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The Republican runner-up channels *The Myth of the Rational Voter*
The most-discussed paragraph in my The Myth of the Rational Voter is probably:
Would we still have a "democracy" if you needed to pass a test of economic literacy to vote? If you needed a college degree? Both of these measures raise the economic understanding of the median voter, leading to more sensible policies. Franchise restrictions were historically used for discriminatory ends, but that hardly implies that they should never be used again for any reason. A test of voter competence is no more objectionable than a driving test.
“Make voters pass a test of political knowledge” was hardly central to my thesis. You could even aver that I was “just spitballing.” So why the strong reaction?
Because normal people are democratic fundamentalists. They regard democracy as sacred. To deny the severely ignorant the right to vote isn’t merely ill-advised; it’s evil. Back in 2013, I proposed a watered-down version, where people with good scores gain money rather than voting privileges. Even that was beyond the pale for most folks.
Imagine my surprise, then, to read that a major presidential candidate - Vivek Ramaswamy - has suddenly proposed a version of my idea! Betting markets now put Vivek second to Trump to win the Republican nomination. And here’s what he says:
We’re not a direct democracy. We are a constitutional republic. We need to revive civic duty among young Americans. That’s why I’m announcing my support for a constitutional amendment to raise the voting age from 18 to 25, but to still allow 18-year-olds to vote if they either pass the same civics test required of immigrants to become naturalized citizens, or else to perform 6 months of military or first responder service. We must be ambitious. I understand not everyone will like this proposal and that it will take persuasion to convince many of its merits, but I’m ready to take that on.
My impulsive reaction is to start fault-finding. “Wait, how come only young voters have to pass the test?” “Shouldn’t you at least test the elderly, too?” “Why not let precocious kids vote?” “Isn’t the current civics test way too easy?”
My reflective reaction, though, is to drop my jaw in astonishment. Vivek’s a smart, successful guy. He’s doing well in the polls. Could he really fail to realize how radically unpopular his proposal will be?
Given how Democratic young voters are, the simplest story is that Vivek hopes to cement his own electoral prospects. But think about how crazy this so-called “strategy” is. Vivek would have to win the presidency before he could effectively push his amendment. Then, and only then, could he deliberately antagonize a large majority of the population. What. A. Plan.
Remember, moreover, that objective self-interest is a terrible predictor of political beliefs. Vivek’s amendment benefits Republicans and the elderly, but you can hardly expect them to vote for it because they benefit. Indeed, if you really believe in self-interested voting, just try explaining how the voting age fell from 21 to 18 in the first place. Once you’re old enough to vote, why would you want to dilute your own political influence? Yet Americans over the age of 21 did precisely that.
Morally, the case for testing voter knowledge is strong indeed. You should only participate in the political process if you know what you’re doing. As Jason Brennan shows, anything less is negligent. And since self-interest has little effect on political views, the fruit of an informed electorate would not be policies “biased” in favor of the rich, but policies better-crafted to advance the common good. Since Vivek’s proposal affects only a small share of the electorate, the gains would be small. Still, it’s a move in the right epistocratic direction.
I’m not crazy. President Vivek remains a long shot - and even if he becomes the next president, I know his amendment will never fly. Before long, I suspect even he’ll stop talking about it. But I can still daydream.
P.S. Some of Vivek’s critics accuse him of favoring “unlimited skilled immigration” but I’ve sadly failed to confirm this. If you know more, please share in the comments.