Rejecting Mill on Plural Votes

In Considerations on Representative Government (Vol. 18 (1861), in J.M. Robson, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963-1991), Mill argues that those with greater education should have plural or weighted votes. He believes that, because they will have superior knowledge and intelligence, those with greater education will have a greater capacity for the management of joint interests and as such should have a greater say.  Mill suggests that the superior influence of the educated should be enough to protect them from the class legislationof the uneducated, but not so much as to allow them to enact their own class legislation (that is, legislation that favours the interests of their own class).  As Rawls puts it, on Mill’s picture, ideally those with superior education “should act as a constant force on the side of justice and the common good, a force that, although always weak in itself, can often tip the scale in the right direction if the larger forces cancel them out” (ATJ, pp. 204).  In short, Mill favours plural votes because he thinks that everyone, even the uneducated, who have fewer votes, will benefit from such a scheme.  Plural votes are justified not only because they will maximize the good of all but also because they will maximize the good of those with fewer votes, specifically.

Mill also suggests that plural or weighted voting of this kind is not insulting or damaging of self-respect.  He writes

entire exclusion from a voice in the common concerns is one thing: the concession to others of a more potential voice on the ground of greater capacity for the management of joint interests is another . . . Everyone has a right to feel insulted by being made a nobody and stamped as of no account at all.  No one but a fool, only a fool of a peculiar description, feels offended by the acknowledgement that there are others whose opinion, and even whose wish, is entitled to greater amount of consideration than his (Mill, Representative Government, p. 474).

I think that both of Mill’s arguments, regarding the benefit of plural votes and self-respect, are wrong.

Let’s start with what Mill says about self-respect.  There is an ordinary sense in which Mill’s proposal seems consistent with self-respect. Imagine that my husband is a nutritionist and that we are trying to decide what would be the most nutritious dinner to have.  Imagine that we tend to place more emphasis on my husband’s opinions about dinner, since he knows much more about nutrition than I do.  This does not seem insulting or undermining of my self-respect.  I could self-respectfully accept a change in family meals because my husband thinks it is right.  After all, I am less competent with respect to making nutritious dinner decisions; acknowledging this fact, by placing more weight on his opinions, is not insulting.  It is not undermining of one’s sense of self-respect to trust and concede to the opinions of those who are identified as having superior knowledge.  Indeed, this seems consistent with a proper sense of self-respect.  A person who has an appropriate or proper sense of her own worth or value will be aware of her limitations.  To the extent that I know that I am less competent with respect to making decisions about nutritious dinners than my husband, it is not degrading or undermining of my sense of self-respect to give greater weight to my husband’s opinions about dinner.  In short, in at least some cases, I can self-respectfully give greater weight to others’ opinions such as those of my husband.

However, this ordinary scenario is relevantly different from the one that Mill is suggesting.  In the case I describe, both my husband and I have an influential say in what will be served for dinner.  I get to make the decision along with my husband about whether to change the family meals or not.  My husband may have an opinion about what is best to serve for dinner.  Insofar as he knows more than me about this topic, we count his word as special evidence.  In this sense, his say counts more evidentially.  Yet, my husband does not have more power than I do.  Sometimes there may not be enough time for an explanation.  The kids might really need to be fed, for example, and so I will not get an explanation of my husband’s choice.  I will just go with his choice.  But, presumably, under normal circumstances, when there is time, my husband will have to explain his choice to me.  It is only when I have heard his reasons, weighed them, and agree with him, that we will go with his dinner choice.  I acknowledge my husband’s superior knowledge by taking his viewpoint seriously and listening to his case carefully.  However, and rather importantly, though I may generally go along with my husband’s choice, this is revocable.  I can always decide, after hearing his case, not to go along with his decision.

Mill’s proposal is different in the sense that the opinions of the educated are not just weighed more evidentially.  As long as the educated agree about what serves justice or the public good, insofar as they are given plural votes, their opinions are given special authority or power.  When they agree, their decisions will become embedded in social institutions, enforceable by law.  This is the case even when the uneducated disagree with the educated.  This is undermining of self-respect.  Imagine that I was to enter into a contract with my husband that says that in all instances, even when I disagree with him, his decisions are binding.  Signing this kind of contract is not consistent with my sense of self-respect.  A self-respecting choice does not involve admitting mental incompetence.  And signing this kind of contract suggests that I am mentally incompetent.  It suggests that I could not be convinced by good reasons and that any disagreement that I might have is not reflective or intelligent.  I think something similar can be said with respect to Mill’s proposal.  Accepting his plural or weighted voting proposal involves a making judgment of oneself that would be rather difficult for a self-respecting person to make, unless s/he were below a certain level of minimum competence.   For this reason, I think that those with fewer votes would have good grounds for claiming that plural voting is not consistent with their sense of self-respect.

I think that Mill’s arguments regarding the benefit of plural votes also fails.  Plural votes are unlikely to maximize the good of those with fewer votes.  The most fundamental threat to justice is, perhaps, not being appropriately impartial.  Different groups of people have different conceptions of justice and the common good.  There is a tendency for our conceptions of justice and the public good to represent our own interests disproportionately. As Thomas Christiano notes, this seems only natural given that people have a more intimate and sensitive understanding of their own interests than of others’ (see his “An Argument for Democratic Equality”).  It seems fairly clear that no education level, or qualification of any kind for that matter, is going to help us overcome this fact.  An education from Cambridge or Oxford, for example, will not guard against partiality.  So, if people tend to advance conceptions of justice and the public good that reflect their own interests, it follows that those who lack equal opportunity to advance their own conceptions of justice and the public good will tend to lose out.  If those with superior education are given a greater say, it is likely that the interests of the uneducated will be ignored.  This suggests that the good of those with fewer votes will not be maximized.  Again, Mill’s arguments for plural votes are not compelling.

4 responses

  1. This is really fascinating Meena. I’d never heard of Mill’s case for plural voting: it strikes me that it has interesting parallels with Jason Brennan’s view on the duty to vote well (and its implications for ‘uninformed voters’). I’m in pretty furious agreement with the conclusion that plural voting doesn’t serve the goals Mill thinks it does, and I think the argument from partiality is pretty strong, but I wonder whether the self-respect argument could be stronger.

    In particular, I think that there are lots of instances compatible with retaining self-respect where I might voluntarily cede power to a group of experts. Consider medical drug licensing, or food safety standards, or federal reserve interest rates: I don’t think it illustrates a lack of self-respect that I cede almost all power to determine which drugs should be available to a panel of experts (although Jessica Flanigan disagrees!). I am not admitting that I “could not be convinced by good reasons,” rather I’m admitting that it requires deep and specialized knowledge to be able to understand those reasons to begin with. So long as these experts act only in their domain of expertise, and so long as effective decision-making truly requires a deep level of understanding which cannot be gained through simple explanation, then it simply seems like an efficient solution.

    Perhaps to strengthen that arm of the argument then, its worth distinguishing two ways – generality and technicality – in which Mill’s proposal differs from these more limited abdications of power to experts. One is to say, as you do, that no self-respecting person would cede a general power of decision-making in the way that you would were you to cede all decision-making power to a partner. The breadth of decisions which this encompasses does seem to imply an admission of general incompetency which is incompatible with self-respect. Second, unlike drug-licensing/food-safety/fed policy/, input into the basic structure of society and its laws doesn’t require familiarity with a technical corpus, because it is at least partly about determining people’s preferences and values. In order to understand my own preferences and values I don’t require a doctorate in political philosophy (…in fact it probably won’t help!) in the way that I need a doctorate in pharmacology to truly understand the safety of the latest anti-malarial. In this respect, if I allow the better educated to have a greater say in this process of determining political preferences/values, then I seem to be admitting, not an unfamiliarity with technical concepts, but an unfamiliarity with my own preferences (which does seem like an admission of incompetence).

    Anyway, very interesting stuff. I hope its part of something which is on the slow road to the printers!

  2. Jon, thank you for the really helpful comments! I think you are especially right about the first point on generality. Though, I think I would refer to the notion as “broadness”. The impact of political decision making is broad in its scope. It will have an impact on people’s life prospects (on how their lives go) across a number of different spheres (economic, social, environmental, physical, etc.) for the duration of their lives as citizens. In this way, ceding power in the broad political case is unlike ceding power in other sorts of cases like those involving medical licensing. Ceding the power to decide in the broad political case does seem especially pernicious to self-respect. As to the second point, I am not sure if it ends up being as powerful as you would like. Some might argue (presumably Mill would) that voting should not be an expression of your own preferences but of what you think ought to be the preferences of the public; it should represent what you see as being in the general interest or public good. There may be some technical skills involved in voting in this way. Mill thinks that there are epistemological skills that are needed to do this and that the educated have these skills. This is what justifies plural votes for the educated on his view. I suppose the question is what sort of epistemological skills are needed to come to know and to vote for the true or genuine interests of the public. I think empathy ends up being really important. There are likely other sorts of skills that may be necessary as well. So, may be ceding the power to vote could in some cases be an admission of lacking the skills necessary to vote appropriately and in this way could be more parallel to the case of medical licensing than either of us would like.

    P.S. Congrats on the new job! I hope you enjoy Kansas!

  3. Interesting. I guess one response to Mill regarding the ‘epistemological skills’ needed to vote for the common good might be that this is precisely why we have a one citizen, one vote system: as the (only?) epistemic tool which can effectively determine the content of ‘the common good’. (Although perhaps Arrow’s paradox puts paid to that idea…)

    Anyway,it’s a thoroughly interesting topic. It seems like it has some application to debates over IMF, World Bank and UN Security Council reform. I wonder if anyone has argued that the plural votes of contributors to the IMF aren’t just about their ‘stake’ in the organization but are also because, as ‘more developed’ states, they are more likely to act in the common good? Democratic theory isn’t really my area, but this is definitely making me want to go and read Representative Government!

  4. Good! So, the only way to determine the “common good” is to collect or put together individual preferences and, for reasons mentioned in the original post, the only way to determine individual preferences is to let individuals register those through their vote. Individuals are simply in the best position to know their own preferences and, as such, they are the most competent to vote and to make decisions about what constitutes the common good.

    As for the IMF and World Bank, it is interesting that you bring these institutions up. What first brought me to my interest in Mill’s argument for weighted voting was my interest in the voting structures and procedures of those institutions. This is what my dissertation was largely about. I’ve just been stuck in the foundational issues of what justifies equal votes in the first place. The hope is eventually to use some of my answers to these foundational questions to talk about weighted voting in the international context.

    I do think that there is a kind of competence argument at stake in the international context. People think that “poor” countries are poor because of their own bad decisions. So, they argue that developing countries shouldn’t make decisions about development. They lack competence and this is what is thought to justify “richer” countries having a greater say in institutions like the IMF. If, however, we think that decisions about how to develop (i.e., the path to development) also involve judgments about what constitutes the common good, then I think many of the issues that we have been discussing apply. So, I think this is all very relevant to the international case!

    Thanks for the good discussion!

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