not rational, the representative does not know that, so may act in the assumption that you are behaving rationally and will attempt to be rational to gain your support. Fourth, if you do not vote then the representative can assume that you do not care what he does. The threat of being thrown out of office if the representative is found to be corrupt may keep some of the representatives honest. Although many representatives are corrupt, it does seem that undemocratic governments seem to be more corrupt. Maybe, I do not set too high a bar, but all things considered I would rather have the right to vote than not. The same thing might be said about this post. Even if I do not make much sense I would rather have the right to say it than not even if it does not make much difference.


Joshua Holmes 03.06.08 at 4:29 am

In the US, indeed, voting in general elections at the Federal level is often a waste of time.

When you vote, you have a very stringent obligation to deliberate responsibly about the effects of your vote, and about whether those effects are morally justifiable or not. You should deliberate about the moral issues at stake in the elections, and come to have a tentative, but warranted view, about what justice requires, as well as about what the likely effects of policies your candidate is likely to implement (and whether they are morally justified).

If voting to affect the outcome is a waste of time – and it most certainly is – I don’t see why anyone would have an obligation to be thoughtful and well-informed. The voter who agonizes over his or her choices get the same government as the voter who liked Candidate A’s tie. The first voter can vote for Candidate A, vote for Candidate B, stay home, or dance a naked jig in front of the local parish hall. It won’t affect the outcome. Why would I have an obligation to carefully consider an action which is basically consequence-free?

As to the discussion of coercion, your first point is correct. But realize that many libertarians use the word “coercion” to mean “rights-trangressing action”. It’s a really silly usage of the word – one I try not to use – but it’s important to keep in mind when dealing with libertarian arguments.


mtraven 03.06.08 at 5:40 am

Voting can be best understood as a sacrament or social ritual. That is not really meant to trivialize it. Like the Catholic Mass, it is a performative — it is the chief means by which one enters into the body politic, just as the Mass lets the believer into the body of the Church. You don’t vote because of the tiny power your isolated vote has to sway the decision; you vote because it is the chief way you have of participating in the political process. More thoughts in this vein here.


Nick 03.06.08 at 8:48 am

How are we to tell that persons have deliberated with sufficient perspicacity prior to casting their votes? We could always institute an education qualification. Citizens may cast one vote for each GCSE they have, 3 for an A level, 10 for a bachelor’s degree, fifteen for a master’s, etc . . . Professors of Philosophy will be permitted to vote as early and as often as they wish . . .


abb1 03.06.08 at 10:19 am

I find your critique of the ‘refusal to legitimate’ motive very weak. It’s nothing like Russian roulette, I agree; still, refusing to participate in what one perceives as a rigged game seems like a perfectly rational act.


Z 03.06.08 at 10:36 am

Harry, I think this was a quite excellent post, made even better by Russell Arben Fox addenda. On the issue of coercion, I can only restate your point: living together entails coercion (or else we do not live together but at best side by side, in fact at war against each other) so we might as well agree to the least unjust form of coercion, and that currently is through the electoral system.

Which brings me to abb1’s critique. Not participating in a rigged game (or an unjust institution) is a perfectly legitimate act, but, and I think that was also Harry’s point, rigged as it is, the electoral system in my country is (most of the time) the least rigged form of power distribution (in my view). So it seems quite rational to partake in it, if only to try to make amends for the injustices created by the other rigged games around.


abb1 03.06.08 at 11:15 am

It’s certainly rational to partake, I don’t deny it; all I’m saying is that it’s perfectly rational to boycott it too. A matter of judgment.


Dave 03.06.08 at 1:21 pm

If one disagrees sufficiently with the nature of the body politic so as to prompt deliberate refusal to participate in its institutions, should one not take such dissidence to its logical [and literal] conclusion, and go sit somewhere else? Which is not to say ‘love it or leave it’, quite the reverse in fact, but rather to point out that ‘scorn it and remain in its fetid embrace’ is somewhat illogical.


Witt 03.06.08 at 2:18 pm

the crawling suspicion I tend to feel when people say “only well-informed, thoughtful deliberators should vote”

Matt captures my concerns exactly. Harry’s post is thoughtful, and I’m not equipped to fully understand or respond to it. But I can count on two fingers the number of times I have heard an argument like this coming from someone whose goal wasn’t to exclude and discourage “bad” (female, ethnic minority, wrong religion, poor, young) voters.

So as much as I trust and honor Harry’s thoughtfulness and motivations, I have a very negative response to this topic. It seems like something that only a small subset of society (well represented at this blog) has the luxury of exploring without feeling personally questioned.

I’m probably extra-touchy about this because voter turnout does seem like a rough, ugly proxy for getting politicians to pay attention to “your” issues.


harry b 03.06.08 at 2:26 pm

my response to witt is just this — the on example I used was of highly priviliged and well-educated people who seemed utterly incapable of deliberating responsibly, because they are completely blinded to their privilige (I know them well enough to know this about them). And my audience was exclusively people who either attend or have attended elite higher education institutions — the heuristic that they should not vote their self-interest was very clearly directed at them. You could just take this as an addendum — or, better, I should rewrite the whole thing to make it sensitive to the worries that you and matt raise, and respond to them directly. (I’ll do that, and maybe, if it doesn’t violate ettiquette, post it again in a few months).


Russell Arben Fox 03.06.08 at 3:17 pm

Harry, might it not be that becoming less “blinded to [one’s] privilege,” and thereby becoming capable of “deliberating responsibly” (#19), can’t be done, or at least can’t mostly be done, by argument, but rather must include being ritualized into, becoming habituated to, a less privileged world? A world that, ideally at least, voting can represent–contentious forming, breaking, and reforming of coalitions; standing in lines with people who aren’t from your social class; arguing and compromising with oneself and others as your decision of who to vote for is made; etc., etc.? There is, as I said before, plenty to criticize about democracy in the U.S., but it seems to me that, while the bulk of your arguments are sound, you are forgetting that a lot of education–the sort of education that at least makes possible better kinds of democratic deliberation–is experiential and performative. I would argue that you can only become a responsible voter by getting out to vote and learning, through doing, how it’s done.


Russell Arben Fox 03.06.08 at 3:19 pm

I mean, Harry in #20, not #19. (Why are my references to past posts always one off?)


abb1 03.06.08 at 4:12 pm

go sit somewhere else?
Some do, but others may not care enough or even enjoy being dissidents and hellraisers.


cb 03.06.08 at 4:12 pm

peter@7 — I do not dispute that “withholding” your vote from a candidate you support is beneficial for his opponent. But mathematically, it’s not the same as actively voting for the opponent, and I wish people would stop claiming it is. (Withholding a vote = -1 net change, actively voting for opponent = -2 net change).


Stuart 03.06.08 at 4:50 pm

Of course for a suitably large polity +1 net votes, -1, or -2 are all statistically almost identical, so there is some sense in which voting for, against or withholding a vote are all the same thing.


ajay 03.06.08 at 4:59 pm

The problem with making the argument that voting is irrational (compared with working 30 minutes and giving the money to charity) is that, if widely promulgated, it will reduce the voting population to those too irrational or stupid to follow the argument, who will go right ahead and keep voting.


MZ 03.06.08 at 5:47 pm

I agree with the argument that voting should be motivated out of some concern for justice. However, questions of what is a just distribution seems to me require empirical evidence and the knowledge/expertise to understand, interpret, and deliberate on the empirical evidence. Given, however, that many laws being made today are highly technical in nature, but which nonetheless affect the citizenry as a whole, I don’t see how even a reasonable, deliberative person can meet this requirement. I often find myself unable to answer questions of just distribution when it comes to things like economic, health, or energy policies, for example. I am just wondering how you would respond to this line of thinking?


c.l. ball 03.06.08 at 7:08 pm

I don’t believe one is obligated to vote, like any other right, you can exercise it or not. I never found the “rational voter” argument all the persuasive; I don’t expect my vote to be decisive in any contest. (How many mayoral elections in a town of 100 voters are decided 51-49?) I do, however, fear that my vote might be decisive, and if I had failed to vote, I would be kicking myself. And, my vote might increase the margin of the candidate that I support, and thereby give greater legitimacy to his or her policies.

I did not vote in 1996 because I did not support either candidate (I voted for Clinton in 1992), knew Clinton would win NY anyway, and I had no opinion in other races.

If one really believes that the act of voting is an obligation, there should be a box: “None of the above.”

By the way, based on 2006 data on net worth, at least 6 and probably more senators are not millionaires.

Richer people whine about taxes, as do poorer people, all the time, especially as they get richer and the effective tax rate gets higher. True, not by much on aggregate, but their frame of reference is the amount they got last year, not in all of history. Someone has to make over $174k to be in top 5% of income earners now in the US. And in some years, people in the 5th-10th percentile pay a higher effective rate than those in the upper 5th.

Consider this type of whine: “It sucks. My bonus was $50k this year, so we cannot afford the $40k kitchen remodel.” What, you think, 50-40 is 10, so they could afford it. But annual bonuses are heavily taxed — 28% federal income withholding, FICA (7.65%), and state and local, if there is any. So, if you have a 5% state income tax, that $50K bonus nets out at $29.7k. Not bad, but still over $10k less than $40k. Harry’s whiners are better off than 90% of Americans, but their frame of reference is their neighbor who just leased A6, added on new master bedroom suite, and is sending their kid to Stanford. Why not me, Lord? Won’t anyone think of the insufficiently privileged wealthy?


harry b 03.06.08 at 7:51 pm

russell — no, I completely agree with what you say in 21 — oops, sorry, 22 — and appreciate the way you say it. I don’t think my arguments are at fault, but certainly my presentation is — but as with matt’s and witt’s comments, yours can help me to improve, and add texture to, the presentation! (Still not responding to your comment in 6 because still thinking about it…)


abb1 03.06.08 at 7:58 pm

…require empirical evidence and the knowledge/expertise … unable to answer questions of just distribution

I don’t know what country you live in – maybe somewhere in Denmark or Norway or even Germany one does indeed need expertise and a bunch of charts to evaluate these things. In most places, though, it’s so obvious that all you need is a bit of common sense.


richard 03.06.08 at 9:41 pm

@19: go sit somewhere else?

Do you mean emigrate? It seems a bit drastic, when all you wanted to do was not vote. Apparently that might be the necessary solution in Australia or Brazil.


leederick 03.06.08 at 10:04 pm

In the Russian Roulette example, if your consent legitimates the outcomes it does so because we presume you have a range of games available to you… But in politics voting is the only game in town – and it is not the case that by not playing it you escape responsibility for its effects.

I don’t think this is true. Three main features of modern government are (1) elections, (2) terms of office, (3) no binding mandates. All of these could be done away with, we could use lot for selection, be able to recall representatives in mid-term, and issue binding instructions to them. We have one of many possible democratic systems, and there are other games we could play.


Charlie 03.07.08 at 12:13 am

How are we to tell that persons have deliberated with sufficient perspicacity prior to casting their votes? We could always institute an education qualification. Citizens may cast one vote for each GCSE they have, 3 for an A level, 10 for a bachelor’s degree, fifteen for a master’s, etc . . . Professors of Philosophy will be permitted to vote as early and as often as they wish . . .

posted by nick · march 6th, 2008 at 8:48 am

I have often felt that the answer to this (very real) problem would be quite simple. You have to pass a current events test in order to vote. Passing it, you get to vote, and you get a cash prize. Failing it, you are not permitted to vote, and you are fined. Failing to vote at all triggers an even larger fine. Or possible enslavement, I haven’t decided =)

You juggle the monetary amounts of reward and punishment to provide whatever revenue stream seems appropriate.

So to sum up, it becomes a requirement of citizenship to be at least a little politically and socially educated, and to vote. Hell, do it right and you might finally end up with an actual democracy!


vivian 03.07.08 at 1:58 am

Harry, not only would revising and extending your argument not violate netiquette, it’s part of why we all come here. Making us wait several months, if you have it ready sooner, would be remarkably disappointing. But then, if you can correctly balance autonomy and unsought obligations, in a general political theory, while ruling out all common abuses of such a system, well, that is worth waiting for.


Tom Doyle 03.07.08 at 3:47 am

“I am mortified by the …. way that voter registration drives by non-profits corrupt the culture of democratic debate (so that everything is about getting people to vote, rather than inducing them to deliberate).”


How do voter registration drives by non-profits corrupt the culture of democratic debate?

All the best,

Tom Doyle


harry b 03.07.08 at 12:56 pm

tom — the problem is this. Voter registration drive by non-profits are almost entirely driven by a concern with getting some particular party/candidate elected. But, of course, in order to stay within the terms of being a non-profit, the people doing the registration cannot say that – they cannot (legally) argue for a position or positions, or debate the people they approach. Its not the fault of the non-profits, it is the fault of the law – which should (in my opinion) define politics much more broadly and simply deny non-profit status to organisations that engage in politics broadly conceived. Like NOW, Heritage, Cato, NARAL, etc.
GOTV is just as bad.


Chris Bertram 03.07.08 at 12:58 pm

All excellent stuff Harry. The only thing I’d want to quibble about is self-interest.

Generally you are right, I think, that deliberators should think about what justice requires and vote accordingly. But there are cases (not usually those involving the election of representatives) where the point of voting is to find out what people _want_ (rather than what they think is in the public interest). In those cases, voting so as to inform the process of what I want is perfectly OK.


richard 03.07.08 at 3:34 pm

charlie (34): have you read Borges’ Lottery of Babylon?
It seems to me that your requirement of citizenship to be at least a little politically and socially educated, and to vote contains a very similar attitude to society and its membership. What if people don’t vote – do you have a status for them, as non-citizens? Do you imprison them, or exile them, or what? Which news papers do you require everyone to read?

I realize you’re putting out a straw man argument. Nonetheless, I think it’s of relevance to the more deliberative points above.


getaclue 03.07.08 at 4:37 pm

I don’t vote. It only encourages them.

The system is hopelessly corrupt, rigged and if there is an election in November (I believe the economic collapse will furnish Cheney an excuse to implement Executive Order 51 ( – and suspend (what remains of)constitutional law.

However, assuming for the sake of argument that there is an election, the fix is in and McCain will be installed as the next puppet for the military defense/pharma/helliburton corporate agenda.


David Estlund 03.10.08 at 4:29 am

Chris (at 38) is probably right that there are some issues about which there is no significant issue of justice or right, but just a question of how many want what. But it’s useful to actually try to think of some. I think they are surprisingly unusual. Should we have a playground or a sculpture in the town square? Is that just a matter of aggregating preferences? If you put it on the ballot you’ll almost certainly become convinced that it’s more than that. How well is that neighborhood served by playgrounds? Is there enough public art in the city? So I agree with Harry that the vast majority of issues at stake in politics are ones that include a moral dimension beyond the mere satisfaction of voter preferences.

I think Joshua (in 13) puts a good dilemma to Harry. It is indeed hard to account for any great importance of a single person voting, as Harry says. But if you say it’s not morally very important whether you vote, and precisely because it is virtually certain to make no difference, then how could it matter whether you thoughtfully or hastily? If you have a good account of why you should vote thoughtfully if you vote, I suspect it will be a good account of why you should vote.

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