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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Felons & Voting

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2016

In 2016 Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe endeavored to restore felons’ voting rights in his state. In the United States, disenfranchising citizens for felony convictions is a common practice and some states extend the disenfranchisement beyond the felon’s criminal sentence.  Since McAuliffe is a Democratic, the Republicans have accused him of engaging in a political move. The gist of the charge is that since felons are disproportionately minorities and minorities tend to vote for Democrats, McAuliffe is trying to get votes for Hillary Clinton. Naturally, he denies this and claims that his motives are pure and noble. Before proceeding to this matter, I will start by addressing the general issue of denying felons the right to vote.

Since I am registered as a Democrat (because Florida is a closed primary state), I might be accused of the same motive as McAuliffe—that I just want felons to vote because they are more likely to vote for Democrats. However, my motive is irrelevant to my arguments, which are as follows.

In the United States, the disenfranchisement of citizens has a constitutional basis in that it is allowed “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” That is not in dispute.  Also, legality is obviously simply set by the law—but my concern is with the morality of disenfranchising felons and not with what is in the rulebook. After all, history is replete with wicked laws.

In a state that professes to be a democracy, the right of citizens to vote is the bedrock right. As Locke and other philosophers have argued, the foundation of political legitimacy in a democracy is the consent of the governed. As such, to unjustly deny a citizen the right to vote is to attack the foundation of democracy and to erode the legitimacy of the state. Because of this, the only crimes that should disenfranchise are those that would warrant taking away the person’s citizenship. In general, the crime would need to be such that it constitutes a rejection of citizenship. The most obvious example would be treason against the country.

It might be objected that felony level crimes are so bad that they all warrant disenfranchising a citizen. One obvious reply is that the right to vote in the United States is not predicated on being virtuous or even marginally informed or marginally competent. The only requirements are being a certain age and being a citizen. Now, if there were morality or competency tests for having the right to vote (which would be exceptionally problematic in their own right), then a case could be made that felons would fail such tests and thus justly denied this right. However, the right to vote comes with being a citizen and what does not remove citizenship should not take away the right to vote.

A second obvious reply is that while there are truly awful felonies that might seem to warrant disenfranchisement (like committing mass murder), there is a multitude of felonies that do not seem even remotely severe enough to warrant such punishment. After all, the bar for what counts as a felony is often very low indeed. As such, there seems to be no justification for disenfranchising felons for crimes that are not directly relevant to their status as citizens.

Even if disenfranchisement for felonies was justified, some US states extend this beyond the person’s criminal sentence. That is, even after serving their time, some felons are not permitted to vote (although some states permit people to attempt to regain this right). This practice is unjust on the face of it. After all, if the disenfranchisement is part of the punishment for a felony, then the punishment should end when the person has served their sentence. As such, even if voting rights could be justly taken away, their restoration should be automatic upon completion of the sentence. I now turn to the Virginia case.

Not surprisingly, the origin story of disenfranchising felons in Virginia is a tale of explicit racism: the white Democrats of that time explicitly used this a tool to keep black voters from the polls. The tools employed to suppress the black vote also impacted poor white voters, but this was regarded as either an acceptable price to pay or actually a desirable result. Lest anyone rush to take this as evidence of racism on the part of the current Democratic Party; one should consider the history of the Southern Strategy. That said, it is true that the Democrats were once the explicitly racist party and true that the Republican Party was once truly the party of Lincoln. It is also true that I used to routinely run sub 17 minute 5Ks; but that was then and this is now.

Of course, to take the origin of a thing to discredit the thing would be to fall victim to the genetic fallacy. As such, while felony disenfranchisement was explicitly created to disenfranchise black voters, perhaps it serves a legitimate purpose today. While I am certainly open to arguments in favor of disenfranchising people, I am not aware of any compelling moral arguments in its favor. Not surprisingly, the main focus of the debate in Virginia is not over the rightness or wrongness of this disenfranchisement but on the alleged motives of the governor.

As his Republican critics see it, Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to restore the voting rights of felons is motivated by politics. Minorities make up a disproportionate number of convicted felons and minorities tend to vote for Democrats. As such, the charge is that he is trying to help Hillary Clinton and other Democrats win in the 2016 elections by enfranchising more Democrats. In terms of the actual facts, felons are generally more likely to be Democrats, but they also tend to vote at an extremely low rate when their voting rights are restored. As such, the impact of restoring voting rights on an election is in dispute; although Republicans often express terror at the prospect of felons illegally voting.

Assuming that felons are more likely to vote for Democrats, it certainly makes political sense for Republicans to oppose restoring voting rights to felons. However, this is obviously also motivated by politics and thus puts the Republicans on par with the governor. They cannot justly regard him as being wrong in wanting to restore voting rights to gain an electoral advantage when they want to deny these rights to gain their own advantage. From a moral standpoint what is needed is not accusations about motives but actual arguments for or against restoring voting rights.

It might be claimed that motivations do matter. It is true that they do—but they matter in terms of assessing the morality of the person taking an action, not in terms of the morality of the action itself or its consequences. To use a non-political example, if I give money to a flood relief charity in Louisiana only because I want to impress a woman with my alleged generosity and compassion, then my motivation is hardly laudable. However, this does not have any relevance to the issue of whether or not giving to such a charity is the right thing to do or the issue of whether or not it would have good consequences. Those are distinct issues. Returning to the case of restoring voting rights, it could be true that the governor’s real motivation is to advance the interests of his party. It could be true that if he believed felons would be more likely to vote Republican, then he would oppose restoring their right to vote. While his motivations matter when it comes to assessing him morally, they have no bearing on the issue of whether these rights should be restored. Likewise, it could be true that the Republicans oppose the restoration because they believe the felons will tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. It could even be true that they would fight tooth and nail to restore felon voting rights if they believed that felons would be more likely to vote Republican. Their motivations are relevant to judging them as people; but irrelevant to the issue of whether or not voting rights should be restored.

I do believe that the disenfranchisement of felons is a political tool that is now intended to help Republican candidates. It is but one disenfranchisement tool among the many that are undermining the legitimacy of the United States. As noted above, I also contend that the theft of a citizens voting rights for anything short of a crime on par with treason is morally unjustified and an attack of the very foundation of democracy. Those who believe in democracy and not simply in having their side in power should also oppose disenfranchising felons in particular and the calculated destruction of voting rights in general. At this point I will close by saying that I believe that serious questions can be raised about the legitimacy of a government based on an electoral system that is damaged by systematic disenfranchisement. While I rarely agree with Trump, he is right to claim that the system is broken and needs to be fixed.

 

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Is the Republican Party Doomed?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 20, 2016

Despite the predictions of the pundits, Trump has done exceptionally well in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. This is despite concerted attacks against him by what remains of the Republican intelligentsia and millions of dollars spent to try to bring him down.

Trump has, quite obviously, polarized the Republican party and has exposed the chasm between the party base and the party elite. Because of these facts, some pundits have predicted that the party will be torn asunder by the upcoming election.

On the one hand, the arguments for the doom of the Republican party have a certain plausibility. As Trump has demonstrated, there really is a chasm between the base and the elites that seems to mirror the economic chasm in America. It is, of course, ironic that the gilded Trump is seen as the champion of the common man. The common woman, though, seems to have serious worries about Trump.

There is also the long standing tension between those who are Republicans because of their economic values and the social conservatives—the social conservatives seem to have figured out that while the establishment gladly takes their votes, they have generally failed to deliver on their promises to roll back the clock to a dreamtime 1950s world.

The Republican Party has also run up against the fact that it is still trying to serve the interests of straight, rich, old, white men in a time in which women, the young and non-whites matter a great deal politically. While this will not tear the party apart, it does serve (so some pundits claim) to keep the party from recruiting new blood to help keep it going. This, some claim, will cause the party to fade away—provided that it does not burn out first.

On the other hand, the Republican Party seems to be facing the chaos only at the level of national politics—specifically presidential politics. The Republicans have solid control of Congress and, at the local level, dominate 23 states (holding the governorship, state senate and state house). In contrast, the Democrats only dominate 7 states. This is as of March, 2016 and these numbers can change.

While it might be argued that the Republican dominance is through trickery and misdeeds in the form of gerrymandering, voter suppression and the corrupting hand of big money, the fact is that the Republicans are essentially running most of the country. This, one might argue, is good evidence that the party is not about to explode or tear itself apart. Rather, it is the sign of a party that has its act together—in contrast to the Democrats who seem to excel at losing.

Some, such as devoted Democrats, might contend that this is a false vitality—that the Republican party is driven by the energy of dying desperation and, like a wolverine, is fighting hardest just before its death. It might also be pointed out that trickery and misdeeds can only sustain the party for so long, that eventually the party will be overwhelmed by the vast volume of voters who are not Republicans.

The counter to this is to point out that even if the majority of people will not be Republicans, winning elections is not about who is in the majority of people. It is a matter of being the majority of voters. As such, Republicans could keep winning as long as they get enough of the fraction of people who bother to vote to vote Republican. This could go on for a long time, at least as long as most people eligible to vote do not do so.

Another counter is to accept the Republican claim that they are the true party of inclusion and that they have more to offer non-whites and women than the Democratic party has to offer. That is, that despite all the apparent hostility to women and minorities and all the associated laws do not reflect the real soul of party. This soul, they could argue, wants to lovingly embrace all voters who will vote Republican. Perhaps this is true. There are, after all, some excellent people who are Republicans.

It might be suspected that I hope that the Republican party will either burn out or fade away. Actually, this is not true. While I am, by default, a Democrat, I recognize the importance of having a competent and effective opposition party (or parties). In my personal life, I accept that I cannot and should not always get my way. While I do think I am right in my views, I also know that many of them are wrong—I just do not know which ones. That is why I value competent criticism that can expose where I am in error. Likewise, I value political opposition.

I also accept that even if I am right, this does not necessitate that I deserve to get my way all or even most of the time. One mark of being an adult is getting that other people have legitimate needs and interests that conflict with one’s own and this entails that compromise is something that must be accepted in certain matters. It is tempting to always try to get what I want, which is why opposition is important to ensure that others can also get what they need.

Because of these views, I hope that the Republican party can either get it together or, if that fails, split and form at least one effective and competent opposition party. Then again, perhaps the party does have it together—except for the Trump thing.

 

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I’m not moving to Canada even if Trump is elected

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2016

Americans have a habit of threatening to move to Canada if a presidential election does not go their way; however, few actually follow up on this threat. While I am worried that Trump might be elected President, I have not made this threat and have no intention of leaving should the Trumpocracy come to pass. While some of my reasons are purely practical, I also have philosophical reasons. Getting to these will, however, require a short trip through some other issues.

When I was much younger, I was into politics and dreamed of holding political office. This dream gave way to cynicism about American politics and the embracing of anarchism and then apathy. I got better, though.

When I was an anarchist, I decided not to vote. This was based on the anarchist principle that voting is both ineffective and entails acknowledging the legitimacy of the oppressive system. When I became apathetic, I did not vote on the basis of an analogy to picking a movie. As I saw it, picking between candidates was like picking between bad movies. The rational choice, it would seem, would be not to pick any: vote none of the above. I accepted this until I had a revelation while watching a movie I did not like while on a date. Elections, it turns out, are like being on a movie date when only bad movies are playing. Since you are stuck going to a movie, you need to pick among the bad choices. The goal is not to pick what you like—since all choices are bad. The goal is to pick the least bad option. In the case of elections, you are stuck with the results if you vote or do not vote. If all the options are bad, you can still try to avoid the worst option by voting for the least bad. If all options are identical in badness, then you could avoid voting at all or use an alternative method. In my case, I often vote for the one that most resembles an animal I like or vote against the one that most resembles a creature I dislike.

There is, however, a downside to voting when you regard all the options as bad: you have become part of the process and are a party to the crimes of the person you voted for—should that person win. On the plus side, if you helped the lesser evil win, then you deserve kudos for preventing a greater evil.

One problem with becoming part of the voting process is that this would seem to acknowledge the legitimacy of the process (assuming one is not compelled to vote). This would seem to commit the voter to accepting the results of a fair election. Since it looks like it will be Trump vs. Hillary, when I vote for Hillary it would seem that I am accepting the voting process. This would seem to entail that when Trump wins, I have to accept that he is my president. This is required by consistency: if Hillary wins, I would expect those who voted for Trump to accept this result. This, of course, assumes that the election was fair—if it was rigged, then that is another matter.

Locke addressed this matter—he was well aware that the losing side in a vote might be tempted to refuse to go along. Locke’s response to the problem was to point out that doing this would tear apart the system and send us back to the state of nature. As such, he reasoned, we should follow the majority in regards to voting. This, of course, leads to the problem of the tyranny of the majority, something that could be used to argue that one should not accept the election of a person who will engage in such tyrannical behavior. My own view is that the election should be accepted on the basis of majority rule. However, the tyrannical, immoral, or illegal actions of an elected official should not be accepted. So, if Trump wins the 2016 election fair and square, then he would be my president. If he started implementing his various absurd, immoral, illegal and perhaps even unconstitutional harebrained schemes, then I would certainly not accept these schemes. This opposition would be based in part on Locke’s view of tyranny and in part on John Stuart Mill’s discussion of the tyranny of the majority. The gist of both is that a ruler acts wrongly if he uses the power of office in a way that is not for the good of the people or imposes on the liberty of others without the justification that it prevents harm to others.

So, if Trump gets elected, he will be my president. I will stay here—and will certainly do what I can to oppose his likely attempts to do awful, immoral, and illegal things. Oddly, I think that the Republican controlled congress will be on my side in most of these matters.

 

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How You Should Vote

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 13, 2014

As I write this in early October, Election Day in the United States is about a month away. While most Americans do not vote, there is still in question of how a voter should vote.

While I do have definite opinions about the candidates and issues on the current ballot in my part of Florida, this essay is not aimed at convincing you to vote as I did (via my mail-in ballot). Rather, my goal is to discuss how you should vote in general.

The answer to the question of how you should vote is easy: if you are rational, then you should vote in your self-interest. In the case of a specific candidate, you should vote for the candidate you believe will act in your self-interest. In the case of such things as ballot measures, you should vote for or against based on how you believe it will impact your self-interest. So, roughly put, you should vote for what is best for you.

While this is rather obvious advice, it does bring up two often overlooked concerns. The first is the matter of determining what is actually in your self-interest. The second is determining whether or not your voting decision is in your self-interest. In the case of a candidate, the concern is whether or not the candidate will act in your self-interest. In the case of things like ballot measures, the question is whether or not the measure will be advantageous to your interests or not.

It might be thought that a person just knows what is in her self-interest. Unfortunately, people can be wrong about this. In most cases people just assume that if they want or like something, then it is in their self-interest. But, what a person likes or wants need not be what is best for him. For example, a person might like the idea of cutting school funding without considering how it will impact her family. In contrast, what people do not want or dislike is assumed to be against their self-interest. Obviously, what a person dislikes or does not want might not be bad for her. For example, a person might dislike the idea of an increased minimum wage and vote against it without considering whether it would actually be in their self-interest or not. The take-away is that a person needs to look beyond what he likes or dislikes, wants or does not want in order to determine her actual self-interest.

It is natural to think that of what is in a person’s self interest in rather selfish terms. That is, in terms of what seems to benefit just the person without considering the interests of others. While this is one way to look at self-interest, it is worth considering what might seem to be in the person’s selfish interest could actually be against her self-interest. For example, a business owner might see paying taxes to fund public education as being against her self-interest because it seems to have no direct, selfish benefit to her. However, having educated fellow citizens would seem to be in her self-interest and even in her selfish interest. For example, having the state pay for the education of her workers is advantageous to her—even if she has to contribute a little. As another example, a person might see paying taxes for public health programs and medical aid to foreign countries as against her self-interest because she has her own medical coverage and does not travel to those countries. However, as has been shown with Ebola, public and even world health is in her interest—unless she lives in total isolation. As such, even the selfish should consider whether or not their selfishness in a matter is actually in their self-interest.

It is also worth considering a view of self-interest that is more altruistic. That is, that a person’s interest is not just in her individual advantages but also in the general good. For this sort of person, providing for the common defense and securing the general welfare would be in her self-interest because her self-interest goes beyond just her self.

So, a person should sort out her self-interest and consider that it might not just be a matter of what she likes, wants or sees as in her selfish advantage. The next step is to determine which candidate is most likely to act in her self-interest and which vote on a ballot measure is most likely to serve her self-interest.

Political candidates, obviously enough, try very hard to convince their target voters that they will act in their interest. Those backing ballot measures also do their best to convince voters that voting a certain way is in their self-interest.

However, the evidence is that politicians do not act in the interest of the majority of those who voted for them. Researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, to determine whether or not politicians acted based on the preferences of the majority. The researchers examined about 1,800 policies and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” This suggests that voters are rather poor at selecting candidates who will act in their interest (or perhaps that there are no candidates who will do so).

It can be countered that the study just shows that politicians generally act contrary to the preferences of the majority but not that they act contrary to their self-interest. After all, I made the point that what people want (prefer) might not be what is in their self-interest. But, on the face of it, unless what is in the interest of the majority is that the affluent get their way, then it seems that the politicians voters choose generally do not act in the best interest of the voters. This would indicate that voters should pick different candidates.

 

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The Phantom Menace in Florida

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2013
English: The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My state of Florida has become well known as something of an electoral embarrassment. While most of this shame dates from the chad strewn 2000 election, there was also the more recent concern about voter suppression in Florida. As noted in earlier posts, the folks who were pushing for changes in the voting procedures in Florida claimed that they were engaged in a noble battle against voter fraud rather than a shameful attempt at disenfranchisement. One of the stock responses to the concern over voter fraud is that the solutions proposed were addressing a problem that could be, at best, be barely said to even exist. Critics of the proposals, including myself, pointed out that the methods proposed to combat fraud (such as limiting early voting and requiring voters to show identification) noted that these would not address the sort of fraud that raised the alleged concerns.

Interestingly, there is a somewhat new election fraud story, one involving phantom requests for absentee ballots. In this case, a phantom request is one made by someone other than a person who can legitimately make the request for the voter in question.  During the August 14 primaries in Florida, 2,552 fraudulent absentee ballot requests were made, flagged and denied.

Interestingly, this attempt at election fraud seemed to be bipartisan in nature: according to the Miami Herald the requests were aimed at Democratic voters in one district and and Republican voters in two other districts.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (sound...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some might be tempted to trumpet this as a vindication of the dire warnings about voter fraud and proposals to protect election integrity from certain Republicans. However, while this matter raises legitimate concerns, there is little in the way of vindication for these folks. First, there is a meaningful distinction between voter fraud and election fraud. However, I will let this slide so as to avoid bickering about semantics and definitions. Second, there is the fact that the attempts were caught and prevented by existing means. Interesting, the main proposals made by certain Republicans such as voter ID laws, restricting early voting and so on would not have prevented these requests (which were thwarted by the existing system). Thus, I stand by my view that the specter of voter fraud has generally been used to “justify” attempts to suppress voting rather than motivating legitimate reform of actual problems.

While the actual incidents of voter fraud do seem to be minuscule in number, there are legitimate concerns about absentee ballots that are worth considering. After all, while the attempts in the case at hand seem to been thwarted, there is certainly the possibility that other attempts have succeeded. There is also the general concern about absentee voting in general-after all, it would certainly seem to one of the easier avenues for attempts at fraud. Addressing these concerns would seem to involve enhancing existing methods of security (which caught the fraud attempts in this incident) and perhaps developing some new methods to ensure the integrity of the election. Naturally, these methods would need to be designed to avoid disenfranchising or discouraging legitimate voters.

Given the closeness of some recent elections, it is not unreasonable to be concerned that some sort of fraud played a role in the results. It is, of course, the possibility that even a small amount of fraud could decide an election that gives merit to concerns about even the minuscule amount of voter fraud that does occur. Perhaps of even greater concern is the use of gerrymandering by incumbents of both parties to redraw the political landscape with the sole intent of staying in office. That seems to be a rather serious threat to proper elections, but that is a matter for another time.

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Voter Purging in Florida

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 8, 2012
Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott

Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks to the 2000 presidential election, Florida became the butt of many electoral jokes. However, what is happening in Florida now is no laughing matter.

Governor Rick Scott recently ordered that all alleged non-citizens be purged from the Florida voting lists. While there seems to be no actual evidence of significant voter fraud, up to 182,000 people have been identified as possible non-citizens. 3,000 of these were recently sent letters that demanded proof of citizenship. As might be imagined, I disagree with the actions of Governor Scott.

I do agree that only citizens should be allowed to vote, however I am rather concerned that the methods used to attempt to achieve this goal to not disenfranchise citizens. I am also concerned that the methods used do not discourage or intimidate legitimate voters. The current approach seems to violate both of these reasonable concerns.

First, the list used to determine who is an alleged non-citizen is not accurate. In fact, “many voters identified by the state as suspected non-citizens are legal immigrants.” One rather unfortunate example is the case of Bill Internicola, a decorated war hero who has been legally voting for years. While this is but one example, it  and other cases do certainly raise questions about the accuracy of the list.

Obviously enough, the lists used to purge people from the voting lists should be accurate. Naturally, perfect accuracy is not possible, but the current list seems to be woefully inaccurate.

It could be replied that the inaccuracy is not a big deal. After all, the suspected non-citizens get a letter threatening removal from the polls if they cannot provide proof of citizenship within 30 days and informing them that voting when illegible is a felony.

One counter to this is that it is a matter of concern. After all, those who receive such a letter and can legally vote will need to go through the inconvenience of proving that they are eligible to vote and that seem unfair-especially when the list is known to be rather inaccurate. A second counter is that such letters can deter legitimate voters by confusing them or intimidating them into not voting.

It might be replied that these are but small inconveniences and that these purges are needed to address a serious problem regarding voter fraud. For example, it has been claimed that theDemocrats  are intentionally allowing illegal immigrants to vote in the hopes of getting Obama re-elected in 2012. As such, the fact that some citizens might be unjustly disenfranchised is a small price to pay in order to ensure that fraudulent voting does not occur.

There are two obvious counters to this. First, actual investigations of voter fraud have shown that while it does occur, its occurrence rate is minuscule. As such, it seems unwarranted to employ severe measures to address what amounts to a non-problem. Second, going with the spirit of  the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” it seems preferable to tolerate a microscopic amount of voter fraud rather than harassing a significant number of citizens and wrongly disenfranchising some.

In a counter to the claim that the Democrats are encouraging illegals to vote, the Democrats claim that the purge is aimed primarily at Latino and minority voters-voters who are likely to support Obama. Given that voter fraud is minute and the list being used is inaccurate, this claim does have some credence.

To preempt a likely attack on me, I believe that the voter rolls should be accurate and that people should not be permitted to vote illegally. However, this must be done in a way that ensures a high degree of accuracy and that does not inconvenience legitimate voters unduly.

Naturally, if voter fraud was widespread and damaging the democratic process, I would support more severe measures to address such a crime wave. However, the current approach to the alleged voter fraud is unjust and seems primarily calculated to disenfranchise and discourage those who are more likely to vote for Democrats. As an American citizen, I am opposed to what appears to be a concerted attack on voting rights and thus an attack on the very core of democracy.

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Suppressing Voters

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2012
Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin

Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the 2012 election coming up, it is only a matter of time before we start seeing the ads encouraging people to vote. Given that voting is an essential part of a proper democracy, this sort of encouragement is quite reasonable and even laudable. What is far less laudable are the attempts to suppress voters.

As might be imagined, politicians will not come out and state that they are attempting to suppress voters via legislation. Rather, they present these attempts under the guise of preventing voter fraud. The main problem with this justification is that these are solutions in search of  a problem. That is, voter fraud is simply not a significant problem. To present two examples, the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State revealed a fraud rate of 0.0009% and the Ohio election that same year had a fraud rate of 0.00004%. As such, an individual voter is more likely to be struck by lightning while going to vote than s/he is to commit voter fraud. While people do present anecdotes and alleged evidence of fraud, these generally turn out to be mistaken.

Naturally, if countering even this microscopic problem could be done with no cost or inconvenience, then it would be worth doing. However, this is not the case. Rather, the attempts to “prevent” this extremely unlikely voter fraud impose costs and inconvenience on the voters far out of proportion to the significance of the problem. Even worse, these “anti-fraud” measures actually seem calculated to suppress people who tend to historically vote for Democrats, such as the poor and students. As such, it is hardly a shock that these laws have been presented by Republicans. While it might be the case that they are acting from good intentions, the fact that the problem they are addressing barely even exists and the fact that those most impacted by the methods are those who tend to vote for Democrats gives rational grounds for suspicions regarding the motivation behind said laws. If, in fact, these laws are aimed at suppressing voters, they are wicked laws because they strike at a fundamental right of citizens, namely that of being a participating citizen. As such, these laws certainly seem to be immoral. While it might be claimed that my view is unfounded, due consideration of the facts should reveal the plausibility of my view.

Under the rule of Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin passed the Voter Photo ID law which requires citizens to show an official photo ID (such as a driver’s license) in order to be able to vote. Some other Republican dominated states have passed similar laws. On the face of it, this might seem like no big deal. After all, most people already have such IDs and those who do not can simply get them. In fact, Wisconsin offers voters the necessary ID for free. However, there are some points worth considering. First, some DMV offices have been closed or have had their hours changed. This makes it harder for people to get the needed IDs. Second, there is the challenge in getting the documentation needed to get the ID. For example, if a resident’s utility bills are included in the rental fee, they will not have that proof of residence. There is also the matter of the certified birth certificate. Most people do not have these and they cost $20. While most people will see $2o as no big deal, this can be a problem fro people who are very poor and there is also the hassle of getting the document. Adding to the hassle is that women voters will sometimes need to buy copies of their marriage license or divorce papers to prove their identity so they can vote.

It might be replied that this is still no big deal. After all, the worst case estimate seems to be that about 5 million voters will have a tougher time voting in 2012 and, of course, people need to go through all that documentation hell to get a driver’s license (I went through it myself-fortunately I had the foresight and the money to get my passport before the laws went into effect). While it is surely tempting to some to dismiss this as not a problem, it certainly seems to be a problem for a country that purports to be a democracy and one that is supposed to value voting.

One point worth considering is that voter turnout is already rather low, with less than 2/3 of eligible voters turning out for presidential elections. Adding in extra obstacles to voting will no doubt lower this turnout, which would be contrary to the values of a democracy. If we believe that voting is important, then we should be focusing our efforts on improving participation rather than impeding it under the deceitful guise of eliminating almost non-existent voting fraud.

Once again, if voter fraud was a serious problem, I would support steps to prevent it from occurring. Of course, what is going on now can be seen as a type of voter fraud: one in which certain Republicans are using fraud to try to keep American citizens away from the voting booths. This is, of course, an attack on the core values of a democracy, yet is being pushed by the self-proclaimed champions of America.

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Voting & Taxes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2011
1967 U.S. postage stamp honoring Henry David T...

Image via Wikipedia

In an earlier post I addressed the matter of whether taxes are theft or not. In the course of the discussion, I considered that if the citizens consented to the taxes, then they would not be theft. After all, part of what makes theft wrong is that it involves a lack of free consent on the part of the victims. As such, if those taxed voted for the taxes (or voted for representatives who voted for the taxes) then they would have given their consent and such taxes would not, on the face of it, be theft.

This, of course, could be seen as trying to settle one issue by making use of one that is at least as subject to debate. After all, to say that taxes are not theft when they have been properly voted into effect requires assuming that voting provides this consent in a meaningful way.

Obviously enough, if the voting is directly for a tax and everyone votes in favor, then this would be a clear case of consent. Likewise if everyone votes for someone who is clear that they will support a tax, then that would also seem to provide indisputable consent. As everyone knows, such unanimous voting is all but unheard of. This raises the matter of whether those who voted against the tax (or the tax supporter) have given their consent or not.

Intuitively, it would seem that by participating in the voting process, they have thus agreed to abide by the outcome-whether they win or lose. As such, those who vote against a tax (or tax supporter) would have given their consent to the outcome. Those who chose not to vote would also seem to consent as well-by electing not to vote, they have simply set aside their role in the process and not their consent to the process.

This does assume that there are not factors in play that would make the voting questionable, such as the use of fraud and force. It is easy enough to imagine circumstances in which a vote would clearly not count as a matter of consent. However, the discussion is focused on legitimate voting scenarios.

At this point, it might be objected that if voting is based on consent, whenever people vote against something they are showing their lack of consent. Hence, those who voted for a tax or anything (directly or indirectly) have given their consent while those who voted against it have not. As such, if I vote against a tax, when I am forced to pay I am being robbed. If I had voted for it, then I would not be a victim of theft. To use an analogy, suppose I am in a group and people start to decide what they want for dinner. After a vote, most people decide they want to go to Chez Expensive and have the Costly Quiche. I, however, decided I would rather just go home and make some spaghetti and salad. If these other folks decide to take my money to fund their Quiche, then it would certainly seem that they would be endeavoring to rob me.

Since this is an obvious problem, it is hardly surprising that past thinkers addressed this matter. Locke’s approach is to contend that the consent given when forming a community extends to voting. He argues for this by noting that the political body must move one way (we either have a tax or we do not) and it must move  “the way the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority.” If it did not, then the body would be split and the original agreement would be broken.

Naturally, some might contend that the body should split when people disagree. Going back to the quiche example, if some folks want the quiche and I do not, we can simply go our separate ways.

The obvious reply is that while this is sensible in matters involving such minor things as dinner, it would be destructive to society to have the political body break apart over matters of law and policy. This, Locke claims, would be irrational. So, as Locke sees it, the original consent extends to voting and there is also the practical matter of going along with the majority so as to avoid shattering society.

This does lead to a rather serious concern that was perhaps most ably discussed by Mill, namely the tyranny of the majority. The majority (or those who try to pass as the majority) might decide to oppress some of their fellows or do other wicked things. As such, there is clearly a need to place limits on the power of the majority. Mill, being a utilitarian, advocates a utilitarian approach to this matter. As he sees it, the greater good is served by limiting the extent to which the majority can impose on the minority. While Mill does not focus on taxes, he does accept that citizens can be held obligated for “bearing a fair share of common defense or work necessary to the interest of society.”

In regards to the specific matter of taxes, it would seem that if the tax is within the limits of a “fair share”, then it would not be theft to tax someone even if they voted against the tax. However, a tax that went beyond this or had some sort of moral defect could be regarded as theft.

The above discussion does, obviously enough, assume that voting is legitimate. However, this is an assumption that is easy enough to question.  Thoreau, for example, claimed that (in his essay on civil disobedience) “voting for the right does nothing for it-it is a feeble expression of the desire that it should prevail.  The wise will not leave right to chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”

Thoreau also addresses the matter of taxes and argues that people should be allowed to decide to not pay their taxes if they decide to withdraw from the political system. He does, however, make a point of saying that people should pay for what they use, such as paying the highway tax if one uses the highway.

This does seem to be consistent approach in the context of the consent theory. After all, if someone completely removes themselves from the political system, they remove their consent. To claim that they consent to the results of the votes made by others would thus seem to be an error. To use an analogy, if I do not join a club, they have no right to expect me to pay their membership fees-no matter how they vote on the matter. Likewise, if I am not part of a state, then the state would have no right to assume my consent merely because other people voted on something they want to impose on me.

This is not to say that the state would have no legitimate power over me. After all, if I tried to commit murder or theft within its borders, then the police would seem to be quite right to stop me.

Thoreau’s approach would require actually leaving the political body and not merely bailing after a particular vote. To use an analogy, if I agree to go out to dinner and pay my share, I have no right to bail out when they check arrives. However, if I have left a group or never joined, they would have no right to expect me to pay if they decide to go out to dinner.

As such, if a person did withdraw from society and agreed not to avail themselves of any of its goods or services without paying for them, then imposed taxes beyond this would be theft on the part of the state. After all, the state would be taking without consent and would be taking what it was, in fact, not truly owed.

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Referendum on Obama?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 3, 2010
Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...
Image via Wikipedia

The current Republican talking point seems to be that the election was a “referendum on Obama’s polices.”

On the face of it, it obviously was not-his policies were not on the ballots to be voted upon. Of course, the Republicans do not mean that. Rather, they most likely mean that their winning the majority in the House (and doing well in the various gubernatorial races) is an indicator that the majority of Americans have rejected Obama’s policies.

On one hand, this has  a degree of plausibility. After all, the Republican’s tended to run on anti-Obama talking points and have asserted that they will focus on undoing what Obama has done. As such, when people voted for the Republicans they could be taken as also rejecting Obama. Of course, since the Senate is still held by the Democrats and the Democrats won some races, it would seem that the alleged referendum on Obama was not a complete rejection. Naturally, the fact that most folks don’t vote, that people might be voting for specific candidates (or against specific candidates)  also needs to be factored into determining whether this was, in fact, such a virtual referendum.

On the other hand, this notion that this was a referendum on Obama can be disputed. As noted above, it is worth considering the impact that the specific candidates had on the elections. So, for example, perhaps some Republicans won because voters preferred them to the Democrats running against them, as opposed to expressing a general rejection of Obama’s policies.

Another factor worth considering is that most people seem to be unaware of the actual content of the policies in question and their actual effects. As such, to say that this was a referendum on said policies would seem to be implausible. Then again, people do often vote on actual referendums in ignorance of the actual content, so perhaps voters could be seen as rejecting these policies even though they generally do not know much about them. To steal Locke’s phrase, perhaps they are rejecting “they know not what.”

There are already polls being taken as to what Americans think about this talking point. One election day poll indicates that 52% of the voters did regard it as a referendum on Obama. Of course, factoring in a margin of error, it could easily be the case that most voters did not see it as such. However, even if a majority did not see it this way, this is still a significant result.

As far as why the Republicans are pushing the talking point, the most obvious explanation is that they intend to use these results as a mandate to attack Obama and his policies. They have, of course, planned to roll back Obama’s health care legislation and other policies. There is even talk of impeaching Obama, even though he has rather clearly done nothing that would provide a rational justification of such a process.

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