Should college graduates get more votes?

Many of you will know that John Stuart Mill advocates a scheme whereby college graduates, and the more educated more generally, would get more votes. Like some universities, he even accepts work experience in leiu of formal education:

If every ordinary unskilled labourer had one vote, a skilled labourer, whose occupation requires an exercised mind and a knowledge of some of the laws of external nature, ought to have two. A foreman, or superintendent of labour, whose occupation requires something more of general culture, and some moral as well as intellectual qualities, should perhaps have three. A farmer, manufacturer, or trader, who requires a still larger range of ideas and knowledge, and the power of guiding and attending to a great number of various operations at once, should have three or four. A member of any profession requiring a long, accurate, and systematic mental cultivation—a lawyer, a physician or surgeon, a clergyman of any denomination, a literary man, an artist, a public functionary (or, at all events, a member of every intellectual profession at the threshold of which there is a satisfactory examination test) ought to have five or six. A graduate of any university, or a person freely elected a member of any learned society, is entitled to at least as many ("Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform").

Virtually everyone today agrees that this is a terrible idea. But why?

Some elaboration and clarification about Mill's thinking: Remember that he's writing in a context in which a largely uneducated working class is on the verge of being enfranchised. In the essay that I quoted above, he presents plural voting as necessary if there is to be universal suffrage. His aim to prevent it from being the case that working class candidates win in every district, so that only one point of view is represented in Parliament. In the slightly later Considerations on Representative Government he backs away from the claim that it is a necessary condition of universal suffrage, although he continues to endorse it in principle. (What happened in between is that he discovered proportional representation, and became convinced that universal suffrage would be tolerable as long as the intelligensia could band together and elect at least a few of their number.) 

Mill is not especially attached to the numbers in the passage above; he doesn't even repeat them in Considerations on Representative Government. He is clear that those who get extra votes shouldn't get enough additional ballots to allow them outvote the "one-voters" if the one-voters stick together. In addition to accepting "work experience," he also calls for national examinations that would let anyone prove herself worth of additional votes regardless of formal education or profession. (The feminine pronoun here isn't ahistorical; Mill was the first to propose in Parliament that women be given the vote on equal terms with men.)

Mill offers three main lines of argument for plural voting. In short, these are that:

  1. Government will be more effective if those whose opinons are worth more have more political power, and he's very explicit that more and better education make a person's opinion worth more. Moral superiority does, too, but as he says for this "“it is not so easy to find an available test" ("Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform").
  2. This institutional endorsement of the value of education will itself contribute to the "national education": "I should still contend for assigning plurality of votes to authenticated superiority of education, were it only to give the tone to public feeling, irrespective of any direct political consequences" (Representative Government).
  3. It is patently unjust that, in a matter that must be decided jointly, to give people of unequal competence an equal say:

When all have votes, it will be both just in principle and necessary in fact, that some mode be adopted of giving greater weight to the suffrage of the more educated voter; some means by which the more intrinsically valuable member of society, the one who is more capable, more competent for the general affairs of life, and possesses more of the knowledge applicable to the management of the affairs of the community, should, as far as practicable, be singled out, and allowed a superiority of influence proportioned to his higher qualifications ("Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform"). 

An obvious question to have here is whether Mill believes that plural voting would still be justified in a polity in which virtually everyone has a decent education. While I seem to be in the minority of his interpreters here, I take his answer to be that he would, and indeed that he would even consider it to remain justified if people were so equally well educated that virtually everyone got the same number of votes; see the passage that I quoted above under point #2 (in connection with the "education" argument), in which he says that he would remain in favor even if plural voting lacked any "direct political consequences."

Everyone with whom I've ever discussed plural voting agrees that this is one of Mill's worst ideas. Indeed, it's so universally regarded as absurd that I seldom hear people offer actual arguments against it; arguments seem unnecessary. Nor have I ever really articulated why I think it's a clunker of an idea, although I am quite sure that it is; when it comes up in class I just tell students that no one who has been to a faculty senate meeting could be in favor. For a project that I'm working on now, though, it would be useful to hear from others precisely why they oppose it (as I assume that you all do). Is it merely impractible or wrong on principle? Do Mill's arguments not convince, and if so why not?

14 Replies to “Should college graduates get more votes?

  1. The problems are so numerous. I suppose one of the less obvious ones that occurs to me is that part of the benefit of having people vote is that giving them a say in how the state is run helps make them feel that the state is theirs, as opposed to something inflicted on them, and biasing the system against some of the participants will undermine that effect for those who suffer the bias. Plus corruption, perverse incentives (gives the powerful incentives to discourage education of the masses), the less educated have less say anyway because of less money and influence, enough so that their interests are inadequately served by politicians more interested in swaying those who can help them with money and connections, and Mill’s proposal would serve to further increase this systemic bias against the lower classes, and so on and so forth.

  2. Aaron: Thanks, that is all interesting and plausible. You might be interested in how Mill addresses your first concern, about the “strains of commitment”:

    To have no voice in what are partly his own concerns, is a thing which nobody willingly submits to; but when what is partly his concern is also partly another’s, and he feels the other to understand the subject better than himself, that the other’s opinion should be counted for more than his own, accords with his expectations, and with the course of things which in all other affairs of life he is accustomed to acquiesce in. It is only necessary that this superior influence should be assigned on grounds which he can comprehend, and of which he is able to perceive the justice.

  3. This is actually a live issue in Thailand; since 2006 (and possibly earlier), there have been consistent calls for some kind of ‘New Politics’ (as it’s called) where voting rights are much more in line with employment/profession/level of education. The arguments are rarely spelt out and when they are, it usually amounts to not much more than that the rural population (typically farmers) are too thick to be entrusted with a vote but for a small but significant slice of Thai society, it’s self-evidently a good argument.

  4. Hi Dale,
    If it were true that everyone just voted for whoever they thought would be best for the country as a whole and could assess this in an unbiased way, then it would make sense to give those who are educated more votes given that they are probably better able to assess which candidates would be best for the country as a whole. But if people are likely to vote for the candidate who would be best for themselves (or to be biased in their assessments of who would be best for the country as a whole), then giving those who are educated more votes is likely not be best for the country as a whole. Indeed, we might say that the problem with many current democracies is that for various reasons certain segments of society do not vote in proportion to their numbers. So it might be a better idea to make voting mandatory as it is in Australia. Or maybe we should give those who belong to segments of society that tend to be underrepresented in the vote more votes so as to make the actual vote representative of the country as whole.

  5. Thanks, Dale. I just want to note that Mill is sensitive to certain practical issues, in particular the extent to which any system based on considerations of competence will depend on the willing deference of some to others in decision-making. Absent that willing deference, the practical calculation is very different. As you know, Mill understood that his plural voting scheme was not a near-term possibility. Of course, Mill is also worried about *too much* deference (namely, where an individual would be a better judge him- or herself). An interesting social epistemic strain in his thought (which I’m pursuing) tracks what he says about deference and the conditions necessary to justify it. In general, he frames deference claims as something on which all reasonable people could agree. So ultimately all these competence-based measures–including plural voting itself, I think–should be understood as precautions taken by the people themselves against their own possible errors. He writes at one point that it “would not be the blind submission of dunces to men of knowledge, but the intelligent deference of those who know much, to those who know still more.” Of course, worries about the identification of experts put pressure on the general acceptability of competence/deference claims.

  6. Doug, I take your considerations to cut against the worth of democratic voting, period: “if people are likely to vote for the candidate who would be best for themselves (or to be biased…), then giving” anyone/everyone the vote “is likely not to be best for the country as a whole.” Are you claiming it would somehow be worse for the country as as whole if some biased people got more votes than all the other biased people who have fewer votes? I don’t quite see how that would work.
    My worry is about the presumed relationship between education per se and political astuteness. As William F. Buckley famously said, “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” But that’s not to say there’s nothing to Mill’s idea. To the extent there was a way to train and test political experts, I’d be inclined to give them more votes than me, especially when it comes to electing my county comptroller and local judges. If there were some people who truly had the time and proven ability to assess the quality of political candidates and the issues put before the people, then why not let them have more influence?

  7. I have plenty of reservations about this proposal, but I’m not sure it’s “one of Mill’s worst ideas.”
    Most of the problems that come to my mind are practical problems — issues with implementation and protection from abuse. One worry is that disadvantaged groups who are deprived of educational opportunities (e.g., because they grew up in poverty) would be unjustly punished for factors beyond their control. They may have had to cut their education short to support themselves or their families, for instance, and it seems inappropriate to restrict their voting privileges for that reason. (Similar points have been made in prior comments.) A policy like Mill’s could very likely only be made to work well if there was genuine equality of educational opportunity or something very close to it.
    It would also be extremely difficult to determine what professions would get “bonuses” when it came to voting in a non-arbitrary way. The same problem arises for just how extensive the bonuses are: should a lawyer get 3 votes to the plumber’s single vote or 4 votes to his single vote? These kinds of questions seem very difficult to answer. This scheme also assumes, as David points out above, that there is some positive correlation between one’s level of education/professional expertise and one’s competence in making good political judgments. I’d certainly want to see some empirical studies to demonstrate the truth of such an assumption.
    All that said, these are practical difficulties. I think the more interesting question is whether there are any circumstances, however far removed they are from our current ones, where this kind of policy would be morally appropriate. The third of Mill’s arguments — that it is unjust to give people of unequal competence equal say in a joint venture — strikes me as a good one, and in our ordinary walks of life, we routinely think it appropriate to give the opinions of experts on certain subjects more authority with respect to making decisions concerning their areas of expertise. So if it is legitimately possible to train people to be political experts, then it isn’t so crazy to think granting those experts more votes than non-experts would be justified. It’s still possible that these considerations aren’t enough to sustain the argument (even in ideal circumstances), but it definitely isn’t obvious to me that such a scheme is unjustifiable under any circumstances.

  8. Hi Dave,
    “Are you claiming it would somehow be worse for the country as as whole if some biased people got more votes than all the other biased people who have fewer votes?”
    I’m suggesting that if everyone votes according to their self-interest (or is biased in favor of their self-interest), then it would be better to have everyone vote than to have just the educated vote. For if just the educated vote according to their self-interest, then we’re liable to end up with candidates and policies that are best for the educated as opposed to best for the majority (or best for the country as a whole). Of course, the problem with a democracy is that we have to protect minorities from the majority. But I’m assuming that there will be some constitutional protections for minorities.
    But, in the end, the question of whether a country would do better if the uneducated had more or less of a say in politics is largely an empirical question. I know many Thais who think that the problem isn’t that the uneducated don’t have enough of a say but that they have too much of a say and are too easily swayed by corrupt politicians.

  9. Doug and David,
    For what their worth, I think that Mill might have a couple of responses to Doug’s point. First, he may well think that the better educated would tend to be more disinterested. At the very least, he seems to assume that the people who have the genuinely finest minds are also the least selfish. He wouldn’t have thought that more years of schooling, even (especially!) at Oxbridge, necessarily produced genuinely fine minds, but he seems to think that those who have such minds would be included among those who got plural votes. He doesn’t seem to argue for this convergence of the “moral” and “intellectual” elites at all; perhaps he was just generalizing from Harriet! Second, I think he would also believe that there is more harmony than conflict between people’s interests, and so in a polity in which most people pursue their self-interest, it’s better from the standpoint of advancing the public good to give more power to those with a better understanding of where their interests really lie.
    I’m curious what others think of David’s worry about the relation between education and political astuteness. Is that concern widely shared?

  10. Cf. David Estlund.
    Reasons:
    1. Creates invidious comparisons between citizens.
    2. Even the educated cannot avoid own-side bias and vested interests (i.e. in education funding)

  11. A tiny comment, Doug: I take it that the relevant contrast is between everyone having an equal vote, and everyone having a vote, just with the educated having more votes. So it wouldn’t just be the educated who have a vote in Mill’s proposed society. It may be less clear, then, which self-interested/biased society would be better off.

  12. Hi Dale,
    1. Regarding your question of what Mill would think of plural voting “in a polity in which virtually everyone has a decent education,” he actually gave an answer in his Autobiography: “If it [plural voting] ever overcomes the strong feeling which exists against it, this will only be after the establishment of a systematic National Education by which the various grades of politically valuable acquirement may be accurately defined and authenticated. Without this it will always remain liable to strong, possibly conclusive, objections; and with this, it would perhaps not be needed.”
    2. It is always interesting to discuss Mill’s plural voting system. But it is time to think of other alternatives to universal suffrage that might be harder to refute than Mill’s proposal. I have developed one such proposal. I call it the “enfranchisement lottery.” A preliminary version appeared in an article in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (vol 10, num 2), and a more elaborate version is forthcoming in my book on the morality of electoral exclusions: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198705789.do#

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