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I’ve long argued that limiting democracy is the least objectionable form of paternalism… if you want to call that “paternalism.” As I explain in my “Majorities Against Utility” (Social Philosophy and Policy, 2008):
Note that there is a family resemblance between the defense of democracies’ “right to be wrong” and opposition to paternalism at the individual level. In fact, there is a straightforward parallel: Suppose you know for sure that an individual’s choice is substantially worse for him than an alternative choice. You have tried to persuade the individual to revise his beliefs, but failed. Would it be justifiable to overrule the individual for his own good?
Yet, strangely, people who defend the autonomy of democracy rarely object to overruling individuals for their own good. (Aside from a few libertarians, who does?) Paternalism is the standard rationale for policies like drug prohibition; if drugs were legal, more people would take them and ruin their lives. But even programs like Social Security are ultimately rooted in paternalism; that is why no one is allowed to opt out. For everything from heroin use to saving for retirement, most societies refuse to give individuals a choice, because they might make bad choices and hurt themselves.
If one is willing to paternalistically overrule individual decisions, though, it is difficult to see how one could refuse to paternalistically overrule democratic decisions. If it is right to stop an individual from hurting himself, how could it be wrong to stop a group of individuals from hurting themselves? Precisely because group-level errors often affect the whole group, even small mistakes can have large negative effects.
Just as consumer incompetence opens the door for paternalistic interference, so too does voter incompetence. Conly claims coercive paternalism is justified when four conditions are met: (1) the activity proscribed must genuinely be against individuals’ long-term interests according to the individuals’ own values; (2) the coercive interference must tend to succeed; (3) it must survive cost-benefit analysis; and (4) noncoercive interventions are not as effective…
So, the paternalist claims that if someone who decides to smoke would not have started smoking if they had made an accurate appraisal of the costs and benefits, and if the harms of smoking are sufficiently high, this provides presumptive grounds for interfering with their decision. Whether the government should then implement a smoking ban, impose cigarette taxes, or do nothing depends on matters of political economy, such as to what degree paternalist policies will be captured by special interests or how effective the bans will be. Similarly, if someone who decides to vote for a candidate or policy would not cast that vote if they had an accurate appraisal of the costs and benefits, and if the harms of doing so are sufficiently high, then the paternalist should say the same about interfering with those voters.
Brennan and Freiman continue:
At first glance, the philosophical justification for paternalistic intervention in consumer choices looks like an even stronger presumptive argument for paternalistic intervention in voter choices. Voters appear to be even more strongly beset by biases than consumers, in part because the feedback mechanism in democracy is far weaker than almost all market decisions. However, some will claim that these two cases are disanalogous, or that paternalism against voters faces special problems.
The top objection:
One objection holds that there is an asymmetry between voting badly and making bad consumer choices. Your individual consumer choices are individually efficacious. If you decide to smoke a pack of cigarettes daily, you in fact do so. Your individual vote is not efficacious. How you vote has a tiny chance of making any difference. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes does not. (This, remember, explains why the problems of ignorance and bias are worse in voter choices than with consumer choices.) Thus, one might worry, the case for pater- nalistic interference with individual voters is weaker. How can we coerce Bob to vote better if Bob’s vote does not matter?
In response, consider a variation of Mill’s famous bridge case. Suppose one hundred marathoners are trying to cross a bridge all at once. The bridge can safely hold ten people, but will collapse under eleven or more people. Again, suppose you cannot warn the marathoners or convince them to cross in small groups. Here, it seems plausible, on paternalistic grounds, that one may interfere to stop them from passing, even though in this case no individual person crossing makes any significant difference. Even though an individual’s choice to join the marathon will not make or break the collapse of the bridge—and it would be better for a particular individual to be permitted to run while the others are blocked—it looks like the reason to endorse paternalism in Mill’s original bridge case justifies paternalistic interference here: the enlightened preferences of the marathoners would be satisfied by fencing off the bridge.
Perhaps less drastic, non-epistocratic institutional reforms could ameliorate the problems of voter ignorance and bias. In his discussion of affluence and access to political information, Christiano writes, “Education is a good place to start with, but it will not solve the problem of political information. What is needed are institutions that disseminate what Downs calls ‘free information’ to ordinary people.” Yet if the dissemination of free information obviates the need for paternalism in voting, it should also obviate the need for paternalism in consumption. Moreover, paternalists themselves are skeptical that information alone will make consumers more rational. For instance, people are fairly well-informed of the dangers of cigarette smoking and yet they continue to smoke too much for paternalists’ liking.
But isn’t “Democracy the worse form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time?” It’s complicated.