Monday, November 06, 2006

The Duty to Vote

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, voting time is here – in the United States that is.

Shortly, I am going to argue that there is no moral obligation to vote. I have no doubt that we will be treated tomorrow to all sorts of pundits and commentators lamenting low voter turnout and declaring how shameful it is that so few Americans can be bothered to go to the polls (or use any of the alternative methods available for casting a vote). I am going to argue that their lament is misplaced – it is perfectly acceptable not to vote.

However, before I do that, I would like to encourage all of my American readers who are eligible to vote to do so. This election contains an issue that I think is of particular importance. This concerns the possibility of getting a Senate that is willing to block President Bush’s continuing efforts to theocratize the court system – particularly the Supreme Court. Readers in any state where there is a Senate election, or readers who know of anybody who can vote in such a state, are encouraged to take action to block this outcome.

Now, having said that, my next step is to argue that there is nothing particularly wrong with deciding not to vote.

I want to begin my argument with two points that I brought up during the weekend’s discussion on moral theory.

Rational Ignorance Applied

The first point to bring to bear on this issue is one of ‘rational ignorance’. None of us can know everything. In fact, given the huge amount of knowledge laying around to be had, each of us must pick an extremely small subset of that knowledge for himself. Every moment we spend learning one thing deprives us of the opportunity to learn something else.

Yesterday, I decided to pick up a new book to read. I had millions of titles to choose from. I looked at options on moral theory, on space travel, and on World War II history. I finally selected a book on economics. In picking up that one book, I decided that I was going to learn the small speck of knowledge contained within its covers, leaving millions of volumes of other potential knowledge untouched.

For all practical purposes, I can represent the set of information on political candidates or ballot issues as one more book in this virtually limitless stack of books that I have available to choose from. On this model, I suggest that it is absurd to think that the book, “local candidates and ballot initiatives” is always going to be the most rational choice for reading material for everybody in the country. Putting it beside all of the other sets of facts that are available to learn, it is seldom going to make it to the top of the list.

One of the things working against the value of learning this particular set of facts is that the information is practically worthless. It is extremely unlikely that the voter/student can do anything useful with the knowledge. In any given election, chances are that the outcome would be no different even if the voter did not vote.

In other words, pouring resources into learning campaign information is like buying a lottery ticket. Changes are, you will gain nothing for your efforts. There is a small chance that your vote can influence a minor election. The larger the election, the smaller the chance that your one vote will have any effect.

Also, much like playing the lottery, it may be far more rational investing your education resources in something that can provide long-term benefits. A computer programmer may be better off choosing to remain ignorant of campaign facts so that she can spend more time studying to get certification that can qualify her for a high-paying job. A basket ball player can better invest his time practicing to play basketball. A writer will be better off writing than he would looking at campaign material.

In addition, we must factor in the fact that a huge amount of campaign material is simply deceptive and dishonest. The person who studies this stuff is learning nothing about the real world – other than the fact that the real world contains these samples of deception.

Responsibility and Recklessness

The second principle that applies to the so-called obligation to vote is the idea of recklessness. If a person puts on a blindfold, gets behind the wheel of a car, and starts driving, he is unlikely to actually to do more than inflict some property damage. At worst, he may kill or maim a small number of people.

Put a reckless person in a ballot box and he can kill, maim, or destroy the lives of millions of people with one reckless vote.

The Bush Administration is evidence enough of this. Quite a few reckless voters managed to vote away the lives and health of their husbands, sons, nephews, best friends, and themselves.

To see these votes as reckless, all we have to do is to imagine the damage that would have been done to Islamic extremists if the United States had instead launched a war against oil imports – investing $100 billion per year in a campaign to convert the country to other forms of energy. In addition, this same $350 billion (so far) would have also likely gone to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting the investments of those who own property threatened to be destroyed with sea-level rise.

The moral crime of reckless voting implies that there is no way to escape the costs of casting an informed vote. If there is an obligation to vote, then it must be interpreted as an obligation to invest the resources necessary to avoid being guilty of reckless voting. This must mean an obligation not to learn whatever the agent could have learned if he had not been obligated to invest those resources in learning about candidates and ballot issues.

If one insists on drinking, one has an obligation not to drive. If one insists on doing things other than learning about candidates and ballot issues, then one has an obligation not to vote.

Other Considerations

There are, of course, other reasons to learn about the issues that will show up on a ballot or about a candidate. However, there are other reasons to do a great many things – such as learn CPR or study marketing (to name a couple of examples). The idea that the sum of all reasons will always put informed voting at the top of every person’s list is improbable. There are only so many things that one can accomplish in the course of a day.

However . . . if I may offer one last factor to consider . . . many of the people who do have time to consider these things are those for whom it is profitable to consider these things – people who have cash value riding on the results of an election, or value in terms of power either to benefit themselves, or to do harm to those they wish to harm.

It is not as if casting an intelligent vote is expensive, but casting no vote is free.

Not voting comes with a price tag as well.

No comments: