Oftentimes in life, abstinence is the way to go.
Joseph C. McMurray, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, recently posted a frightfully interesting article about the wisdom of voting, titled, “The mathematics of democracy: Who should vote?” Drawing from 18th century political philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet, McMurray argues that, statistically speaking, society would be better served if a certain hunk of the population did not vote at all—namely, the least-informed hunk. He recommends, in effect, that such lowly individuals stay home on November 6, entrusting the future of the country to those more in the know.
It has long been a pipe dream of mine, and of many people I know, to bring literacy tests back into the electoral process. That is, to require that citizens know a few basic things about the country in which they live before being allowed into a voting booth. The theory is that the more educated and informed the voter is, the more likely he or she will elect good leaders who will enact good policies.
Of course, the last time America tried this, it was for the less-than-noble purpose of suppressing the votes of black people in the Jim Crow-era south. Possibly we could agree that, should we resurrect the literacy test for the present day, a fair amount of tweaking would be in order before putting such a system into effect.
In any case, McMurray’s notion of all voters not being created equal is an intriguing one, and worth exploring further. In practice, I would argue, voting for its own sake is neither noble nor particularly smart.
There will come the moment, for instance, when you’ll be marking your own ballot and arrive at the race for city comptroller. For all the due diligence you have paid to this year’s campaigns, the comptroller battle somehow eluded your attention: You know nothing about any of the candidates, nor are you certain precisely what a comptroller does. Nonetheless, as with every race, you are as entitled as anyone else to cast a vote. Indeed, all your life you have been taught it is your duty to do so.
Resist the temptation.
Sure, you could have fun with this, such as voting for the candidate with the silliest name, or the representative of your preferred political party. Or picking the female candidate, because there aren’t enough female comptrollers in the world. And so forth.
Except that these are real people who take this process seriously; their jobs are on the line. Do they really want to be elected in such a facetious manner? Is it not wholly irresponsible—an abuse and a mockery of this most sacred democratic exercise—to cast a vote that is so plainly uninformed? I say—in case I haven’t yet made myself clear—that it is, and should be avoided at all costs. Leave the comptroller-selecting to those who are sufficiently well-versed in comptrollership.
As the recent violence in Egypt and Libya was breaking out, ostensibly in reaction to an Islam-insulting film, Salman Rushdie made the point that just because one has the right to free expression does not mean one should necessarily exercise it. Speaking about the mysterious cabal behind the film in question, Rushdie said, “Even jerks have the right to free speech, but they’re still jerks.”
Ignorant people deserve the privilege to vote, but they are ignorant nonetheless, and they are part of the problem rather than the solution. Thomas Jefferson understood this when he wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
People often complain that voter turnout in presidential elections is far too low, and therefore the true desires of the American public are never really represented or given voice. Often left un-pondered, then, is the possibility that turnout is actually too high—at least among those who have no business involving themselves in the electoral game. What point is there in culling the views of the greatest possible sampling of Americans if it includes views of people who have no idea what they’re talking about?
The real problem, you see, is that the ignorant tend not to know who they are, as suggested by those amusing polls that show 80-90 percent of the people consider themselves “above average.” So this is not, alas, simply a matter of voluntary abstention—hence the appeal of some theoretical literacy test to winnow the field of potential voters into a truly elite corps.
Since we are not actually going to do such a thing anytime soon, the next-best option lies in what founders like Jefferson so strongly recommended: Education. Said John Adams in 1776, “Laws for the liberal education of the youth, especially of the lower class of the people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”
That is the kind of government spending we need.