Bryan Caplan  

Heinlein on Voting: Would You Bet Your Life On It?

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Here's one of Heinlein's modest proposals for improving democracy:

A state that required a bare minimum of intelligence and education - e.g., step into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over the booth - and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system - smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers - and fathers - decline to be humiliated twice.
Then he gets a little Swiftian:
There are endless variations on this one. Here are two: Improving the Breed -- No red light, no bell...but the booth opens automatically - empty. Revenue -- You don't risk your life, just some gelt. It costs you 1/4 oz. troy of gold in local currency to enter the booth. Solve your quadratic and vote, and you get your money back. Flunk - and the state keeps it. With this one I guarantee that no one would vote who was not interested and would be most unlikely to vote if unsure of his ability to get that hundred bucks back.
Just to be clear, I'm against the disintegration option. But I'm on board for the $100 bet.

HT: The excellent Garett Jones


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
shayne writes:

What exactly is the point of having a better informed/educated/prepared electorate in a democracy when the elected representatives ignore the wishes and entreaties of electorate as is happening right now regards this bailout bill?

Scott writes:

What does solving a quadratic equation have to do with competent voting? In fact the more educated are probably as irrational as the ignorant in so far as their prowess in one intellectual area leads them to strongly believe their other prejudices are actually true.

Consider how shamelessly liberal arts faculty members can hold forth on matters political and economic.

scott clark writes:

shayne's got a point. I'd rather the test be for the representative, before they get to vote on a bill they have to solve an equation.

Alex J writes:

In "For Us, The Living", Heinlein describes an interesting voting system. If the nation is considering a war, the issue is put to a plebiscite. If the people vote to go to war, those who voted in the affirmative get drafted. If that number of people is insufficient, those who did not vote get drafted next. (I forget if the nays get drafted next.) The proposal has a distinctly WWI feel to it; 80 million conscripts wouldn't do much good in our war against the Taliban, for instance. Perhaps, as a modern adjustment, war taxes would be assessed only against the ayes.

It reminds me of David Friedman's proposal for options on real estate that go into effect only if all of your neighbors sign on too. They would replace eminent domain without the strategic bargaining problems.

Brandon Berg writes:

Bryan:
It's a $200 bet now.

Scott:
Many liberal arts faculty members can't solve quadratic equations. Anyway, Bryan documented in MRV that the opinions of the college-educated more closely align with the positions of economists on economic questions than do the opinions of those who did not graduate from college.

Ross Williams writes:

why choose a math question, certainly there are other things equally valid to use to test intelligence. Wouldn't it be amazing if they required you to own property to vote, that would be a good proxy for intelligence, aside from inherited property. Oh wait, we already tried that.

fkaJames writes:

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8 writes:

$1,000 poll tax. Give every poor person $1,000 cash every 4 years, they can spend it however they like. Everyone can vote, if they choose.

Maniakes writes:

Making the intelligence/education test a math problem has two advantages:

1. A large number of questions of equivilent difficulty can be automatically generated, and the answers are entirely objective and completely politically uncontrovercial.

2. Many of the most important political issues have to do with finance, budget, and taxation. Those with decent math skills have an advantage in understanding these issues.

Alex J. writes:

Clearly, a problem with all measures to restrict the franchise is that most people see universal suffrage as good in and of itself. It's part of the people's romance. It let's people believe in an omni-benevolent institution acting in the world. Restricting the franchise based on competence is missing the point.

Les writes:

Rather than a math question, use a quiz on basic economics. Politics largely involves economic issues, and the politicians repeatedly bamboozle the gullible public who know zip about economics.

People will rebel at being deprived of a vote - better let every adult citizen have one vote, but award extra votes for passing a series of increasingly difficult tests on economics.

Eric Crampton writes:

Make sure the voting machine provides random draw questions to avoid having political agents outside the voting booths providing answer keys....

Adam Ruth writes:

The problem with these types of suggestions is that they place the fault of bad "leaders" at the feet of the voters. That's like trying to stop someone bleeding by removing their blood.

The problem isn't the voters, it's the entire system of voting in a coercive system. Nothing can fix it, it is inherently flawed and will remain so.

John T. Kennedy writes:

I like the disintegration option with one change: The person trying to vote gets disintegrated even if he solves the quadratic equation right.

Now that would improve the breed in a hurry.

Dr. T writes:

I favor the general idea, but the quadratic equation question is stupid. A 10-year-old math whiz could solve the equation while having no idea about the candidates, propositions, political issues, etc. I suggest that there be a quiz for each election: 1. Who are the candidates for U.S. Senate, and how do they differ on major issues? Answer correctly and you can vote. 2. Who are the candidates for governor, and how do they differ...

Citizens who care enough about an election to get fully informed can vote. They can (and must) blow-off elections they don't care enough about. Really stupid people who cannot understand the issues or remember candidate names would not be able to vote. I see that as a plus.

frankcross writes:

Think about what would actually happen. The party get out the vote efforts would devote multimillions to educating their partisans in algebra. Maybe that's an efficient expenditure. Certainly good for math teachers.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Alex J.

That idea of Heinlein's is fundamentally flawed. Wars are often waged for the (supposed) benefit of the civilization which exists across countless generations while most voters have a horizon of at most one generation. Thus, much of the long term gain from war would go unaccounted for. Furthermore, in an all-volunteer military, people are still capable of voting with their feet.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"I favor the general idea, but the quadratic equation question is stupid. A 10-year-old math whiz could solve the equation while having no idea about the candidates, propositions, political issues, etc. I suggest that there be a quiz for each election: 1. Who are the candidates for U.S. Senate, and how do they differ on major issues? Answer correctly and you can vote. 2. Who are the candidates for governor, and how do they differ..."-Dr. T

There is a major flaw with this kind of test. Some people who are interested in politics know what many of the candidates say they are for, but those who really study politics will sometimes know what the candidates are "really" for. These kinds of questions are less than objective. Math questions or logic games are probably a better idea.

Alex J. writes:

If voters facing conscription don't have a long enough time horizon for deciding whether or not to go to war, what institution does? What institution has a time horizon "across countless generations"?

rvman writes:

Dr. T: We get to the same place (test on politics first) much more cheaply and fairly by making all races write-in only, with no 'cheat sheet' lists of candidates provided by the election authority. You either remember who you want to vote for, or bring in your own crib sheet.

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