A federal government that spends 50 percent of its budget on “waste,” 30 percent on foreign aid and 10 percent on public pensions. A president who is both secretly a Muslim and a socialist. A Congress that can repeal a law — in this case, the 2009 health care reform — simply by a majority vote of one chamber.
This, according to substantial numbers of Americans, is our government.
And if that scares you, consider this: Regardless of whether you believe the facts above, you are allowed — even encouraged — to vote.
But should you? Not everyone thinks so.
Polls have shown routinely that large numbers of Americans know very little about how our political system works. And it’s not just a lack of factual knowledge — Americans’ skewed understanding of how the government functions (or fails to function) also influences their proposals for how to fix it.
Take, for example, foreign aid. When asked what percentage of the budget the government should spend on international assistance, most Americans said about 10 percent. That may seem like a fair proposal, but consider this: As it stands now, the government only spends about one percent of its budget on aid to other countries. Americans seem to vastly inflate how much the government spends on foreign aid. Some said it comprised as much as 30 percent of the budget — which is why they suggested “cutting” it down to 13 percent.
The same problem surfaces when pollsters ask Americans how they would solve the country’s spiraling debt crisis. Many say they would simply slash “waste” and discretionary spending from the federal budget, but would safeguard cherished entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. They also, by and large, oppose tax increases.
But earmarks, public pensions and other types of “wasteful” spending comprise a mere sliver of the $14 trillion national debt. To get that number down, receipts from tax revenues will have to go up and outlays for expensive programs will have to go down. To make real progress in cutting the deficit, Americans will have to decide which tax hikes they can stomach and which services they can live without.
First, though, they’ll have to find out how much those services actually cost.
And if you can’t bother to do that, says author Jason Brennan, you should probably just stay home on Election Day.
“If most voters decide, ‘We don’t know anything, we’re just going to kind of choose whatever we find emotionally appealing,’ then they’re imposing that upon other people,” said Brennan, a professor of political philosophy at Brown University. “And not only are they imposing it upon other people, they’re imposing it literally at gunpoint.”
Brennan is the author of “The Ethics of Voting,” a new book that questions the conventional belief that voting is a civic duty, and that a person’s vote is sacrosanct. Brennan argues that voting is more than just an expression of personal preferences (Do I support reproductive rights? Do I oppose gay marriage?). Voting, according to Brennan, is actually a decision about how other people should live. And that, he says, makes it a “pretty hardcore ethical situation.”
“When I’m at a restaurant deciding what to eat, I’m deciding for myself. I choose to have a hamburger, I’m the person who lives with the consequences. If it’s overly fatty, I get fat, you don’t get fat. If it causes heart disease, I get it, not you,” Brennan said. “When we’re voting, we are imposing costs upon one another. We’re not just deciding for ourselves.”
And because of that, Brennan argues, there is no moral obligation to vote — in fact, not everyone should vote. “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,” Brennan said. “I think it’s sort of morally optional. If you do it well, it’s praiseworthy, but it’s not anything special.”
The point isn’t merely that you should feel free to stop reading newspapers or paying attention to elections when they roll around. As Brennan put it, misinformed choices at the ballot box have harmful consequences for society, and we’re all forced to live with those consequences. So we need to reconsider what voting is, and who should do it.
Of course, deciding whether you are qualified to vote is a tricky thing. Because we tend to view facts and evidence through the prism of our political ideology, we’re unlikely to be swayed by the argument that we shouldn’t vote because our beliefs are “unfounded,” or that they’re “contradicted by evidence.” We view the evidence however we want to view it. Some voters even seem to pride themselves on their ignorance.
That, Brennan says, is “irrational.” In a way, it’s like driving drunk.
“When you’re driving drunk, if there’s a kid crossing the street, like in a crosswalk, you have an obligation to stop, not to hit the child. However, because you’re drunk, you might be unable to even notice that there’s a child there, and you just smash right into him,” Brennan said. “It might be that voters are kind of like that too. They have this obligation not to do the equivalent of ‘crashing’ — they have an obligation to vote well. But they’re in sort of an ‘intoxicated state’ when it comes to assessing themselves and their own character as political agents. So they have a hard time figuring out whether they should vote or not.”
Brennan restricts his book specifically to a discussion of the moral permissibility of voting — whether you’re acting unethically if you vote based not on a rational assessment of the facts but for emotional or ideological reasons. But Brennan confessed that, since writing the book, he has become more sympathetic to the idea that we should simply forbid some people from voting if they are “unqualified” to do so.
If we were to stick with the drunk driving analogy, for example, we might view the right to vote in the same way we view the right to drive. If you’re unqualified to drive — if you haven’t proven that you can do it safely and responsibly, with low risk to other drivers — you don’t get a license. And if you’re unqualified to go to the polls — if you’re misinformed and incurious, if you dismiss all evidence that contradicts your partisan ideology — you don’t get the right to vote.
“Since writing ‘The Ethics of Voting,’ I’ve actually become more sympathetic to the idea that maybe people should be formally excluded from voting,” Brennan said.
Of course, there are obvious dangers implicit in this view, as Brennan admits. Special interests, for example, might co-opt the voting process to exclude those who won’t support their agenda. Incumbents might bar voters who are likely to oust them from office. And literacy and comprehension tests have an ugly history dating back to the Jim Crow era, when they were used to disenfranchise African-Americans. That led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Regardless, Brennan’s work prompts a reconsideration of voting as an act with serious social consequences, rather than a simple expression of personal preferences. Voting may indeed be like drinking and driving: Even if we’re allowed to do it, we may nonetheless want to heed Brennan’s warning and “vote responsibly.”