A Voting Paradox

Elizabeth Anscombe, in The Frustration of the Majority by the Majority’s Will, points out a clever paradox of voting. The issue is essentially that the majority of the people do not get what they want a majority of the time. Consider the following chart from Anscombe’s original article:


Voters A through K cast ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes on 11 issues. Every issue passes by a margin of 6-5. But seven of the voters, A through G, voted ‘no’ on most issues (7/11). So, most people are not, in general, getting what they want.

This is meant to undermine the idea of democracy as ‘majority rule’. The majority may be ruling each specific issue, but that does not necessarily mean that most people will walk away from the process satisfied. This is not an unrealistic scenario. Let’s say the issues are tax increases and four people stand to benefit from many of these increases. This could explain the high rate of ‘yes’ votes from the four participants (H through K) benefitting from most of the outcomes.

I agree that this is an intriguing paradox that ought to make us seriously consider how a democracy is really supposed to work, but what has arisen to prevent such frustration of wills may be even worse. Consider how Congressional voting is done in the United States today. On most issues that are controversial, the two main parties form strict voting blocks. They stand together completely in order to throw as much weight behind an issue as possible. In this scenario, the majority should always carry the vote (of course, to make this completely successful, there must be an alignment of House, Senate, and President). We then see scenarios like the following:

Here, we have the majority’s will being satisfied, but at the total expense of the slight minority. We have 60% of the voting population fulfilling their will completely, while an entire 40% of the voting population’s will is thwarted completely. This seems altogether worse than the first scenario! This is our present situation—there is no compromise and both parties fight for complete control at the expense of nearly half the country.


Is freedom the ultimate good?

I want to propose something for Libertarians to consider. But first, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine you are observing a society of painters. According to the people in this society, the greatest good is to paint. It doesn’t matter if other people like what you create because painting is good for its own sake. The government recognizes this good and acts to protect it in a minimalist way. If anyone’s ability to paint is inhibited, the government has a duty to protect the individual’s right to paint.

This situation is fairly analogous to the Libertarian position, except replace painting as the greatest good with individual freedom. The duty to protect against infringement seems obvious enough. But let’s consider a further point. Should the government also ensure an environment where the greatest good can flourish? For example, what if no one in the imaginary society has access to paint or brushes or easels? Should the government provide those resources?

It all depends on whether the good is painting itself or the right to paint. If painting itself is the good, then we should ensure the flourishing of the good itself. If it is the right to paint that is the good, then it is sufficient to only ensure no individual’s painting is specifically inhibited.

Where freedom is concerned, there are conditions which must be met in order to allow the flourishing of free choices. These include life, as well as general mental and physical health. Imagine your ability to really make free choices without these conditions.

So, what is the ultimate good? Is it the right to make free choices or is the good embodied in the act of making free choices? If it is the act, then the government should be responsible for ensuring the conditions necessary for that act to flourish. This means they are at least responsible for some basic amount of healthcare, shelter, nourishment, and the like. It doesn’t have to be excessive, but enough to allow people to survive and freely choose the type of life they want.

Perhaps, though, you might try and argue that the mere right is the good, rather than the act. I think a brief thought experiment can show this position to be untenable. Imagine a futuristic society that is run by robots. This isn’t too difficult since it is a very minimal administrative duty. They only provide enforcement against those who inhibit the freedom of others, like a police force. But a plague unexpectedly devastates the society. The human citizens all either die or are hospitalized and delirious. If you think the mere presence of the right to make free choices is sufficient for the good being present, then you think this society is an example of the good flourishing. After all, there is not a single person whose ability to make free choices is inhibited by the choices of another. But surely this is absurd! No free choices are actually being made. How can this be an embodiment of the good?

I consider this to be a fundamental flaw for a strict Libertarian philosophy. It views freedom as the ultimate good, but does not recognize a further duty for the government to ensure the necessary conditions for making free choices are met.

It’s ecology, stupid.

Kudzu covering a house

Consider the kudzu plant. It’s a beautiful plant, really, until you realize its nature. If you drive through Eastern Tennessee, you’ll surely notice its distinct features. On any hillside where it is allowed to take root, every other form of life is covered by the kudzu, choked to death and deprived of the resources it needs to survive. The kudzu has become like an unstoppable plague in certain areas. Sunlight, water, and nutrients in the soil are used to further its own growth. The survival of anything else depends on what is left.

Now consider our economic landscape. Is it the gentle meadow of textbook examples with cooperative interactions or is it the domination by the few, like the kudzu? How are resources divided among our citizens? An analogy may help. If the total wealth of the United States was represented by a tank containing 1,000 gallons of water, how much do you think would be given to the poorest 40% or about 120 million people? They would have 3 gallons of water total to divide amongst themselves or 0.000000025 gallons per person. It is hard to imagine this is a just distribution of goods.

This level of disparity is what exists with our current level of regulation. Yet, many economic plans propose that we deregulate and let the economy fix itself. But what might this approach require? You would need balancing mechanisms. Market forces would need the ability to stabilize, to change, to retaliate, and much more. Such things happen quite nicely in the meadows of textbooks. But is the patch of grass or even the sturdy shrub able to alter the course of kudzu? The picture sold to us about a self-policing economy is built upon the idea of the meadow. And yet, we are already so much like a hill in Tennessee. Why should we think further deregulation will not take us closer and closer toward the same ultimate end? The lucky few will thrive amazingly well, while everything else may, if it’s lucky, survive on what remains.

Aristotle, Justice, and Flutes

How do we decide on a just distribution of goods? Following Michael Sandel, I find Aristotle’s conception of justice to be helpful in modern debates. Aristotle, in Politics, said that we cannot dissociate justice from other considerations, like function or purpose, when it comes to distributive rights. Consider what he says about a just distribution of flutes:

When a number of flute players are equal in their art, there is no reason why those of them who are better born should have better flutes given to them; for they will not play any better on the flute, and the superior instrument should be reserved for him who is the superior artist.

The distribution of the superior flutes should not, according to Aristotle, be done according to nobility of birth, wealth, or any such consideration. Rather, it should be done according to skill. The person who will make the best flute music should have the best flute. Why is this? It is because that is the purpose of flutes. They are meant to be played well to make beautiful music.

If that is not clear, consider another example. Let’s say we have a number of goods to distribute, one of which is a hard hat. Among the people to whom the goods are being distributed, there is one man who works in a construction site. The others all work in an office. Isn’t it clear that the man who works at a construction site should receive the hard hat? He is the only one who will put it to its intended use and allow it to serve its proper function.

This will be a helpful framework to answer many pressing questions. For example, how should a society distribute marriages? Well, we can better understand that question by determining the purpose of marriage in society. If the purpose of marriage is simply to have children, then it’s not clear why there should be homosexual marriage. If, however, the purpose of marriage is much broader, then we should say the just distribution of marriages will include homosexual couples.

Blog at WordPress.com.