Be a smart voter – Canada needs you
TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2011. Jason Brennan
Before Canadians head once again to the polls, they should do their homework. This election is an opportunity to make Canada even better, but it’s also a chance to make it worse. Bad decisions at the polls can lead to increased poverty, a stagnant economy, lost opportunities, worse pollution or unjust wars.
Imagine a character called Betty Benevolence. Betty wants to save the world. Yet, she has crazy ideas about how to make the world a better place. When she sees a starving child, she steals his remaining food. When she sees someone in pain, she kicks him in the shins. When she sees someone drowning, she pours water on his face. Betty always intends to help people, but she always harms them.
Betty Benevolence is not just fanciful fiction. Many citizens act just like her when they vote. They vote with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough to make good policy. Citizens often do not know enough to make good choices. Worse, they often know less than nothing. They come to the polls with bad beliefs about health care, the economy and foreign policy, and they vote accordingly. Like Betty Benevolence, the typical voter wants to help people but harms them instead.
Casting an informed vote is hard. Knowing what the problems are is not enough, because the solutions to Canada’s problems are not obvious. Reading parties’ platforms is not enough. Knowing what policies the different political parties favour is not enough, because a voter needs to know which policies have any real shot of working. The Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and others each want Canada to be healthier, happier and stronger. They’re like doctors each offering different prescriptions to cure Canada’s illnesses. Some of these prescriptions will work, some will have no effect and some will make Canada sicker. Voters need to learn how to evaluate these prescriptions.
For instance, many parties promise to create more jobs. Even if a voter agrees with this goal, this does not tell her how to vote. The parties propose different policies in order to try to reduce unemployment. To be well informed, a voter must know how to evaluate these policy proposals. To do that, she needs know some economics, sociology and political science. The median Canadian voter, however, is like a university student who failed Economics 101 but is asked to vote on economic policy regardless.
Voting is not like choosing food from a menu. If a citizen makes a bad choice about what to eat in a restaurant, she alone bears the costs of her decision. But if she makes a bad choice at the polls, she imposes the costs on everyone. Voters are not just choosing for themselves, but for all. If a restaurant offers bad food, diners can walk away or get their money back. This is not the case with public policy. Political decisions are imposed on all and enforced by law. Fellow citizens can’t just walk away from a menu full of bad policies.
Voters face some choices. They can form their beliefs about politics in a self-indulgent way. They can ignore evidence and form policy preferences based on what they find emotionally appealing. They can treat voting as a form of self-expression and ignore what damage they do. Or they can be good citizens. They can form their policy preferences by studying social scientific evidence about how institutions and policies work, and by using reliable methods of reasoning to study the issues. They can work to overcome their personal and ideological biases and choose in a smart, thoughtful way.
Despite having a seemingly never-ending stream of federal elections, Canada has one of the most successful and admirable democracies in the world. Still, there’s room for improvement. The better voters behave, the better Canada will be.
Jason Brennan, an assistant professor of philosophy at Brown University, is the author of The Ethics of Voting.
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