Do Mormons Have a Duty to Vote?

We'll get back to Trump towards the end.

We’ll get back to Trump towards the end.

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.)

"A termite "cathedral" mound produced by a termite colony is a classic example of emergence in nature." - Wikipedia ("Emergence")

“A termite “cathedral” mound produced by a termite colony is a classic example of emergence in nature.” – Wikipedia (“Emergence”)

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.

19 comments for “Do Mormons Have a Duty to Vote?

  1. September 7, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Nathaniel, great piece! I had never connected the Book of Mormon commentary to monarchy *and* oligarchy before. And great timing, too, what with Trump and all.

    I agree that we should get more involved in politics. I love Bruce C. Hafen’s model of the Saint as “idealist,” “pessimist” or “improver”–I’ve tried to be an improver in politics. But I can’t help but trip back into “pessimism” mode when I read things like Gilen and Page’s “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, which suggests that we’re no longer living in a democracy but a functional oligarchy. I think this is precisely the situation Benjamin was seeking to avoid, and it’s, like I said, hard not to feel like voting is a waste given that I don’t live in a democracy! Do you see Gilens’ and Page’s analysis as correct? Is the “functional oligarchy” status reversible just by getting enough of us to vote? Is there any evidence that American’s attitudes toward voting could or will shift to better represent the “voice of the people”? Or is that just something that we hope will “emerge” from the American body of people given enough frustration and consternation with Washington?

  2. September 7, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    Two points. First, I don’t know that it’s all that easy to judge personal righteousness when it comes to political candidates. Second, you are far too quick to dismiss the very real choices that we face on election day and the impact of those choices. While it may be impossible to predict the long-term impact of one leader versus another, it is not impossible to know the types of people a given leader will fill their administration with, the judges they will nominate, the laws they will promote, etc… We are all blinded to some extent by our biases and unjustified partisan loyalties, but that is a far cry from your assertion that our choices don’t matter any more than “than hoping a king’s sacrifice will please the gods and lead to enough rain for the crops.”

    I do agree with you, though, that we probably do have a duty to vote. Especially in local elections where your vote is more influential or if you live in a general election swing state.

  3. Brother Sky
    September 7, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Outstanding post, Nathaniel. You raise some interesting issues. There is a tension, of course, as there always must be, between the individual and the communal and I think your claim near the end of the post about the Book of Mormon’s sense of the “voice of the people” is different from our current sense of things, where I think we tend to ask, “what can this candidate do for me (or my small, special interest group)?” rather than asking “what can this candidate do to improve the lives of every (or most) citizen(s) generally?”

    I don’t vote, not because of a lack of belief in civic duty, simply because were I to vote for a person, my vote would signal my belief that they could effect some sort of good in the world, and I’ve never come across a politician that I believe could do that. The culture of narcissism in especially American politics is staggeringly out of control, IMHO, and so I feel that by voting, I’m actually participating in a corrupt and morally bankrupt process rather than anything approaching a process that’s above board. Have you ever watched the presidential debates involving the candidates of either party? Yikes.

  4. ji
    September 7, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    If voting doesn’t matter, let’s abolish the practice.

    I believe voting matters, and individual voters matter.

  5. Old Man
    September 7, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Brother Sky wrote: “I don’t vote, not because of a lack of belief in civic duty, simply because were I to vote for a person, my vote would signal my belief that they could effect some sort of good in the world, and I’ve never come across a politician that I believe could do that.”

    So each individual political leader is so morally bankrupt that they individually are incapable of effecting any good at all in the world? Or is the problem simply that voters like yourself are unable to perceive any possible good coming from each of these individuals? Despite the narcissism, I am able to perceive “goods” which have come from most political leaders in the U.S. today. I don’t expect the performance of a “messiah” from any political leader. I do expect a good faith effort to fulfill their oath of office. Your vote or refusal to vote hires people for specific jobs in local, state and federal government. You are complicit if you vote, but even more complicit if there is a disaster if you don’t vote. Voting as wisely as you can is a responsibility. Cynicism will destroy our nation just as fast as narcissism.

  6. September 7, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Walker F-

    First, I don’t know that it’s all that easy to judge personal righteousness when it comes to political candidates.

    What I am interested is mostly a repudiation of the trendy idea that what a politician does in their personal life–anything at all–doesn’t matter. I’ve got no interest in invading privacy or trying to get into fine-grained judgments of who is righteous and who is not, but what we ought to have–as a society–is simply a minimum standard for acceptable behavior for our public servants that is substantially higher than the more or less non-existent standards we have today.

    And this isn’t just about moral rectitude and who is cheating on whom. Consider the fact that insider trading is, for all practical purposes, legal for congresspeople and their staff.

    There’s some pretty low-hanging fruit here, and there are a lot of things we could do–culturally rather than legally–to institute the kind of incentives for our elected officials that would tend towards more decency and less outright corruption and greed.

    Second, you are far too quick to dismiss the very real choices that we face on election day and the impact of those choices.

    Yes, of course elections matter. They matter a great deal. But not always the elections that people think of and not always for the reasons that people think of. We simply ought to have a more realistic assessment of what is within the sphere of influence of an elected official and what is not.

  7. Tim
    September 7, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    Your vote may not matter much on the national level (especially if you don’t live in a swing state), but it matters very much on a local level. Many of the issues and candidates I vote on only receive a few hundred votes–and they still manage to win the election. Chances are many of us are in similar circumstances.

  8. Brother Sky
    September 7, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    Old Man:

    I think you are correct that cynicism will destroy our nation as fast as narcissism. I don’t believe I’m cynical about politics, just stating that I’ve not yet encountered a politician I believe in enough to support with a vote. I think Nathaniel is right that we ought to be realistic about what can or cannot be accomplished by any given elected official. Narcissism and cynicism may destroy our nation, but so will a naive belief that simply by pulling a lever or punching a card, we’re making things better when the evidence clearly indicates the contrary.

  9. Owen
    September 7, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    Given the reactionary political views of most Mormons I know, I’m fine with them not voting much. In fact, I think them not voting is an act of Christian service to society.

  10. Old Man
    September 7, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Brother Sky:
    What about the naive belief that refusing to decide, refusing to engage in the process by advocating positions and engaging politicians through letter writing and yes, voting, that the problems you are describing will ever be resolved. What a fatalist perspective! If our tour bus, with our families on board, were headed towards a cliff because the driver fell asleep, would you at least shout at the driver, shake and try to rouse him? Would you pull him aside and attempt to drive the bus yourself? Or would you fold your arms and calmly meet your end because you’ve shouted three times already and it didn’t work, so this bus would get no further effort from you? Even Moroni strapped on his sword and repented of not fighting for survival alongside his Nephite brethren.

    I quote Hugh Nibley:

    “In this crucible of wickedness the true greatness of Mormon shines like a star as he calls his son to action, telling him that no matter how bad things are, we must never stop trying to do what we can to improve matters, ‘for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay’ (Moroni 9:6). In this spirit Mormon took over command of the army even when he knew that all was lost, ‘for they looked upon me as though I could deliver them from their afflictions. But behold, I was without hope’ (Mormon 5:1-2). His is the predicament of the true tragic hero: ‘I had led them, notwithstanding their wickedness, . . . and had loved them . . . with all my heart; and my soul had been poured out in prayer unto my God all the day long for them; nevertheless, it was without faith, because of the hardness of their hearts’ (Mormon 3:12).” (Since Cumorah, p. 400)

    Moroni took the path of a true patriot. We are without excuse when we refuse to work for the benefit of our society and country. No matter what your perceptions are, and I do not share them, be man enough to die with your boots on.

  11. September 8, 2015 at 2:12 am

    Fair enough, Nathaniel. :-)

  12. September 8, 2015 at 7:27 am

    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.

    Sure, but don’t discount the role of election methods in influencing outcomes. For example, when Americans think “voting” they most likely assume (unconsciously) a single-member district plurality voting system, which in addition to producing clear winners and promoting geographic representation, encourages strategic voting, discourages third parties and the constituents they would represent (minorities, etc.), wastes votes and lowers voter turnout–even before the “irresponsible prejudices” of individual voters come into play.

  13. Ryan
    September 8, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    “As a libertarian, he should be more familiar with Hayek’s idea of spontaneous order (equivalent to the modern concept of emergence). ”

    There’s nothing inconsistent here. In the case of elections, the individual vote has no effect on the order that emerges; an understanding of emergent order does not by itself make voting rational.

    Basically you haven’t made a case that any individual Mormon should vote; you’ve just made the case that “Mormons” should vote. You still haven’t grappled with the question of how it can be my “duty” to do something that has zero consequence.

  14. September 8, 2015 at 9:09 pm


    Basically you haven’t made a case that any individual Mormon should vote; you’ve just made the case that “Mormons” should vote. You still haven’t grappled with the question of how it can be my “duty” to do something that has zero consequence.

    On that point, you are absolutely correct. I’m still working on that one. When it’s ready, I’ll post that as a separate piece (probably at Difficult Run).

  15. September 9, 2015 at 12:13 am

    Since you find the cost of the individual of going to the voting booth to be an irrationally high cost, what happens to your model for Washington state where all of the voting is by mail? We get an voter packet, and my wife and I spend all of the time we want going over all of the issues, while filling in our ballots. And then during the next trip the library drop them off.

  16. stephenchardy
    September 9, 2015 at 11:06 am

    My son recently finished his mission in Europe. There, during the last Presidential election, the missionaries were strongly encouraged to vote. It was made a very high priority. My son thought that this was bizzare. Missionaries were, by mission policy, uninformed on political matters, and were instructed in general to be uninformed. They don’t read newspapers or watch the news, and they avoid political discussions. The general missionary policy is to be un-involved in political matters. A missionary’s political understanding would come to a halt at the time of their entrance into the MTC. My son wondered why voting was so important, as a missionary. Was it a way to bolster Mitt Romney? (My son thinks that this was the reason.) My theory is that it had to do with political representation in Utah, where it was observed that Utah would have received another US representative IF missionaries, serving outside of Utah, but still with their permanent address in Utah, were included in the census. In any case: Why ask missionaries, who are by policy uninformed, to vote?

  17. IDIAT
    September 9, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    You may be right. Sometimes voting doesn’t make any difference. By the same token, neither does home teaching or any number of things we do in life. But, we do them anyway. I hardly think, as eternity plays out, that we’ll regret the time we spent doing so.

  18. Geoff - Aus
    September 10, 2015 at 2:56 am

    Just for your information. In Australia voting is mandatory. But we also have optional preferential voting. Which means you can choose to either vote for the person you want to win, or vote the candidates in the order you want . So you might vote for a candidate you think will not win but you like and your vote will still count when it gets to someone who is in the final 2.

    We do not vote for our prime minister. We vote for our local member, and the leader of whichever party has the most seats is leader


  19. September 10, 2015 at 7:10 am

    I will vote when there is someone worth voting for.

Comments are closed.