by Jay Bailey
I’ve noticed a pretty contentious divide between so-called principled non-voters and so-called principled voters. Here I will lay out the arguments for both sides and arrive at a conclusion.
Many libertarian or anarcho-capitalists refrain from voting because they, as anti-statists, do not want to consent to the system to which they so vehemently disapprove. In other words, they oppose the existence of the state because they view it as an illegitimate monopoly on the initiation of force. They view it as an inherently coercive institution and they, like all libertarians, oppose coercion on principle. These democratic republics are based on citizen involvement and supposed consent.
In the principled non-voters’ view, it is inherent in democracy that people are pinned against each other based on their interests and elections are nothing more than a means for one group of citizens to coercively enforce their point of view onto others. Therefore, they say that voting is actively consenting to the institution that you should oppose. Some take this farther and claim that voters indirectly are committing an act of violence because by aiding and abetting an inherently violent organization — government.
A separate argument is not philosophical but instead economic. It is based on two main ideas: the probability of one vote being decisive and opportunity cost. The more people that vote in a given election, the less likely it is that your single vote will be the decisive vote in that election. If it’s not, then your vote didn’t matter. Also, they believe that voting is not worth the time it takes to do it — opportunity cost. There are other things that you could be doing instead of voting and most of these things (for example, not having to take time off of work) tend to bring you more personal satisfaction than the act of voting. Voting also includes risks such as driving to the polling place, standing in a line, participating in the sometimes aggravating process, etc.
The principled voters counter these points. On the first philosophical point, I think it’s a fairly strong argument, but only if you’re an anti-statist. If you’re not, then this does not provide you a reason not to vote. I can see why it would be important for these individuals to campaign against voting — because the fewer people who vote, the less legitimate the government becomes. Much like agorism, though, the practical effectiveness of this idea is doubtful. Is it not better to vote and at least do SOMETHING than it would be do to literally NOTHING? Further, if voting is considered an act of violence, then isn’t it just self-defense to vote in retaliation? And what about those who don’t consider themselves voluntaryists? For the disillusioned minarchist, this is where the economic argument is put to play.
The voter will suggest that obviously voters are perceiving the personal satisfaction of voting as greater than the opportunity cost — else they wouldn’t do it. Even if it’s just to fulfill societal pressures, they are increasing their own personal satisfaction by satiating the guilt that would accompany not voting.
I don’t necessarily think all of the pro-voting responses are sound, either. I don’t believe the answers to key questions such as “Why vote?” or “For whom should you vote if you do vote?” should be assumed. These are important questions that can only be answered subjectively by each individual in their own locality. For me, though, the main question is: If you do vote, for whom should you vote and why? My answer is this: It’s only worth the opportunity cost to vote for candidates that you genuinely think are worth the time and effort to vote for. For me, voting against the greater of two evils is not good enough, because you’re still supporting an evil — just a lesser one. I would never support with my vote someone I would not support with a donation or by campaigning for them.
My problem with many pro-voters is that they tend to be vote-promiscuous, to avoid more misogynistic terms. They will vote for the Rick Scotts or the John McCains just because of the letter next to their name or the opponent they are facing. My problem with non-voters is that they become principled to the point of irrelevance — not voting for the type of candidates that would try to take the country in a direction even the anti-statists should support (less government in all ways).
Sure, your one vote probably won’t make a difference, but there is a chance that it will. Don’t believe me? Well, Ron Paul lost the straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference last year by a single vote, and guess who was supposed to go but couldn’t make it? Here’s a hint: me. So, yeah, one vote really can make a difference. The larger point is that the state of mind of “one vote doesn’t matter” — while perhaps true in national elections — creates an aggregate effect. If all the anti-statists that don’t vote on principle would have gone out and voted for Ron Paul in the primaries, he would have done substantially better. I’m not saying he would’ve won, but the point is that the effect is not just one vote.
It was Bob Murphy (himself an anarcho-capitalist) that used what he called the Star Wars example. He said that in order for Luke and Han to destroy the Death Star, they had to dress up as Star Troopers. The point is that in order to bring about the change you want to see, sometimes you have to work within the system to bring it down. Had Luke and Han sat in the Millennium Falcon with their arms folded, would their smug self-satisfaction — due to their strict adherence to principle, of course — have made them feel any better as they watched entire planets be destroyed?
My final point is this: Look at what Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign did for the liberty movement. In 2005, when I first started calling myself a libertarian (though at that point I was more of a neolibertarian), the liberty movement consisted of a few people in a room that they called the “Libertarian Party National Convention” and this one Congressman in Texas who always votes no. Yeah, the Kochs were doing stuff too, and Cato and Mises were around. All true. But look at how the movement has blossomed since Dr. Paul’s presidential run. Are you going to let your principled adherence prevent you from supporting his campaign, or campaigns like his (Gary Johnson, for instance)?
The fact of the matter is that we are stuck in our current situation. These “vote for nobody” campaigns, as fun and thought-provoking as they may be, are doing nothing to advance liberty. Ron Paul did. His message resonated with people across the country, and I would say that just from his 2008 run, there will be a large liberty movement thriving within both parties within 10 years. That movement will be larger — and perhaps will come about sooner after he runs in 2012. You can be a part of that — or, you can sit on the Millennium Falcon with your arms folded and pretend that the move toward liberty had something to do with your unwillingness to participate.
As for me, I didn’t vote this time around. Why not? Because I had no one to vote FOR. There is a liberty-ish candidate in my district, but he has no chance of winning (third party). I simply can’t support either of the candidates for Governor of Florida. You can criticize me all you want, but as a principled selective voter, I am content with my decision. I wouldn’t want to support someone who would vote or act in ways with which I did not agree. That’s my subjective assessment of the candidates in my state and locality. Ultimately the choice is yours, but realize that your voting choice, no matter how irrelevant (or relevant), does affect other people. Something to consider.