Yes, You Have The Right To Complain, Even If You Don't Vote

This morning Jason Brennan linked me to a recent radio interview he did on the ethics of voting. The interview is informative, entertaining, and highly recommended to anyone with a taste for such things.

Toward the end of the interview, Brennan is asked for his take on the old canard, "If you don't vote, then you have no right to complain." He gives a fine enough answer, but the question got me thinking, and so I'd like to offer my own answer to the question.

I'll provide my answer in a series of arguments.


First of all, this statement implies that people who do not have the right to vote do not have the right to complain. For example, a seventeen-year-old is not old enough to vote in the United States of America, therefore 17-year-old Americans do not have the right to complain about their government. This feels intuitively wrong. Taking this argument a step further, suppose a 17-year-old is wrongfully imprisoned by the government due to a specific point of policy. For example, suppose the 17-year-old is arrested for possession of medical marijuana in a state in which medical marijuana is illegal. The voting = right to complain argument seems to suggest that the 17-year-old, by virtue of not having the right to vote, has no right to complain that a perfectly legal activity in one state is not also perfectly legal in her home state (or the state in which the arrest took place).

That doesn't seem right, does it?


Second, suppose someone wants very much to vote, but happens to be unable to do so for practical reasons. Say, for example, a pregnant voter goes into labor at the exact moment she could have voted. Then, she has no right to complain about the outcome of the election, or about the government more generally, because she was giving birth to her child at the time she would have been granted her right to complain. This, too, seems unreasonable.


Third, suppose I voted in the 2008 election, but do not intend to vote in the 2016 election. The spirit of the vote = right to complain argument would suggest that I have a right to complain about things that occurred after the 2008 election, but my right to complain stops at the 2016 election. But suppose a piece of legislation is passed in the wake of the 2008 election (take ObamaCare, for example) that will likely not be repealed. The argument seems to suggest that if I don't vote in 2016, I have no right to complain about the Affordable Care Act, even if none of the candidates on the ballot intend to do anything about ObamaCare. Can it really be true that I have no right to complain about past legislation if I stop casting a vote in future elections?


Fourth, suppose I have a complaint about Congressman X, but I am not a part of Congressman X's constituency. Thus, I may or may not have voted, but in any case I have never voted for Congressman X. The vote = right to complain argument would seem to suggest that I do not have a right to complain about Congressman X, but how many people who actually make the argument withhold complaints about congressmen or other politicians for which they have no right to vote, because they do not live in the constituency of interest? So it seems likely that they do not actually believe their claim about the right to complain.


Fifth, suppose my complaint about government involves real information that could affect the outcome of an election. Suppose I had inside information that somehow proved that Congressman X was a Russian spy or something. Do I have a right to complain about the fact that Congressman X is a Russian spy, or am I only allowed to voice this complaint if I vote? It seems rather obvious to me that such a complaint is so valuable that it ought to outweigh any argument that I should withhold my complaint.

But then the question is this: How serious must my complaint be before it outweighs the fact that I didn't vote? Surely if Congressman X is in possession of a Doomsday Device, I have a right to complain, even if I didn't vote. But, more realistically, what if I have real evidence that Congressman X is corrupt and taking bribes in exchange for votes; do I have a right to voice this complaint, even if I didn't vote? Most would say yes.


Here's one that comes up for me a lot, and one that many people are certainly feeling themselves in this latest US Presidential election cycle: What if none of the candidates' policy platforms is agreeable to me. That is, what if there is no good choice, even despite there being differences between the choices. Suppose there is an initiative on the ballot to spend $80 million on a new sporting arena, or $80 million on additional Congressional salaries, but no option to invest the $80 million in any other arena, and no option to not spend the $80 million at all. That is, suppose I can advance a reasonable complaint against all the available options, and that voting merely forces me to vote for something I do not actually want. 

Couldn't we say that in that case, I have a right to complain, even if I don't vote?

Couldn't we say that a citizen of North Korea has a right to complain about his political landscape, whether or not he votes?


In light of the above, it seems that we have many reasons to grant people the presumption of the right to complain. There may be isolated reasons when we might say that someone doesn't have the right to complain if that person didn't vote, but I imagine that this would be the exception rather than the rule

Perhaps the exception is this: If you are willing and able to vote, agree with the policies for which you are voting, and have a reasonable expectation that your vote can affect the outcome of the election, but you simply choose not to vote, then you do not have a fair moral claim to complain.

But then and only then.