It is certainly great to be able to get rid of a president or other national leader who doesn’t deliver the goods. But in other ways, voting is a bad idea.
One problem is that people vote on things they don’t understand. This is not good. Imagine if we handled surgery and engineering that way. Should we make an incision here? Use this kind of bridge design? Oh, I think so. Sure, why not?
Of course, in a representative democracy, we’re often voting for people rather than issues. I don’t understand government financing, but I’ll vote for Joe Blow, who says he does. Then Joe — typically, a lawyer or some other glad-handing type of person — gets into office, doesn’t actually know much more about things than you or I do, doesn’t remotely have the time to read up on all the various bills that are presented to him, and inevitably relies on advice he gets from paid lobbyists. So then I get upset because government makes decisions that seem to go in the wrong direction.
If I don’t have the ability to understand the issues and/or don’t want to spend the time to become knowledgeable about them, I should not make decisions about them. We say that voting is a right, not a privilege, and in some ways that’s true. But we also wisely remove ourselves from voting on important things. We leave key governmental financing decisions to the Federal Reserve Bank, for instance, because to some extent it has been deliberately insulated from political (i.e., from your and my) control. We leave battlefield decisions to generals, and postal distribution decisions to the Post Office.
Voting makes sense on the very general level. We should be able to vote on the relative priorities of healthcare, education, aid to the poor, and environmental protection. It is one thing to say that we are spending too much, or not enough, in warfare and military preparedness overseas. It is quite another to play Expert for a Day, and make decisions on the global role of the United States based on whether that role will create jobs. There are other ways to create jobs. Decisions on job creation can be made without putting the entire nation at risk of war.
Voters should choose the general priorities. The specific execution should be left to people who know what they are doing. We should have plenty of controls to insure that those who make the decisions actually are (and continue to be) knowledgeable, that they’re not political stooges, that their learned discussions are open to all reasonable perspectives, and so forth. But we should not be micromanaging the “how” of it — the details that we don’t have a clue about. Basically, I should not (and in many settings, as a matter of fact, I do not) have a fundamental right to inject my random opinion into people’s efforts to solve problems and make the world a better place.
Voting is considered positive because it gives people a feeling of being personally involved in their government. In other words, it’s a sort of therapy. It helps people feel good about things, without necessarily making real-world facts better.
Half of the eligible voters in the country — more than a hundred million people (i.e., nearly as many people as there are in the entire country of Mexico) — don’t bother to vote in our national elections. This is a pretty resounding vote in itself. Half of the country (indeed, a slight majority) seems to doubt that their vote matters at all, and large majorities doubt that their vote is important in state and local elections.
Meanwhile, those who do vote give us presidents who are not necessarily good leaders. They give us congressional representatives that, quite often, the voters themselves find dissatisfying. At this writing, polls indicate that only 14% of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job. Isn’t this kind of crazy? We vote for people, and then don’t like what we’ve done, so we blame them — and then we go back and do the same thing over again, a couple of years later.
If you want people to feel that they are personally important to political processes, you have to make them important in fact. Being part of an electorate of 200,000,000 eligible voters is not going to achieve that. But if you put them in a group of 100 people who have input on issues involving their own block or micro-community, chances are you’ll see their voting participation shoot way up. If they don’t participate on the local level, it’s because they think the state and/or national governments are the only really important ones. If voting participation and political empowerment are your goals, you have to devolve decision-making power down to the very local level.
I’ve addressed two points here. First, people should not vote on stuff they don’t understand. For purposes of dealing with big-picture, national-level issues, they should choose a system that permits votes to be made by people who know what they’re voting about — not by politicians whose expertise is in being popular. The general public should retain power to sketch out how the system will best represent their interests. That’s where their opinion is valuable. Second, voting in national elections is good for generating lots of energy and hoopla, positive and not so positive, but it doesn’t get most people engaged, and doesn’t yield results that we are usually happy with.
The solution is not clear. This is not a post about the solution. This is a post about the problem. Voting, as presently understood, is problematic. Some revisions are needed.
(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)