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.