Look, this is really fairly simple.

Would the gentleman in question still be encouraging the students to vote if he knew the majority of them would favor McCain rather than Obama? If he'd still do it, then his concern is with increasing voting activity. If he wouldn't, then he's just trying to increase the power of his favored candidate.

Of course, if he's not an American citizen, then he's minding what most certainly is not his business, and he should have his eyes removed as penance.

That is all.

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Should Brian still act non-partisan if the election was between, say, Hitler and Gandhi?

By framing the question this way you've mutated it into another question entirely. The original question was, is encouraging people to vote (without pushing a particular candidate) really non-partisan if you know that in practice most of your audience will vote for the candidate you favor? In this scenario the desirability of non-partisanship is stipulated from the beginning.

In the hypothetical election between Hitler and Gandhi, most people would be unabashedly partisan. The operative word here is "unabashedly". A pro-Gandhi partisan in such an election wouldn't try to pretend to himself that he was non-partisan and thus wouldn't care whether he was acting in a non-partisan way.

Back to the actual scenario, what we have here is a person who is pushing his favorite candidate (i.e., being a partisan) while trying to claim the mantle of non-partisanship. That is where the "bad faith" comes in.

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>But if not, your voting advocacy is just a bad faith attempt to hide a partisan effort to push particular candidates.

I stand by the principle of taking a non-partisan approach in most situations. However, it seems to me that rules about non-partisanship break down if you've done a thorough, humble analysis. Should Brian still act non-partisan if the election was between, say, Hitler and Gandhi?

Ultimately, the ends do justify the means. You just have to make sure you're keeping track of all the ends.

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I am having trouble with the analogy. Professors are responsible for assigning grades and it is something they can directly affect. Artificially raising grades is not the same as encouraging people to vote. If professors had the ability to force people to vote, the analogy would fit. A more apt analogy is to say that pushing students to vote would be the same as pushing students to get better grades.

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I can't imagine a counterfactual with opposite partisan leanings. Ideally my feelings about Obama and McCain are based on my values and beliefs on matters of fact. What values and beliefs would be held by my counterfactual with opposite partisan leanings?

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@Robin Hanson:

"If a Stalinist were running in this election, then yes to be neutral Brian would need agreement from his Stalinist counterfactual."

Do you mean if a Stalinist were running at all, or if a Stalininst were a major-party candidate/non-negligible contender?

The former principle I think would make a no-taking-sides rule equivalent to a no-action-at-all rule; I think there are few if any aspects of the "public good" that don't at least implicitly side against someone. (Cf. teaching evolution in schools; a lot of people sure seem to feel that constituted taking sides against them. And I don't think my Anarchist counterfactual would be easy to convince of the value of any legitimization of the current regime.)

But the latter standard would mean we need some way to determine how mainstream a party has to be before helping/hurting it counts as "taking sides." (Too small and it's not a meaningful "side," too large and it's identical with the public good.)

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@David Wynn

"might be costly to individuals has no bearing on the value of multiple informed votes to the system as a whole."

You're not seriously arguing this, are you? To claim that "the value to the system as a whole" outweighs a high cost to the individual is, with all due respect, terrifying. Not to overstate the case, but this is the worst form of positive liberty.

Voting is a small example - but as often happens on OB, upon reflection it illuminates the largest principles.

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I agree adding a number of uninformed people to the voter pool does little to help the process as a whole, but I'm not sure we could ever properly screen out the ones who were so uneducated.

However, I thought your quote here was interesting.

"And even if someone's vote would increase this chance, if the increase is infinitesimal the fact that voting is costly can make us prefer he or she just stay home."

If a person's vote has a non-zero increase in the betterment of a voting system, shouldn't "us" (I'm guessing you mean society here) encourage people to vote anyway? That voting might be costly to individuals has no bearing on the value of multiple informed votes to the system as a whole.

That's just my two cents.

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Eliezer: There's a simpler way. I was volunteering over the weekend to register people to vote for Obama, because I enjoy front-row passes at exceptionally crowded Bruce Springsteen shows and the campaign offered that as the incentive to register voters for a few hours. (Not that I managed to register a significant number of people. The overwhelming majority of people showing up for that show were already registered and strongly for Obama. But hey, front row tickets!) For those of you that haven't seen the registration forms, it's pretty simple. Name, address, date of birth, last four digits of SSN, check yes if you are 18 or over and a U.S. citizen, write today's date, and sign it.

People have trouble with this. They put the current date for their birth-date. They put the wrong address. They check off the wrong box saying "I'm changing my address, so it's new voter, right?" No, there's a box that says "change of address" for a reason. (Actually, it's new voter if you're coming in from a state other than the one you are registering in, but I digress). They forget to sign it. They write "United States" where it says "County."

It is an exceedingly simple form, and someone standing in line to get concert tickets who asks me for such a form should be able to handle it. Yet, people cannot. Feeling charitable pre-no $ cost Bruce show, I decided to not be objective and chalk it up to the scene- pre-concert, waiting in line, lots of people, etc- but I was told later, that, no, people mess it up no matter where they fill it out. If you cannot fill out the form without help, you should not be able to vote. That should be the minimum threshold, and I think we'd actually cull out a lot more people than one would expect to.

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Is it even possible to encourage voting without also encouraging becoming informed enough to do so, even if marginally or indirectly? Is anyone so self deluded they think their actions would have a material effect on the results? This should be viewed less as an attempt at persuasion than self confirmation.

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What struck me most about Weatherson's essay was this statement:

"It seems to me that voting in the upcoming election for Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin is pretty close to a moral requirement."

This seems to me to express a commitment to positive liberty a la Rousseau. The collectivity requires my participation in creating an expression of the general will. This may reflect his Australian background; in Oz, voting is compulsory, and the law requiring voting is apparently sometimes even enforced.

If one grants that to vote legitimizes government by proving the necessary "consent of the governed" in order for the resulting structure to be deemed as offering liberty not tyranny, then such compulsion might make sense. If not enough people express consent via voting, then we might actually have a practical tyranny.

However cannot it be argued that such pressured - or coerced - and manufactured consent is at best a lessened consent, even no consent at all? This makes me suspicious of his positive liberty claim for a benevolent action on behalf of a general good. In this case at least, negative liberty seems to deliver the actual freedom - that is, a more genuine consent.

Then the interesting question would be how many people or what percentage of voters would be required to create a "natural" genuine consent, and thus assure a governing structure of liberty - acknowledging that in practice, we always face liberty-liberty tradeoffs in a transactional manner.

I'm not sure if this takes me as far as a bad faith conclusion. But it does seem that Weatherson may unwittingly be contributing to reducing actual liberty validation in the name of pure democratic form.

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Many people operate under the assumption that there's two candidates, and they -have- to choose one of them. There isn't. There are plenty of candidates. However, voters who want to choose someone who isn't nominated by Democrats or Republicans has to do seek out their information about them - it's not spoon fed to them by mainstream media. That is, they have to be active citizens who do their research.

I've noticed that many people will vote for the person they think will win - not the person they -want- to win. For example, I've heard people say "well, I don't want to vote for some guy who's gonna lose.' That indicates to me that they're confusing cause and effect. Voters should choose the candidate they agree with, not the one they think will win. Either way, their vote has the same value - very little, when compared to the approximately 150 million people who vote in the US.

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Advocating voting is not necessarily partisan. It is only partisan if the audience is itself partisan, such as on a liberal-leaning college campus. If there was advertisements on national TV, instead, that would not be partisan because there, as far as I know, are not more or less Democrats/Republicans watching TV. Using state money to support voting in a partisan environment ends up increasing support for one candidate more than another, but that fact is independent of the goal to increase total voting in order to support the nature of our government. It doesn't matter if the people deciding how much advocating of voting in general already know that those people will vote for one party's candidate over another's candidate, because it is the voter's choice, not the institution trying to get people to vote's choice of who to pick.The second point to not advocate voting was that it would as a consequence increase voting from people who do not have the education to do so. The problem here is that education is not required, nor should it be, to vote. The goal is not to elect the best candidate, it is to elect the president the people want, whether the people are educated or not.

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Carl and Pablo, I'm following Brian's concept that it is all right for him as a state agent to promote a general interest but not to take sides in the current election. If a Stalinist were running in this election, then yes to be neutral Brian would need agreement from his Stalinist counterfactual.

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"Pablo, I'm not sure Brian could justifiably think he had good non-partisan reasons if he didn't think his partisan-counterfactual version would agree."

'Counterfactual Republican Brian' would have to have some causal history explaining his political views. Is he religious? Does he have low openness to experience? Attended a lot more Institute for Humane Studies seminars as a youth? Had more Republican family members and roommates?

Should Brian be able to justify things to 'counterfactual evangelical Christian Brian?'

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A few points:

- Perhaps encouraging people to vote will also encourage them to become better informed.

- Large-scale participation in voting, regardless of how well informed the voters are, helps legitmate the democratic system of government. You may or may not consider that a good thing, but insofar as it is good, it is a system-level good rather than a partisan good. I don't see any bad faith in this.

- your model of the purpose of voting as "maximize the chance that we elect the better candidate" is laughably simplistic. Politics is inherently partisan, there is no "better" on some objective scale (I find myself in strenuous disagreement with myself here, since to me, like Weatherson, there is obviously a better candidate in this race. But other people disagree, and there is no possibility of an objective measurement.

For a non-autistic view of what voting is all about, I recommend this paper by Valdis Krebs. Briefly, voting is not about individual decsion making, but instead it's about mobilizing social networks. The political process is an ongoing process of social coalition-bulding. Voting is just a particular endpoint of this process.


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