Suppose there were three options, A, B and C. Suppose you rank them as follows C > B > A. Suppose that if you choose C, there’s no chance of C obtaining. Suppose choosing B, instead, meant there was a one-in-60-million chance of B’s obtaining because you chose it. If someone were to tell me that I should choose B in order to be “effective,” I’d think it were some kind of great joke.
Whatever “effectiveness” means, one-in-60-million is way, way outside of the criteria for “effectiveness.” Choosing any option, once it’s beyond what can reasonably be described as “effective” for reasons of “being effective” is like arguing that you should throw food in the air, rather than on the ground, in order for it to reach a starving infant on the other side of the world. Sure, there’s a one-in-60-million chance that a gust of wind will take the food will turn into a hurricane will travel over the oceans and land before a starving infant, and there’s about a one-in-a-trillion chance that the earth will open up and quantomly transport the food to the other side of the world if you throw it on the ground, but if you’re going to throw your food to alleviate starvation on the other side of the world, “effectiveness” has exactly nothing to do with why you ought to pick tossing it up or throwing it down.
And so it is with this, and all other, elections. Pick a candidate for whatever reason, but don’t get suckered into “effectiveness” talk. Treat that kind of talk as it should be treated — as a great joke. And laugh with me.
If I were voting in the U.S., I’d be voting for Gary Johnson. I like Gary Johnson. I like him a lot. When it comes to determining the outcome, casting a ballot would be just as good as not casting a ballot at all — the difference between 0 and 0.00000006 is not a difference worth talking about. I wouldn’t be voting to change the outcome of the election, because I’m no fool. I’ve never voted to change any outcome of any collective decision when there are more than, say, 40 or so participants. Once my vote is beyond the one-in-40 threshold, I’m just noise, no signal.
So when I hear people tell libertarians to vote for some mainstream Republican or other, I just laugh and laugh. And when I hear progressives urging other progressives to abandon voting for Johnson or Jill Stein in favour of Obama, because that way their vote matters, I have just as hearty of a chuckle. You might as well stay at home and throw food in the air for all the good it’ll do anyone.
Tomorrow, lots and lots of Americans are going to vote. Many of them (most?) are ignorant voters. Over time, the worse the electorate, the worse the policies, the worse the political outcome. Having some kind of competence test for voting is a complete non-starter. Even if it were possible to construct a sound test of general competence, it would never pass political muster. Disenfranchisement, for whatever reason, is anathema. It is worse than a third rail.
Luckily, many people in the U.S. are aware of their ignorance. Luckily, many people volunteer not to vote. Not because it’s futile, not because they don’t like the options, but precisely because they feel it would be morally wrong for them to try to impose their ill-informed preferences on others.
It would be morally wrong to vote when you are ignorant. That is Jason Brennan’s, a colleague and friend, argument in his second-to-latest book, The Ethics of Voting. Another way of putting his thesis is that if you’re going to vote, you have an obligation to cast an informed ballot. He recently (as in two hours ago) participated in a Huffington Post live segment to provide the view. It was an irritating segment, mostly because Erol, a different participant, made no contact with Jason’s actual views when trying in vain to object to it. I think it is bad form to pretend to know what someone else is arguing, and then objecting to that. It is better form to admit that you need more information, or clarification. A lot of philosophy would be better if people asked more questions before attempting to “debunk” a view that no one has presented. Here’s the video:
Jason’s is a provocative thesis. I think I’m persuaded that it is true. The truth of the thesis can be seen when you reflect on his thesis in the following way:
Suppose you were the only elector. You get to decide who will be the president of the United States, or the prime minister of Canada. Your choice imposes a president or prime minister on all Americans or all Canadians. I think it is fairly obvious that if you had this power, you would have the obligation to become very well-informed before choosing for others. Politics is high stakes, after all. The consequences of your choice are significant, and your decision impacts other people, people who do not consent to having this leader.
Something (sufficiently) similar happens in actual elections, with very many people voting. Each of the people who vote are choosing not just for themselves, but for everyone. Whenever you’re making a choice for other people, you have an obligation to become sufficiently informed. So, if you’re ignorant, you shouldn’t vote.
That’s Brennan’s argument. I think I am now comfortable joining the Brennan camp on this issue. I had two objections to the view, and Jason has good responses to both.
The first is the wash-out argument. I read somewhere that ignorant voters effectively vote randomly. As the numbers increase, the ignorant vote gets washed out (it’s basically like a million people flipping a coin, and the probability is that 50% will get heads, 50% will get tails, and it’s as though they never bothered to vote in the first place), but the informed vote is not random, and so determines the outcome (their choice is not based on arbitrary criteria, like who they’d like to have a beer with, or who looks better holding a baby). It turns out that, empirically, ignorant voters are worse than random. It would be better if ignorant voters flipped coins to determine who they will vote for (if you’d like, I can look up the studies).
The second objection was the drop-in-the-ocean argument. Sure, whenever I’m choosing for other people, I have an obligation to be informed about what I’m choosing for them. But my obligation decreases proportionately with my effectiveness. If I’m one of ten people choosing for others, I have a strong obligation. What does my obligation look like when I’m not one of ten, but one of millions? It would be like adding a thimble-full of water to a mega-flood covering New York City. I may be “contributing” to the flood, in some way, and the flood is bad, but what difference does my thimble-full make? Whether I spill it or not makes no noticeable difference… not even to an ant!
I offered a similar sort of thought to Jason, to which he gave the following reply: We, each of us, have an obligation to avoid participating in a collectively harmful activity, even if no individual one of us can bring about the harmful outcome. By way of example, he asked me to imagine an innocent six-year-old tied to a steak on Healy Lawn. There are 100 Georgetown students with a rifle. Each bullet is sufficient to kill the six-year-old, and each of the 100 students is dedicated to firing a fatal shot (and none of them will miss). I cannot stop them. Now someone hands me a rifle, and says that I can join in the shooting, if I’d like. Suppose further that I always wanted to know what it was like to fire this particular rifle. My joining or not joining this firing squad makes no difference to the outcome. The six-year-old’s days are numbered. Does that mean nothing counts against my participating in the firing squad? Most of us, myself included, are going to think that something does count against my participating, even if my participation or non-participation makes absolutely no difference to the outcome. Being part of a collectively harmful activity is bad, and we all have reason not to participate. Jason calls this the ‘clean hands’ principle. I endorse the clean-hands principle.
With those objections out of the way, we have our conclusion: If you’re going to vote, you have an obligation to vote well. If you’re ignorant, and don’t know enough about economics, political science, or theories of justice, you have a moral obligation to abstain from voting. Voting ignorantly is a shitty thing to do to the rest of us. Those ignorant voters that stay at home on election day should be applauded, Jason argues. They have voluntarily disenfranchised themselves, and thereby eliminated their (most probably) negative externalities.
Terrence posted the following video on his facebook wall. His comment (and I hope he doesn’t mind my repeating it) was:
“Irony: Whittle’s argument is garbage, and he probably knows it, but as a partisan it is rational for him to make it.” I wanted to address myself to the arguments as well, and explain why, if I could, I would be voting for Gary Johnson. But first, the promised video:
The argument is this:
1. Only two people have a realistic chance of winning. Candidate A and Candidate B.
2. There are better candidates, C and D, but no one thinks they have a chance.
3. If you vote for C or D, your vote will have no impact on who ultimately comes out the victor. It will be as though you never voted at all.
4. If you vote for A or B, however, your vote will matter to who ultimately comes out the victor.
5. A is, by your lights, a really bad candidate while B is, by your lights, also a really bad candidate, but slightly better.
6. You have an obligation to bring about the best outcome from within the feasible set.
7. The best feasible outcome is B winning.
8. Therefore, you ought to vote for B.
I have a few objections to this argument.
Consider premises 3 and 4. 4 appears to me to be false. The reason is this: Even if only A or B have a realistic chance of winning, your voting for either one of them has about as much impact on the outcome as your not voting at all. The difference is that between one in, say, 1 billion, and 1 in 10 to 60 million. At those odds, it is just as true to say that your vote does not make a difference in either case. One in 10 million (to pick the most generous option) odds does not reach the necessary bar to count as “making a difference.” Both are, effectively, as good as not voting at all. Whether you pick B or C, it would be as though you didn’t vote at all.
But look at premise 3 again. The truth is that your casting a ballot for C or D will not make a difference in this election (but neither will your choosing A or B), although it may have an impact on the next election. If C or D reach just 5% of the national vote, they will automatically be on the ballot in all 50 states come 2016. That alone is enormously significant. It is also much, much more likely that C or D will reach the needed 5% threshold with your voting for either one of them, than that your vote will tip the balance in favour of either A or B. So if getting on all of the ballots in the next election is important enough for you, you have a much easier time of being “effective” in this election by voting for either C or D, then bothering with A or B.
Let’s now take a look at premise 5 and 6. Those of us who would rather pick C over either A or B typically think the difference between A or B are orders of magnitude less than the difference between (A or B) or C to the well-being of our fellows. If I have a one in 10 million chance of being effective in the battle between A or B, and value the difference at 10 utils, then my expected utility is 10/10,000,000, or 0.0000001. But if I have a one in a billion chance of being effective in the battle between (A or B) or C, and value the difference at 10,000 utils or more, then my expected utility is 10,000/1,000,000,000 or 0.000001 (or more!). So I should pick C.
So that’s what I think of the argument, and part of the reason for why I think it’s bad.
But then there’s that bit at the very end of the video, where this guy is busy trying to tell you that your rain drop of a vote matters. It’s like he forgot what he said at the beginning about preferring Ron Paul or Gary Johnson over Mitt Romney. He basically told the people that prefer those candidates to Romney that their vote is a rain drop. If it’s not just a rain drop, then you should vote for your most preferred candidate. That would be Ron Paul or Gary Johnson. Oh, wait, it’s merely a rain drop if you vote for either one of those two? But it’s not a rain drop if you vote for Romney? I’m confused about the rain drop analogy and how it’s supposed to count in favour of voting for Romney, while not counting in favour of voting for Johnson.
Well either it is or it isn’t a rain drop. If it is, then who cares whether you vote Johnson, Paul, Romney or write in Cthulu? But if it isn’t, why would you pick anything other than your most preferred candidate?
Also, for very many of us, foreign policy is a deal breaker. For my own part, I would never vote for anyone who participates in drone striking Pakistani innocents. Or being bellicose with Iran. If a candidate is on the ballot who is busy saying things like, “peace be with you, and also with you,” that seals it for me.
Hello, Gary Johnson. Good bye, Mitt Romney.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been railing against a specific provision in the Ontario Municipal Act. That provision permits municipalities to pass bylaws that allow bylaw officers to walk onto your private property without having to give the landowner notice, and without the need for a warrant.
It lets strangers come onto your property, while you’re away at work, and maybe your kids are home alone. It allows them to do this with no oversight, and without a confidential complaint system to ensure that bylaw officers don’t become nothing more than bylaw bullies.
Section 436(1) of the Ontario Municipal Act gives bylaw this extraordinary and unreasonable power. It needs to be repealed. That’s what I argue in this Huffington Post piece. And what I’ll be talking about at the Canadian Property Rights Conference in Ottawa.
If you think that this Power of Entry (or Right of Entry, as it’s sometimes called) is necessary for effective enforcement, you should have a conversation with Alberta. Or Manitoba. Or Saskatchewan. Or any of the three Territories. All of these jurisdictions require that “reasonable notice” be given to the landowner prior to an investigation or inspection. If the landowner gives them the middle finger, as probably she should, the bylaw officers can try and get a warrant to enter the private property.
At no point can they just hop over your fence and maybe peek in your windows if a neighbour complained, or if the officer has a hunch (or just wants to see your backyard. He can always claim, afterwards, that he thought he saw something contrary to bylaw somewhere on your property. Since there is no arms-length body overseeing these officers, nor accepting complaints about their behaviour, these officers are basically free to check out your yard for any reason whatsoever).
Isn’t this, dear reader, just about the best way to harass your neighbour if you’ve got a beef with her? Phone in a phony complaint to bylaw. Your complaint is totally anonymous. Can they do anything to you if you’re obviously just stirring up shit? No, they can’t.
What a brilliant system we have in Ontario!
It’s a recipe for abuse. And it really has got to go.
This should interest co-blogger Terrence Watson:
Neil Peart, like many of us, was an Ayn Rand fan in his twenties. Neil Peart, of course, is the drummer for Canadian rockers Rush, who are slowly getting the kind of respect that they deserve (I’m not really a fan, but it doesn’t matter. They are amongst the best in that genre, which I don’t like all that much). As Peart got older, he lost his love for Rand and turned into a “bleeding heart libertarian.”
Here’s a nice excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview with him from June 12:
This is somewhat random, but you were interested in the writings of Ayn Rand decades ago. Do her words still speak to you?
Oh, no. That was 40 years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile. I had come up with that moral attitude about music, and then in my late teens I moved to England to seek fame and fortune and all that, and I was kind of stunned by the cynicism and the factory-like atmosphere of the music world over there, and it shook me. I’m thinking, “Am I wrong? Am I stupid and naïve? This is the way that everybody does everything and, had I better get with the program?”
For me, it was an affirmation that it’s all right to totally believe in something and live for it and not compromise. It was a simple as that. On that 2112 album, again, I was in my early twenties. I was a kid. Now I call myself a bleeding heart libertarian. Because I do believe in the principles of Libertarianism as an ideal – because I’m an idealist. Paul Theroux’s definition of a cynic is a disappointed idealist. So as you go through past your twenties, your idealism is going to be disappointed many many times. And so, I’ve brought my view and also – I’ve just realized this – Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we’re all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that’s when I evolve now into… a bleeding heart Libertarian. That’ll do.
(N.B. “Libertarian” with a capital-L refers to the political party. “libertarian” with a lower-case-l refers to the political philosophy. It makes me a bit grumpy when people get it wrong, and I sort of expect Rolling Stone to get it right…)
H/t: Paul McKeever
The National Post has an interesting series of articles (1, 2, 3) exploring Ontario’s court system, and just how long you have to wait to see your case all the way through to a verdict. In Ontario, the wait is too long.
(There’s a joke in here about how long you have to wait for any government-provided service, but I’m just going to let it slide).
Meanwhile, of the cases that make it all the way through, Ontario’s prosecutors have the lowest “guilty” verdict rating of all provinces — at 55.6 per cent.
The article goes on to mention several possibilities for bringing that wait list down. More money (surprise!), more judges (shocking!), pre-trial screening, moving to some sort of electronic method of scheduling and re-scheduling court appearances (it’s still the 18th century for Ontario’s courts… I could be wrong, but I think they said Ontario’s system still uses carrier pigeons for client-lawyer communication), and so on.
Here’s a suggestion they didn’t canvass: Make fewer laws. Get rid of a bunch of them. There, I’ve solved your problem.