Libertarians stoutly defend the right, sometimes even the virtue, of non-voting. Some pride themselves on their non-voting; others take pleasure in tweaking the conventional wisdom (“It’s your civic duty!” “You have no right to complain if you don’t vote!”). I’ve done this many times myself. I usually invoke the public-choice analysis of voting: the marginal benefit of voting is essentially nil, since a single vote almost never decides any election, while the marginal cost includes the opportunity cost of your time, the cost of travel, the risk of getting hit by a truck on the way to the polls, etc.
But perhaps I have a mote in my eye. When I explain rational non-voting to my students, invariably someone objects that a large group of people can indeed affect the outcome of an election. True, I reply, but I don’t control a large group of people’s votes; I only control my own, and the power of that one vote is negligible – popular mythology notwithstanding. Mathematically, that’s a fact. But politically, the result of libertarians taking that fact seriously, while adherents of other ideologies embrace the myth, is the under-representation of libertarian votes in the vote total. Libertarianism becomes further marginalized by its lack of electoral clout, thereby attracting less attention and fewer future adherents. Arguably, then, holding the objectively correct belief may constitute an evolutionarily weak strategy.
Still, that’s just the way it goes, right? We cannot, like Pascal, simply adopt a false belief because of its potentially good consequences. But how about an alternative belief?
The rational non-voter’s cost-benefit calculus rests essentially on private costs and benefits, not social ones. If all libertarians incurred the personal costs of voting, all libertarians would be better off. What we have here is a collective action problem brought on by the divergence of private and social benefits – in short, a public good. And how do other public good problems get solved by private means? One route is the inculcation of moral norms enforced by social approbation and public shaming. We frown at housemates who don’t do their share of the household chores, or fellow parishioners who fail to put money in the collection plate. (I use the word “we” figuratively, since I live alone and belong to no church.) We administer guilt trips to free riders who don’t contribute to worthy causes we know they agree with. Some go so far as to send critical postcards to people with unkempt yards.
The libertarian individualist bristles at such intrusions. But remember: these are not the commands of the state – they are the alternative. And in the context of voting, they could provide libertarians with a path to political relevance. What if libertarians stopped applauding non-voting, and instead began prodding each other to go out and vote? What if we had “voting parties,” consisting of groups of people who vote together and go out for dinner afterward (at a location disclosed only to those who joined in voting)? What if every libertarian called two or three libertarian friends on election day to make sure they did their duty? Yeah, duty. You got a problem with that?
What would happen? Would we win elections? No way. Would we swing elections to one major party or the other? Possibly, if we coordinated our votes. Would we attract more attention with higher numbers? Very likely, I think.
Oops, I think I may have just convinced myself.