don’t vote

In modern democracies, election seasons are often accompanied by public-service campaigns designed to encourage citizens to turn up at the polls and vote; regardless of one’s political leanings, it seems, it is important that one votes for something. In some countries, governments go so far as to legally require voting.

These campaigns are a terrible idea. Most voters have no idea what is going on–they may not even know who their leaders are, and certainly do not know who is the best candidate. Imagine that someone asks you for directions to a local restaurant. If you have no idea where the restaurant is, you should not make it up. You should not tell the person some guess that seems sort of plausible to you. You should tell them you don’t know and let them get directions from someone more knowledgeable.

Ignorant voting is even worse than ignorant giving of directions, because voting is an exercise of political power (albeit a very small one)–to vote for a policy is not only to make a recommendation, but to request that the policy be imposed on others by force. Collectively, the majority imposes policies or personnel choices on the rest of society. To be justified in participating in any such imposition, one must have some strong justification for thinking that the policy or personnel choice is beneficial. This justification is almost always lacking for the great majority of voters. In the great majority of cases, therefore, voting not only fails to qualify as a civic duty; it is positively immoral.

One might suggest that citizens have an obligation to become informed, and then vote. But becoming sufficiently informed to know who is the best candidate in a given election is typically extremely difficult. Indeed, it is not implausible to think that for most people and most elections, the task is actually impossible–no matter how much they study, most voters still will not know who the best candidate is, and may not even attain a reasonably high-probability guess. Even if it is not impossible, discovering who is the best candidate is clearly very onerous. It is therefore unreasonable to demand that an individual undertake the enormous costs of acquiring this knowledge, merely to secure a probability of, say, one in ten million of producing a modest benefit for society.

In short, it is most plausible to say that individuals have no obligation to vote, and that if they are ill-informed (as nearly all citizens are), they are obligated not to vote.

“In Praise of Passivity”, by Mike Huemer. (hat tip to st_rev for this essay)

Happy election day!