Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jason Brennan's "The Ethics of Voting"

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of philosophy at Brown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ethics of Voting, and reported the following:
From p. 99:
Robert Nozick illustrates this point with a story called the “Tale of the Slave”. Nozick describes the changing conditions under which a slave lives and asks his readers to point out when the slave stops being a slave. Here’s how the story goes. Let’s say you are the slave. At first, you live under a cruel master, who beats you arbitrarily. Then the master posts a set of rules and only punishes you when you violate the rules. The master then starts allocating resources among all of his slaves on kindly grounds, considering their needs, merit, etc. The master then decides to allow the slaves to spend 4 days doing whatever they please and only requires them to work 3 days on his manor. The master then decides to allow the slaves to live in the city or wherever else they like, provided they send the master 3/7ths of their income. The master also continues to regulate many of their activities and can call them back to the manor for defense. The master decides to allow his 10,000 slaves—other than you—to make decisions among themselves about how to regulate their behavior and how much of their income they must send the master. You are bound by their decision, but cannot vote or deliberate.

When the master dies, he leaves all of his slaves, including you, to each other as a collective body, except for you. That is, his 10,000 other slaves collectively own everyone, including you, but you own no one. The other 10,000 slaves decide to allow you to advise them about what rules they should pass. These rules govern both their behavior and yours. Eventually, as a reward for your service, they allow you to vote whenever they are evenly divided—5000 to 5000—over what to do. You cast a ballot in an envelope, which they agree to open whenever they are split. Finally, since they’ve never been evenly split, they just include your vote with theirs all the time.

At the end of the story, many readers think the slave never stopped being a slave. This is disturbing because by the end of the story, the situation very much resembles modern democracy. I don’t invoke the story here to prove that we are all slaves in modern democratic societies. Even though I agree that modern democratic societies abuse their citizens in certain ways and don’t afford them as much freedom as citizens by right should have, we’re freer than the slave at the beginning of the story. (Notice, for one, that Nozick’s tale doesn’t mention whether the 10,000 slaves recognize and protect rights.)

Instead, what I think we should learn from Nozick’s story is that being a member of rule-making body, especially a large one, does not give one much control. Each slave in the tale of the slave can legitimately claim that everyone else makes all the decisions and that the decisions the body makes would have occurred without her input. Democratic politics can sap us of autonomy in part because democratic bodies often rally around charismatic leaders and split into warring tribes. But even when political power remains equal, and even when democratic outcomes result from the equal input of all, there can be feeling of an utter lack of power. Our voices and votes are lost.

In parallel: I went to Mardi Gras one year. At night, the streets were so congested that I could lift my feet and be carried along by the crowd. It took serious effort to move against the current. Everyone in the crowd had the same predicament. We were all equals. Our individual movements equally decided the collective movement of the crowd. Yet, we were each powerless.
Before p. 99, I've done a lot of philosophical work. I have already argued that people have no duty to vote. I've even argued that participating in politics is nothing special, morally speaking. A person can be a good citizen in all sorts of ways, even if she avoids political participation. So, despite the elitist tone of some of the book, I've argued for an unusually egalitarian and populist view of good citizenship. However, while I argue that citizens have no duty to vote, I do argue that they do have a duty not to vote badly. We are not obligated to become parents, but if we are to be parents, we ought to be responsible, good parents. We are not obligated to become surgeons, but if we do become surgeons, we ought to be responsible, good surgeons. We are not obligated to drive, but if we do drive, we ought to be responsible drivers. The same goes for voting. (And, I've argued, this holds even though individual votes don't make any difference.)

On p. 99, I'm in the process of responding to a series of objections to my argument that ignorant, irrational, or biased citizens have a duty to abstain. One of these arguments holds that by abstaining, a citizen loses autonomy. She is no longer self-controlled in a way she otherwise would be had she voted. Now, there are a lot of ways of interpreting this objection. What exactly is autonomy, why is it valuable, and how is abstention supposed to cause us to lose it?

One version of this objection says that democracy makes me autonomous, because it makes me in part an author of the laws. By voting, I am one of the people that determines what the rules of the game are. Thus, I have some power over the laws. The laws are not simply imposed upon me.

I don't find this plausible. Voting grants each of us so little power that we're effectively powerless. On page 99, I illustrate this point by recounting two stories. One is a hypothetical story by Robert Nozick called "The Tale of the Slave". In the tale of the slave, you start off as a typical slave, and through a series of steps, come closer and closer to living in modern democracy. You're suppose to raise your hand at the step where you stop being a slave, but many readers never raise their hands. The second story just recounts an experience from Mardi Gras. In both stories, the idea is that democracy makes us all equally powerful by making us equally powerless. Whatever we're getting from that, it isn't autonomy.
Read an excerpt from The Ethics of Voting, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Jason Brennan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue