Archive | Democracy

Peter Orszag’s Case for Compulsory Voting

In a recent op ed, former Obama adviser and Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag argues that the the United States should make voting compulsory:

The U.S. prides itself as the beacon of democracy, but it’s very likely no U.S. president has ever been elected by a majority of American adults.

It’s our own fault — because voter participation rates are running below 60 percent, a candidate would have to win 85 percent or more of the vote to be elected by a majority.

Compulsory voting, as exists in Australia and more than two dozen other countries, would fix that problem. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, “Jury duty is mandatory; why not voting?”

Mandating voting has a clear effect: It raises participation rates. Before Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924, for example, it had turnout rates similar to those of the U.S. After voting became mandatory, participation immediately jumped from 59 percent in the election of 1922 to 91 percent in the election of 1925.

Orszag’s proposal and others like it are potentially harmful solutions to a non-problem. There is no evidence that nations with compulsory voting are, as a result, better governed than those where voting is voluntary. As Tim Cavanaugh points out, the former category includes many states such as Argentina, Lebanon, Egypt, Congo, and others that are hardly paragons of civic virtue. By contrast, one of the few democracies that has even lower turnout rates than the United States is Switzerland, which is widely considered one of the best-governed nations in the world. I am not suggesting that low turnout is the cause of Switzerland’s success; but it certainly hasn’t inhibited it. Orszag himself admits that most political scientists believe that the outcomes of US elections over the last [...]

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Cognitive Enhancement and Political Equality

Over the next several decades, it is possible that genetic engineering and other cognitive enhancements could significantly increase human intelligence. However, as Ronald Bailey points out, critics on both the right and the left worry that this will undermine political equality:

[N]eoconservatives fear biotechnology’s implications for human equality. In his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, for example, Francis Fukuyama asserted, “The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality.”

This concern about human equality is the basis for a strange-bedfellow alliance with left-wing critics of biotechnological progress such as Marcy Darnovsky, co-founder of the Center for Genetics and Society. “The techno-eugenic vision urges us, in case we still harbor vague dreams of human equality and solidarity, to get over them,” wrote Darnovsky and environmental activist Tom Athanasiou in World Watch magazine back in July 2002. The two fear that advances in biotechnology will “allow inequality to be inscribed in the human genome.”

This is a very weak reason to oppose biotechnological enhancement of intelligence. Cognitive inequality is already “inscribed in the human genome.” There is a huge difference in intellectual ability between a person with an IQ of 150 and one with an IQ of 75. And there are already massive differences in political knowledge between different individuals and groups (many of them not caused by genetics), some of which I discuss in this article. Political theorists such as John Stuart Mill argued that these differences justify giving the more knowledgeable extra voting power long before anyone ever heard of genetic engineering.

If the case for political equality can be sustained at all, it must be on the basis that people qualify for it by meeting a certain minimum threshold of cognitive ability, not on [...]

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George Orwell on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Bryan Caplan has a interesting post on George Orwell’s portrayal of democracy in his classic work Animal Farm. As Bryan notes, the initially egalitarian and democratic regime established by the animals gets subverted in large part because of political ignorance. Like Bryan, I would be interested to know more about Orwell’s view of real-world democracy. Did he believe that the problem of political ignorance could be overcome by education or some other means? Or perhaps he thought that the problem of ignorance was irremediable, but democracy was still the best form of government. Given that he remained a socialist to the end of his life, Orwell obviously could not adopt my and Bryan’s preferred solution of limiting and decentralizing government in order to mitigate the problem.

It’s also interesting to note that Orwell’s portrayal of democracy at Animal Farm was actually far more positive than the Soviet history he based the novel on. Unlike Animal Farm, the USSR was a brutal totalitarian state from the start and was never democratic. Opposition parties (including even left-wing socialist ones) were suppressed from the beginning, and there were never any free elections or any direct democracy of the kind Orwell depicts.

I’m not sure whether Orwell deviated from Soviet history on this point in order to make a statement about democracy or because he was in thrall to the view (common among anti-Stalinist Western leftists in his day) that the Soviet experiment only went awry under Stalin. His modestly favorable portrayal of Snowball – the pig who serves as an analogue to Trotsky – is compatible with the latter idea, though Snowball is not a completely positive figure in the novel. Some degree of rot is evident even in the “pre-Stalinist” era at Animal Farm, though the animals are described as [...]

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Radical Islamists Make Gains in Egypt

Back in January, I expressed the fear that the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship in Egypt might lead to a new regime that is as bad or worse than the old. I gave two reasons why this could happen: Illiberal forces in Egypt, especially radical Islamists, are much better organized than liberal democrats, and majority public opinion in Egypt is also highly illiberal, which creates the possibility of Islamists coming to power by democratic means.

The first round of the recent Egyptian elections, where Islamist parties got over 60% of the vote, at least partially substantiates these concerns. To be sure, two thirds of that went to the Muslim Brotherhood, the more “moderate” of the two Islamist parties. However, Islamist hardliners have more influence in the Brotherhood than more moderate “reformers.”

If the Islamists come to power and adopt repressive policies, it’s possible that they could be voted out in a future election. But this assumes that they will allow continue to hold competitive elections and allow opposition parties to operate freely. Unfortunately, it is all too likely that a radical Islamist regime would use the powers of the state to suppress opposition and ensure that it could never be voted out, as has happened in Iran. A democratically elected Islamist government could easily end up as a political system where there is “one man, one vote, one time.”

It is far from inevitable that Egypt will end up with a radical Islamist government. Perhaps the still-powerful Egyptian military will prevent it, or perhaps more liberal forces within and outside the Muslim Brotherhood will get stronger. The early indications, however, are not very positive. [...]

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More Evidence of the Repressive Nature of the New Egyptian Government

In a recent post, I cited evidence suggesting that the new Egyptian government is degenerating into a military dictatorship at least as bad as the Mubarak regime that was overthrown earlier this year. Jeff Jacoby compiles some additional relevant points:

[T]he “spirit of Tahrir Square’’ has ushered in neither liberal democracy nor a rebirth of tolerance for Egypt’s ancient but beleaguered Christian minority.

One of the country’s leading liberal reformers, Ayman Nour, said Monday that with the latest bloodshed, the military has lost whatever goodwill it accrued last spring. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces almost surely doesn’t care. In the eight months since Mubarak’s ouster, the military has tried and convicted some 12,000 Egyptian civilians in military tribunals, often after using torture to extract confessions. The country’s hated emergency laws, which allow suspects to be detained without charge, not only remain in force, but have been expanded to cover offenses as vague as “spreading rumors’’ or “blocking traffic.’’ And just as Mubarak did, the generals insist that government repression is all that stands between Egypt and social chaos.

As for Egypt’s Coptic Christians, their plight has gone from bad to worse. Post-Mubarak Egypt has seen “an explosion of violence against the Coptic Christian community,’’ the international news channel France 24 was reporting as far back as May. “Anger has flared up into deadly riots, and houses, shops, and churches have been set ablaze.’’

With Islamist hardliners growing increasingly influential, hate crimes against Christians routinely go unpunished. Copts, who represent a tenth of Egypt’s population, are subjected to appalling humiliations.

As Jacoby notes, the violence against the Coptic minority appears to enjoy substantial public support. That reality reinforces my longstanding concern that prospects for liberal democracy in Egypt are undercut by the intolerant nature of majority [...]

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Egypt Sliding into Military Dictatorship

When the revolution that eventually overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak began, I warned that the end result could easily be a government as bad or worse than Mubarak’s was. In a revolutionary situation, liberal democratic forces often get outmaneuvered by more ruthless and better-organized opponents – even if majority public opinion would prefer a liberal regime. In Egypt, I pointed out, the establishment of a repressive regime is made more likely by the fact that public opinion is in may ways extremely illiberal. Unfortunately, this fear has so far been justified by events. As Thanassis Cambanis explains in the Atlantic, the new Egyptian government is well on its way to becoming a military dictatorship in some ways more repressive than Mubarak’s regime:

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Egypt’s January 25 Revolution is being eaten alive. It’s too soon to write it off, and too soon to predict that a full-fledged military dictatorship will rule the country for the foreseeable future; but that grisly outcome now is a solid possibility, perhaps as likely an outcome as a liberal, civilian Egypt or an authoritarian republic.

Eight months after a euphoric wave of people power stunned Egypt’s complacent and abusive elite, it’s possible to see the clear outlines of the players competing to take over from Mubarak and his circle, and to assess the likely outcomes. The scorecard is distasteful. The uprising — it can’t yet be fairly termed a revolution — forced the regime to jettison its CEO, Hosni Mubarak, in order to preserve its own prerogatives.

In the last two months, that regime has made clear how strong it feels. In September, in quick succession the military extended the hated state of emergency for another year, effectively rendering any notion of rule of law in Egypt meaningless;

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Does requiring the people of a state to vote on tax increases violate the Republican Form of Government guarantee?

That’s the question raised by a lawsuit in Colorado’s federal district court, in the case of Kerr v. Hickenlooper. In an amicus brief, I suggest that the answer is “no.” The brief relies heavily on the scholarship of my Independence Institute colleague Rob Natelson, who happens to be the leading scholarly expert on the Guarantee clause.

In short, the Founders defined a “republic” to include governments such as those of ancient Athens, Carthage, and Sparta, all of which included elements of direct democracy. According to Minor v. Happersett (U.S. 1875), the decision of Congress to admit a state to the Union is conclusive proof that, at the time, the state had a Republican Form of Government. Massachusetts and Rhode Island had referenda when they were admitted. The progressive movement for initiative and referendum began in the last 19th century. Congress chose to admit Oklahoma (1907) which had very strong I&R provisions in its state constitution, and New Mexico (1911), whose statehood constitution specifically provided for the creation of a citizen initiative system.

Courts have held that the Republican Form of Government issue is not justiciable, and enforcement is up to Congress. The amicus brief, however, addresses the merits of the issue. [...]

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How Much Good Could a Good Leader Do?

Libertarians, economists, and my fellow constitutional theorists are all known for arguing that the conventional wisdom overstates the importance of individual political leaders. Instead, we emphasize the the constraining impact of institutions, public opinion, and political incentives. The structure of the system matters a lot more than the individual leader. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan, however, recently argued that a great leader could do a lot more good than most libertarians believe:

I maintain that an intelligent, wise, brave president could do enormous good. How? For starters, he could give full presidential pardons to everyone serving time for (federal) drug-related offenses. The president can’t end the drug war on his own, but he could free hordes of innocent people before his term (singular, no doubt) ran out.* And needless to say, there are plenty of other unjust laws a president could negate with blanket pardons.

The lesson: Libertarians should stop insisting that our problems are too complex for any human being to solve. Many of our problems can literally be solved with the stroke of a pen. Any intelligent, wise, brave leader who wants to solve problems faces vast orchards of low-hanging fruit. The only reason the orchards are so bountiful, unfortunately, is that people who are intelligent, wise, and brave rarely make it to the top.

Bryan’s main point is well taken. An “intelligent, wise, brave president” unconcerned about reelection could do a lot of good that conventional politicians avoid for fear that it would hurt their electoral prospects. By the same token, such a leader could also do a lot of harm, if his unpopular policies turn out to be worse than those preferred by the electorate. At the same time, as Bryan recognizes, it’s no accident that such leaders “rarely make it to the top.” The political [...]

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The Tea Party Movement and Popular Constitutionalism

My article, “The Tea Party Movement and Popular Constitutionalism,” is now available on SSRN. It is part of a recent Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy symposium on the Constitutional Politics of the Tea Party Movement. Here is the abstract:

The rise of the Tea Party movement follows a period during which many scholars have focused on “popular constitutionalism”: the involvement of public opinion and popular movements in influencing constitutional interpretation. Most of the previous scholarship on popular constitutionalism analyzed movements identified with the political left. Although the Tea Party movement is primarily composed of conservatives and libertarians, it has much in common with previous popular constitutional movements.

Part I of this Essay describes some of these similarities, focusing on the ways in which popular constitutional movements have arisen in response to social or economic crises, or major policy initiatives instituted by their opponents. Part II explains how the Tea Party movement shares key strengths and weaknesses of other popular movements. Public opinion on constitutional and policy issues is often influenced by widespread political ignorance and irrationality. The Tea Party is no exception to these trends. The evidence suggests, however, that Tea Party supporters are no more likely to be ignorant than public opinion generally, or their opponents on the political left.

Part III explains two possible advantages of one unusual feature of the Tea Party: the fact that it is the first popular constitutionalist movement in many years whose main focus is the need to limit federal power. The enormous size and scope of modern government undercuts meaningful democratic control over government policy because “rationally ignorant” voters cannot keep track of more than a small fraction of government activity. Strengthening democratic accountability is one of the main objectives of advocates of popular constitutionalism. The imposition of stricter limits on

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Upcoming Lecture on Democracy and Political Ignorance at the University of Athens

I don’t know if we have many readers in Greece. But any who may be reading this might be interested to know that I will be giving a lecture on my forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance at the University of Athens on Wednesday, May 4 at 7 PM. Details available here.

I’m really looking forward to speaking about this subject in Athens, the city where both democracy and the debate over political ignorance began. In this short article, I explain why ancient Athenian citizens were probably less ignorant than modern voters. Although much-maligned by critics such as Plato and Thucydides, the Athenian electorate may well have had a fairly impressive level of political knowledge.

You might wonder, why is my wife willing to tolerate this sort of thing on our honeymoon? It’s because she loves political theory almost as much as I do, and even read my some of work on political ignorance and related subjects before we met. She thought it would be cool to do a lecture on this subject in Athens. I am far more fortunate in my marriage than I deserve. [...]

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Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy Symposium on the Constitutional Politics of the Tea Party Movement

The Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy has posted a symposium on “The Constitutional Politics of the Tea Party Movement.” The symposium was organized by Richard Albert of Boston College, who arranged a panel on the subject at this year’s AALS conference and wrote an introduction available here. The symposium includes contributions by well-known constitutional law scholars such as co-blogger Randy Barnett, Jared Goldstein, and Sanford Levinson. My own contribution to the symposium analyzes the Tea Party Movement as an example of “popular constitutionalism.” Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

The rise of the Tea Party movement followed a period during which many academic students of constitutional law focused on “popular constitutionalism”: the involvement of public opinion and popular movements in influencing constitutional interpretation. Many of these scholars argue that popular constitutional movements have a beneficial impact on constitutional law, and some even contend that popular constitutionalism should supplant judicial review entirely….

Most of the previous scholarship on popular constitutionalism focuses on movements identified with the political left, such as the civil rights movement…. Although the Tea Party movement is primarily composed of conservatives and libertarians, it has much in common with previous popular constitutional movements.

Part I of this Essay describes some of these similarities, focusing on the ways in which popular constitutional movements have arisen in response to social or economic crises, or major policy initiatives instituted by their opponents. Part II explains how the Tea Party movement shares key strengths and weaknesses of other popular movements. For example, public opinion on constitutional and policy issues is often influenced by widespread political ignorance and irrationality. There also tends to be a conflation of constitutional and policy preferences. The Tea Party is no exception to these trends. The evidence suggests, however, that Tea Party supporters

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The Anti-War Movement and Democratic Political Fans

The Wall Street Journal website has an interesting summary of a recent study tracing the decline of the anti-war movement over the last few years, despite the deepening involvement of the United States in multiple wars:

President Obama inherited two wars, neither of which has ended—and the United States is now involved in military action in Libya—yet the anti-war movement has all but vanished. Why?

The answer, according to a new research article, has to do with the complex relationship between non-partisan activists and those who identify as Democrats. In short, many antiwar Democrats saw the election of President Barack Obama as a sufficient victory for their cause and withdrew from the streets.

The researchers conducted 5,398 surveys at 27 antiwar protests from January 2007 through December 2009. They also interviewed movement leaders and conducted ethnographic observations. The largest protest during that period occurred on Jan. 27, 2007, and drew over 100,000 people, by the researchers’ count. By October 2009, however, protests were drawing mere hundreds (which is about where they’ve remained).

What changed? During the period studied, the proportion of protesters who identified themselves as Democrats dropped from about 50% to roughly 20%. The rest of the protesters identified with no party or, less often, a third party. The proportion of third-party activists grew over time.

Both the Democratic Party and the antiwar movement gained advantages from their interaction, the researchers argue. But Democrats viewed the election of President Obama as a victory per se, while nonpartisan protesters were more attuned to policy continuities. Such continuities as—well, the wars not ending, and the one in Afghanistan escalating.

As I have explained elsewhere, many people, especially committed partisans, tend to act as “political fans”: processing political information in a highly biased way that overvalues anything that confirms their [...]

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Should Ignorant Voters Be Excluded From the Franchise?

CNN columnist L.Z. Granderson recently argued that ignorant voters should be excluded from the franchise:

Should ignorant people be allowed to vote?

A provocative question for sure; however, I’m not bringing it up for shock value, but rather to give us all pause.

If I were to ask you to ingest an unknown medicine from someone who knew nothing about the medical field, you probably wouldn’t do it. And I doubt many of us would feel comfortable as a shareholder in a company that asked people who knew nothing about business to hire its next CEO?

Yet we all know people who gleefully admit they know nothing about politics, don’t have time to find out what the current issues are or even know how the government works, but go out and vote. Want to know why it seems Washington is run by a bunch of idiots? Blame this hiccup in our political system for starters. What’s a solution? Weed out some of the ignorant by making people who want to vote first pass a test modeled on the one given to those who want to become citizens….

In a recent CNN poll, more than a third of the people questioned wanted to see cuts in military spending, which is a good debate to have. The problem is the poll also revealed most Americans think the military takes up 30 percent of the budget when in reality it’s 19 percent. If we don’t know how much money is being spent, how can we intelligently say it’s too much? And what to make of the 20 percent of folks polled who believe public broadcasting represents 10 percent of the budget, when it’s more like a 10th of 1 percent?

I’m not suggesting someone needs to be a Rhodes scholar to vote.


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Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting

I recently had a chance to read an advance copy of Brown philosophy professor Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting. Although I have a few reservations about Brennan’s arguments, I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in democracy, political theory, or the problem of voter ignorance. It may well be the best book ever on the moral obligations of voters.

Since democracy first began in ancient Greece, scholars have debated the strengths and weaknesses of democratic institutions. But much less attention has been paid to the moral obligations entailed by the act of voting itself. In modern times, the default assumption is that it is perfectly ethical for voters to support any candidate for any reason they want. Voting is implicitly considered an element of individual autonomy, much like choosing what food to eat or what clothes to wear.

Brennan argues that this conventional wisdom is mistaken. He contends that voters have an obligation to become informed about the policy issues at stake in an election and should try hard to evaluate the information they learn in an unbiased way. This is because voting decisions affect not only the individual voter, but all of society. Voting is not just a personal choice. As John Stuart Mill emphasized, it is the “exercise of power over others.” Brennan also argues that voters should focus on policy issues, not just on the candidates’ “character.” A person of good character can still end up adopting terrible policies if elected to office. Think of Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush. Furthermore, Brennan explains why voters should try to choose on the basis of what’s best for society as a whole rather than narrow individual self-interest. His argument on this point is subtle. But the core insight is that it is [...]

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Canadian Party Leaders’ Debate May be Postponed to Avoid Conflict with an NHL Playoff Game

Canada is in the midst of an important election campaign. Many important issues are at stake, including the state of the Canadian economy, crucial foreign policy decisions, and others. Nonetheless, the leaders of most of the contending parties have asked for the postponement of an upcoming debate between them to avoid a schedule conflict with a Montreal Canadiens’ first-round playoff game:

A move is afoot to reschedule a federal election debate slated for Thursday so it doesn’t conflict with the opening game of the Montreal Canadiens’ first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe got the ball rolling Sunday by saying there’s little doubt hockey-mad Montreal fans will choose the game over the debate.

NDP Leader Jack Layton later echoed those sentiments, the Liberals followed suit, and the Conservatives said they could live with whatever the debate broadcasters decide.

Bloc leader Duceppe wants other party leaders to join him in urging the consortium of broadcasters who organize the debate to move it back a day….

“We all know that hockey is very popular in Canada and in Quebec, which is why it would be a better idea to push the French debate back to allow hockey fans to watch the debate as well as the game on Thursday night.”

As a longtime Boston Bruins fan, I’m well aware of how popular hockey is in Quebec. At the same time, I’m sure that most Canadian voters recognize that the election is ultimately more important than the outcome of a hockey game, especially one that is merely a first-round playoff matchup. Why, then, would most of them tune in to the game instead of the debate?

The obvious answer is that the game is likely to be far more entertaining. But that still doesn’t fully explain the situation. [...]

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