The Morality of Political Ignorance

Whenever we have an election, pundits and politicians wax eloquent about the supposed need to increase voter turnout. Much less attention is paid to the question of whether the people going to the polls actually understand the issues they’re voting on.

In conjunction with the upcoming Canadian election, political philosopher Jason Brennan, author of the excellent new book The Ethics of Voting, takes aim at this oversight:

Before Canadians head once again to the polls, they should do their homework. This election is an opportunity to make Canada even better, but it’s also a chance to make it worse. Bad decisions at the polls can lead to increased poverty, a stagnant economy, lost opportunities, worse pollution or unjust wars….

Casting an informed vote is hard. Knowing what the problems are is not enough, because the solutions to Canada’s problems are not obvious. Reading parties’ platforms is not enough. Knowing what policies the different political parties favour is not enough, because a voter needs to know which policies have any real shot of working. The Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and others each want Canada to be healthier, happier and stronger. They’re like doctors each offering different prescriptions to cure Canada’s illnesses. Some of these prescriptions will work, some will have no effect and some will make Canada sicker. Voters need to learn how to evaluate these prescriptions….

Voting is not like choosing food from a menu. If a citizen makes a bad choice about what to eat in a restaurant, she alone bears the costs of her decision. But if she makes a bad choice at the polls, she imposes the costs on everyone. Voters are not just choosing for themselves, but for all. If a restaurant offers bad food, diners can walk away or get their money back. This is not the case with public policy. Political decisions are imposed on all and enforced by law. Fellow citizens can’t just walk away from a menu full of bad policies.

Voters face some choices. They can form their beliefs about politics in a self-indulgent way. They can ignore evidence and form policy preferences based on what they find emotionally appealing. They can treat voting as a form of self-expression and ignore what damage they do. Or they can be good citizens. They can form their policy preferences by studying social scientific evidence about how institutions and policies work, and by using reliable methods of reasoning to study the issues. They can work to overcome their personal and ideological biases and choose in a smart, thoughtful way.

Unfortunately, extensive evidence shows that most voters both know very little about public policy and do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do know. Elsewhere, I have argued that such ignorance and bias is actually rational. There is only an infinitesmal chance that any one vote will be decisive. So individual voters have strong incentives to remain ignorant. But not every form of rational behavior is morally defensible. Sometimes, rational individual behavior leads to terrible collective outcomes. Consider the case of air pollution, where individuals might rationally choose not to limit their emission of dangerous pollutants because any one person’s behavior has only a tiny effect on overall air quality in the area. Widespread voter ignorance is a kind of pollution of the political system.

As Brennan notes, many people resist the idea that voters have a duty to become informed because they consider voting to be an individual right that the voter can use however he wants. But voting is not simply an individual choice. As John Stuart Mill emphasized 150 years ago, it is the the exercise of “power over others”:

The spirit of vote by ballot- the interpretation likely to be put on it in the mind of an elector- is that the suffrage is given to him for himself; for his particular use and benefit, and not as a trust for the public. . .

Now this one idea, taking root in the general mind, does a moral mischief outweighing all the good that the ballot could do, at the highest possible estimate of it. In whatever way we define or understand the idea of a right, no person can have a right (except in the purely legal sense) to power over others: every such power, which he is allowed to possess, is morally, in the fullest force of the term, a trust. But the exercise of any political function, either as an elector or as a representative, is power over others.

Like Brennan, I don’t believe that citizens have a duty to vote. Staying home on election day isn’t morally wrong. But if you do choose to go to the polls, you have a moral obligation to your fellow citizens to exercise the power of the ballot responsibly. And that means trying to become a better-informed voter and making a real effort to evaluate the information you learn in an unbiased way.