Voting as a Problematic Expression of "Freedom"?

I meant to write about this post over at Crooked Timber a while ago, a post about the coercive elements in voting and its moral justification (or possibly its lack thereof).

I suddenly remembered that particular post when I was reading some Hannah Arendt for my political philosophy class. The assigned reading is from the fourth chapter of Arendt’s book Between Past and Future, titled “What is Freedom?” This book explores the traditional concepts often associated with political philosophy, such as freedom, justice, responsibility, etc., and tries to show that our traditional understandings of them have become increasingly in tension with contemporary reality. As you can see from the title of the chapter, Arendt was concerned with the notion of freedom as understood from a political perspective.

Reading that particular chapter reminded me of something that Harry Brighouse, who wrote in his original blog post that

voting, whether in a referendum or in a representative election, usually involves attempting to wield coercive power over others, and that many of those others are non-consenting.

Brighouse than goes on to say that just because voting is a form of coercive behavior does not automatically mean that any and all form of coercion is morally unjustifiable. It is an interesting argument, and it raises many questions which challenge the normal American conception of voting as a fundamental expression of political freedom.

However, what I am interested in is not the normative aspects (although those are certainly interesting, and warrants its own post, if I ever get around to putting down my thoughts). What interests me is that Brighouse doesn’t seem to think that the fact that voting is essentially coercive behavior is problematic–to me, he seems to take it for granted, something to be mentioned only in order to move on to his normative work.

To be fair to Brighouse, I know that his intention is to focus on the normative aspects of voting, but since I am reading Arendt, I can’t help but think that there is something problematic with the liberal conception of “freedom.”

The problem, or at least the tension, is this: in liberal political thought, especially American liberal political thought, voting is the fundamental expression of freedom, if not identical with freedom itself. After all, voting is seen as the only fair and legitimate way for individual citizens to express their political opinions and try to enact their political goals.

But I agree with Brighouse, because there is something very coercive about voting, at least voting in the American political system. And this coercive nature of voting comes from another pillar of liberal thought: the social contract, as seen in Locke’s writings. Locke was the one who wrote that the social contract is binding in a way that the body politic moves with the majority, and the minority moves along with it, and that so long as the decision-making procedures are fair (reasonable availabilities for participation, equality of voting, etc), then the social contract binds the minority to move along with the majority.

So where exactly does this leave room for freedom? After all, if there are 100 members in a political community, and 51 of them votes one way, 49 votes the other way, then the 49 are being coerced by the 51. Or even worse, the 49 are really being coerced by 2, since it is only those last 2 votes which are decisive. There is no real meaningful sense in which the 49 members who voted the other way are “free,” unless everyone acknowledges that whatever decisions made by the majority are binding upon everyone in the community. But again, why should that be the case? Why should the majority simply be obeyed because they are the majority? (To see a more extended, and more radical argument in this vein, check out Robert Paul Wolff’s short book titled In Defense of Anarchism).

The only meaningful freedom under this kind of political regime is at the moment of the regime’s creation: that is to say, when everyone in the community was free to participate in the regime and negotiate its operating terms. But once that moment is over, the members are bound by that regime. Sure, they can vote, but voting then becomes not an exercise in freedom, but an exercise in luck, because you don’t know which side you will come out on. Sure, you can try to persuade, build coalitions, or use other political maneuvers to increase the chance of your side being the winning one, but this is not guaranteed at all. And this is not to even mention that a lot of people simply don’t vote, and are denied even this very limited sense of freedom.

This kind of freedom is problematic with our usual understanding of freedom in the liberal sense: that is to say, freedom as sovereignty. In this kind of political regime, it is hard to see how individual freedom is individual sovereignty when the method of participation (voting) is essentially coercive. It is very difficult, at least for me, to see how an individual on the losing side can be “sovereign.”

But my main concern is not normative: I am not here to argue that any one conception of freedom is better than any other (at least not in this entry anyways). I am merely pointing out that the traditional liberal conception of freedom as sovereignty is problematic, or at least in tension with, the liberal tenet of voting as the expression of that freedom. Because the result, as I have tried to argue, is that only those whose votes end up in the majority are sovereign, while the minority are deprived of their sovereignty.

Thus, as I am inclined to agree with Arendt, the problem of freedom is such a huge problem in liberal political thought precisely because of this built-in tension between freedom in the abstract and freedom in practice in liberal political regimes defined by voting.

The choice is to either keep doing this philosophical dance, or to start over and try to come up with a new notion of political freedom that jives more with our political realities.


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