Bryan Caplan  

Mining Mill

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Thanks to Gerald Gaus' critique of The Myth of the Rational Voter (part of a full forthcoming issue of Critical Review on the book), I've discovered a fun passage from one of my least-favorite thinkers, J.S. Mill. I knew that Mill was an advocate of plural voting for the well-educated, but I didn't realize that he'd worked out a detailed system. Here's Mill's rationale for plural voting:

But there is a wide interval between refusing votes to the great majority, and acknowledging in each individual among them a right to have his vote counted for exactly as much as the vote of the most highly educated person in the community; with the further addition that, under the name of equality, it would in reality count for vastly more, as long as the uneducated so greatly outnumber the educated. There is no such thing in morals as a right to power over others; and the electoral suffrage is that power. When all have votes, it will be both just in principle and necessary in fact, that some mode be adopted of giving greater weight to the suffrage of the more educated voter; some means by which the more intrinsically valuable member of society, the one who is more capable, more competent for the general affairs of life, and possesses more of the knowledge applicable to the management of the affairs of the community, should, as far as practicable, be singled out, and allowed a superiority of influence proportioned to his higher qualifications. (first emphasis mine)
And here's Mill's specific weighting scheme:
The most direct mode of effecting this, would be to establish plurality of votes, in favour of those who could afford a reasonable presumption of superior knowledge and cultivation. If every ordinary unskilled labourer had one vote, a skilled labourer, whose occupation requires an exercised mind and a knowledge of some of the laws of external nature, ought to have two. A foreman, or superintendent of labour, whose occupation requires something more of general culture, and some moral as well as intellectual qualities, should perhaps have three. A farmer, manufacturer, or trader, who requires a still larger range of ideas and knowledge, and the power of guiding and attending to a great number of various operations at once, should have three or four. A member of any profession requiring a long, accurate, and systematic mental cultivation,—a lawyer, a physician or surgeon, a clergyman of any denomination, a literary man, an artist, a public functionary (or, at all events, a member of every intellectual profession at the threshold of which there is a satisfactory examination test) ought to have five or six. A graduate of any university, or a person freely elected a member of any learned society, is entitled to at least as many.
And here's a punchy - and rather Hansonian - retort to critics:
No one but a fool, and only a fool of a peculiar description, feels offended by the acknowledgment that there are others whose opinion, and even whose wish, is entitled to a greater amount of consideration than his.
I'm still no fan of Mill, but now I suspect that his most famous works aren't his best.

P.S. I'll be in Boston this week for a post-APSA Critical Review conference inspired by the journal's forthcoming MRV issue. The conference is on Sunday, and it's open to the public; just RSVP to Jeff Friedman. I'll arrive in Boston on Saturday afternoon; email me if you want to meet up.

P.P.S. I just fixed the broken link to the CR conference.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
GU writes:


Honest question: What if anything don't you like about Mill's On Liberty?

David writes:

Is Gaus' paper this one?

"Is the Public Incompetent? Compared to Whom? About What?", forthcoming in the Critical Review

If so, it's online at:

N. writes:

I would also be interested to hear a Caplanian critique to On Liberty.

Selfreferencing writes:

What's your response to Gaus?

eric writes:

Your rule would probably adversely impact the strength of blacks and hispanics. Is that an issue?

Unit writes:

My only problem with the Caplan-Mill proposal is that it lacks simplicity. "One person one vote" is a very simple rule (as soon as you have defined what person is). As soon as you start making exceptions then I would expect all kinds of lobbying to get more voting rights by this or that group. I'm with Hayek who said that legislation should be as simple as possible: a general principle, a clear-cut rule, etc....

Nick L writes:

So, could a voter be allowed to buy extra votes?

What would that look like, assuming some limit or maximum to the number of votes purchased...

And, what if buying extra votes were made tax deductable?

David writes:

While Unit's critique of lack of simplicity is valid, I am hard pressed to find another legitimate concern with this proposal(other then debates over details). Too bad it would never see the light of day in contemporary society, which is far too egalitarian and dominated by degenerate slave and herd morality.

Snark writes:

I like Nick L’s suggestion of allowing citizens to purchase additional votes, but I think it would work only if they were allowed to purchase from those who were willing to sell. Cast-off votes would go the highest bidders, who we can reasonably assume gained their wealth by virtue of a higher education and who feel more passionately about the issues. Mills’ graduated scheme (pun intended) of discriminating in favor of those who are better educated would have to be considered unconstitutional.

Kurbla writes:

The main point of the democracy is not to produce the best possible decisions - we know that democratic decisions are of average quality. The point is that democracy allows non-violent change of the government. It is extremely important.

One man - one vote is not perfect for that purpose, but it is obviously better than weighted voting.

Rick Stewart writes:

I am in favor of one vote per IQ point. This gives everyone more votes than they now enjoy, so everyone should be happy.

IQs can be determined at certified testing stations, which would be no worse at their task than certified driver's license testing stations.

A person unsatisfied with the results could get a free re-test once per year, but would live with the most recent results. For a fee higher than the cost of administering the test a person could re-test as often as they wished, again living with the most recent results.

As with driver's licenses, older people would need to be re-certified more frequently.

Rick Stewart writes:

Turns out Mill had my idea first.

Bryan cut the quote just before this part:

"... there ought to be an organization of voluntary examinations throughout the country (agreeably to the precedent set by the middle-class examinations so wisely and virtuously instituted by the University of Oxford) at which any person whatever might present himself, and obtain, from impartial examiners, a certificate of his possessing the acquirements which would entitle him to any number of votes, up to the largest allowed to one individual. The presumption of superior instruction derived from mere pecuniary qualification is, in the system of arrangements we are now considering, inadmissible. It is a presumption which often fails, and to those against whom it operates, it is always invidious. What it is important to ascertain is education; and education can be tested directly, or by much stronger presumptive evidence than is afforded by income, or payment of taxes, or the quality of the house which a person inhabits."

Sounds like an IQ test to me.

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