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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2011

Jason Brennan
Business and Philosophy, Georgetown University


This paper concerns the question of whether the political liberties tend to be valuable to the people who hold them. (In contrast, we might ask whether the liberties are valuable in the aggregate or are owed to people as a matter of justice, regardless of their value.) Philosophers have argued that the political liberties are needed or at least useful to lead a full, human life, to have one's social status and the social bases of self-respect secured, to make the government responsive to one's interests and generate preferred political outcomes, to participate in the process of social construction so that one can feel at home in the social world, to live autonomously as a member of society, to achieve education and enlightenment and take a broad view of the world and of others' interests, and to express oneself and one's attitudes about the political process and current states of affairs. I argue that for most people, the political liberties are not valuable for these reasons.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2012

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1 Consider, for instance, that most people believe that political speech demands stronger protection than commercial speech.

2 Something is intrinsically valuable when it is valuable as an end in itself. Something is instrumentally valuable when it is valuable for the purpose of achieving some other end. Something is constitutively valuable when it is valuable as a component or piece of something valuable. So, for instance, if I have the final end of having an excellent philosophy career, then publishing papers is constitutively valuable to me as a component of that career. In section II, I examine an argument that holds that the political liberties have constitutive value because they are a component of the good life.

3 For example, John Rawls defends premise 1 of the Justice Argument on the basis of what I call the Status Argument in section III.

4 This paraphrases Tomasi, John, Free Market Fairness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2012), chap. 4Google Scholar. Tomasi is referring to a real person and a pet-grooming business in Warren, Rhode Island.

5 I sometimes worry that political philosophy suffers from parochialism, because it is written by political philosophers and thus reflects their peculiar concerns and interests. Plato suggested that philosophers should be kings, and Aristotle suggested that philosophizing was the highest form of life. They might be right, but we have to be suspicious, given that they are philosophers. Contemporary deliberative democrats often suggest that societies would be better if everyone acted like amateur political scientists and philosophers. They might be right, but we have to be suspicious when we hear this from political scientists and philosophers.

6 When I say that the value of a given kind of liberty can vary from person to person, I do not mean to suggest that the value of liberty to a person is purely subjective, i.e., just a matter of that person's opinion.

7 See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 234Google Scholar; Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 318–19Google Scholar; Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 131Google Scholar; Freeman, Samuel, Rawls (New York: Routledge), 76Google Scholar. For an especially acute response to Rawls, see Wall, Steven, “Rawls and the Status of Political Liberty,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 87 (2006): 245–70, at pp. 257–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Different versions of the Status Argument could take different stances on what counts as “sufficiently high fundamental moral standing.” For example, on Rawls's account, for citizens to have the right kind of status, they need to have a full range of liberal rights, their rights must be equal to others, and some of these rights (in particular, the political liberties) must have their fair value guaranteed. However, someone propounding the Status Argument could hold a less demanding view of what counts as sufficiently high standing.

9 Even libertarians, who regard such licensing as intrinsically unjust, stop short of saying that licenses threaten people's fundamental moral status.

10 Wall, “Rawls and the Status of Political Liberty,” 257–8.

11 If it turned out that these attitudes toward scarves resulted not from an arbitrary social practice, but from deep features in our evolved psychology, this argument would still stand. Our psychological tendencies would be lamentable, and scarves would be valuable only in light of these lamentable tendencies.

12 On this point, blogger Will Wilkinson has an excellent post from shortly after the 2008 U. S. presidential election. Wilkinson says that given that we tend to think of the presidency as “the highest peak, the top of the human heap,” and given our history of oppressing blacks, the fact that a black man won the presidency is momentous. At the same time, it would be better if we stopped thinking of the presidency as a majestic office and instead thought of it as the “chief executive of the national public goods administrative agency.” Wilkinson continues, “I hope never to see again streets thronging with people chanting the glorious leader's name.” See Wilkinson, Will, “One Night of Romance,” The Fly Bottle, Scholar.

13 One might argue that individual votes matter, even if they do not tip the balance, because if a candidate obtains a large majority, she will be seen as “having a mandate” and this gives her greater ability to pass legislation. However, this simply relocates the problem. The person making this argument needs to find some way to measure how much individual votes contribute to creating a mandate. The logic is in many respects the same as before. For any individual voter, the likelihood that her vote makes a difference in pushing her candidate from simply winning to being seen as having a mandate is vanishingly small. Even if there is a continuum between merely winning and having a mandate, the marginal impact of an individual vote is vanishingly small.

14 Landsburg, Steven E., “Don't Vote. It Makes More Sense to Play the Lottery,” Slate (September 29, 2004): Scholar.

15 This calculation uses the formulae from Brennan, Geoffrey and Lomasky, Loren, Democracy and Decision (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 56–57, 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lomasky, Loren and Brennan, Geoffrey, “Is There a Duty to Vote?Social Philosophy and Policy 17 (2000): 6282, at p. 65CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Brennan, Jason, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), chap. 1Google Scholar.

16 One might try to argue that having the right to vote is, by the very definition of domination, a necessary condition for being nondominated. However, this seems to render domination so defined of no obvious value.

17 One might try to argue that a citizen is dominated if and only if she lacks the vote. On this view, for a person to have a right to vote, automatically means she is not dominated, regardless of what her country does to her. This seems too implausible to merit further discussion.

18 Christiano, Thomas, “Debate: Estlund on Democratic Authority,” Journal of Political Philosophy 17 (2009): 228–40, at p. 238CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Christiano, Thomas, The Constitution of Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 See Christiano, The Constitution of Equality, 61–63, 101, 115, 154, and passim.

21 Christiano's argument is more complicated. In a nutshell, he holds that justice requires that everyone be treated as an equal and have her interests advanced equally by society. Everyone has three fundamental interests, including an interest in being at home in the world. In order for people to be sure that their interests are being advanced equally, justice must not merely be done, but must be seen to be done. And in light of the various cognitive biases, self-serving biases, and cognitive weaknesses we all have, the only way for justice to be seen to be done is if everyone is given equal political power. This is an argument for why democracy is justified, but it also contains subarguments that purport to show that for each individual, her political liberties are valuable to her. My discussion here of the Social Construction and Status Arguments makes trouble for Christiano.

22 Tuck, Richard, Free Riding (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 3098Google Scholar, makes a sophisticated argument on behalf of this claim.

23 For a good overview of these issues, see Jonathan Schaffer, “The Metaphysics of Causation,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

24 For a defense of the claim that all participants and even eligible nonparticipants are causally responsible for electoral outcomes, see Goldman, Alvin, “Why Citizens Should Vote: A Causal Responsibility Approach,” Social Philosophy and Policy 16, no. 2 (1999): 201–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 In Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, chaps. 3–5, and Brennan, Jason, “Polluting the Polls: When Citizens Should Not Vote,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 4 (2009): 535–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar, I argue that certain citizens should not vote because they would be participating in collectively harmful or needlessly risky activities. My argument does not require the stronger claim that voters can be said to cause outcomes.

26 In Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, chap. 2, I argue that a person can help to produce good political outcomes even if she does not participate in politics.

27 Here I summarize an argument made in Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, chap. 2.

28 Christiano, The Constitution of Equality, 61. Christiano cites Walzer, Michael, “Interpretation and Social Criticism,” Tanner Lectures on Human Values VIII (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), 14Google Scholar.

29 Someone might object to this metaphor by saying that in a democracy, we the people are the ocean. Each of us is an equally efficacious water molecule. Perhaps. But waves go through this ocean, and each molecule is powerless against the waves.

30 Versions of this argument can be found in Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. Gourevitch, Victor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar and Gould, Carol, Rethinking Democracy: Freedom and Social Cooperation in Politics, Economics, and Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 4585Google Scholar. Gould argues that democracy is necessary for the good of autonomous self-government, and then argues that citizens are entitled to democracy.

31 Perhaps people who lived their whole lives this way would develop false consciousness and begin to regard the situation as empowering and free.

32 See de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America (New York: Anchor Books, 1969), 243–4Google Scholar and Mill, John Stuart, Three Essays “On Liberty,” “Representative Government,” and “The Subjection of Women,” ed. Wollheim, Richard (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 196–7Google Scholar.

33 Dagger, Richard, Civic Virtues (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 102–4Google Scholar.

34 Haidt, Jonathan, “The New Science of Morality,” Edge, Scholar. Haidt is summarizing research (which he endorses) by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.

35 See Schmidtz, David and Brennan, Jason, A Brief History of Liberty (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 208–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for empirical support of these claims.

36 By issuing surveys which ask citizens both about their demographics and about their opinions on economics, we can determine using regressions how demographic factors correlate with economic beliefs.

37 See Caplan, Bryan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

38 Westen, Drew, Blagov, Pavel S., Harenski, Keith, Kilts, Clint, and Hamann, Stephan, “The Neural Basis of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Political Judgment in the U.S. Presidential Election of 2004,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18 (2007): 1947–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Drew Westen, The Political Brain: How We Make Up Our Minds without Using Our Heads (New York: Perseus Books, 2008).

39 See Mutz, Diana, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 128CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Ibid., 30. The more people join voluntary associations, the less they engage in crosscutting discussions. What demographic factors best predict that one will engage in crosscutting political discussion? Apparently, being nonwhite, poor, and uneducated. The reason for this is that white, rich, educated people have more control over the kinds of interactions they have with others. People generally do not enjoy having crosscutting political discussions. They enjoy agreement. So those with the most control over their lives choose not to engage in crosscutting discussions. See ibid., 27, 31, and 46–47.

41 I am not here challenging the expressive theory of voting. The expressive theory of voting is a descriptive theory, which claims that many citizens vote in order to express attitudes. The expressive theory claims (roughly) that citizens know that their votes will not change the outcome of an election, and so they vote to express solidarity with certain causes. One person votes Democrat to express solidarity with the poor, while another votes Republican to express concern for personal responsibility. See Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James, “Voter Choice,” American Behavioral Scientist 28, no. 2 (1984): 185201CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brennan and Lomasky, “Is There a Duty to Vote?”; Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, Democratic Devices and Desires (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.