Tuesday, November 03, 2015

'Duties' in democracy

The argument that we must vote goes like this: since it affects all of us in an important way, it can only work if enough of us participate, and we each have the power to participate, we have a duty to vote. Because it's a duty, doing it is always the right thing to do, so we should vote 'no matter what' and 'do our part' for democracy.

But if democracy is about more than putting ballots into boxes and instead about, as Don Lavoie puts it in 'Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society', "openness and publicness, not some particular theory of how to elect the personnel of government", and, "not a quality of the conscious will of a representative organization that has been legitimated by the public, but a quality of the discursive process of the distributed wills of the public itself", then electoral voting is only how we choose a single organization playing a part in the ongoing process of democracy - a small part of a whole.

Democracy, more broadly considered, is the process that establishes the limits of public opinion, values, and culture. As Lavoie puts it:
"What makes a legal system, any legal system, work is a shared system of belief in the rules of justice—a political culture. The culture is, in turn, an evolving process, a tradition which is continually being reappropriated in creative ways in the interpersonal and public discourses through which social individuals communicate... Everything depends here on what is considered acceptable social behavior, that is, on the constraints imposed by a particular political culture. Where slavery is considered offensive, those who attempt to practice it are easily overwhelmed by the horror of the public. Where it is thought by the general public to be justifiable, no amount of constitutional design will prevent it.those who attempt to practice it."
In elections, the scope for discourse is narrow and closed, occurring between sets of ideas drawn from all of acceptable public opinion. But the process by which we establish acceptable public opinion, or our 'political culture', is broad and open, and that's the only way it works. To build our culture, we propose ideas from in and outside the norm and test them through study, discussion, and argument. It must be open to all if we're to know what ideas and values are most important, and enough of us have to participate for it to work.

This process is more important than electoral voting because it is a prerequisite for free elections. All free societies, regardless of how they choose their governments, depend on it. If the importance of elections is a compelling reason to participate, the argument for taking part in this process should be far more persuasive. It affects all of society in an important way.

You have the right to study public policy, philosophy, economics, and psychology to try to understand them, to debate them, and test their mettle. You have a right to spend your time trying to persuade others of what you think you've discovered. Doing all of these things will make you a powerful contributor to political culture and you have the power to do them. But while you have a right to do all of it, you don't have an obligation to do any of it. No moral obligation follows from having rights, even if using those rights contribute to democracy and democracy is socially important.

If voting is a duty because of the need for broad participation, the potential for wide societal impact, and the ability to contribute, then there should also be a duty to participate in serious, ongoing study and dedication to democratic participation. If, on the other hand, these reasons are insufficient to make deep, ongoing commitment to democracy a duty, then they are insufficient to make voting a duty.

Someone who participates in only the lowest-cost form of engagement, voting, has the power to do more, but chooses not to. That's fine. Part of the process of democracy is moving in and out of participation, and it's not the only thing in life that matters. But it shows us that these reasons for considering voting a duty might not be sufficient, after all - it might be fine to abstain from even the lowest-cost form of engagement. A broader conception of democracy helps untangle the rhetoric around participation so that we can decide whether and when it's worth participating, along the most meaningful way to do so.


Ken Moore said...

These are sound observations. Participation will increase when citizens see an advantage. The right to vote does not conflate with a purported duty to vote.

Dollops said...

An interesting experiment in democracy might be to count all unused votes as votes for the status quo -- adding to each incumbent's tally. The rationale would obviously be that an apathetic voter is not motivated to effect change in representation. Would such a system get more people involved? My guess is no.

Janet Neilson said...

Dollops - that's one interpretation of unused votes, but not the only one. I don't vote, in spite of being unsatisfied with the status quo, if I feel that there is no one who supports the policies that I'd like to see the government pursue in my riding. This is a signal that I'm dissatisfied with the system as it's working and that if they want my participation, those who are part of the electoral process have to provide more options. It would be flat-out wrong to assume that I essentially support the incumbent in my riding because they've all failed to secure my vote.

Abstention from voting is an unclear signal. But in many ways, so is voting. The best thing to do is to acknowledge that and take the outcomes of any election with a grain of salt and as only one signal of many in the country's politics.