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Schouborg, Gary (2017).

"The Debate over the Electoral College: Moralizing v. Pragmatism".



The Debate over the Electoral College:

Moralizing v. Pragmatism


Gary Schouborg




Scott Adams once again shows himself an insightful philosopher, as the current debate between electing POTUS through the Electoral College (EC) v. a one-person-one-vote (1PV) principle demonstrates.





To simplify in a way that I hope is useful, the arguments pro and con EC v. 1PV boil down to four. Pro EC, the greater number of counties and far broader rural area should prevail over concentrated urban areas. Con EC, areas do not vote, individuals do. Pro 1PV, the majority of individuals should rule. Con 1PV, our Founding Fathers (FF) did not establish the principle of majority rule unconditionally, since they knew that a majority can tyrannize a minority. Their famous balance of powers, which included EC, was their way of reducing the opportunity for abuse by otherwise legitimate governmental institutions, policies, and officials.


The Con objections show that neither of the Pro arguments are unassailable. However, neither Con argument is sufficient to carry the day. To the Con EC position, one can object that individuals are not faceless voters but people with interests that are products of their environment. Is it fair that rural interests should be subjugated to urban interests when both interests contribute significantly to our nation? Is this not especially true because urban votes are virtually certain to be larger that rural votes forever, since migration from rural to urban areas is growing and seems irreversible? To the Con 1PV position, one can object that majority urban rule over a rural minority cannot fairly be characterized as tyranny. 


Good luck in tweaking any of these positions into something conclusive. Or finding an airtight alternative argument.


Assuming that there is in sight no definitive argument pro or con the EC v. 1PV, this debate is a dramatic example of a disagreement that cannot be adjudicated by moral reasoning. (I believe this is true for all moral issues; but that is a topic for another time.) Though FF were not averse to moral pronouncements, such as the assertion of God-given (categorical) inalienable rights, they were primarily practical men who therefore worked out EC as a practical compromise instead of turning our republic into an academic seminar arguing endlessly over fairness. 


A key concern of FF was the possibility that a majority could tyrannize the minority, which is one kind of concentration of power, whether spread over the continent or densely clustered in urban areas. It is arguable that EC was established from that perspective: that 1PV was prima facie legitimate, but a practical guard against its abuse was desirable. EC was therefore a particular example of the general balance of powers structure of our government, designed to guard against the abuse of otherwise various legitimate governmental powers. Remember that the intent of FF was not to establish a perfect government, but "a more perfect [better] union." That is, the FF perspective was not that of establishing a vision of perfection and moving toward it, but of rooting out reasonably identifiable undesirable behaviors. Think of our judicial system, which does not define perfect justice and then punishes what falls short of it, but instead penalizes only crimes identifiable beyond a reasonable doubt. It's hard to imagine FF attempting to root out microaggressions.


In considering EC v. 1PV, FF therefore avoided an endless debate over which was the fairer. They had a newly freed nation to establish and maintain. So EC and two senators for every state no matter its size were useful compromises. It was necessary for the larger colonies to accommodate the smaller ones in order for the latter to go along with them to sustain a nation. Of critical note is that this was not a compromise of principle, since there were no conclusively established principles involved. It was instead a compromise of interests for what each party to the agreement considered its greater good. 


A final point. Compromise is not only a process of sitting down and reasoning with others who have different interests from our own. It is also the more difficult emotional process of acknowledging and accepting that we will not get this or that particular that we desire. Negotiating differences becomes unnecessarily difficult the more we attribute categorical moral value to what we want, thereby inflating a loss that is painful but can be healed into an injustice whose acceptance amounts to self-betrayal.