Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Demo-kratos and other lovely concepts.

One of my favourite authors, Patrick Rothfuss, wrote an interesting blog post today. Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind (which I heartily recommend you all read) describes in his self-styled Public Service Announcement why Americans should not vote. That's right, not vote. Let's take what I think is one of the funnier parts of the open letter to the American public (i.e. the interwebbers who watch his blog) is this:

For example, I was eating dinner the other day at a local restaurant and I heard someone at a nearby table say, "I'm voting for McCain. I heard Obama's into gun control. Nobody's taking away my guns." I'm not making this up. I'm not exaggerating or paraphrasing. These words have been echoing around in my head for weeks, and it's entirely possible that I will never be rid of them. If this sounds like something that might come out of your mouth, you need to realize that you are not very smart. I'm not saying you're a bad person. I'm not saying you're evil. What I'm asking is that you consider the very real possibility that you might not be capable of casting an intelligent vote. Let repeat myself just for clarity's sake. If you're willing to throw in with one candidate based on senseless fear and "something you heard" you are not well-informed, and you shouldn't vote. Again, I'm not saying you're a bad person. What I am saying is that the fate of the nation is probably too complicated for you to deal with properly. You should stay home on election night and watch some Nascar instead. That's right. Nice, comforting Nascar.
It raises what I think is one of the most interesting problems of democracy, or with any normatively significant practice: when rights or freedoms become duties or obligations. I'm a big fan of a view towards democracy that goes like so: every citizen has a right to vote. This right is given under a certain set of expectations, namely that such a citizen has the obligation to vote, and under an expectation that they will vote in an informed manner. Unfortunately, as with most of my beliefs, this is somewhat too good to be true. It seems that of the 224 countries who have universal voting processes, only 19 of them enforce compulsory voting. And, as Pat wishes to point out, maybe that's for the best. Whether or not compulsory voting leads to more extreme political stances is an empirical question, and one I'd love to have answered. It seems that the standard intuitive response is to the affirmative, that to allow voluntary voting within a western, developed, media-dominated democratic nation does lead to a more extreme stance by those who do turn out to vote. But I'm not really sure what this means: is this skewed towards one end of the spectrum or the other? I'm not a big fan of left or right extremism, and i don't think that the answer is so simple as one lovely blogite seems to imply, that if such an extremism is symmetrical than they cancel each other out. Please people, learn to math. These are vector sums at their simplest, although I'd suspect we'd need some pretty sophisticated, high ranking Tensors to sort that shamozzle out.

Also, it should probably be made clear that democracy does not presuppose libertarian views: some reasonably rudimentary history should settle that. Go look up some wikipedia, Indian Times opinion piece guy. If we are going to take the tack that we seriously want a liberal democracy , than maybe we want to say that one of these rights we've concocted to give people is that of voting, and right does not imply obligation, etc. Maybe so. Such arguments usually rest on some pretty boring and awful construal of everyone's favourite piece of philosophical cheap shots, The Harm principle. A whole swag of dead Afghanis and Iraqis, a crushed economy, and a streak of rights defacement beg to differ with how you use your vote, people. And as the right to vote does nothing to tell us when we shouldn't exercise such a right, maybe (don't faint, libertarians) we should be empowering voters to make the decision to vote or not. That means education, which may mean government involvement. Ha! Who would have thought that in order to live free of a restrictive government in a fashion which would allow for maximum preference satisfaction, we'd need some government involvement? Aaaah, Irony.  As my good friend Adam related though, democracy is not the right to decide how you live your life, but the right to ruin how others live theirs.

Ah, a bit of a convoluted post.  I've been away too long from the blogosphere.

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