Should Some People Not Vote?

by Cameron Schaefer on October 16, 2008

Just got back from a long trip overseas and saw the following media clips in my reader via Ben Casnocha’s blog.  It comes as no surprise that many Americans are illiterate in the areas of politics, economics, etc.  (Jay Leno shows this every week on his Jaywalking segments), but this video raises an intriguing question, “Would our country be better off if some people did not vote?

In, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” author Bryan Caplan claims that democracy, as it is practiced now, cannot continue on its present course because it allows the uninformed populace to make decisions that harm the majority of the country.  It is essentially, the anti-”wisdom of the crowds” argument that shows how the ignorance of many voters hurts us all.  It makes sense, but is it wrong to limit voting rights?  Is it un-American?

Perhaps the founding father’s were much more attune to the reality of irrational voters when they limited voting rights to land owner’s (I realize it was white land owner’s which is obviously wrong, so no need to throw out any snarky comments about that).  Maybe in limiting voting rights to those who the biggest stake (land) in how the country was run they helped ensure more rational policies would be pursued by our leaders.  Then again, maybe it was a way to keep the same guys in power without threat of “outsiders” voting them out.  Obviously a debatable question.

What do you think?  Have voting rights been extended too far?  Is it actually harmful to allow certain members of the population to vote? What is the alternative to our current system?

Below are two clips that Casnocha highlighted which paint a startling picture about the state of many American voters.

First, a humorous MP3 clip from the Howard Stern Show where a reporter goes to Harlem to ask Obama supporters why they support him for President. He then proceeds to attribute McCain’s views and policies to Obama and ask whether they agree with it. For example, “Do you agree with Obama’s view on keeping the troops in Iraq to finish the war?” “Do you support Obama’s decision to pick Sarah Palin as a running mate?” The answers will amaze you.

Second, a 20/20 clip where John Stossel asks people off the street some simple questions about government and politics and finds the idea of the rational voter just might be a big myth.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Akshay Kapur October 16, 2008 at 10:09 am

The state of the American voter. I like that. Its a more important issue than who will become president. With all the drama around race, gender, age and ethnicity being publicized in the media, I’d be surprised if anyone on the street could name even one policy each candidate stood for. Its sad and disappointing, and says a lot about the state of America overall.

That’s the complaining portion of my comment. As for taking action, how do we change it? Education; equality in literacy. Too often liberal and elitist attitudes get associated with higher education (note we use “higher” in the first place). Standards, benchmarks, and expectations around literacy need to be raised or pushed more. How is creationism even a concept in this day and age? Something got left behind in schools and we’re seeing the result. Its becoming a little embarrassing to be honest.

I just received an email from a business science group approaching the financial crisis from a rebuilding viewpoint. There’s a scary realization that even very smart people have a hard time describing how our economy got here. With rebuilding comes prioritization. Residents learning how to do procedures on patients have a saying; “watch one, do one, teach one.” So far we’ve just been watching the doers. And the doers haven’t been teaching the watchers. Without overcomplicating it, this principle of learning just makes sense. What educational principles do we prioritize? How do we build better communication and analytic skills? How do we get kids/teens involved and interested in difficult topics like accounting and taxes? I just have the feeling that we’re still trudging along waiting for someone to do something when each one of us carries the responsibility to be the doer.

Brett McKay October 16, 2008 at 11:02 am

Great question, Cameron! Yeah, I agree that the state of the American voter is pathetic. Democracy only works if you have an educated citizenry.

We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about candidates being elitist.; that people want candidates that are like them. I don’t understand this argument. I don’t want a leader that’s like me or that I could go to bar and drink a beer with. I want my leaders to be smarter than me. I want them to be the elites of society.

If I voted for a candidate solely on whether I could relate to them, then my candidate would have to waste time surfing the web and watching Vh1 I Love the 90s marathons. If we had a leader like that, we’re screwed.

And that’s the problem with democracy. Instead of picking the best of the best, the masses base their pick on the guy they can go bowling with. I don’t want a bowling partner. I want a leader.

Cameron Schaefer October 16, 2008 at 11:17 am

@ Akshay,

You say, “The state of the American voter. I like that. Its a more important issue than who will become president.”

I hadn’t really thought about it, but I would say you just might be right. The fact is that a new president is not going to change our country all that much. At least not as much as each candidate would like you to think. Real change is only going to come when our citizenry turns off “I Love the 90′s” as Brett so aptly pointed out, and reads a book or takes a class in economics. Won’t hold my breath.

@ Brett,

I think you’re spot on, the problem is that people will argue a candidate who is “elite” can’t relate to the problems of average Americans and therefore will not have their interests at heart while governing.

Now, I don’t know how much I buy this line of reasoning, but people tend to relate the bowling partner persona you mention to a person that can “empathize”. I would argue maybe the average American needs less empathy and more a swift kick in the rear end.

It’s an honor to live in this country and to vote, but sadly most view it with the same spirit that they do getting their Big Mac in under 2 minutes…I deserve it!

Eric Granata October 16, 2008 at 11:56 am

Good post. Sums up a lot of my frustrations well. I’ve asked myself the same question but don’t entertain it too much because I fear it would take me down a slippery slope that leads to somewhere other than America.

Greg Molyneux October 16, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Cameron, this question posed in this post is spot on! But with our current situation what can we do as a society to change it?

The Athenians managed to bury this pitfall long before it became a problem, since their policy mandated that every citizen held some form of public office in his lifetime. This brought accountability into the fold – something that far too many American’s clearly lack.

Still this example oversimplifies the situation and unfortunately it is not realistic and hardly practical for there to be an expectation of every American holding office when we are already bureaucratically fat as it is.

Instead could we at least have a license to vote?

Hey Brett, I’m glad to hear your comments about the need for our leaders being elitist. I say it all the time that I want to be completely outclassed by the leader of the free world.

Akshay Kapur October 16, 2008 at 1:15 pm

Cameron, you and other commenters may find this interesting, “What makes people vote republican?” http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

;ladfgh October 16, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Right vs. Duty
It is a sacred right to vote that people died for. It is by no means a duty to vote. So tell Leo that by Rocking the vote is really Jacking the vote.

Man Overboard October 16, 2008 at 9:38 pm

Obviously this is why ACORN and others like them register thousands of these idiots (and Mickey Mouse) at this type of venue. Obama can’t win without the Retard vote.

Ben October 16, 2008 at 9:53 pm

Cameron, if it makes you feel slightly better, lack of political knowledge isn’t somthing unique to the USA. In my country, Australia, one has to enrol to vote when they turn 18 and it is compulsory to vote in both federal and state elections.

To get a feel for the lack of political knowledge, letters to the editor in the three newspapers I read are a good barometer. Last year there was a change of federal government for the first time in 11 and a half years. A letter this week complained about a comment made by the “government” – the only problem with this is that the comment referred to was made by a member of the previous government, not the current one. This is just one of many examples I read each week.

But I’m a bit of a rare geek – I actually follow politics pretty closely and have done so for the past two and a bit decades that I’ve been voting. I figure if I’m compelled to vote, I better have a good idea of what’s going on.

One of the most important dates in Australian history is 1st January, 1901. This was when the six colonies became a federation, and the Commonwealth of Australia was born. If you asked the general person what this date meant, very few would know. Yet ask them about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and most would be able to tell one plenty about them.

Unfortunately politics and history are two pretty unglamorous subjects that are presented as such in school. Politics in my country is of the sound-bite variety – a lot is being talked about but nothing is really said.

The Common Man October 23, 2008 at 7:43 am

This is a good question, Cam, and one that I remember from my days as a government major. It seems as though our elections are decided by the least informed of us. And it’s disgusting to see idiots on Jay Leno or Howard Stern who don’t know a damn thing about the current political situation (keeping in mind that the vast majority of people interviewed know enough that they don’t make the cut).

But The Common Man doesn’t buy it. Those who don’t pay attention to politics are less inclined to vote anyway and therefor less inclined to effect the election’s outcome (indeed, in interviews a disproportionate amount of Americans claim that they will vote, compared to how many do, a Bradley Effect on voting, if you will). And even if they do, The Common Man believes that its democracy determines that America gets the democracy it deserves, not necessarily what’s best for it. Indeed, if rational people make irrational choices that are not in their best interest, then they should have to bear the responsibility. Isn’t that what we were talking about with the economic crisis and mortgage bailout a few weeks back?

Anyway, voting rights have been extended to an appropriate degree. Eighteen seems like a reasonable place to begin, since that’s when our military allows you to join up and you are legally an adult. No tests and no property requirements (particularly if we believe that rational people act in their own self-interest most of the time).

tomdawg November 3, 2008 at 1:38 pm

One of the founding fathers said that, if given the vote, freeloaders will always vote themselves a payout from the public treasury.

George November 9, 2008 at 4:15 pm

“Obviously this is why ACORN and others like them register thousands of these idiots (and Mickey Mouse) at this type of venue. Obama can’t win without the Retard vote.”
__

And what about Freepers and Townhallers who think Sarah Palin is an intellectual and qualified to be a heart beat away from the presidency?

What about people who still think that Obama is a Muslim?

What about people who believe in Creationism and that they will be raptured up shortly?

David December 4, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Cameron, great article; Akshay, a very intriguing link. Good read!

I did see an interview where Obama alluded to his Islamic faith, but I’m not sure it wasn’t a slip of the tongue.

The system is not perfect, but it gives everyone an opportunity. I am proud to have served in the 82d Airborne (Cameron’s predecessors dropping us out over trees, as I remember). I am saddened by the ignorance of many voters, but proud to have defended their right to vote at all.

Some “elitist” may have to come up with a solution, because it’s by me… I’m with Brett.

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