Thursday, August 05, 2004

A Libertarian Case Against Non-Voting

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.


Andrew said...

And about time. My flirtation with the Libertarian party ended because you collective heads of knuckle would rather swim in your self-assured righteousness than accomplish anything, as though the world really were an Ayn Rand novel. That's fine for a church, but useless to the point of suicide for a political party.

I'd never vote for a Libertarian President, because he'd be a joke, but a few Libs in Congress would suit me fine. Make it happen.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts. I find it interesting that I stumble across this post just as I'm reconsidering my decision to refrain from voting.

I'm fairly certain you just convinced me, as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm still unconvinced. I think Brian Doherty's analysis is correct (and unaffected by the argument here): Doherty wrote:

"By voting, you are playing a game whose rules are that the majority vote winner gets to control the reins of government, in all its unspeakable power. If you complain about the results of the game you chose to play, you're just being a sore loser—or winner.

But what if you believe that neither "winnable" candidate deserves power? Or that the whole game of majority-rule giving someone all the powers of the modern American state to wage war, arrest, tax, and regulate is inherently illegitimate?"

One of the benefits of non-voting (aside from saving your time both in actually voting and in learning about candidates) is the moral high ground that comes with not participating in that advance auction sale of stolen goods.

And yes, I use roads, went to a public university...

Glen Whitman said...

Anon -- I've never found that argument persuasive. If someone attacks me and tries to take my stuff, but the attacker is kind enough to give me a dinner fork to fight him with, then I see no shame in using the fork to defend myself. Using the fork doesn't mean I've implicitly accepted his right to attack me. Nor does it mean that I wouldn't like to have something more effective than a dinner fork. You take what you can get.

Anonymous said...

Libertarians do not vote because to do so reinforces the mechanisms of our own oppression. To vote is to legitimize the state. As we are against the state it would be antithetical to advocate for and engage in statism. We are only being consistent when advocating for abstention. Abstention does not imply impotence or apathy. Libertarians advocate for taking direct action to create the change we seek rather than playing statist politics in the hopes that some politician will create the change we seek. History shows that no liberation movement has ever voted change or a better world into existence. History also shows what happens when those who seek the dissolution of oppressive relationships seize state power and attempt to exercise it for change. We end up with Stalin, Mao, Castro, FDR, Carter, Bush, Clinton, Bush etc. when we do these things. Power always corrupts. Those who seek power and authority over us should be opposed at every avenue. We should not provide them with our consent because this is giving their claims to power over us legitimacy. This is not liberty. Every positive change has been created and effected directly by people themselves while the state fought economically, politically and physically to oppose any change. I will not beg some illegitimate authority to do what is in my best interest. To vote shows to others that we believe that we need some external authority to do for us because we cannot do so ourselves. This further legitimizes the state in the minds of those we are trying to reach. This shows we are hypocrites and inconsistent. To give someone power and authority over us usurps our own power, authority, liberty and autonomy. If you really believe that any politician will ever do what is in the interest of you, your community or to bring about a libertarian society you are duped. This is how the state proves its legitimacy and preserves its power… this shared hallucination of consent of the governed. Without this consent the state is shown for what it truly is –organized coercive violence. Without this veil it shows its true colors as it resorts to economic, social, political and personal violence to retain power. Power does not concede power without a fight. As libertarians we should know this.

Anonymous said...

I don't vote because it's absolutely pointless, and in fact can be quite counter-productive if smaller government is the result. The smaller the government, the more productive the people, and thus the more tax revenue to build a larger government, coupled with a lesser likelihood of popular resistance and animosity towards the state. The smallest governments invariably create the largest.

A large inefficient bureaucracy that bans, regulates, or heavily taxes everything, on the other hand, forces people to turn to the counter-economy, peaceful black and grey markets. Those markets need protection from the predations of the state, and again the counter-economy provides: private security for the counter-economy itself.

As the counter-economy grows, and its security infrastructure along with it, the state weakens and eventually is put down like any other criminal enterprise by market security service providers. That is the path to liberty, that is the way we abolish slavery once and for all, not through politics, the very system which keeps us enslaved.

Anonymous said...

I always vote for the best person-the one Democrat I voted for screwed things up-as I knew she would-and precipitated a change in the state's laws in re her position. I vote Libertarian because they have morals; but the best reason is that it scares the living crap out of these statist douchebags that some people do not want a state that runs everything-and we are the only people who want everybody to make their own decisions and keep their money(or spend it)as they see fit.

Anonymous said...

Viable third parties in the ingrained two party system we have is not a reality right now. At best the third party can be a spoiler. i.e. Nader in 2000. But, by voting for Nader, were they not just as effectively voting for Bush as Gore was the closest philosophical match to Nader of the two parties candidates. There are some benefits to only giving somebody two choices... this or that. It prompts a decision and the person feels he had a choice... he chose that over this. Next time you make a doctor appointment see the logic... mark my words you will hear... morning or afternoon... I have a 1 and a 3 and so on... you will seldom get more than two to pick from in most cases. Offering two is a a way to herd the sheeple through life... and it works.

Anonymous said...

There are three alternatives:

(1) Don't vote and proceed to make up fancy-sounding rationalizations as to why you don't vote while you dodge what you perceive as the worst of the tyranny;

(2) Vote and try to make a change in the horrendous power of the federal - and aren't you forgetting the state and local authorities there? - government and return it to something resembling a government of constitutionally limited powers and while we're about it, see about those state and local governments, too;

(3) Violent revolution, which leads quickly and without historical exception to the French Revolution and its Terror, the Russian Revolution and it's 70 or so years of death and misery, the Khmer Rouge and their piles of skulls; for power does corrupt and absolute power does corrupt absolutely and the consequences are untold death and misery.

Remember? "Kill one man and you are a murderer; kill a million men and you are a statesman." Having been on the sharp end of that particular stick, I reject that choice categorically and without qualification. The first two choices, either of them, are preferable to the third.

No fourth choice exists in the real world. The three are: (1) submit and evade the consequences as best you may; (2) work within the system to reform it; or, (3) start a revolution of the traditional sort in which tens if not hundreds of thousands will die and millions more in the aftermath.

All the rest is blather. Ye pays yer money and ye takes yer choice. Perhaps the Libertarian Party as presently conceived is not going to accomplish anything significant in the way of reform. I was in it years ago in Michigan, and it was largely a debate and discussion society; no one wanted to go out and do the legwork, but everyone wanted to be the party's brilliant theoretician.

It is as valuable to relieve the first 1% of government-created misery as it is to relieve the other 99% and - just in case you ain't noticed - we must begin somewhere. Voting is a start, but probably second or third step. First would be to begin state-wide organization either under the aegis of the Libertarian Party or start a new one (yeah; another one, sure.) Second would be to plan how to elect candidates to local and/or state offices via this party. Third would be to walk the walk of political activism the dull boring stuff. Fourth would be to vote. But vote we must for the most practical of reasons: if we don't vote for what we believe to be better, no one else will. Not too theoretical, I hope.

Anonymous said...


I have to admit that I didn't read very much of your post. It looked like a rant, and I don't much like rants, but I think I got the gist of it...

Libertarians do not vote because to do so reinforces the mechanisms of our own oppression. To vote is to legitimize the state. As we are against the state it would be antithetical to advocate for and engage in statism.

...and I have to ask: Do you walk on the sidewalk, or drive in the streets? If you do, aren't you legitimizing state-ownership of such things, and thus, in some way, legitimizing the state itself?

I am a conscientious non-voter, but what you've said isn't very convincing. (At least not the part I read. The part I didn't read was even less-convincing.)

I don't vote because I'm pretty sure people can get along in their lives just fine without my input. It's as simple as that. I know what's best for me, but I have no idea what's best for _everyone_.

Maybe if the law were limited to regulating those things that truly do affect us all, I might vote; but when the law (and thus voting) is used to regulate things as personal as who we can get married to...or what substances we can ingest -- well, I just don't want any part of it.


Obnoxio The Clown said...

Glen, forgive me for being so bold, but I have nicked your post wholesale and reproduced it here and here, with attribution. If you object, please let me know and I'll remove them immediately.

Thanks in either event for a thought-provoking post and a libertarian call to arms ... an oxymoron if ever there were one!

Stewart Browne said...

Public choice theory, referenced in the original post, explains much more than why the costs of voting always outweigh the benefits. It also provides a pretty good explanatory model for why democracy is such a mess. One vote per person does not make any judgements on how passionately one holds the opinions one is voting for, hence groups with a vested interest in an issue can easily use democracy to their advantage at the expense of society at large. The ideology of voters cannot overcome the power of this bad incentive structure. Witness Ron Paul, the libertarian hero, who, in order to hold his office, must write wasteful earmarks for his district into every bill he votes against. I don't vote because if we keep on doing what we're doing, we'll keep on getting what we're getting. I try to convince others to point their energy at more useful tactics than voting, such as local nullification and secession.