By Jason Brennan
Why There’s No Duty to Vote
Most Americans believe there’s a duty to vote; at least, they’ll say they believe in such a duty when answering surveys.
But why hold there’s such a duty? A duty to vote is not a basic or foundational moral principle. If such a duty exists, it must be derived from other more basic principles.
In the first two chapters of The Ethics of Voting, I knock down the best arguments for the duty to vote one by one. Some of the arguments, like, “You should vote because you ought to make a difference!” or “You should vote because there’s some chance democracy will collapse if too few people vote!” are non-starters: The problem is that individual votes have a tiny chance of making a difference. I have a better chance of winning Powerball a few times than of rescuing democracy from collapse.
The best arguments for a duty to vote recognize that individual votes make little difference. Still, the problem with these arguments is that they rely upon very general moral duties, and it’s not clear why one specifically must vote to discharge those duties
For instance, consider what I call the Agency Argument:
- You should be a good citizen.
- In order for you to be a good citizen, it’s not enough that other citizens receive obtain adequate levels of welfare and live under a reasonably just social order. Rather, in addition, you need to be an agent who helps to cause other citizens to have these adequate levels of welfare, etc.
- In order to do this, you must vote.
- Therefore, you must vote.
Even if we accept premises 1 and 2 for the sake of argument, premise 3 appears to be false, or it needs another sub-argument in its favor. The problem is that to “be an agent who helps to cause other citizens to have adequate levels of welfare,” you don’t need to vote. Voting well is one of a practically infinite number of things you can do to promote your fellow citizens’ welfare to or to support a justice social order. It’s not clear you need to engage in politics at all to discharge these duties.
Or, consider the Public Goods Argument:
- Good governance is a public good.
- No one should free ride on the provision of such goods. Those who benefit from such goods should reciprocate.
- Citizens who abstain from voting free ride on the provision of good governance.
- Therefore, each citizen should vote.
Again, premise 3 looks like it’s false. One problem is that it’s not obvious you need to engage in politics at all to avoid free-riding. I don’t myself make any art, but I benefit greatly from the existence of artists. Do I free ride on the provision of art? No. As anyone with an economic mindset would realize, I avoid free-riding through trade in the division of labor. I contribute to the extended economic order in various ways, some of which directly support artists, and some of which indirectly support them. I don’t myself have to pick up a paintbrush or a chisel to avoid free-riding on art. The same goes for farming. I don’t myself grow food, but I’m not free-riding on the farmers. The same applies to politics. A person might contribute to good governance directly by voting well or holding office, but she can also contribute indirectly through a system of trade in the division of labor. If you want to see the details of this response, check out “Civic Virtue without Politics,” chapter 2 of the Ethics of Voting. Look also to the bottom of this post, because I’m including an excerpt from Compulsory Voting: For and Against, in which I deal with this kind of argument.
Finally, consider the Civic Virtue Argument:
- Civic virtue is a moral virtue.
- Civic virtue requires voting.
- Therefore, citizens who don’t vote thereby exhibit a lack of civic virtue and are to that extent morally vicious.
Premise 2 appears to be false. Voting can be an exercise of civic virtue, but one can exercise civic virtue without voting. Civic virtue is the disposition to contribute to the common good of one’s society. There are practically an infinite number of ways one can contribute to the common good besides voting.
Almost every paper I’ve read arguing for a duty to vote runs into the same problem. These papers try to defend a duty to vote as an instance of a more general duty, such as a duty to contribute or avoid free-riding. But the authors at best only show that voting is one way among many to discharge these duties; they never show us it’s the only way, or even a particularly good way, of discharging these duties.
How Believers in a Duty to Vote Disrespect Their Fellow Citizens
Here’s an excerpt from Compulsory Voting in which I deal with Bill Galston making a version of the Public Goods Argument:
In a modern liberal society, we have a division of labor. Citizens of liberal societies receive a bundle of different kinds of goods, including economic, cultural, social, and political goods. Most citizens—except the extremely lazy or unlucky—in turn contribute to the bundle other citizens receive. But they do it in different ways.
Some citizens provide political goods. They vote, fight in just wars, write senators, serve in office, and so on. Others volunteer at soup kitchens or for Habitat for Humanity. However, others also work productive jobs producing goods and services others want. Others contribute to good culture by producing art, music, crafts, food, and so on. Steve Jobs, James Hetfield, Maya Angelu, and Thomas Edison did a lot more for society by creating iPhones, thrash metal, poetry, and light bulbs than they ever could have done by voting.
People often talk as if we have a “debt to society” for all of the goods we receive. I’m skeptical that we have any such free-floating debt. However, if we have such a debt, we should be able to pay it with multiple different currencies. As members of a modern liberal society, we enjoy a bundle of different kinds of goods. If we incur a debt, we should be able to pay for that bundle by providing enough of any mix of goods (or perhaps just one kind of good) back in turn. Some citizens pay by providing good governance, others by providing good culture, and others by providing economic opportunity. Most citizens will provide a mix of different kinds of goods, but some will specialize in producing one good to the exclusion of all other goods. Citizens who provide non-political goods are not free riding on the provision of good governance. If, over the course of our lifetimes, society is better off with each of us than without us, then we’ve paid whatever debt to society we’ve incurred.
Imagine Superman were real. Now imagine Superman never votes or participates in politics. Imagine Galston said to Superman, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts. You benefit from good government but don’t do your part.” Superman could respond, “Remember all the times I saved the world? That’s how I did my part.”
Let’s take a less extreme case. Suppose there is a medical genius, Phyllis the Physician. Phyllis is such a genius that she produces new medical breakthroughs hourly. If Phyllis cares about serving the common good, she has little reason to vote. An hour at the voting booth is worth less than an hour at the lab. Now, imagine Galston said to Phyllis, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts.” Phyllis could respond, “No, I’ve paid voters’ back by producing my research. I don’t owe them anything more.”
Superman and Phyllis are extreme cases that prove the general point. There’s no reason to hold that non-voters specifically owe a debt to voters. Rather, if we have a debt, it’s a debt that each of us has to millions of other people, since we benefit from all sorts of positive externalities. However, we can pay that debt any number of ways. For any given citizen, given what other citizens are doing and are good at doing, there will be an optimal mix of political and non-political ways for her to pay her debt. For some citizens, this will mean heavy political engagement at the expense of other pursuits. For other citizens, it will mean complete disengagement so as to free the citizen to pursue non-political activities. For most citizens, the optimal mix will be some combination of political and non-political engagement. Though each citizen might contribute in different ways, they can all pay their debts.
Also, but contributing one kind of good, I thereby also help indirectly to produce other kinds of goods. In a modern liberal society, people specialize in different tasks. When I specialize in producing one sort of good or service, I don’t just become better myself at producing that good. I also help to create and maintain the conditions under which other people can specialize in producing other sorts of goods. If Peter specializes in growing apples, he thereby frees up Quentin to specialize in catching fish. Peter’s specializing in apple growing enables Quentin to specialize in fish catching, and vice versa. Peter produces apples directly, but he indirectly contributes to the production of fish. Quentin produces fish directly, but he indirectly contributes to the production of apples,
This extends to politics as well. Some people specialize on producing good governance. Others specialize in producing other kinds of goods. The former depend on the latter just as much as the latter depend on the former.
This doesn’t mean that literally everyone pays his or her debt to society. Over the course of a lifetime, some people are a net loss to society. As a collective, we would have been better off without them than with them. For a small number of those people, it’s their fault that they are a net loss. But these people are rare.
I often hear people claim that citizens who fail to vote aren’t “doing their part”. In my view, when people say that, they disrespect their fellow citizens. They dismiss the contributions their fellow citizens do make. They fail to recognize that most of their fellow citizens are doing their part and are paying their “debts to society”. When Galston calls non-voters free riders, he insults his fellow citizens. He owes them an apology.
This article was originally published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
Jason Brennan is Robert J. And Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University.