From Assurance Contracts to “Compulsory” Voting

Jason Brennan has a series of posts up at BHL on compulsory voting. One of his arguments against compulsory voting is what he calls the Assurance Argument:

The Assurance Argument

  1. Low turnout occurs because citizens lack assurance other similar citizens will vote.

  2. Compulsory voting solves this assurance problem.

  3. If 1 and 2, then compulsory voting is justified.

  4. Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

I’ve sketched a version of the Assurance Argument here at PoT that’s immune to Brennan’s criticisms. It doesn’t exactly correspond to Brennan’s version of the Assurance Argument above, but I think it’s close enough in form to be worth discussing in the same breath.

I have yet to set it out formally, but my version of the Assurance Argument turns on the idea of an assurance contract to vote. The basic idea is this: Take a context in which low voter turnout is a bad thing you justifiably want to remedy. Find a population apt to vote in a single direction as a unified voting bloc. Make sure that what they’re voting for not only promotes their interests, but in doing so, promotes the common good. Then come up with a mechanism for generating and enforcing an assurance contract that gets that population to vote the relevant way. If you work with the right population, pursue the right aims, and fashion the right contract, my view is that you can generate a binding obligation to vote in the population, and in doing so, solve the assurance problem that Brennan treats as essentially insuperable.

Given the preceding context,  premise (1) of Brennan’s version is fine as is, but the rest has to be modified as follows: In premise (2), substitute “an assurance contract” for “compulsory voting.” In (3) and (4), substitute “enforced contract remedies” for “compulsory voting” (and change the grammar). With that in place, you have a version of the Assurance Argument that comes as close as possible to an argument for “compulsory voting” without quite crossing the line into literal compulsion. 

The general idea is that in any political context in which you can induce people to form an assurance contract to vote, you can “compel” them to vote, or else exact a penalty for failure to vote. That sounds implausible if you’re talking about American elections, but there are other contexts in which it’s feasible.

During the intifadas, Palestinian politics involved mass action where compliance was universally expected, and non-compliance was severely penalized (sometimes by death). The point is that in cases like this, we’re talking about a political culture that involves a strongly solidaristic ethic, where structures are in place for mass collective action.

Imagine that West Bank Palestinians somehow acquired the right to vote in Israeli elections (or East Jerusalemite Palestinians just decided to exercise their pre-existing right to vote), and that the mass action in question turned from coercive uprising-related activity to electoral politics. My claim is: If you can induce near-compliance with the dictates of an uprising (as you can), you can induce explicit consensual compliance with an assurance contract involving a promise to vote in an election. If you can do that, you can compel compliance with the contract.

More specifically: Imagine an electronic caucus–like a MOOC–in which everyone in a given population is expected, due to social pressure, to log on and decide on a course of electoral action. Everyone who logs on then becomes part of a (potential) assurance contract. The numbers are tallied, and if they’re sufficient to tip the election, the contract is considered valid, and people are expected to vote accordingly. If not, the caucus dissolves. (In other words, what I’m calling a caucus really has the function of a caucus plus a census plus an assurance contract.)

Suppose that the numbers are there to tip the election. Then everyone is expected to vote as specified in the contract. Suppose that the contract calls for x votes for a certain candidate/slate/policy. If x votes show up in the election results, fine. But if fewer do, it follows that there were free riders who reneged on the contract. In that case, it becomes a matter of finding out who they are, so as to exact a penalty for non-compliance. Now suppose that the balloting is open, not secret. If so, then if (say) Khawaja failed to vote for the agreed-to candidate, and there’s no secret ballot, someone will squeal on him when the Free Rider Commission makes its inquiry. Under such conditions, I suspect that there will be very few free riders.

If you can pull all that off, you can “compel” votes that tip the scales of the election. The obstacles to pulling it off are psychological rather than conceptual. If the right psychological dispositions were in place–if Palestinians regarded elections the way they regard uprisings, and the Israelis allowed them to organize politically, and allowed them to vote, etc.–you could generate an electoral assurance contract mechanism involving (a) numbers large enough to affect an election but (b) small enough to organize and hold compliant to the terms of the contract. This only seems implausible to Americans because we live in a huge, highly impersonal, individualistic, diverse, and cosmopolitan society where such a contract seems like a mere thought experiment. If you live in a smaller scale society with a different political ethos, however, it’s within the realm of nomological possibility.

The point I’m making isn’t so much about Israelis and Palestinians as about assurance contracts and elections. Even if the preceding doesn’t literally apply to the Palestinian case, my point is, if you can find a case that satisfies the description I’ve just given, you can run some version of an assurance argument on it. It’s an empirical question whether you can generate or discover such a case. I’m not a political scientist, and don’t know the literature very well, but as an armchair consideration, I don’t find my empirical assumptions implausible, and they merely have to be possible to get the argument off the ground. Maybe Brennan discusses the relevant empirical issues somewhere (he’s written a great deal that I haven’t read), but he doesn’t do so in The Ethics of Voting or in “The Right to a Competent Electorate,” which I have read.

There are lots of details to work out here, but once you grasp the principle involved, the sketchiness of the proposal is not an objection to the basic idea. At any rate, my argument is immune to what Brennan calls the Burden of Proof and the Worse Government arguments.

Here’s the Burden of Proof Argument:

The Burden of Proof Argument

  1. Because compulsory voting is compulsory, it is presumed unjust in the absence of a compelling justification.

  2. A large number of purported arguments for compulsory voting fail.

  3. There are no remaining plausible arguments that we know of.

  4. If 1-3, then, probably, compulsory voting is unjust.

  5. Therefore, probably, compulsory voting is unjust.

As a response to my argument, the BP argument fails at premise (1): premise (1) doesn’t apply to my argument because unlike compulsory voting in the literal sense, there’s no initiatory compulsion involved in my assurance contract idea, and no special burden of proof is required to hold someone to a contract to which they’re explicitly a party.

Here’s the Worse Government Argument:

 The Worse Government Argument

  1. The typical and median citizen who abstains (under voluntary voting) is moreignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics than the typical and median citizen who votes.

  2. If so, then if we force everyone to vote, the electorate as a whole will then become more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics. Both the median and modal voter will be more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics.

  3. If so, in light of the influence voters have on policy, then compulsory voting will lead [to] at least slightly more incompetent and lower quality government,

  4. It is (at least presumptively) unjust to impose more incompetent and lower quality government.

  5. Therefore, compulsory voting is (at least presumptively) unjust.

This argument fails at premise (1) as well. As far as I can tell, premise (1) implicitly makes a claim about the median American voter. But I’m not talking about American voters; I’m talking about non-American ones. Unless the claims of (1) generalize to the voters I have in mind, the WG argument involves an ignoratio elenchi against my proposal.

If anyone can cite studies that show that, say, Israeli Arab voters are misinformed, ignorant, or irrational when they vote for the United Arab List, I’d like to see it. If anyone can cite studies that show that East Jerusalemite Palestinians would be misinformed, ignorant, or irrational to vote for (candidates that favor) more housing permits, I’d like to see that, too. But I’m skeptical.

*I changed the title of the post after posting.

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