A Philosopher's Blog

Consent of the Governed

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2016

English: A voter returns his vote-by-mail ball...

Plato, through the character of Socrates, advances a now classic argument against democracy. When it comes to a matter that requires knowledge and skill, such as a medical issue, it would be foolish to decide by having the ignorant vote on the matter. Those who have good sense turn to those who have the knowledge and skill needed to make a good decision.

Political matters, such as deciding what policies to adopt regarding immigration, require knowledge and skill. As such, it would be foolish to make decisions by having the ignorant and unskilled vote on such matters. Picking a competent leader also requires knowledge and skill and thus it would be foolish to leave it to those lacking these attributes.

In the abstract, this argument is compelling: as with all tasks that require competence, it would be best to have the competent make the decisions and the incompetent should remain on the sidelines. There are, however, various counters to this argument.

One appealing argument assumes people have a moral right to a role in decisions that impact them, even if they are not likely to make the best (or even good) choices.  Consider, for example, something as simple as choosing a meal. Most people will not select the most nutritious or even most delicious option, thus making a bad choice. However, compelling people against their will to eat a meal, even if it is the best for them, seems to be morally problematic. At least when it comes to adults. Naturally, an argument can be made that people who routinely make poor health choices would be better off being compelled to eat healthy foods—which is the heart of this dispute between democracy and being ruled by those with the knowledge and skills to make better decisions.

Another approach is to use the context of the state of nature. This is a philosophical device developed by thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau in which one is asked to imagine a world without a political system in place, a world in which everyone is equal in social status. In this world, there are no kings, presidents, lawyers, police or other such socially constructed positions of hierarchy. It is also assumed there is nothing supernatural conferring a right to rule (such as the make-believe divine right of kings). In such a context, the obvious question is that of what would give a person the right to rule over others.

As a practical matter, the strongest might coerce others into submission, but the question is one of the right to rule and not a question of what people could do. Given these assumptions, it would seem that no one has the right to be the boss over anyone else—since everyone is equal in status. What would be required, and what has often been argued for, is that the consent of the governed would be needed to provide the ruler with the right to rule. This is, of course, the assumed justification for political legitimacy in the United States and other democratic countries.

If it is accepted that political legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed, then the usual method of determining this consent is by voting. For a country to continue as one country it must also be accepted that the numerical minority will go along with the vote of the numerical majority—otherwise, as Locke noted, the country would be torn asunder. This is, as has been shown in the United States, consistent with having certain things (such as rights) that are protected from the possible tyranny of the majority.

If voting is accepted in this role, then maintaining political legitimacy would seem to require two things. The first is that there must be reliable means of assuring that fraud does not occur in elections. The United States has done an excellent job at this. While there are some issues with the accuracy of voter lists (people who move or die often remain on lists for years), voter fraud is almost non-existent, despite unsupported assertions to the contrary.

The second is that every citizen who wishes to vote must have equal and easy access to the voting process. To the degree that citizens are denied this equal and easy access, political legitimacy is decreased. This is because those who are deterred or prevented from voting are denied the opportunity to provide their consent. This excludes them from falling under the legitimate authority of the government. It also impacts the legitimacy of the government in general. Since accepting a democratic system means accepting majority rule, excluding voters impacts this. After all, one does not know how the excluded voters would have voted, thus calling into question whether the majority is ruling or not.

Because of this, the usual attempts to deter voter participation are a direct attack on political legitimacy in the United States. These include such things as voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, unreasonable limits on polling hours, cutting back on polling places and so on.

In contrast, efforts to make voting easier and more accessible (consistent with maintaining the integrity of the vote) increase political legitimacy. These include such things as early voting, expanded voting hours, providing free transportation to polling stations, mail in voting, online voter registration and so on. One particularly interesting idea is automatic voter registration.

It could be argued that citizens have an obligation to overcome inconveniences and even obstacles to vote; otherwise they are lazy and unworthy. While it is reasonable to expect citizens to put in a degree of effort, the burden of access rests on the government. While it is the duty of a citizen to vote, it is the duty of the government to allow citizens to exercise this fundamental political right without undue effort. That is, the government needs to make it as easy and convenient as possible. This can be seen as somewhat analogous to the burden of proof: the citizen is not obligated to prove their innocence; the state must prove their guilt.

It could be objected that I only favor easy and equal access to the voting process because I am registered as a Democrat and Democrats are more likely to win when voter turnout is higher. If the opposite were true, then I would surely change my view. The easy and obvious reply to this objection is that it is irrelevant to the merit of the arguments advanced above. Another reply is that I actually do accept majority rule and even if Democrats were less likely to win with greater voter turnout, I would still support easy and equal access. And would do so for the reasons given above.


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9 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on December 30, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Mike, as far as I can tell there has been only one study that estimates the number of non-citizens that vote, and their best estimate is that about 1.2 million non-citizens vote in federal elections.

    You may choose to disregard that study because you don’t agree with its conclusions, but it is disingenuous to claim there is no evidence of voter fraud.

  2. DH said, on December 30, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    I think that the definition of democracy that you are referring to is facetiously illustrated in the example, “Two wolves and a lamb vote on what to have for dinner”.

    It has been argued that we do not live in a pure democracy, but rather a representative republic. Our system of government is designed specifically so that no one person or one group of people will have all the power. What some call “Gridlock” in Congress, others refer to as “The system working”.

    The individual power of the presidency has been creeping upward for the past 100 years; for all the warranted criticism GW Bush received for his presidential overreach, his overreach pales in comparison to what Obama did with his “If Congress won’t act, I will”, which sets an extremely dangerous precedent that his cheerleaders are only now starting to recognize as the reins of expanded power are handed over to the likes of Donald Trump.

    As an aside, one thing that makes me very hopeful about Trump is that he is filling his cabinet with people who not only disagree with him, but with open critics of his ideas. While this could go a number of ways, one way in which I see as a distinct possibility is the President being surrounded by a coalition of advisers who are not afraid to stand their ground and disagree. Rather than a posse of sycophants and toadies, we could have an executive branch modeled after the “Team of Rivals” described in Goodwin’s great read. To that same end, although the House and Senate both have Republican majorities, the level of support for Trump is relatively low. I think this is as it should be – the direction of this country should be in the hands of ALL the members of the three branches, who should argue and debate and fight on merit, not on political pressure or expediency, or in such a way that would enrich them as individuals.

    While ignorant people might vote ignorantly – or in such a way as to cause (in your opinion) great harm, the law of large numbers would suggest that the ignorant votes vacillate on either side of the true path (whatever that is). The concepts of “mistakes cancel each other out” has been researched heavily and shown to be a very systematic set of results.


    Regarding the voting question – well, this makes no sense to me at all. Here is an anecdote from my youth that expresses my thoughts about it.

    When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was a lifeguard at a national seashore. We guarded a few stretches of beach along a ten-mile coastline. One spring we noticed that, as a result of a parking lot having been built near a particular unguarded area, this area became a very popular spot for bathers. Unfortunately, that same spring, a dangerous rip tide developed during tide changes. We, the lifeguard staff, decided to place a lifeguard stand there and send a couple of guys up there during the tide changes, for the public safety.

    Of course, we were told that we had to remove it, that guarding that stretch of beach was not in the budget, etc, etc, which all made sense. We wanted to make a case to include it in the budget because lives were truly at stake. We were told that a case would not even be considered without an incident report.

    “Incident report?” we said, “You mean like a drowning?”


    This is the government’s way of doing things, and so it is with voting.

    So it really doesn’t matter if there is evidence of voter fraud. The lack of evidence could mean that it doesn’t exist, or it could mean that it hasn’t been discovered, or it could mean that it HAS been discovered and is being covered up. Regardless,I don’t think we want to be in the situation of having a major election where one candidate comes out ahead by 2 – 3 percentage points, only to discover that voter fraud on the order of 10 – 15% actually did exist. It wasn’t too long ago that we did not believe that we needed more cybersecurity – after all, there was no evidence that a place like Russia had ever hacked our networks!

    I am a citizen of the United States, of the State of New York. My vote means something to me. If you or any other citizen votes in opposition to me, canceling my vote, so be it. This is America. But if there is a chance that a non-citizen, a deceased person, an illegal alien or anyone else of that ilk can cancel my vote, our entire system is compromised. I would rather not wait for a drowning to do something about this after the fact.

    The government does bend over backwards to provide access to voting. Fees are waived in instances of indigence, registration can be accomplished by mail, there are paid counselors to aid in registering illiterate people, and there are years and years during which registration can take place before an election. It doesn’t really get much easier than this.

    As far as early voting is concerned, there really has to be a line drawn somewhere. It is unfair to candidates and parties to allow large numbers of people to vote before the campaigning is done. We very nearly saw this in this year’s election – what if, in fact, Hillary Clinton’s emails revealed that she was an unrepentant felon, after tens of thousands of people had already cast their votes for her? These votes could easily have propelled her into the White House, despite the sincere desire on the part of early voters to rescind their votes. The same is true of the other side. Votes should be cast after all the facts are in, subject to the deadline of the first Tuesday in November.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      You do point out a legitimate concern about early voting-some key information could become available after the vote is cast but before the official election day. The same applies to mail in ballots that can be sent in early.

      Of course, the same could occur if a person votes in the morning-some key information might come out right before the polls closed. Or the information might come out right after the election.

      I would argue that the convenience afforded by allowing early voting offsets the potential harm of a last day revelation. Also, most voters tend to lock in early and most candidates are well known.

      I support maintaining the integrity of the election, but I have argued in other posts that it is better to err on the side of not disenfranchising people. That is, a system that makes it as or more likely that a citizen will be disenfranchised than that a fraudulent voter will be prevented from voting is no more acceptable than having a presumption of guilt in the legal system.

      This can, of course, be countered-it could be argued that it is better than a citizen be disenfranchised than to have a single fraudulent vote cast.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2016 at 6:58 pm

        The wolf problem is addressed by rights; as per the concerns about the tyranny of the majority.

      • DH said, on December 31, 2016 at 9:04 am

        “A poor man beseeches the lord, “Oh lord, I have been poor my life. I have worked hard, I have raised a good family, but I have nothing! Please, lord, let me win the lottery!”

        A month passes with no result. Then three months, then a year. The man prays again, “Oh, lord, do you not hear my prayers? Why do you forsake me so?” Whereupon a booming voice comes from the heavens, “You have to at least buy a ticket!”

        This is an example of the Catholic Counter-revolution, from which comes the belief that salvation comes from a combination of divine grace (or the government) AND hard work. (Cathcart & Klein)

        The government has gone to great lengths to enable people to vote, as I indicated in my earlier post. Mail-in applications for ID and registration, personal assistance, waiver of fees – and citizens have four whole years in which to accomplish this task.

        Too many rules and regulations of course would disenfranchise people; unrestricted and unregulated voting would compromise the system – so the answer lies somewhere in between I think that asking American citizens to prove their citizenship sometime within four years of an election and offering a list of assistance options is a pretty good place to draw the line.

        I personally ascribe to the underlying philosophy of the above anecdote. We have been given great freedoms in this country, and with great freedom comes great responsibility. Like a marriage, we have to work every day to make sure we preserve what we have – even if it means putting a stamp on an envelope in a year not divisible by four. I agree that life just isn’t fair sometimes, and some of us have to work harder than others to get the same things, but it is not the responsibility of the government to even the playing field for us – it just wouldn’t be fun anymore that way.

        Others believe in an all powerful, benevolent government who will do these things for us, lest someone by their own inaction be left behind. Consider the following example of 18th Century Deism:

        “A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandson play on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, “Please God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back!”

        Another big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up to heaven and says, “He had a hat!”

        Cathcart, Thomas, and Klein, Daniel, “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar; Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes” (c) 2008, Penguin Books ISBN 978-0143113874

  3. Muhammad said, on January 1, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    really interesting. For me, the most interesting part was making believe of a world without political system in place. is there any essay or writing concerning philosophical debate of a world without ruler? What happens to a world like that?


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