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Should We Limit Our Liberty to Vote?


Let’s think of liberty as the absence of government coercion. You are at liberty to continue reading this or not, or to do a host of other things.


However, some activities are beyond your liberty, such as attempting to take the firearm from the police officer standing in front of you in line at Chipotle. That won’t end well for you. Or failing to pay your taxes. You may get away with that one, but you might not, and eventually they will force compliance on threat of punishment.


Depending on the laws of the land in which you reside, you will enjoy a certain amount of liberty.


Or not enjoy. See, too much liberty is bad for us.


Imagine a world of total liberty - no government coercion at all. This is Walking Dead world. Sure, in such a world you might argue that mini pseudo-governments crop up to try to enforce some rules for the good of a tribe (if you’re a fan of the show, think the Governor, Rick, and Negan as rule creators and enforcers), but there is no overarching body of power to adjudicate between groups with competing interests. And in this world, my liberty isn’t worth that much. What does it matter that I am free to grow whatever crops I want, when at nearly no consequence to their actions, marauders could come and steal those crops and murder me and my family?


So, reason would have us concoct a government structure that actually limits our liberty - for our own good! But, how much to limit? This is one way of distilling most political disagreement, at least when it comes to policy.


Consider the political liberties of voting and running/holding public office. We can ask the same question here with the same motivation. Should these liberties be limited, and to what extent, for the purpose of securing the goods that we want?


Suffrage has fluctuated in America’s history, and if I’m not mistaken, is at its most broad inclusion. We still have some limits though, such as age and felon-status.


But, we can ask “Is this broad dispersal of voting rights getting us the goods we ALL actually want?”


You’d want to know a few things to assess this question well:

  • What are the goods we ALL actually want?

  • What percentage of eligible voters actually vote?

  • How do voters vote? Are they informed and rational?

  • Would any alternative suffrage policy be better at securing the goods we ALL actually want?

  • Is there something intrinsically good or just about our current democratic voting structure that would trump alternatives that may be a bit instrumentally better?


Entire shelves of libraries are filled with addressing each of these. We can’t do that well in one blog post. But, an hour-ish conversation with a professor in political philosophy could be a good start!


Our guest this week, Dr. Jason Brennan, has written a book called Against Democracy that explores the above questions at length. In our conversation, we discuss the philosophical arguments for democracy and whether they are sound, the profile of the average voter (spoiler, it’s depressing), and whether alternatives to democracy are any good.


The family of alternatives that Jason entertains most is epistocracy, the rule of the knowers. We discuss the question, “Would we get the goods we ALL actually want if we restricted our voting in some way to prefer those who were genuinely informed about relevant ideas?”


You can check out the episode “Should We Ditch Democracy?” on Youtube or on your favorite podcatcher.


Stay Curious!