Why Aren’t Elections Considered Coercive?

Like the title asks: why not? Because to me, elections are pretty coercive.

A thought experiment: suppose in Country X, there are 100 citizens, all of whom vote. They are all asked to vote on how to spend $100 dollars. 33 of them voted to spend the money on cleaning up the streets; 33 of them voted to spend the money improving security, and the rest 34 voted to spend the money on infrastructure improvements.

Now, assuming that this election was held under fair conditions, and suppose that every vote count equally, and suppose that the electoral system in Country X is first past the post (like in America), then how can we not say that the 34 people who voted for infrastructure improvement is coercing the 66 others who voted on other things?

I am personally not satisfied with any kind of argument that uses consent, because I don’t think consent alone can establish why 34 people should have the power to impose their wills on 66 others. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the decision reached by the 34 is in any sense legitimate, from a moral point of view. For all I know, perhaps the morally right decision was to spend the money on security, and not on infrastructure.

Does this suggest that I’m somehow anti-democratic? I would say no, because my problem with elections isn’t that they are coercive per se, because all majority-rule (unanimity systems excluded) is coercive to some degree or another.

Rather, my problem is with the circumstances under which a coercive electoral system operates. The only way that I can legitimately accept this kind of coercion is if I knew that those in the majority (or plurality) are acting out of good faith in trying to decide what is best for EVERYONE. If I can be reasonably confident that my fellow citizens chose what they chose because they honestly thought, in good faith, that what they chose is best for everyone, I’d be inclined to accept the coercion of the election. However, if they voted the way they did not because of any real consideration for the public interest, but only out of self-interest, I would view that kind of coercion as illegitimate.

To go back to my earlier example: if I’m one of the 66 people whose decision was not chosen, I would only be inclined to view that outcome as legitimate if I can be reasonably sure that the 34 people who voted for infrastructure improvement TRULY thought that infrastructure improvement would be the best course of action for everyone. On the other hand, if those 34 people voted merely out of self-interest (for example, perhaps all of them are contractors), then I would view such a coercive measure as totally illegitimate.

The trick, of course, is to distinguish between acting out of considerations for the public versus acting out of consideration for pure self-interest. But even I’m not completely satisfied with this, because the American system is not designed for people to contemplate the public interest; rather, it’s a system that encourages individuals and groups to consider their own interests, which are then aggregated and balanced through institutional features like separation of power and checks and balances.

The result is that most citizens have no incentive to think from the view of the public, because the system creates incentives for them to think in terms of self-interest. And this is where we are today: political decisions are rarely made because of considerations of and from the public: rather, they are made as a result of going through a series of processes in which individual self-interests are aggregated and balanced against each other. Whoever comes out on top wins: thus, the 34 gets to utilize the resources of the government to pursue their own ends.

I’m not claiming that this kind of system cannot ever produce political results that benefit the public as a whole, but only that such kind of results are accidental and secondary. There is a kind of faith that the aggregation and balancing of disparate individual interests would somehow produce something for the public in most cases, but I think this faith is exaggerated. Sure, it happens, but you also get a lot of situations like the one I’ve described in the thought experiment.


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