Not voting could be public good

I’ve suggested in jest that people ought to have a comprehension test before they’re allowed to vote but Anti Dismal  has found some academic support for the contention that if you can’t vote intelligently you shouldn’t vote at all.

Brown University philosopher Jason Brennan has written a paper entitled: Polluting the Polls: When Citizens Shouldn’t Vote.

Just because one has the right to vote does not mean just any vote is right.  Citizens should not vote badly.  This duty to avoid voting badly is grounded in a general duty not to engage in collectively harmful activities when the personal cost of restraint is low.  Good governance is a public good.  Bad governance is a public bad.  We should not be contributing to public bads when the benefit to ourselves is low.  Many democratic theorists agree that we shouldn’t vote badly, but that’s because they think we should vote well.  This demands too much of citizens.  

Will Wilkinson interviewed Brennan and then wrote:

People should be public-spirited, and act with the common good in mind. When enough people vote badly–from ignorance or bias, for example–the result is often bad policy. The quality of policy matters to the public good. Higher-quality democratic decisions, and better policy, can be secured if bad voters choose to abstain. Because the personal cost of not voting badly is so low, a public-spirited person shouldn’t do it. And it seems that a lot of people are quite likely to vote badly. So there are many people who, if they care about the common good, ought to choose not to vote.

That would be one way to get rid of New Zealand First’s support.

However, I can see a couple of difficulties with this proposition: if you’re too ignorant to vote you’re probably too ignorant to realise it; and what one person regards as voting in ignorance may well be regarded as voting intelligently by another.

5 Responses to Not voting could be public good

  1. Mr Dennis says:

    I personally feel there is a small proportion of the country that is well-informed about politics, maybe 20-30%. It is the votes of these that the minor parties fight over, although some of them vote for National and Labour too of course.

    The rest of the votes come from people who are less informed about or less interested in politics – not unable to vote intelligently, just not interested enough in politics to take the time to figure out who best to vote for. It is these people who always vote National or Labour just because they always have without considering (or even knowing) current policies, or pick between National or Labour depending on the general “mood” without considering the other parties, or vote Green because it sounds environmental without considering their policies at all. Few of these vote for minor parties (except possibly Green, or NZ First), simply because they don’t know anything about these parties.

    If the people who are not really interested in politics stopped voting, National and Labour’s votes would plummet, and the minor parties share would all increase to some degree.

    We have found in South Auckland that many people just vote Labour because they and their parents always have, believing they are good for families and “the working man”. When they come to see what Labour has actually been doing over the past 9 years they are shocked, and many are interested in supporting The Family Party instead.


  2. stef says:

    many are interested in supporting The Family Party instead.
    In that case perhaps ignorance is bliss but I do so love that you call yourself the Family Party when nothing that you advocate has anything to do with anything me or my family believe in or want.

    As for the main part of this post. I like to think of myself as an educated voter but am still considering staying home this election because I am not overwhelmed with the electoral choices on offer for people of my political persuasion. But you’ve got to have faith that for every non-informed voter out there, there are also people making considered decisions.


  3. Mr Dennis says:

    Stef, what do you want, and what do you believe we advocate?

    Our policies are designed to support families through a lower, flatter tax structure, GST off essential items such as basic staple food, trusting parents to look after their own children by choosing to smack if they like and through education funding following the child so parents are in charge of where their child is schooled. Just a small selection.

    How can you say “nothing that you advocate has anything to do with anything me or my family believe in or want”, are you in favour of higher taxes and government telling parents how to discipline their children?


  4. […] But the knowledge that 33% still don’t udnerstand it’s the party vote that counts give some credence to the this morning’s post about it being better if some people didn’t vote. […]


  5. […] more evidence that some people would be performing a public service if they didn’t […]


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