So let’s reconsider the question of competence. Voting in an election is a type of choice, similar to many other important choices—e.g., which university to apply for, whom to marry, or which house to buy. So I suggest we follow some broadly decision-theoretic notions in outlining what it would mean to be competent in making a choice. We can classify the demands of competence into four categories:
- you need to know the major options open to you (knowledge about choices),
- you need to be aware of the consequences of each option, or at least have a rough sense of some of the possible outcomes of the major options, and a sense for which of these outcomes are more likely than others (predictive model),
- you need to be able to evaluate the desirability of the relevant outcomes, in a way which allows you to make at least rough comparisons across outcomes (evaluative model), and lastly,
- you need to be able to form coherent, all-things-considered judgments regarding the desirability of different options on the basis of (i) to (iii) (integrated framework).
This account is still quite generic. But it’s possible to fill in some more of the details if we look at the specifics of voting.
Knowledge about Choices
This category is pretty straight-forward. To count as competent, you would need to know
- the major parties and their candidates, and
- their main policy proposals, or at least, their general ideological stance on the important issues.
This is simply knowledge about what’s politically “on offer”. As we’ve seen, voters are surprisingly lacking even in these types of basic knowledge; but it seems the bare minimum to count as competent.
You do not merely need to know the names and ideologies of the different parties. You also need to be able to predict what outcomes voting for which party will have. (We can assume here, unrealistically, that your vote makes a difference.) Such a “predictive model” requires you, first of all, to be acquainted with “political arithmetics”—in particular,
- to know the chances of a given political party to win the election, or be part of a winning coalition, or enter parliament,
- in multi-party systems, know probable coalitions,
- know, if a given party or coalition were to come into power, to what degree it would be able to realise its favoured policies—e.g., whether other facts or political players will constrain the realisability of certain political proposals.
These aren’t mundane things to know. They require you to have general background knowledge regarding the political system, how its key institutions work, and some up-to-date information about the current political players and their relationships to each other.
Most constitutional systems impose complicated power-sharing agreements that severely limit what individual political agents can achieve. If you are to vote competently, you need to have some account of these institutional facts. For example, to estimate what Trump will do, it’s not enough to listen to him, and to predict what he’ll do (though that turned out to be difficult enough). You also need to know what congressional Republicans are up to, as well as the likely voting patterns of the supreme court, etc.
But these kinds of political arithmetic are actually only the minor part of the predictive model. A more stringent requirement is the following:
- you need to be able to estimate, at least roughly, the content as well as the likely economic, cultural, and social outcomes of the major policies that a given party or coalition would be able to realise.
The demandingness of this part of the predictive model can not be overstated. To be able to competently judge the likely outcomes of different policies, it seems, you need no less than a working model that explains causal relationships amongst key economic variables, and which in addition allows you to understand the interaction of these variables with social and cultural factors. Coming even close to fulfilling these criteria is enormously challenging.
Competent voters should not only be able to roughly predict the policies of different parties; they also need to be in a position to evaluate those results. To tackle this task adequately, I take it that you need
- a list of the major values—e.g., equality, rights, desert—relevant to the evaluation of different social outcomes,
- the ability to identify the degree to which different social outcomes realise these values,
- the ability to weigh competing values against each other, preferably in a way based on general, transparent principles, and
- the ability to form all-things-considered judgments regarding the political desirability of different outcomes on the basis of 7-9.
The intellectual labour required to order your values into a halfway-systematic whole is a tremendous intellectual undertaking. That’s not to say that you need a doctorate to count as competent in these regards. But you will need to have a sophisticated, flexible system of beliefs which provides you at least with a decently complete, integrated method to evaluate potential outcomes.
I don’t think I have such a system of beliefs, and I’ve spent significant amounts of time reading moral and political philosophy. Indeed, if philosophy shows anything, then it is that people generally underestimate the epistemic labour needed to satisfyingly solve tasks 7 to 10. (But perhaps philosophy has also made me think that the acceptable level of competence in this area is unduly high.)
This last element in competence is easily overlooked. Even if you have knowledge of the choices as well as sufficiently good predictive and evaluative models to judge those choices, you need to be able to combine those into all-things-considered judgments regarding the desirability of different options. You need, in short,
- a rough framework for integrating normative and empirical knowledge in an impartial way to produce all-things-considered judgments regarding the choiceworthiness of different political options.
This might sound simple, but in practice isn’t. Empirical research in political psychology consistently shows that we’re “motivated reasoners”. In particular, our values colour our perception of empirical facts. (A small but telling example concerning Trump’s inauguration can be found here.) Moral impartiality is surprisingly hard, though certainly not impossible.
There are other background virtues that you need to have to some degree to count as competent. In particular, I suspect that you need to have
- an awareness of known unknowns, as well as other shortcomings of your own predictive and evaluative model, and a method how to epistemically “hedge your bets” against such uncertainty.
In short, you need to have an account of how to deal with uncertainty in political choice, as most choices are.
This completes a rough account of political competence. The account is still quite broad. We still need to specify, for example, to what degree individuals need to fulfil the various requirements 1-12. But the account should be sufficiently clear that we can see that it will turn out to be extremely demanding. I suspect that only a tiny sliver of people would count as competent on this account. (I do not think I would fulfil the relevant threshold myself.)