Against Democracy

Voting booths in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for the general election held on November 3, 2015. Flickr/Tim Evanson

Democracy has had a good run. But its design is fundamentally flawed.

During election years, most citizens cannot identify any congressional candidates in their district. Citizens generally don’t know which party controls Congress. During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, while slightly more than half of all Americans knew Gore was more liberal than Bush, significantly less than half knew that Gore was more supportive of abortion rights, more supportive of welfare-state programs, favored a higher degree of aid to blacks or was more supportive of environmental regulation. When asked to guess what the unemployment rate was, the majority of voters tend to guess it is twice as high as the actual rate.

And so on. In general, voters in most countries can identify the incumbent chief executive, but know little else beyond that.

These kinds of surveys overstate how much knowledge citizens have, in part because they only ask easy questions, such as who the incumbents are or whether crime is falling. But democracies ask citizens to choose among political parties offering different policy platforms. To evaluate these platforms, citizens need at least some grasp of economics and political science. There’s little reason to think they are informed about these things. On the contrary, American voters, both left and right, have systematically different beliefs about the economy from professional economists, and these differences are not explained by demographic factors.

Citizens aren’t just ignorant or misinformed, but irrational. Few citizens process information with an open mind; most citizens disregard any information that contradicts their current ideology. Voters suffer from a wide range of biases, including confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, motivated reasoning, intergroup bias, availability bias and prior attitude effects.

It’s no surprise that most voters are ignorant, misinformed and biased. Our individual votes make no difference. When it comes to politics, smart doesn’t pay, and dumb doesn’t hurt.

An individual vote for the worst possible candidate produces the same results as a vote for the best possible candidate. Abstaining from voting produces the same results as voting. A well-informed vote produces the same results as a badly informed, misinformed or irrational vote. An individual vote after careful deliberation produces the same results as voting after flipping a coin or dropping acid.

Information matters. Which policies people prefer depends in part on how informed they are. Even controlling for the influence of sex, race and income, highly informed citizens have systematically different policy preferences from ignorant or misinformed voters. For instance, high-information voters favor free trade, globalization, immigration and civil libertarianism. Low-information voters, regardless of their demographics, favor the opposite: they tend to favor Trump’s platform.

Political Liberty: Who Needs It?

The democratic faith holds that the right to vote is the most important right of all. On reflection, it’s a strange view. Consider: your rights to choose an occupation, to control your sex life, to choose what and when to eat, or to buy and sell as you desire, give you significant control and autonomy over your own life. In contrast, your right to vote does you little good.

Most people talk as if the right to vote has major instrumental value. They say your right to vote allows you to consent to government, to control and shape political outcomes, and to protect yourself from being dominated by others.

But none of this withstands mathematical scrutiny. How we vote matters; how any one of us votes does not. Casting an individual vote has roughly the same power over political outcomes as praying to Jupiter or blowing one’s nose. Democracy empowers the majority, but it does not empower any of the individuals who form that majority.

The probability that your individual vote will change the outcome of a major election or referendum is roughly on the order of the probability you will win the Powerball. Winning the lottery is worth hundreds of millions, but it still doesn’t make sense to buy a ticket. So it goes with voting. Imagine Trump promises to pay you $10 million if he’s elected. Though his victory would net you $10 million, it’s not worth the effort to vote for him, any more than it’s worth buying a Powerball ticket.

Many people understand that individual votes matter little. They instead invoke the symbolic value of the right to vote. In Western democracies, we treat the right to vote as a metaphorical badge of dignity and equality. We imbue people with the equal right to vote in order to express that they are full and equal members of the national club. Many philosophers believe that democracy necessarily expresses that all citizens have equal worth.