In my last post, I noted that Jason Brennan’s published work strongly opposed disenfranchisement in the ordinary sense, and I claimed that Eric Schiesser had misrepresented his words in order to derive that conclusion. Today, Eric Schliesser supplied an unpublished paper in which Brennan offers an argument for experimentation with competency tests to disenfranchise incompetent voters.
Eric, please accept my apology.
Here are some telling highlights from Brennan’s paper:
- In this paper, I argue that the practice of unrestricted, universal suffrage is unjust. Citizens have a right that any political power held over them should be exercised by competent people in a competent way. In realistic circumstances, universal suffrage violates this right. Since nearly all current democracies have universal suffrage, all current democracies are to that extent unjust.
- Restricted suffrage is about as unjust as voting age laws. It creates a ruling relationship between different classes of citizens based on a distinction that all reasonable people can accept in the abstract, but about which in practice there will be reasonable disagreement. In contrast, universal suffrage is about as unjust as a policy of enforcing jury decisions not matter what, even when we have conclusive grounds for thinking the jurors were incompetent or made their decisions incompetently. Thus, universal suffrage appears to be more intrinsically unjust than restricted suffrage.
- We do not know for sure whether voter examination systems would produce better or worse results than democracy universal suffrage. However, as I have argued, such systems are less intrinsically unjust than democracies with universal suffrage. And there are good reasons to think they will produce better results than democracy with universal suffrage, though there are reasons to worry they will not. Since we are unsure of the consequences, but have reason to expect them to be positive, we might experiment with voter examination systems on a relatively small scale at first. For instance, perhaps it would be best if one state in the U.S. tried the system first. (We would want to start with a relatively non-corrupt state, such as New Hampshire, rather than a corrupt state, such as Rhode Island.) If the experiment succeeds, then the rules could be scaled up. Similarly, consider that a few hundred years ago, we have little experience with democracy. Some advocated democracy in part because they believed it would tend to produce better and more just outcomes than monarchy. Others worried that democracies would be even more corrupt, or would collapse into chaos. In light of their lack of experience, a democrat might reasonably have argued in favor of experimenting with democracy on a relatively small scale, and then scaling up if the experiment succeeds.
Unlike a call for abstention from voting, a call for restricted suffrage is certainly support for disenfranchisement. I intend to respond to this paper in depth when it is published, but for now I will say that Brennan ought not to look to Burkean conservatism for practical objections to such experiments, but rather to Hayekian liberalism or Arendtian republicanism (cf. Brennan’s comments on civic virtue.) As always, the difference between micro and macro, small experiments and institutional redesigns, should not be overlooked. (No doubt Brennan is exploring territory similar to the prediction markets I discussed with Robin Hanson last year here and here.)