Monday, September 20, 2004

Democracy and Stupidity: More on One Man, One Vote

Idiot (that's what he calls himself!) over at No Right Turn in a post on Democracy and Stupidity writes:

The Maverick Philosopher considers the democratic principle of "one man, one vote" to be "highly dubious":

Suppose you have two people, A and B. A is intelligent, well-informed, and serious. He does his level best to form correct opinions about the issues of the day. He is an independent thinker, and his thinking is based in broad experience of life. B, however, makes no attempt to become informed, or to think for himself. He votes as his union boss tells him to vote. Why should B’s vote have the same weight as A’s? It is self-evident that B’s vote should not count as much as A’s.

Philosophy, et cetera agrees, arguing that "democracy is only valuable to the extent that it tends to produce and preserve a liberal society" and that in an ideal system, the opinions of those who are more intelligent and well-informed would count for more than those who haven't got a clue.

The problem here is that both are fundamentally mistaken about the purpose of democracy. Democracy is not about making good decisions - it's about making our decisions. It is not a system for aggregating information and reaching a rational decision about what we should do - it is a system for moderating conflicting interests.

Any moral justification for democracy rests on two assumptions: firstly, that people have interests, and secondly, that no-one's interest counts for more than anybody else's. The first is simply a recognition of fact. The second is a statement of fundamental moral equality, and can be taken as axiomatic or justified on the basis of consistency (if I want my interests to count, then I must agree that everyone else's do as well). Note that there's nothing in here about whether you are intelligent, rational, or well-informed - all that is important is that you have interests (and bother to express them). So "one man, one vote" is justified regardless of intelligence or ability on the basis that stupid people have interests too.

Those interests may be ill-informed, based on shoddy reasoning or false axioms, but none of that matters. An interest is an interest is an interest, and if we're committed to moral equality, then all must be counted.

BV: If all interests must be counted equally, then I wonder if this doesn't entail that voting privileges must be extended to all mentally competent people who can read and write. Obviously, children have interests and a stake in their societies: their welfare will be affected, for good or ill, by the decisions made about health care, education, military conscription, and so on. So it looks as if NRT's view that "no-one's interest counts for any more than anybody else's" implies that the vote should be given to children starting say at the age of seven or eight. For on NRT's scheme, they could not be excluded from voting on the grounds of inexperience, lack of knowledge, or psychological immaturity.

Criminals also have interests and a stake in what goes on in their societies so it appears that there would be no principled way to exclude them from voting.

If these indeed are consequences of NRT's position, then I would take them to be reductiones ad absurdum of it.

I would also point out that a person's having an interest does not entail his knowing his short-term or long-term best interest. Injudicious and misinformed people could easily vote against their own best interests. This is part of the reason why giving the vote to children does not make sense. There is also an issue about common interest version individual interest. A wise voter considers what is in the common good, and not merely what is in his individual good at the moment. Thus a wealthy voter may vote against a repeal of an estate tax on the ground that leaving it in place would be better for the society as a whole even though it would reduce the amount of money transferred to his heirs.

(There's also a pragmatic justification for democracy, resting on purely Hobbesean assumptions that people have interests and are sufficiently equal in physical ability to make counting heads a quick and painless way of determining who will win should things come to blows. On this account, stupid people get to vote because otherwise they may try and kill us. This has nothing to do with morality or rationality, of course - it's all about power and force and violence - but as someone who seeks ultimately to ground political theory in facts about the world, it has a certain appeal).

While I'm not sure about Maverick Philosopher, judging from his suggestions regarding competency tests, Philosophy, et cetera's underlying concern seems to that stupid people may not know what their interests are or how best to advance them. There's a name for this - "false consciousness" - and it's extremely surprising to see a self-professed liberal espousing it. A core tenet of liberalism is that people are the best judges of their own interests, and this rules out any second-guessing.

If we are concerned about voter ignorance, then the answer is to educate them, both through public information campaigns (and vigorous media debate) at election time, and by using universal public education to give people better bullshit detectors and make them better judges of their own interests in the first place. But as liberals, the last thing we should do is try to look inside people's heads or presume to make their choices for them.
See also:Liberalism, "false consciousness" and deceptionWhy not Kant?posted by Idiot at 2:27 PM