The importance of voting responsibly

Marisa Hildebrand

The ninth annual fall ethics symposium keynote session: Why Most Americans Shouldn’t Vote featured Jason Brennan, assistant professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at Georgetown University.

Brennan argued many Americans do not fully realize the power of a vote, and said these unknowledgeable voters need to stay out of the polls.

He compared voting to a trial by jury, with voters acting as incompetent jury members.

On a murder trial, Brennan said, a jury does not find a defendant guilty based off skin color, religious affiliation or a personal conspiracy theory. Brennan stressed that juries have a duty to serve the public just as voters do, and they must reach an educated decision based on fact.

“Why do we lower standards about voters?” Brennan asked.

He later went on to cite studies that show lack of voter knowledge on the most basic issues of left and right wing policies.

Brennan said voting needs to be greater than “go to polls check off a few boxes and get a sticker.”

Steven Wall, professor of philosophy, University of Arizona; Kimberly Nalder, associate professor of government and director at Sacramento State; and Daniel Hays Lowenstein, professor of law emeritus and director, Center for the Liberal Arts and Free Institutions at the University of California Los Angeles sat on a panel to question Brennan’s argument.

Wall questioned Brennan’s elitist philosophy and asked about aristocracies of voting if only the knowledgeable could cast a vote.

But Brennan agreed that voters should not be top percenters. He instead suggested that voters gain more knowledge of public policies early in school.

“Instead of taking algebra, which no one ever uses, take stats…or econ several times.” Brennan said. “Taking [stats and econ] once doesn’t work.”

Nalder was next to question Brennan’s argument and countered his claim that woman have less knowledge than men going to the polls. She brought up the measurement errors of guessing with knowledge testing.

Nalder said that men are more likely to guess on tests than woman are because woman will usually not pick an answer until they are positive it is correct. Therefore, she said, men could be measured more knowledgeable because they are more willing to guess on knowledge tests given in studies.

This time Brennan held true to his argument, though he did admit some flaws with measurement testing when men guess and women hold out.

“Given that it’s studied from so many diff angles,” Brennan said. “You find over and over again that knowledge levels are still very very low”

Lowenstein was last on the panel to question Brennan and quoted William F. Buckley Jr. with, “I’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard.”

But Brennan countered. He would not mind being governed by the UCLA Econ department because of the level of expertise on issues that affect the country the most.

And again, Lowenstein brought something particularly witty to the discussion–this time quoting G. K. Chesterton.

“There certain things that you may not be very good at, but you don’t want to get other ppl to do them for you: Blow your nose, make love and voting.”

Philosophy senior Erika Cazares was one of the first students to question Brennan’s argument.

Cazares challenged Brennan argument and asked what prerequisites he sought fit for voters to cast a ballot to minimize the ineffectiveness.

“I think it’s important to have a certain number [of people] that vote collectively–not a small number though,” Brennan replied.

He said the smaller the pool of voters the more selfish they tend to be, while on the other hand, larger voting pools tend to vote more sociotropic.

“Maybe select 20,000 Americans at random and pay them to participate,” Brennan suggested. “Maybe then they will make better decisions.”

Senior government major Hope Roberts also participated in the conversation and asked Brennan if his argument was a long term or short term process.

Brennan replied it could be long term, but also said it is a sort of mindset change in American voters to use the power of voting more responsibly.

“It’s a generic claim that if you are going to administer power to other people and hand them the reins, than a person needs to ask ‘Well, am I going to use them well?’” Brennan said. “If not, hand them back.”