On the ethics of voting
Jason Brennan interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Jason Brennan is a new kickin’ kid on the block of political philosophy. He writes about J.S. Mill, communitarians, alienation, paradoxes of justice in Rawls, whether legal guarantees are real, the use and abuse of ideal theories, the virtue of modesty, gets feisty with Richard Posner, isn’t firmly in any political camp, doesn’t find market society repugnant and finds G.A. Cohen not very interesting, explains what modern libertarians say and why, thinks Globalisation leaves the world’s poor sitting ducks, thinks right and left have no place in philosophy even though they’re sociologically useful and that an incompetent electorate shouldn’t be allowed to vote. You’ve got to hand it over to this pugnacious dude, he’s flaming up our thoughts to get us all philosophically embroiled. Smokin’!
3:AM: You’re a new political philosopher on the scene. What made you become a philosopher? Is it politics or philosophy that drives you?
Jason Brennan: At the end of my junior year, I was broke. I realised I would have to take a semester off to work full-time in a factory, pay off my debts, and make enough money to transfer to and pay for my state university. I can tell you the exact date I realised I wanted to be a philosopher: May 2, 2000. On that day, I was packing my dorm room, sweating with worry that I would never finish college, that I would disappoint my grandmother, who’d hoped I’d be the first person in the family to get a college degree. I was wondering what I’d do even if I did go back. As I was packing my bookshelves, I realised that — despite having taken only two philosophy classes at that point — my shelf was packed with philosophy texts. On a whim, I decided to investigate what it took to become a philosophy professor. When I read on the internet that graduate school was not only free, but that they paid you to go, I realized I actually had a chance. Four days later, I was working full-time, making semi-conductors at Analog Devices. But I had already crafted a life-plan — I was going to be a philosopher. Back in 9th grade, a world civilisation teacher convinced me that ideas drove history. I wanted to know what the drivers thought. I bought Locke’s Second Treatise and an anthology of Marx’s works, since Locke had influenced the American founding, while Marx had influenced the Soviets. I originally went to a college with an understaffed philosophy department. Thus, I ended up studying economics, chemistry, and history instead. After I took a semester off to work full-time in a factory, I made enough money to transfer to my state university. Luckily for me, that new school had a much better philosophy department. I enjoy political philosophy, political psychology, and the economics of public decision-making. But I’m not interested in politics per se. I don’t watch conventions. I don’t campaign. If there’s a theme in my recent work, it’s that we have too much reverence for political power and government. We have a romantic view that through government, we can come together and make decisions together in way that expresses our status as equals. On the contrary, I think a good society is one in which politics doesn’t matter very much.
3:AM: You began by defending Mill against communitarians. These are two types of liberal. Mill’s an ethical liberal, and communitarians think his approach leads to alienation, compartmentalisation of life, and the problem of choice. Can you set out the basic issues here, and why the problem of choice entails that either liberalism is false or else reduces to existentialism?
JB: Mill’s ideal of human excellence is a person who chooses her own life plan, is passionately creative, rises above the masses, and resists authority. The person par excellence is an autonomous individual, a rational deliberator, and a reflective chooser of ends. We should not just let our values be handed down to us, but we should rationally choose our final ends. Some communitarians claim that it’s not really possible to be a rational chooser of ends in a Millian sense. They ask, how do you make choices about what ends to adopt? Either at some point, you make reference to an external, given standard, in which case ethical individualism is false, or you make choices without reference to any such standard at all, in which case Millian individualism just ends up leading to existentialism. Either our values are not really chosen, or they’re arbitrary. Quite a dilemma. Communitarians also claim that ethical individualism causes alienation. It makes us feel alienated from others, because we do not primarily think of ourselves as members of a group. Instead, we see ourselves as atoms. It even makes us feel alienated from our own values, because of the problem of choice I just described above. Communitarians claim that by thinking of ourselves as choosers of values, we cannot identify with those values. Our lives are never fully bound up in them, because we always think of ourselves as having been able to choose something else. Similarly, since we choose our roles, we do not identify with these roles, and these leads to the compartmentalization of life, making virtue impossible.
3:AM: So why do you defend Mill?
JB: I think Mill can escape this dilemma. Any given person will start with ends that are not really chosen, but over time, she can construct a set of ends that are all justified in reference to one another, in a kind of virtuous justificatory circle. For instance, suppose after reading communitarian literature, I feel alienated from my goals and ends. This gives me the maieutic end of acquiring a conception of a life worth living for. (A maieutic end is a end that is satisfied only by acquiring final ends. For example, the goal of finding love is a maieutic end, since you want to find someone to regard as an end in herself. The goal of finding a purpose in life is a maieutic end. The goal of avoiding existential alienation is a maieutic end) Now, suppose I make an accurate self-assessment, and recognise that X would make a good final end for me. I pick X as a final end. This final end in turn justifies various instrumental and constitutive ends I have. It also in turn justifies me in having the goal of avoiding alienation. At that point, I have a virtuous circle of various types of ends, each of which is justified by the others. I started with an unchosen, arbitrary goal of avoiding alienation, but by making certain choices and acting upon those choices, I can both A) use that goal to justify acquiring new goals, and B) use these new goals to justify my original goal of avoiding alienation. So, we can escape the dilemma. I think communitarians also fail to grasp how alienating communitarian societies can be. We cannot help but see ourselves as individuals. As individuals, we are bound to have separate goals from others, which makes possible alienation. If we cannot help but think of ourselves as individuals, then living in communitarian societies gives us less control than liberal societies. The sense of loss of individual control is a major cause of alienation. If so, communitarian societies will often be more alienating than liberal ones. Furthermore, even if our lives are compartmentalised in liberalism, there can be virtues (of the type described in the previous paragraph) that go between the compartments. Even in liberal life, a settled disposition toward honesty, courage, rationality, productivity, beneficence, and so on are needed in all affairs. Even if I do see a difference between the role I play when I instruct a philosophy class, the role I play when I interact with my wife, and myself as moral subject, my commitment to the various moral virtues flows between these. Perhaps MacIntyre is right to say that a highly disjointed life cannot have virtue (I’m not sure, actually), but he is wrong to say that the liberal life is always highly disjointed. It is more disjointed, perhaps, than that of a prehistoric tribesperson, but it at least has the potential to be more rather than less virtuous. The charge and significance of disunity are greatly overstated.
3:AM: You next turned to Rawls, probably the greatest liberal political philosopher since Mill. You worry that his theory of justice is paradoxical and that following his principles works against the poor, contrary to his intentions. Can you show how?
JB: I don’t want to get bogged down in Rawls exegesis, so I’ll simplify the issue at the expense of perfect accuracy. At various times, Rawls indicates that he thinks there’s a trade-off between long-term economic growth and distributional goals. If we intervene with social-democratic institutions in the attempt to help the poor, this will slow down growth in the long run. Rawls also seems to think that more free market institutions cannot realize the difference principle. Even if they were to help the poor, they don’t “aim” to help the poor, and so don’t count as realising justice. So, I ask readers to imagine two societies. One — Fairnessland – uses Rawls favored economic institutions, but has slower growth (2% a year for the least well-off class). The other — ParetoSuperiorland — uses laissez faire or welfare state capitalist institutions, but has faster growth (say 4% a year for the least well-off class). Thanks to redistribution, property allocation, and other interventions, the worst off in Fairnessland start off 50% richer than the worst off in ParetoSuperiorland. However, after 26 years of growth, the worst off in ParetoSuperiorland are much richer than the worst off in Fairnessland. It seems that if you really care about how well the poor are doing, in the long run, you must favour ParetoSuperiorland over Fairnessland. But, as I discuss in ‘Rawls’s Paradox’, Rawls seems to have certain controversial commitments — such as ideas about workplace democracy or about the relationship between institutional performance and people’s individual sense of justice — that commit him to favoring Fairnessland over ParetoSuperiorland. That seems wrong.
3:AM: Do you have a way of fixing this, or is there nothing for it but to abandon Rawls and look elsewhere?
JB: I find a lot to like in Rawls. Society is cooperative venture for mutual advantage. Everyone should have a stake in the rules of the game — the rules should be something we can all endorse. Property rights and other economics aren’t legitimate if they systematically leave large groups of people behind through no fault of their own. How well we do in life depends on the “rules of the game”, and if we think we can demand others play by the rules, they can in turn demand that the rules benefit them sufficiently to win their assent. Still, even at his best, Rawls is too strongly infatuated with the idea of legal guarantees. There is a difference between guaranteeing in the sense of rendering something inevitable (such as how quadrupling the minimum wage would guarantee rising unemployment) versus guaranteeing in the sense of issuing a legal declaration (such as when the Soviet Constitution of 1936 guaranteed free speech, privacy, and due process, or when Bush guaranteed no child would be left behind). A legal guarantee is no real guarantee. Many factors can and do disrupt, corrupt, or pervert legal guarantees. Legal guarantees are good only if they work. To give government the power to promote some valuable end does not automatically promote that end. In fact, sometimes, giving government the power to promote an end undermines that end. Finally, there is no guarantee that such legal guarantees will outperform other ways of generating the preferred goal. Sometimes, if people refuse to guarantee certain valuable outcomes, their refusal is part of what actually generates the valued outcome. As John Tomasi documents in his new book Free Market Fairness, and as I have complained elsewhere, Rawls doesn’t play fair when he assesses different kinds of regimes. He effectively compares property-owning democracy at the level of ideal theory with a not-very-charitable, non-ideal characterisation of more capitalistic regimes. At the very least, Rawlsians should admit that at the level of ideal theory, welfare state and even laissez faire capitalist regimes can satisfy Rawls’s theory of justice. In fact — and I say this as stringent critic of real-world command economies — I think even centralised, command economy socialism can satisfy Rawls at the level of ideal theory. One misuse of ideal theory would result from inferring that if some institutions are best under “ideal” conditions, then our real world institutions ought to come as close as possible to those institutions. Not so. Different conditions call for different tools. Ideal conditions might call for a wrench when non-ideal conditions call for a hammer. In other words, ideal theory is like designing cars on the assumption that they’ll never encounter slippery pavement, and will never be driven by bad drivers. If we had no such worries, we might not bother installing air bags. Here and now, though, we have compelling practical reason to not build cars like that. Analogously, if power didn’t corrupt, if people were invariably altruistic and omniscient, we might have reason to entrust government with a great deal of power. But if people are corruptible, if power is above all what corrupts, if people’s generosity depends very much on circumstances, and if relevant knowledge often is inaccessible to those who hold power, the kind of government we have reason to favour might not remotely be like that.
3:AM: I love the question around modesty that you address – is it a virtue or not? Modesty is one of those counterprivate things where you can know I’m modest but I can’t (because if I did, I’d be immodest!). You want to reconcile modesty with phronesis (virtue = practical wisdom) rather than throw out phronesis in this case. Can you say how you do this and why this is important?
JB: Aristotelians think virtuous people have phronesis, practical wisdom. Part of what it means to have practical wisdom is to arrive at correct judgments about moral issues, including one’s own character. The phronimos knows he’s the phronimos. But modesty also appears to be a virtue. Yet it seems like a modest person systematically underestimates himself. There seems to be something paradoxical in believing that you are modest. So, it seems like it can’t be both that modesty is a virtue and that the perfectly virtuous person has phronesis. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith has this idea that virtuous people use two different standards to evaluate people. They evaluate themselves against a higher standard than they evaluate other people. They evaluate themselves in reference to the ideal, and focus on how they fall short. They evaluate others according to a more commonplace standard. I explain how this works at some length, and then I argue that this “Two Standards Theory” of modesty can account for most of our commonsense intuitions about modesty, while still allowing that a fully virtuous person has phronesis. For instance, the Two Standards Theory explains why uttering “I am modest” tends to be self-defeating, but it allows that the virtuous person recognizes that in some important sense, he really is modest.
3:AM: If political liberalism has choice and free will embedded in it then it’s going to be important to have free will! This has taken you to consider free will in the block universe. This is neat, because it shows how issues of physics are decisively important for politics! Can you say what you take the Block Universe to be and whether free will survives?
JB: Oh, I wish there were some profound connection between that paper and my other work. That was really just a term paper for a philosophy of space-time class! General relativity seems to require a block universe conception of space-time. The future is just as real as the present, which is just as real as the past. It’s not as thought the past used to exist but stopped existing, and the future is yet to exist. Rather, the difference between the past, present, and future is largely geometric. The past is over there in that direction, the future is over there in that direction, and the present is here. Carl Hoefer says that we tend to give the past too much credit. We treat the past as if it caused the present, which in turn causes the future. So, we think this threatens free will, because it seems like the past determines everything. But, Hoefer says, general relativity (plus certain facts about physical laws) allow us just as easily to say that the present time-slice (and n.b. that time-slices are relative to our frame of motion) determines the past and the future. Determinism says that the facts about any time slice and the facts about the law of nature together imply all the facts about any other time slice. On the deterministic model, there’s nothing special about the past. Hoefer’s right, but I don’t think this shows there is free will. If anything, what it shows is that determinism per se was not the threat to free will. One of my main complaints against Hoefer is that if we take the current time-slice as a starting point, then we effectively treat the facts there — including the facts about what I choose and how I act — as brute, unexplained, random facts. This doesn’t seem like free will – it makes my decisions seem arbitrary. In order to respond to this objection, I argue Hoefer will have to use good old-fashioned compatibilist reasoning. However, once he does that, his “inside-out” perspective does not real work. What saves free will, if anything, is good old-fashioned compatibilism.
3:AM: You’ve entered battles in legal philosophy. You take issue with those like Richard Posner who think moral theories aren’t very useful for legal theorists. Can you first say what Posner’s position is and why he would say this?
JB: Posner says that moral theory doesn’t convince people to be more moral, and doesn’t provide a useful algorithm or decision-procedure for making decisions on the ground. He concludes moral theory is a failure.
3:AM: You disagree and defend moral theory against these charges. What are the counter arguments. Does this mean that you think law should retain moral theories even if they led to few practical consequences? Why bother if they are pragmatically inert?
JB: Many people argue against Posner by saying that moral theory does in fact convince people to be better and does provide useful guidance on the ground. I’m actually with Posner — I think he’s right that it fails to do these two things. But I’m against Posner on what this implies. I say he’s missed the point about what moral theory is supposed to do. Moral theory is primarily theory. Its job is to systematise and explain. Moral theorists are not expert coaches (like Bill Belichick or Dr. Phil), expert performers (like Tom Brady), or even expert critics (like Roger Ebert). Moral theory is supposed to tell you how morality fits together. A good metaphor would be Einstein’s field equations in physics. The field equations tells you how the universe fits together as a whole, but they aren’t something you’d use to try to catch a baseball or to predict where a feather will land. Kant’s categorical imperative, if true, plays the role in moral theory that Einstein’s field equations play in physics. Now, should law use moral philosophy? When lawyers at law schools write moral and political philosophy, they should do it well. But I’m not sure judges need moral theory. I think legal realism does a good job explaining how judges make decisions. But I don’t have a pet theory of how judges should make decisions, beyond, perhaps, that they should see through the façade.
3:AM: You’ve asked whether we need political liberty, at least in terms usually articulated by philosophers. You are firmly in the camp of neoclassical liberalism, aren’t you? This is something contrasted to ‘high liberalism’, is it? Can you say something about the geography of these ideas and why you think classical neoliberalism is the more ambitious approach?
JB: I’m not sure I’m firmly in any camp. I change my mind about certain issues frequently. Much depends on the weight of the empirical evidence. I try not to identify too strongly with any political “ism”, because doing so tends to lead to intellectual corruption.
“Neoclassical liberalism” is the terms John Tomasi and I coined to describe what’s been going on in classical liberal thought for the past 30 years or so. (See our paper together in the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy.) It might also be called “bleeding-heart libertarianism” or even Arizona School Liberalism. (The neoclassical liberals, such as David Schmidtz, Jerry Gaus, John Tomasi, Kevin Vallier, Matt Zwolinski, and I all have a connection to Arizona.) Neoclassical liberalism is where the action is in pro-market philosophical thinking. Neoclassical liberals combine a classical liberal concern for economic liberty with a modern liberal concern for social justice. They agree with classical liberals and libertarians that everyone is owed an extensive sphere of economic liberty as a matter of justice. But they also agree with left liberals that just institutions should benefit all, rather than leave some behind. Left-liberals think you can’t have both a strong commitment to a wide sphere of economic liberty and a commitment to social justice. They think that each of these crowds out and conflicts with the other. Perhaps they’re right. But what if they’re wrong? What if these two are compatible? Or, what if a commitment to one is best realized by or even requires a commitment to the other? No one gets extra points for having the most demanding theory of justice. Still, neoclassical liberalism is more morally demanding than left-liberalism, libertarianism, or classical liberalism. Libertarians and left-liberals both say, “Pick one: Expansive economic liberty or social justice.” We say, “Justice demands both, thank you.” We think neoclassical liberalism is really a better modern expression of classical liberal thinking than libertarianism ever was. Hard-line libertarianism is really an aberration in the mainline of classical liberal thought. Classical liberals like Adam Smith did not exactly affirm social justice, but that’s because the concept wasn’t fully developed at the time. Adam Smith changed economics forever when he argued the wealth of nations is measured not by the size of the king’s treasury but by the fullness of the common man’s stomach and the opportunities available for his children. Classical liberalism was always a humane approach. Hard-line libertarianism seemed to lose sight of that. (That said, I think most commentaries on Nozick are based on a misunderstanding of his work.)
3:AM: You don’t find market society intrinsically repugnant, and have an interesting way of showing that several ways of showing that it is (in particular those of GA Cohen) are poor. Why don’t you think market society is a problem especially at time when it seems the market society is incredibly unfair and where the vast inequality is itself illiberal?
JB: Cohen’s Why Not Socialism compares an idealised vision of socialism to (what Cohen takes to be) a realistic depiction of capitalism. Cohen concludes that socialism is thus morally superior to capitalism, but it’s not very interesting. If I concluded the most idealized form of capitalism is morally superior to the Soviet Union, that wouldn’t be interesting either. It’s only interesting if the most idealized version of a regime is inferior to a realistic version of another regime. Otherwise, it’s best to compare ideal to ideal, real to real. There is plenty of unfairness in realistic market-based societies. But where does that unfairness come from? Certain parts of DC (where I work) are horrible, and the people that grow up there don’t have much of a chance. Is it because we live in a market-based society, or is it because of past racial injustice, the drug war, and so on? Big business seems to get its way at everyone else’s expense. Why? Is it because we live in a market-based society, or is perhaps because we aren’t market-oriented enough? On this point, I’ll exceprt some pieces from my recent book with Oxford University Press:
Many critics believe libertarians are “in the pocket” of big business. Libertarianism sells itself as a philosophy of freedom. But, critics say, in practice, libertarian freedom is just freedom for corporations with servitude and poverty for everyone else. Critics claim that libertarian policies would benefit the powerful corporations at the expense of everyone else. Libertarianism would guarantee a small elite captures most wealth, while the common person is left behind.
Libertarians respond to their progressive critics, “Runaway corporatism is your fault. You may claim to oppose big business and crony capitalism. However, when in power, whether intentionally or not, you support big business at the expense of the common person. Market societies are unfair [in large part] because you made them unfair.”
Progressive politics enables the government to choose winners and losers in the economy. When a government is empowered to choose winners and losers, the well-connected will be the winners.
The left says, “Corporations have too much power. Let’s increase government power over corporations.” Libertarians say, “Corporations have too much power. Let’s decrease government power over corporations.” Libertarians admit that their solution, on its face, looks absurd. However, they claim that when we increase government power over corporations, corporations in turn capture that power to benefit themselves. To increase government power over corporations is to increase corporate power.
In the book, I explain at some length just why libertarians say this. Much of it has to do with noting how certain regulatory environments invite rent seeking, regulatory capture, eminent domain abuse, and so on. Also, regulations function like a regressive tax. It costs small businesses much more to comply with regulations than large businesses. The more government intervenes in the economy, the larger corporations will tend to be. I don’t really care about economic inequality per se. I think equality misses the point of social justice. The point isn’t to make people more equal. It’s to make sure first everyone has enough, and then that everyone has more. With that in mind, I find it bizarre that so many people focus on the plight of the least well-off in rich societies, and yet ignore the issue of immigration. From my point of view, if you do not advocate open immigration, any claim to be concerned about social justice or the well being of the poor is mere pretense. When economists estimate the welfare losses from immigration restrictions, they tend to conclude that eliminating immigration restrictions would double world GDP. The poorest immigrants would see the largest gains. The families and friends they leave behind would see large gains. Immigration restrictions expose the worlds’ poor to exploitation. If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Michael Huemer asks us to imagine that starving Marvin wants to go to the market in search of a better life. Though Marvin is poor, there are people at the market who will trade him goods he needs for the goods he has. Now suppose you set up guards who turn Marvin away from the market. If Marvin then dies from starvation, or lives but remains poor, it’s your fault he dies or stays poor. You didn’t just fail to help Marvin, but actively used violence to hurt him.
3:AM: Your recent book, and what you’ve been brooding on for some time now, is the ethics of voting. You have a pretty wild idea that an incompetent electorate shouldn’t have universal suffrage. So only if we are informed should we vote. What’s the argument?
JB: I like to summarise the argument using an analogy to a jury trial. Imagine a jury decided a criminal case in a capricious way. They ignored the evidence in front of them, flipped a coin, and found the defendant guilty. Or they evaded the evidence and found him guilty on the basis of a bizarre conspiracy theory. Or they evaluated the evidence in a highly irrational, careless way, and found him guilty. Or they found him guilty because he’s black and they hate black people. In each of these cases, the jury acted wrongly. They owe the defendant more than that. If we knew the jury acted like that, it would be illegitimate — wrong of us — to impose and enforce the jury’s decision. The defendant would not owe it to us to obey the jury. What goes for jury goes even more strongly for the electorate as a whole. Political decisions are high stakes. Most citizens are innocent. Almost none of us consent to the outcome of the election or to our government. The outcomes — including all ensuing laws, regulations, taxes, budget expenditures, wars, and so on — are imposed upon us through violence and threats of violence. These decisions can and so harm us, and can and do deprive many of us of property, liberty, and even life. At first glance, we should think that voters, like jurors, have a moral obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable way.
Of course, one major problem is that individual jurors have a lot of power, while individual voters have almost no power. So, in The Ethics of Voting, I spent much of my time arguing that we have a duty to keep our hands clean rather than join in with a group, when the group is doing an immoral activity. To illustrate this: Suppose a 100-member firing squad is about to shoot an innocent child. Suppose they are trained to shoot so that each bullet will hit the child at the same time. Suppose each bullet, on its own, would suffice to kill her. Suppose also that you can’t stop the shooters. The child will die regardless of what you do. Now, suppose the shooters offer to let you join in and fire with them. Is it okay for you to take the 101st shot Most people, upon reflection, think not. Even though you don’t make a difference, you have a moral duty to keep your hands clean. You have a duty not to join in with the group when the group harms innocent people. Only a monster would take the 101st shot, even though it makes no difference to the outcome. In The Ethics of Voting, I argue there is no moral duty to vote (except in unusual circumstances). However, if you do vote, you must vote well. A person votes well just in case she is epistemically justified in holding the following (de dicto) belief: “By voting this way, I support the right ends of government”. When I review the empirical literature on what voters know and how they behave, I can conclude that the vast majority of voters are bad voters, according to this theory.
3:AM: Doesn’t this suggest an overly rational approach to what people do? Group think and hearsay and gossip and such like are short cuts to getting info. Most of the time we rely on other people not lying to us about stuff. I know science through taking on trust that the ‘physics for idiots’ books I read are fine. Don’t you demand too much from your electorate? If the media tell us stuff, and we form opinions based on them, then surely we should be allowed to vote? Why not say that the media have a duty to tell us the facts, or the politicians, rather than put the blame on the electorate? Doesn’t your view also run into the problem of ending up sanctioning a worse situation than one created by ignorance (and so fall into the kind of paradox you lay at the door of Rawls)? Your view would encourage powers to manipulate ignorance to ensure only their group were allowed to vote. Is there any doubt that the 1% would be able to do this and also want to? (Look at the Koch brothers.)
JB: In the last chapter of The Ethics of Voting, I explore at length the empirical literature on shortcuts, heuristics, bias, and so on. I examine what the public knows. I look at literature showing that that are systematic differences in political knowledge, and that this knowledge changes what people support. The weight of the evidence indicates that most voters don’t use shortcuts or heuristics successfully. They do not just know nothing. They know less than nothing. And when they vote, it hurts us. As for whom to blame, it’s not an either/or situation. The media does a crappy job, and is blameworthy for it. Propagandists do sleazy things, and are blameworthy for it. Public schools fail to equip citizens with the needed background in statistics, political science, and economics, and are blameworthy for it. Special interest groups mess with us, and are blameworthy for it. But, at the same time, the voters are blameworthy, too. So, go ahead and point a finger at corrupt leaders, corporations, unions, and special interests. Just don’t put your blame finger away yet. We must point the finger at ourselves. Our government is defective, and that’s in large part our fault. Not yours and not mine, as individuals, but ours, as We the People. My view is not overly demanding. It doesn’t require you to be well-informed. We have a duty to vote well or abstain. We can always choose not to vote. Now, because of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, it turns out that if most people believed this, the good voters would be more likely to abstain than the dumb voters. Incompetent voters would mistakenly identify themselves as competent and vote badly. Competent voters would mistakenly identify themselves as incompetent and abstain. This doesn’t show my theory is wrong or false. It just shows that it is disturbingly self-effacing. I’m not as worried as others are about systematically excluding some people. First, we have overwhelming evidence that voters vote altruistically and sociotropically, rather than in their self-interest. We also have strong evidence that the policy-preference of the bottom 30% undermine, rather than support, their outcome-preferences. If you care about the poor, it doesn’t follow that you want the poor to vote. Instead, it might be that you want to make sure the poor don’t vote, or if they do, that politicians ignore them.
3:AM: Your argument on Condorcet’s Jury Theorem and the Optimum Number of voters idea also suggests a limit on voters. What’s the argument and are Condorcet’s tenets ones you support?
JB: I think Condorcet’s Jury Theorem is just a mathematical curiosity. It doesn’t tell us anything about real democracies or their behaviors. (From an ideological standpoint, that’s too bad. I’m pretty sure that most voters are more likely to be wrong than right, and if so, the CJT would imply that democracies always get the wrong answer.) In my paper on the CJT, I ask, suppose the CJT did apply to real-world democratic decision-making. Suppose voters are more likely to be right than wrong on a binary decision. What’s the optimal number of voters? That will depend on what the marginal value of an individual vote is. I then make some calculations, using numbers purposefully designed to inflate the value of individual votes. I find that even in rather extreme circumstances, where one candidate is ten trillion dollars better than the other, there’s no point in having 120 million people vote. 50,000 will do. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 voters, the marginal value of an individual vote is less than a dollar. So, if Condorcet’s Jury Theorem actually describes democracies at all, it also implies that mass voting is wasteful.
3:AM: We’re used to thinking in terms of left and right when it comes to politics. But liberalism seems equally held by right wingers and left wingers. Where would you situate your own liberalism in terms of left and right, or do you think that these categories are too broad brush to be useful?
JB: What we consider “left” and “right” in the US refer to a hodgepodge of logically unrelated, often conflicting principles, policies, and ideas. Now, almost all Americans occupy some spot on this spectrum. Even though there are plenty of ideologies — such as mine — that don’t fall on this spectrum, the vast majority of Americans’ ideologies do. So, left and right are useful for social scientific purposes. For philosophical purposes, though, we’d do better to dispense with them.
3:AM: Given that you argue that philosophy isn’t about seeking the truth and avoiding falsehood, aren’t you in a paradoxical position where your philosophical views about political liberalism are more likely to be false than true. So why should we heed you, or any philosopher?
JB: In ‘Scepticism about Philosophy’, I say: Suppose there were a person who was as agnostic about philosophy as any real person could be. Suppose she wanted to acquire true philosophical beliefs, but equally wanted to avoid false beliefs. Suppose these are her only two goals. I argue that this agnostic, when confronted with how much disagreement there is within philosophy, should conclude that studying philosophy will waste her time. She should conclude that if she studies philosophy and tries to arrive at philosophical beliefs, she is more likely to end believing falsehoods rather than truths. I then consider and rebut a number of objections to this argument. Does this mean we should be agnostic? Perhaps, but I don’t think we have the psychological capacity to pull it off. We’re kind of stuck having opinions and beliefs about philosophical issues. Even the average person has non-occurrent beliefs about many major philosophical matters. We can’t really bring ourselves to be agnostic. In light of that, we might have good grounds to pursue philosophy. Perhaps we can at least improve our epistemic situation, even if we’re kind of cursed with having a bad one. An outsider should look at the field and say, “Most of you philosophers are probably wrong.” But most people are insiders — they are stuck with philosophical beliefs. From the inside, we keep going as normal. You should accept my conclusions because my arguments are better, or reject them when the arguments fail.
3:AM:And finally, for the politically aware here at 3:AM Magazine, can you recommend five books (other than your own which we’ll be reading straight after) that will help us engage further with these important and pressing matters?
JB: Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence (Princeton University Press, 2012)
Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton University Press, 2007)
Terrence Kelly, Framing Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2012)
Dennis Mueller, Public Choice III (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness (Princeton University Press, 2012)
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 14th, 2013.