Election 2013 Essays: The philosophy of voting

Australia has a form of compulsory voting. But why should we even bother? AAP/Julian Smith

Election 2013 Essays: As the federal election campaign draws to a close, The Conversation asked eminent thinkers to reflect on the state of the nation and the challenges Australia – and whichever party wins government – faces in the future. Today, John Armstrong ponders the eternal question of elections: why do we actually bother to vote?


There’s an anecdote about German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that gets quickly to one of the core problems of modern democratic voting. The great man had just been in council with the Duke of Weimar - they were trying, with immense difficulty, to work out how their small state should deal with its more powerful and quite aggressive neighbour, Prussia.

Goethe comes out of the meeting and goes for a walk with one of his friends who asks him what he thinks of the new idea of popular elections. Goethe is aghast - he looks over the gardener, trimming a hedge:

…if I don’t know what the foreign policy should be, what’s the point of asking him?

It’s probably an apocryphal story, but Goethe is right: in one sense democracy is an insane idea. He was thinking of voting as an attempt to reach the best decisions about what to do. In a boardroom the charm might feel that a vote is the right way to pool collective intelligence, and that the majority of experienced, well-informed people might be wiser than any individual.

But of course, in another sense Goethe simply did not understand the moral point of democracy. It is not about good decision-making but about legitimacy. A government gains its right to govern by the assent of the people. From that point of view it does not matter how wise or informed or intelligent the voter is, or voters in general may be.

In other words, modern governments face two quite different fundamental issues: they have to be legitimate - in the sense that they have to govern with the broad assent of the people, and on the other hand, governments have to try to find good solutions to complicated problems.

Simply put, there is no solution available to us which can succeed simultaneously in both fields. The fantasy that education could transform the electorate is a fantasy, because that could only be undertaken if the public elected a government determined to reorient society massively towards a re-education agenda; but there is no reason to suppose any electorate would collectively vote in such a humiliating way (in effect saying we recognise our inadequacy, please make us wiser).

Either elections can be just - you have a right to vote irrespective of how you use the vote, because this is part of the moral status of being a citizen. Or, your right to vote is dependent upon the quality of your insight into the tasks of government.

In the UK this transformation in the concept of voting - from decision-making to moral right - can be traced in the two principle reform bills of the 19th century.

The first bill, from the 1830s, was primarily designed to bring wealthy manufacturers - the emerging commercial elite - into the decision-making process of government. This was recognition that government needed to harness the knowledge and capacities of this sector of society.

Roughly speaking, the second bill from the 1860s extended the franchise to respectable artisans - but mainly on the grounds that if they were not included, they would cause trouble.

In Australia, we find such a history deeply unsavoury. We are so deeply committed to an egalitarian ideal that it is inconceivable that we should see voting as any kind of privilege. This means that we are locked into precisely the kinds of elections we have become familiar with - which to the serious observer seem (as elections tend to) shallow, vulgar, banal. That is what happens when democratic elections go well. Their rationale is not to find the best government (let alone to excite people); their function is to reflect the average, collective, widespread attitudes of the nation.

At root, democratic voting reflects a radical Christian attitude. In the moral sphere Christianity took the breathtaking leap of saying that everyone has a soul and every single soul is of equal value in the eyes of God - the soul of the shirker is as precious to God as the soul of the hard worker. The soul of the peasant weights the same in the divine balance as that of the king.

And this is the beautiful moral idea at the heart of modern democracy. It never looks at a person and says you are not worthy of voting. It says, instead: whatever you are like (almost), the vote belongs to you.

One problem, however, is that a vote feels like a tiny, fragile thing. Your single voice can hardly be heard. It takes another kind of faith to keep in mind that of course your vote does count - only it counts a very little. Of course you should have hardly any say in the government, because there are so many other people to be accommodated. This is maddening to the ego. Why should my vote be so tiny?

It’s in the end the thing we hate about democracy - other people and the fact that your considered, careful vote will count for exactly the same as that of someone you think utterly misguided or mean. This abasement is part of the ethical education that democracy seeks to inculcate. You are one amongst very many; society exists to satisfy average preferences, not to fulfil the longings of the best; a society is entitled to fail in its own way; the voter is always right - especially when you think they are wrong.

Government has such massive influence over our lives and yet we - of course - cannot feel that it is responsive very much to our own concerns. An intuitively appealing solution might be to have more elections. Suppose you got to vote every week: if enough people “liked” a proposed policy it would become law. One good consequence of this - if such voting were mandatory - is that we would learn how terribly difficult politics actually is. We would not be able to blame politicians, but would have to blame ourselves.

The relationship between government and people is becoming more intimate - which is what we mean by “presidential”. The concentration of power in the hands of one person, the prime minister, may be disastrous, but it is inevitable. It is produced not by scurrilous or ambitious politicians but by the ruthless activities of voters. Anyone can offer anything to the public - but it is up to the public whether they buy it or not. If they buy the presidential brand, that’s it: it may be dreadful but no-one knows how to make the public buy anything else.

Consumerism in politics is the logical result of mass democracy. All it means is that voters get to choose and that anyone who rails against their choice is out of the game.


This is the fifth article in our Election 2013 Essays series. Stay tuned for the other instalments in the lead-up to Saturday’s election.

Part one: Australia and the world

Part two: The state of Australian democracy

Part three: It’s the economy, stupid

Part four: What is government for?

Part six: Australia for the long term