Stoner vs. Munger: Citizen or Consumer? How Do You Choose When You Vote?

There is a marvelous ambiguity in the question that Mike and I are debating.[1] Idiomatically, a question that begins “How do you . . . ” might be asking how one should do something; or it might be asking how, typically, it is done. As with any ambiguity, the interpretation depends upon the context.

For example, if an older person who looks a bit baffled asks, “How do you use an iPhone?,” you would show him how to enter a code to unlock it, how to swipe a finger across the screen to make various icons appear and disappear, perhaps even how to dial a call.  If, by contrast, a 20-something carrying an iPad asks “How do you use an iPhone?” you would assume he or she was taking a survey, and you might answer by mentioning your favorite apps and showing him or her some favorite photos or videos.

So, if someone asks our question, “How do you choose when you vote?,” one would consider the questioner. If a neighbor or a stranger asks, one might answer “Democrat” or “Republican,” or “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” or even say “None of your business!” But if a student asks, or someone young enough not to be fixed in his or her opinions and habits, then perhaps the questioner means, how should one think about voting, how should one go about making a political choice?

At any rate, I am going to address my comments to the student, so to speak, although I will address the other question, too, for in fact I find the questions easier to separate in theory than in practice.

So, how should one vote? My answer is, as a conscientious citizen.

Let me define my terms. By citizen I mean a member of a polity, not just any group, but a community or association authorized to make laws and defend itself by force, an association with sovereign power. Here in America we have a double citizenship, in the United States and in our home state. The different levels of government have different responsibilities: the federal government is charged with insuring peace and prosperity, providing defense and promoting a thriving economy, and also protecting certain rights, while the states have more comprehensive responsibilities, insuring personal safety, protecting property, settling disputes, promoting education, and also securing a basic order in the community—having what is called the “police power,” concerned with the community’s health, safety, and morals.

One might be a member of other groups that vote—clubs or voluntary associations, church congregations, even sometimes places of employment—but I don’t want to concentrate on these, because one can always “vote with one’s feet” and quit if one is not happy with the decisions taken, something one cannot do in political life, or cannot do without enormous effort. Citizenship in a polity is an office, common to all in our democracy, or at least to all adults who have not forfeited its privileges by committing a serious crime. Citizenship entails a duty to vote and to serve on juries, and sometimes much more, even to the point of risking one’s life in battle.

By conscience I mean an act of judgment about what to do in particular circumstances in light of what is right, good, or noble. To vote conscientiously, then, you would have to know what is right, good, and noble, and you have to know the circumstances in which you are making a choice—both present circumstances and the traditions that form the background of one’s community. A consumer, by the way, is someone whose choices are based principally on self-interest. Perhaps one ought to shop as a conscientious consumer, but I will leave that question aside for now and return to the question of the conscientious voter.

Let me give a few examples of conscientious voting based on justice or right. I suppose we agree that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race in assigning people’s basic rights and providing basic opportunities. We can then agree that it would be wrong to vote for laws that segregate the races and establish different rights and opportunities for each.

Still, complicated judgments would need to be made. Should race discrimination be forbidden by criminal law or by civil suit? If by the latter, should the right to sue be lodged in the aggrieved parties or in government agencies? If there is a history of past discrimination, is it right to make special efforts to compensate for the lingering effects of past wrongs? If so, when could we say that equal rights have been achieved? What about ethnic groups now present in the polity whose ancestors neither suffered nor condoned race discrimination in America? Arguments here have to do with justice, but they depend as well upon circumstances: Which kinds of laws or programs work best in practice in the actual communities affected?

Let me take a second example. I suppose we agree that intentional killing of human beings is wrong. Add to this the scientific fact that the distinct and individual human life of each of us began as an embryo, indeed a single fertilized egg, and you can conclude as a matter of logic that abortion—the deliberate removal of a human embryo or fetus from its mother’s womb—is wrong.

There would still remain the questions of whether to punish the mother who aborts her own child, perhaps out of desperation, or only a doctor who performs abortion; and whether there are any circumstances in which abortion might be justified, for example as a secondary effect of the effort to save the mother’s life, for instance in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.

Moreover, some people ask whether there are other rights that conflict with the right to life, for example women’s rights to equal opportunity. It might seem odd to balance life itself against opportunity, but people risk their own lives for liberty, so perhaps one can see how they grow confused. Even justices of the Supreme Court have been confused about this, and now that the Court has entrenched abortion rights as though they were constitutional, voters who see abortion as wrong have to make complex judgments about how to confine its practice, for example whether to vote for laws prohibiting only partial birth abortion or monitoring fetal pain.

My point is that there can be conscientious voters on both sides of most political issues, even those where justice on the underlying issue seems clear. What is not conscientious is to ignore issues because they are difficult or even painful to think about or because one does not think oneself affected by them—for example, if one never expects to be discriminated against or to want a way out of an inconvenient pregnancy.

When the issue is one of justice, in short, one ought to think and vote like a citizen, not a consumer.

What if the issue is about some public good other than justice? For example, voters have to decide the relative amount of defense spending versus spending on domestic programs, or the relative value of transfer-payment entitlements versus highways and other places where use is shared, or the relative value of universities versus hospitals. Questions of justice are mixed up with these, of course, but I don’t think that all considerations of public welfare can be reduced to questions of justice. It is one thing to decide whether a state should provide a public university system; another to insure that admission to public universities, once they are established, is fair.

Concerning such goods, I think it is very difficult for citizens not to also be consumers,  and to think like consumers—that is, to be self-interested. Anyone with a car uses the roads. Many with children use the schools. All benefit from national defense, though not all risk their lives for it. I don’t think it is realistic, or just, to pretend or to ask people to pretend that they have no interests when they vote on these matters. It is probably not even desirable, since people know more about the things they take an interest in and thus would have more to contribute to the public debate.

Perhaps the standard ought to be Alexis de Tocqueville’s self-interest properly understood. Instead of voting to fund schools only if we have school-aged children or grandchildren, we ought to all recognize the importance of a well-educated populace. Likewise, even if we don’t fly, we can recognize the value to our city of a well-functioning airport. I am not confident that if we all sought our own pet needs at the public expense, everything would balance out, but I do think that if voters conscientiously understood their self-interest in a broad-minded way, they would at least be able to strike the deals and make the compromises that preserve social harmony and achieve some measure of public good—or alternatively, recognize public failures and call for reform.

It should go without saying, but of course today cannot, that the conscientious decision on public goods includes conscientious financing through fair taxation and sustainable debt—lest injustice to future generations be done to support the bad habits of the present.

I said conscientious voters ought to weigh the just, the good, and the noble. What do I mean by the noble? I suppose I mean intangibles, some quite formal: that in politics we ought to show respect for our opponents; that we ought to recognize the dignity of self-government, of the exercise of political freedom; that we ought to maintain decency in public places and appropriately adorn public buildings; that we ought to honor those who sacrifice for the common good, our soldiers of course, but also others, including public servants and even those politicians who serve and then go home, satisfied with honor, not using office as a means of enrichment or a ticket to enrichment. I am not praising the resort to patriotic symbols as a substitute for hard thinking about justice and the common good—but a conscientious citizen should take pride in voting and should vote for things he can take pride in.

So there is my sketch of conscientious voting. There is not an algorithm that can balance concern for justice against the good and against nobility—nor are circumstances variables that can be plugged into a formula. All these things must be held in mind, and then the virtue of prudence applied to make a wise choice.

Now I have spoken thus far as though we lived in a direct democracy, where every voter undertakes to be informed on every issue before the public and to develop a conscientious position on each. But of course we live in a representative democracy, so most decisions we make as voters involve choices between candidates for office. This makes the task of conscientious voting easier and more difficult.

It’s easier because all the complex calculations I’ve described are ones that representatives must make, representatives who actually have to fashion public policy and work out the complex compromises necessary even among people of good faith. Most of us voters are probably being conscientious enough if we think these matters out for ourselves in general outline, without having to pay attention to all the details.

The task is also more difficult because now we have to assess, in addition to all these issues, questions of character and capacity. We need to ask not only where there is a reasonably good alignment between our conscientious opinions and those expressed by some candidate, but whether he or she can be trusted to vote on the issues as promised during the campaign and to weigh new issues wisely—and then in addition whether he or she has the capacity to be effective. Once again there is no formula or algorithm to settle when to vote for the candidate whose views are best aligned with one’s own, or the candidate who seems most virtuous, or whose capacities are most impressive, or whose fit for the office is best. Conscientious voting means taking all these things into account and then striking a judgment as to what the circumstances most demand.

But there is still another complication—or simplification. Just as we don’t stand alone as individual voters legislating for all mankind, candidates usually don’t stand alone when running for office. Rather, they tend to run as members of a political party, sometimes even pledging themselves to a common platform and voicing at least their party’s main ideas or talking points.

Now this reminder about the inevitability of political parties in democratic life might seem to undermine everything I have said about conscientious voting, since partisans often seem to sacrifice independent thought, not to say their very consciences, to toe the party line. There is no doubt that parties can have a corrupting effect on democratic voting—substituting rigid platforms or ideologies for vigorous thought; favoring voting for the team over the public good or even over justice; vilifying one another as though partisan opponents were traitors or enemies; even colluding to indulge one another’s vices, such as the propensity of one party to spend beyond necessity or the reluctance of the other to tax even when necessary. Still, parties serve an indispensable function in democracy: aggregating disparate opinions, presenting voters with orderly choices, developing alliances that make possible effective action, and providing stability over time, even when they oscillate in office.

Let me conclude with three observations about how political parties are consistent enough with my model of conscientious voting.

First, much of what I have said about the issues to be thought through and debated goes on within parties, if not always across party lines. That is why it is interesting when the election is a contest for an open seat—as is the case for the presidency this year, with wide open fields in both major parties. Perhaps there is more room for, or at any rate need for, conscientious voting in primaries than in general elections. In general elections, partisan loyalty tends to predominate.

Second, many issues are not necessarily partisan along the usual lines. For example, many issues that concern local government—whether to build a road or a school, to promote a particular industry or support a sports team, to alleviate conditions in a certain part of town or to address crime—do not easily map onto national partisan agendas. If the latter are formed around ideological positions concerning basic issues of justice, do they entail stable or instead shifting views of the weight of public goods?

Finally, as Charles Evans Hughes argued while serving as Governor of New York, in his fine book of lectures called Conditions of Progress in Democratic Government (1910), there are wise, conscientious politicians or statesmen in both parties, who counter the worst tendencies of their fellow partisans. They know when to cooperate for the common good, for example in a crisis. Of course, this acknowledges that there are party hacks and even extremists in both parties. Perhaps the ultimate purpose of making the case for conscientious voting is to see that the proportion of responsible to irresponsible in each party improves.

Michael Munger‘s response

[1] Debate held on March 26, 2015, with Michael C. Munger of Duke University at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana, sponsored by the Waggonner Center for Civic Engagement and Public Policy.

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