Bryan Caplan  

The Civic Duty to Know Your Limits

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Selwyn Duke says it short and sweet in "Why Most Voters Shouldn't Vote":

Most of us agree that having an educated populace is a prerequisite for a sound democratic republic. We also know that not everyone is well-educated. Thus, it cannot be a good thing for everyone to vote. For those of you who had trouble following that line of reasoning, please remember that Election Day is November 5.

And one needn't be disenchanted with universal suffrage to agree. It's one thing to have one man, one vote; it's quite another to have one man, one obligation to vote. Yet we still hear that it's our "civic duty" to go to the polls. Well, no, actually, it's a civic duty to make ourselves worthy to do so.

This "vote first, ask questions later" idea reaches the very nadir of inanity when it manifests itself in get-out-the-vote drives, which can quite correctly be defined as an effort to rally the idiot vote disguised as a noble exercise in democracy.

P.S. Remember when Mankiw got in a little trouble for this?


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Steve Roth writes:

Agreed. In particular, voters should educate themselves about the effects of government size and tax rates on growth and prosperity. i.e.:

http://trueconservative.typepad.com/trueconservative/2008/02/small-governmen.html

and

http://trueconservative.typepad.com/trueconservative/2007/12/government-ba-2.html

taimyoboi writes:

"Most of us agree that having an educated populace is a prerequisite for a sound democratic republic. We also know that not everyone is well-educated. Thus, it cannot be a good thing for everyone to vote."

Consequently, oly uneducated people should be allowed to vote: Educated people should be barred from voting.

Someone sharp once remarked that he'd rather be governed by the first 1000 people in the telephone book than the faculty at Harvard. I think he's right. The most dangerous ideas have come out of the Ivory Tower, not your local union.

bill greene writes:

Taimyoboi is quite astute in suggesting that only the uneducated should be allowed to vote. Granted that flies in the face of Bryan Caplan's concerns over "The Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters." However, if you consider Julian Simon's posthumous (2000) book, "Hoodwinking the Nation," you will connect the dots: It is the most educated elites, with a high propensity for abstract theories and ideologies, that are most likely to fall victim of centrist collectivist policies. The media, schools and colleges have brain-washed America's youth--hoodwinking a couple generations of them at this point-- to believe in the welfare/maternal state. However, the uneducated have to a large extent avoided this brain washing and still cling to a modicum of common sense. Prestige colleges turn out the most biased bone-headed voters--and they generally vote for the Liberal Left! Jefferson's ordinary "ploughman" is wiser than a professor, but only if he has stayed away from the teachings of post modern secularists. Thus there is a new incongruity wherein today's schools undo their very purpose of teaching students to think rationally. This decline in higher education has led me to work on an only half-facetious theory called "The Radzewicz Curve" which postulates that common sense and wisdom, EQ vs IQ, varies inversely with the years of schooling in today's institutions of higher learning. I start with Thomas Sowell's distinction between soft and hard science because in the physical sciences intellect and study are desirable. But every year in college studying the soft-sciences may directly reduce the wisdom of the student. Thus with EQ on the vertical axis and years of schooling on the horizontal, we see a sharply descending slope to the right--especially for those minds able to fall in love with abstract theories. Such brilliance is prized and much sought after by the elite universities so they canpopulate the foundations, media and colleges with like minds. I am curious and solicit opinion on whether common people of average intellect have a built-in defense that levels off their slope and keeps them from crashing through the point where common sense goes negative ?

JW Scott writes:

In the past week I came up with a counter slogan to the misguided Rock the Vote claptrap:
If you don't know, Don't go!


Personally, I'm in favor of a knowledge test. Make it simple: in order to be able to vote for a particular office, you must be able to choose the incumbent from a multiple choice list.

mk writes:

Nah, this is bunk. Here's the rebuttal:


1. Voluntarily shutting oneself out of the democratic process leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of apathy and disempowerment.

2. We as a society want to pull people away from apathy and disempowerment.

3. Disempowerment is strongly correlated with accidental factors of upbringing such as socioeconomic status.

4. Society must work as strongly as it can to countervail the impulse to disempowerment.

5. Educated people don't really do that much better than uneducated people at making voting decisions. (Think of the Iraq war. I contend that a random number generator would have made just as sound a decision as all the experts in the world. This is not true for all decisions, but many important decisions do not yield to the satisfying firmness and quantitative reasoning of economics. The world is messy.)

6. So, the gain of having uneducated voters is small but real, and the downside is also small but real.

7. In a situation of uncertainty, we should favor the course that makes us feel less like a**holes.


OK, not perfectly logical but there you go, that's how my human brain feels about it.

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