The following is the third installment in a four-part debate between Jason Brennan and Philip Pettit on the legitimacy of democracy as a system of social order. You can read Jason Brennan’s first statement here, and Philip Pettit’s first response here.
Philip Pettit made some strong empirical claims: With equal universal suffrage, leaders can afford to ignore no one. With unequal suffrage, leaders might only serve the interests of the few.
At the extreme, these problems do arise. If only 100 demographically similar people were entitled to vote, I’d expect them to vote selfishly at the expense of others. But the kind of plural voting regime John Stuart Mill advocated (and the early John Rawls considered seriously) isn’t like that.
Democracies ignore minorities’ preferences.
In a democracy, certain ideological minorities have no hope of winning, and are likely to have their preferences ignored. (Thomas Christiano refers to this as the “problem of persistent minorities.”) Further, certain ethnic or other demographic minorities have little power on their own; they can get their way or have their interests served only if they build a large coalition, or if the majority is sympathetic to them.
Democracy is not inherently fair. It empowers majorities against minorities, and certain minorities tend to stay minorities year after year.
If we really wanted to create a system in which no voice can be ignored, we’d use sortition. As David Estlund has pointed out, a concern for fairness by itself gives us no particular reason to advocate democracy. If we want to be fair, we could instead use some sort of lottery or random decision-making method.
We could randomly select 535 people to serve in Congress. We could have citizens vote, award probabilities to candidates based on the percent of voters who support them (47.6% Clinton, 46.9% Trump, 3.3% Johnson. 1% Stein), and then pick one using a random number generator.
Voters don’t know how to get what they want.
I worry that Pettit does not take the problem of political misinformation seriously. For the typical citizen, getting his way does not mean getting his interests served. Consider this distinction:
- Policy Preferences — the set of policies and laws voters want candidates to support. For instance, increase the estate tax, cut spending, build a bigger wall at the Mexican border, increase tariffs, and escalate the war in Syria.
- Outcome Preferences — the consequences voters want candidates to produce. For instance, improve the economy, reduce the amount of criminal violence, keep immigrants out, increase economic equality, and reduce the danger of terrorism.
Generally, we form our policy preferences because we believe those policies would promote our outcome preferences.
Voters can and obviously do make mistakes about policies. Even if we charitably assume that voters’ outcome preferences are perfectly reasonable, their policy preferences might be out of alignment or even antagonistic to their outcome preferences. If voters support counterproductive policies, then giving them the policies they want prevents them from getting the outcomes they want. Voters need knowledge.
Pettit wants robust democracy in order to protect citizens from domination. I want to protect citizens from themselves, to stop them from shooting themselves in the feet. I want to protect my neighbor, my children, and myself from the bad candidates and counterproductive policies my neighbors support.