Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why Vote?

Every citizen should vote, but most arguments for voting are baseless. Let's purge the dross from the gold.

First, from a consequentialist perspective, your vote is next to meaningless. Even if you live in Ohio or Nevada, the odds that one vote will decide the presidential election are practically nil. Your vote will not substantially help your candidate to win. So as long as you're concerned with actually making a positive difference in the world, why not, as my friend likes to say, work professionally for the same amount of time and donate the money to the Against Malaria Foundation? You could save a child's life with a cheap mosquito net instead of smearing ink onto a tiny oval and hoping that it'll marginally help a marginally better politician into office.

There are other utilitarian justifications for voting; too many, too wrong, and too boring to be enumerated fully. But here are two:
  • "Your vote will send a message." It won't. You could vote for Barack Obama after a painstaking study of his handling of the Benghazi crisis, but if the public pays any attention at all to your vote, it will only get the message that you voted for the Democrat. Also, the public won't pay attention to your vote. 
  • "Voting sets an example for other people, and encourages them to vote." So why not tell everyone you're voting, and then read a good book in the confines of the voting booth?
There's only one good utilitarian argument that I've heard for voting. "If I enjoy voting, and I get more utility from voting than from getting paid at my job, why not do it?" First of all, most people, whether they know it or not, prefer spending a day with their family than with the poll-workers in an elementary-school gymnasium. Second, as I mentioned above, as long as you're concerned with maximizing utility, you should work for the sake of African children, not egoistically indulge in sentimentalist patriotism. Most basically, the question that we're asking isn't: why do people vote? but: should I vote? So the argument from personal utility can't persuade anyone who hasn't already made up his mind to vote.

So much for consequentialism. What about a duty to our ancestors? Since revolutionary patriots, southern civil-rights activists, and female suffragists all took great risks to win us the right to republican enfranchisement, we're slighting them if we spurn their gift to us. I personally find this argument very appealing, but I also recognize that it's hard to formalize it into a moral obligation. At the least, it's not enough by itself to justify voting. After all, there are plenty of causes that our ancestors fought and died for that we despise.
Look what's behind Dr. King!
 (My grandmother's photograph.)
Unfortunately, we're going to have to resort to a pre-1970s way of thinking in order to justify voting. Go home unfed, ye econ majors and relativists!

Voting is simply part of being a decent citizen. Whether by the grace of God or our own determination, we live on a continent where we have the power to choose our own government. And as intelligent, probing people, it's on us to use our prudence to collectively make sure that that government is responsible. This isn't a utilitarian responsibility; we shouldn't be under any illusions that our marginal voice will actually improve any policy. Nor is it a formally moral responsibility; it's still far more important that we give to charity. It's the kind of responsibility that we might have on a camping trip (like this one) to wash the dishes. Everything will be fine if we don't, and no one will mind, either; but if no one does it, we'll end up with a worse result. The proper response to this tragedy of the commons is to act responsibly. Call it the "don't be a cynical cretin" rule.

What if neither candidate is responsible? Then make the best of it.

We might call this, as some have, a Kantian approach: if no one voted, or if substantially fewer citizens voted for responsible candidates, the country would be worse for it. So be it, but although he's helpful in everyday situations like this, I don't think that anyone outside of a university has thought along Kantian lines in a century. I think we can justify voting without discussing the Categorical Imperative.

A better writer than me has stated this principle better. Or, to quote one of my favorite documents:

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Unfortunately, the casuistry of the last half-century has destroyed this kind of thinking. Alas!

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