The following is the fourth installment in a debate between Jason Brennan and Philip Pettit on the legitimacy of democracy as a system of social order. The following links will take you to Brennan’s first and second piece. You can read Pettit’s response to Brennan’s first piece here.
Jason Brennan and I agree that, contingently or inherently, every half-decent democracy involves not just electoral processes but devices that I describe as contestatory in character. These are constitutionally entrenched arrangements that allow citizens to voice their complaints, make common cause in pressing them, mobilize public opinion in their support, organize against the powerful, and seek their day in court via the polls or the streets.
We disagree, however, on whether people should have a universal, equal right to vote as part of this democratic package. I suggested in my original reply that to restrict the suffrage to a minority would enable politicians to ignore the concerns of the many, depriving them of an incentive to try to rally and recruit the many in their support. Jason makes two main points in his reply, one bearing on electoral fairness, the other on voter knowledge.
The first point he makes is that because it “empowers majorities against minorities,” “democracy is not inherently fair.” I agree that “sticky minorities,” as I call them, do raise a problem of fairness for electoral democracy.
But, as I have argued elsewhere, establishing a contestatory democracy is designed in part to protect against this problem: it includes taking some issues off the majoritarian agenda, for example, thereby safeguarding various minorities. Contestatory provisions are not antidemocratic, on this view; they represent democracy by other (than electoral) means.
Universal suffrage constrains government.
In any case I look to what democracy can achieve over the long haul, as I put it before, not in its capacity to impose people’s (ideally well-informed) policy preferences, however aggregated, in each and every election. And over the long haul, there is some historical evidence that it can serve to constrain government to respect expectations and standards that come to be endorsed on all sides — that it can serve in that sense to achieve fairness.
My fear with Jason Brennan’s proposal is that it might undermine this effect, allowing politicians not to have to pay attention to what various individuals expect or care about. It might lead them not to worry about how well or badly their policies would go down in certain corners. After all, there would be no electoral or perhaps contestatory backlash for them to be concerned with.
Politicians can’t ignore voters’ preferences.
The second element in Jason’s reply invokes voter ignorance. He argues that voters often display ignorance in the policy preferences they express at the polls, where this means that those preferences are “out of alignment” with or “even antagonistic to their outcome preferences.”
I agree, as I said before, that there is considerable voter ignorance in this sense. People’s policy preferences are motivated by a range of factors, not least the wish to adopt and project a certain posture in voting, as argued by Loren Lomasky and Geoffrey Brennan (no relation).
But my concern with disenfranchising a range of people is not that the system would not benefit from the knowledgeable preferences they might express at the polls. It is that those in electoral office would not have to worry about how their policies would go down in such quarters, prompting a backlash.
In Jason’s terms, this comes close to saying that they would not have to worry about such people’s outcome preferences. And he is prepared to assume, as I am, that these may be “perfectly reasonable.”