You might think that this is a strange question, and that of course everyone has a duty to vote. That’s part of being a good citizen, isn’t it? Well, there’s a growing body of opinion that says this isn’t so.
It all starts widespread agreement that voting doesn’t make a lot of sense from the perspective of an individual voter. Your chance of swaying a national election—of being the decisive vote—is for all practical purposes zero. So there’s no benefit to voting. But there are costs. There’s the gas you pay for the drive to the polling place and the value of the time you spend waiting in line, for instance. This makes voting sort of like buying a lottery ticket when the jackpot is $0.00. It doesn’t matter how cheap the ticket is, no one would buy it at any price.
Of course, there are some folks that think voting might be worthwhile because it’s not just who wins an election, but by what margin. That doesn’t really help, though, because making a margin one vote greater (or smaller) is still negligible. And the situation gets worse when you think that people should not only vote, but should be informed voters. Now the cost is much higher, since you’ve got to spend hours and hours reading and researching to become conversant on the important issues and on where the individual candidates stand on those issues.
Given this analysis, it’s no wonder that voter participation is low. It’s also no wonder that voters are, as libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan recently outlined in a piece for the Princeton University Press blog “poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic.” He’s not wrong about that, by the way. He’s building on work like Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter which, using the same basic cost/benefit analysis (and a lot of empirical evidence), concludes that voters are “rationally ignorant.” In other words, they are ignorant because informed voting isn’t worth the cost. (This isn’t as condemnatory as it may sound. Everyone is rationally ignorant on some topics.)
So the real question then becomes: why does anyone vote at all? Brennan’s best guess (and that of most people studying the issue) is that voting is just one part of a general pattern of political participation(bumper stickers, t-shirts, yard-signs, political rallies, obnoxious Facebook posts, etc.) that together constitute a form of self-expression:
Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.
Still, most people have a notion that voting is an integral aspect of civic duty. And this is Brennan’s most controversial argument: he thinks that is hogwash. In The Ethics of Voting Brennan makes the case that there is no civic obligation to vote. Summarizing this point for PBS, he said:
I don’t think people have a duty to vote. I argue that voting is just one of many ways you can exercise civic virtue. I think it’s sort of morally optional. If you do it well, it’s praiseworthy, but it’s not anything special.
I agree with Brennan this far: if someone is deciding between voting in an uninformed way and not voting at all, then staying home may be the way to go. But either voting in an uninformed way or staying home are each abdications of our civic duty to vote and to do so in a reasonably informed manner. I think this civic duty is general and applies to all people living in functionally democratic systems, but for today’s post I will consider the issue from a specifically Mormon perspective.
The Book of Mormon has quite a lot to say about kings, liberty, and government. Nephi plainly states that he was “desirous that [his people] should have no king,” (2 Ne 5:18) but at the time there was no viable alternative, and so he instituted a system of monarchy that lasted for several centuries. Still, the dream of a land without kings was not abandoned. Nephi’s brother Jacob later testifies that “this land shall be a land of liberty unto the Gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land.” (2 Ne 10:11)
The issue of kings comes up again in Mosiah 23, when Alma—leading a splinter group of Nephites who have no contact with the monarchy established by Nephi—refuses his people’s request to become their king. In doing so, he also begins to articulate the rationale for the Book of Mormon’s anti-monarchical position, writing that after freeing themselves from one wicked king, he desires “that ye should stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free, and that ye trust no man to be a king over you.” (Mosiah 23:13)
Alma’s concern was not merely the king himself. He stated that the people had “been in bondage to him and his priests” (Mosiah 23:12, emphasis added). So the problem here is not just monarchy, but also oligarchy. On the other hand, a constitutional monarchy may avoid a lot of these issues. The problem isn’t kings per se. It’s concentration of power. Any situation where a select elite are the rulers of the land is viewed with suspicion by Alma and other Book of Mormon prophets. So one has to ask, returning to Brennan’s scheme, how does one decide who is “well informed” enough to vote? How small will this cadre of self-appointed voters be, and how will it not end up leading to oligarchy?
Alma’s concerns are restated and elaborated just a few chapters later when, in Mosiah 29, Mosiah initiates a major reform to replace the monarchy with a system of democratically elected judges. The precipitating crisis for this change was a question of succession: none of Mosiah’s sons were willing to accept the throne. This meant that anyone who was appointed to that position would face a persistent question of legitimacy, and should any of Mosiah’s sons change their mind civil war could easily result.
But Mosiah’s concerns clearly went beyond the immediate threat of a succession crisis. He saw the moment as an opportunity to finally replace monarchy with a new system as Nephi, Jacob, and Alma had all longed for. Mosiah provides a two-pronged rationale. The first prong is pragmatic: any government by a small elite is vulnerable to corruption:
Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you. (Mosiah 29:13)
In contrast to the predisposition of elitist societies towards corruption, Mosiah argues that “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right.” (Mosiah 29:26) This is an explicit rejection of Brennan’s theory because it calls for all people to participate in politics in order to render the system less vulnerable to manipulation by a small elite: “therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.” (Mosiah 29:26) A small portion of the electorate is not legitimately the voice of the people,” even if they are uncommonly well-informed.
In addition to the practical consideration, Mosiah also has a philosophical concern.
33 And many more things did king Mosiah write unto them, unfolding unto them all the trials and troubles of a righteous king, yea, all the travails of soul for their people, and also all the murmurings of the people to their king; and he explained it all unto them.
34 And he told them that these things ought not to be; but that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part. (Mosiah 29:33-34, emphasis added)
Even when the rulers are righteous, as Mosiah himself strove to be, the work of administering a government is difficult. It is unfair to expect a small number of people to be involved. As a principle of fairness, therefore, everyone should actively participate in government.
The principles espoused by Nephi, Jacob, Alma, and Mosiah (as well as later prophets) are general, and they suggest that Mormons living in any functionally democratic society do have an obligation to actively participate in their government, including by voting.
There are two additional conflicts, I think, between the model of civic duty in the Book of Mormon and Brennan’s proposal.
First, Brennan—like many Americans—has a fundamentally different set of criteria in mind for leadership candidates. Book of Mormon prophets emphasize righteousness of leaders almost exclusively. It’s possible to infer some general level of competence from that, especially given Mormon emphasis on education and learning, but it certainly looks nothing like the contemporary pre-occupation with technical expertise.
Compared to the apparent sophistication of our technocratic philosophy, the Mormon emphasis on moral rectitude might look quaint or even negligent, but in reality the modern façade of sophistication is rather silly. There is no way to draw a straight line from the decisions of a single person—even a President—to macroeconomic variables like GDP or the unemployment rate. In addition, there’s no feasible way for politicians to be experts in every relevant field (from economics to epidemiology) and, even if there was, there’s no indication that we actually put much weight on such technical competence. The rhetoric about leadership competence is just an excuse for a hero-worshiping leader cult that is not nearly as modern or enlightened as we pretend that it is. Thinking that one candidate has a substantially better chance than another candidate at affecting the international economy is not substantially more sophisticated than hoping a king’s sacrifice while please the gods and lead to enough rain for the crops. Not only is the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on righteousness more workable for a populist understanding of civic duty, but it’s also a more reasonable criteria for good governance, where the threat of corruption is generally much greater than the threat of incompetence. (I say this mostly because I see no evidence of widespread competence within large governments–or institutions of any kind–to be at risk.)
Second, Brennan’s analysis—as well as that of all the social scientists pondering the strange behavior of voters—is predicated an on overly individualistic model of society. As a libertarian, he should be more familiar with Hayek’s idea of spontaneous order (equivalent to the modern concept of emergence). The entire idea of spontaneous order / emergence is that—when lots of individual actions are combined—you get structures of behavior that are not evident at the micro level.
No individual termite has a blueprint for the termite mound, and yet—together—they build one. And, prior to Hayek’s breakthrough essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, no human being had a concept of the role of prices in conveying information through society. And yet, they did. If you insist on viewing human behavior only at the lowest level of analysis—only at the level of individual actions and incentives—then you run the risk of missing the forest for the trees. It’s not as though the price system is inviolable, after all. More than once in recent history this or that ideology has instituted centralized, command-pricing successfully. “Successfully” in the sense of successfully eradicating a functioning market, of course. The results were decidedly less than successful for the tens of millions who starved to death as a result of these hubristic experiments.
Although it is tentative, I believe that Book of Mormon references to ideas like “the voice of the people,” speak to a view that is less individualistic than our modern conception of society and that, to the extent that society is viewed as a complex system with the potential for emergent properties and behaviors, this view might be more accurate than our hyper-individualistic one.
I do not argue with the contention that many of the problems plaguing the United States–and possibly other governments, although I am not in a place to say–are a result of elitism and corruption stemming from irrational voters acting out their irresponsible prejudices. One could not possibly ask for a better example than Donald Trump’s current place in the polls. Brennan’s recommendation, however, to just tell the irrational voters to go home is unacceptable given Mormon understanding of civic duty and in the long run would exacerbate rather than ameliorate our present, dire condition.