Is There a Duty to Vote?

Written by Joseph Moore

This new year is a presidential election year in my home country of the United States. And so, there is likely to be no shortage of U.S. political news and commentary surrounding candidates’ pasts, their present comments and their campaign promises. It is also likely that many U.S. citizens (and probably some others) will find themselves embroiled, more frequently than usual, in weighty conversations about current events, political strategy or social or economic issues. And when the primary and general elections draw near, there will be repeated calls for all eligible voters to vote, regardless of who or what they vote for.

With all of the information (and misinformation) available and with the depth of many of the substantive issues, it will take a non-negligible amount of time and energy to remain fully politically informed throughout the election cycle. I am sure some people would rather not devote that time and energy to the process. Yet one often faces immense public and interpersonal pressure to be informed and to vote. These are sometimes even advanced as moral or civic duties on the part of citizens of democracies. To what extent are these really duties? Are citizens truly obligated to stay politically up-to-date and to vote in elections? Continue reading

Cooperating with the future

This is a guest post by Oliver P. Hauser & David G. Rand.

“It often strikes me that the complex problems we face in the world – problems of corruption, environment, politics, and so on – almost always indicate a failure of moral ethics and inner values. … The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on the global environment was, sadly, an example of how, when parties fail to look beyond their own narrow self-interest, cooperation becomes impossible.”

— The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Do we have a moral responsibility to sustain the planet for future generations? The Dalai Lama, in the quotation above, gives an almost unequivocal ‘yes’. But a cursory understanding of economics shows us that it’s not just about morality – or at least, that morality doesn’t always have the final word. We, today’s decision-makers, are simply better off economically if we harvest all resources today without thinking about the future. To state the economic, ‘rational’ argument in bald terms: why leave something for the future if we won’t benefit from it?

Continue reading

How Should I Vote?

Yesterday’s elections in the UK raised again an old question, which receives surprisingly little public discussion. Should I vote on the basis of my own self-interest (or the interest of my family), or should I vote on moral, or ‘other-regarding’, considerations? Continue reading

The P-Factor

Electoral reform is an often-discussed topic.  But the issues often concern minor modifications to the status quo. Here I suggest an entirely new approach to electing leaders of a country.  It would have numerous benefits over the current system, including:

–       Better voter turnout

–       Better representation of the working classes among those who vote

–       Better fulfillment of democratic values

–       Producing a better informed electorate

–       The election of more competent leaders

–       The election of less deceitful leaders

–       Greater social mobility from the working classes to the ruling class


The electoral system is principally modeled on three popular television shows: the X-Factor, Big Brother, and, to a lesser extent, Strictly Come Dancing.  I call it ‘The P-Factor’.


In the first round, we would have open auditions from all around the country.   This is modeled closely on the X-Factor.  Candidates would have to audition in front of a studio audience and a panel of judges.  They would have five or ten minutes or so to give the top few reasons why they would be excellent as a ruler of the country.  (At this stage, we would use a regimented interview structure, which avoids many of the biases associated with unregimented interviews).  Rather than a decision by judges, which would be undemocratic, the decision would be made by a studio audience of 100 people or so, randomly selected from the UK population.


This stage has the benefit that the opportunity to rule the country would be genuinely available to everyone in the country, rather than the tiny proportion of people who have had a sufficiently good education and the right contacts to enable them to run for parliament.  It could thus be a powerful driver of social mobility: even someone with no home and little education could do extremely well.  Moreover, insofar as the pool of potential candidates in this system would be vastly greater than the current pool of potential candidates, this system would be much better at filtering the population to discover undiscovered latent political talent, in much the same way as the X-Factor succeeds at discovering phenomenal vocal talent that would not otherwise be found.


Those that are particularly promising, at this stage, would make it through to the televised auditions round.  The auditions would be similar to those at the first round.  However, in order to make sure that the process was sufficiently entertaining so that the ratings stayed high – so that we would have a sufficiently informed and engaged electorate – we would require every candidate to also demonstrate their crowd-pleasing ‘special talent’, which would be akin to the skills displayed on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.


One might object that those candidates who would get voted through at this stage are those who would have the best ‘special talent’, like whoever could swallow the weirdest object.  But it’s difficult to see how this objection can be made given the presupposition that the government should be elected in accordance with democratic values.  If the current demos wishes to elect a leader based on their ability to make a dog dance, then that is what should happen.  (Though I doubt that this is what would happen).


At this stage, there would be judges.  Two independent political and economic experts, in order to point out aspects of the candidate’s performance that are particularly auspicious, qua political leader.  But also Amanda Holden, as the voice of the people, and Simon Cowell, again to keep the ratings up.  However, the judges would not be allowed to vote, as this would be undemocratic.  The voting at this stage would be open to the public, with the judges only there to offer expert opinion.


The voting system would be modeled on Strictly Come Dancing, which uses range voting (ranking each candidate on a scale of 1 to 10).  As even a cursory glance at the literature on voting theory will show, this is a far better voting system than the current first-past-the-post system, or the Alternative Vote system (which, incidentally, are among the worst voting systems ever seriously proposed: the former limits itself to the smallest possible amount of information from the voter; the latter violates conditions like monotonicity).  Though the Strictly voting system is vulnerable to tactical voting, in the presence of tactical voting it collapses into Approval voting, which is another excellent voting system.  (For those who are worried by this, we could alternatively use a sophisticated Condorcet method like the Schulze method.)


At this point, the 50 or so candidates with the greatest number of votes would enter a 2 month-long ‘boot camp’ phase, where the candidates undergo extensive training in how to lead a country – including personal presentation, debating skills, and education in economics and politics.  This would give those from the working classes a better chance against those who have had a long and expensive education.


Each week, during the boot camp’phase, there would be a different test that the candidates would have to perform, such as debating, oration, political knowledge (perhaps in the style of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’), IQ tests, heuristics and biases in decision-making, and economic forecasting.  Again, in order to keep the ratings up, and to make the conditions more realistic, these tests would have to be done in a variety of stressful conditions – such as while sleep deprived, or while being insulted in every possible way by journalists.  Again, every week the voting would be open to the public, so they could use the additional information that came through the testing as they saw fit.  Insofar as this system would employ assessment of the skills required for good political leadership, whereas the current system has almost no such assessment, we should expect the leaders produced by this method to be more competent.


Once the candidates were down to a small number – let’s say the final ten – then we enter the final, ‘Big Brother’ round, where all ten candidates have to live in a house together, under constant surveillance.  A recurring complaint among the electorate is that politicians cannot be trusted: insofar as it would be almost impossible to dissimulate one’s personality for 24 hours a day, for ten weeks, using the Big Brother systems enables us to get a sense of the true character of all the potential candidates, and to develop something like a feeling of friendship and understanding towards the better candidates.  Again, we would subject the candidates to a variety of tests.  (I personally would favour Takeshi’s Castle-style challenges.  But perhaps that’s just getting silly).


This would answer the problem that voter turnout is often disappointingly low: though the claim that Big Bother has a better voter turnout than general elections is unfounded, I would guess that this competition would be far more popular (and more entertaining) than the previous Big Brother shows, and would get overall a much larger vote.  It would also ensure that turnout is better distributed in proportion with the range of the social spectrum, rather than being biased in favour of the middle and upper classes.


One final benefit of this approach is the cost.  One might worry that this system would require a substantially larger infrastructure than the current voting system. However, it seems pretty plausible that the money could be made back and more through advertising during breaks.


So this electoral system seems to have an awful lot going for it.  However, the point of this blog post is not to seriously suggest the above as a new way of electing the leaders of a country (though, I confess, in writing it, I find it remarkably convincing).  The likelihood of my coming up with the optimal system of electing the leaders of a country over an hour-long coffee with my fiancé is vanishingly small.    But I do want to suggest that, aside from the fact that people wouldn’t take it seriously, the system described above is far better than the current system of electing leaders, in the UK or the US.  And I designed it as a joke.


Political debate can often take too much for granted; in its attempt to be ‘practical’, it can unthinkingly put great weight on the status quo.  Philosophy allows us to take a step back and realise that, sometimes, what is needed is not a minor repair here and there, but rather to tear down an institution, completely redesign it, and start over.

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