Damon Linker’s argument against compulsory voting weaves in Plato and the Socratic argument for aristocracy. His reasoning is an interesting modernization of the classical aristocratic mindset. His point about the contestability of excellence is good, and he makes use of it as a justification of electoralism.
A democracy gives every adult citizen a very small say in who rules. An individual doesn’t have to prove that he’s thoughtful or informed to exercise that right. As Plato argued 2,300 years ago, this makes democratic politics exceedingly peculiar. We don’t take a vote to determine the medical treatments that doctors prescribe, and neither do we ask for a show of hands about how to construct a bridge or a building. And yet we think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for everyone’s opinion about what policies our country should pursue at home and abroad.
That’s because in politics, unlike in medicine and engineering, the act of determining who does and does not possess knowledge and wisdom is exceedingly contentious. (One might say it’s a political act in itself.) So we solve — or rather, we sidestep — the problem by letting everyone have a say.
But of course, giving everyone a voice in periodic elections isn’t purely democratic. An absolute democracy would assign political offices by lot, with leaders chosen at random from the citizenry. Elections, by contrast, presume that some people (those few who make it onto the ballot) are more fit to rule than everyone else. All that’s presumed about the voters at large is that they’re capable of recognizing civic excellence when they see it.
But even this presumption is partly a fiction. We all know that some people are more capable than others of recognizing excellence, even if we also recognize, once again, that there’s no uncontentious way to definitively determine who the more capable people are. The closest we can get to making such a determination may be using the decision to vote as a proxy for relative political wisdom.
If you can’t be bothered to vote, you probably aren’t paying attention; and if you aren’t paying attention, we’ll probably all be better off if you keep not bothering.
It seems that if he takes this argument seriously, Linker should oppose any attempt to make voting easier, but this apparently would put him farther out than he would like to be:
The president says he wants to make it easier for people to vote. Fine. He could work to lengthen the hours the polls are open, extend voting over multiple days, or move Election Day to a weekend. All would be perfectly unobjectionable and even worthwhile reforms.