Monday, November 05, 2012

To My Fellow Libertarian Voters

I plan to vote on Tuesday, for the same reasons I enunciated eight years ago. Nevertheless, I respect the position of libertarians who choose not to vote on grounds of principle (“the whole system is corrupt and I refuse to take part”) or rational cost-benefit analysis (“my vote won’t make a difference, and I might get hit by a truck on the way to polls”). So libertarian non-voters, I’m not talking to you right now.

I’m talking to the libertarians who do vote. To be more specific, I’m talking to libertarians who have found some reason to think that one of the major party candidates is the lesser of two evils. I respect that, too. Even though your vote won’t really swing the election to your favored candidate, taking part in the democratic process often means exaggerating the importance of your vote. Personally, I like to imagine that I represent all similarly situated people with similar beliefs, and then I vote the way I’d like to see the whole group vote.

Thus, if I were in a swing state where conceivably a group of libertarian-minded voters could affect the outcome if they all voted together, I would hold my nose and vote for one of the two major party candidates.

According to the New York Times electoral map, only 7 states are considered “toss-ups”: CO, FL, IA, NH, OH, VA, WI. To these, you might add the 8 “leaning” states: ME, MI, MN, NM, NV, PA (for Obama), AZ and NC (for Romney). If you’re a libertarian voter in one of these 15 states, then I have nothing useful to tell you.

But that leaves 35 states that are solidly in the Democratic or Republican camp, with a combined eligible-voter population of over 136 million (about half that number voted in 2008). None of these states would by any stretch of the imagination get tipped by your vote-of-exaggerated-size. In these states, there is no good reason to vote for Obama or Romney. You can vote your conscience with no fear that your conscience will have doomed our country to the greater of two evils.

And fortunately, there is an excellent vote-of-conscience choice available this year: Gary Johnson. Imagine if everyone like us (that is, libertarians in non-swing states) voted for Johnson. If even 1% of voters were in this category, Johnson would get over a million votes -- which might actually be enough to get some attention, and maybe establish a beachhead for another run in 2016.

Okay, that probably won’t happen. But your vote was never going to make a difference anyway. Not anywhere, in truth, but certainly not in a non-swing state. So why not vote for the only candidate who comes even close to representing your beliefs? Vote for Johnson.

UPDATE (11/6/12): To clarify, I have no particular love for the Libertarian Party, and my argument is not about setting up the LP for future elections. It's about setting up Gary Johnson for another run in 2016, whether as a Libertarian, Republican, or Independent. And it's also about casting a vote of conscience, irrespective of consequences.


Trent McBride said...

Granting everything you said: would not that make just as strong an argument to vote for Johnson in the swing states, too. Let's say you are THE swing voter, and you are a libertarian. And imagine that a vote for Johnson would hand the election to you less favored evil candidate. While in the short term it might be costly, in the long term, you would be saying to all major candidates: Advocate enough policies to placate libertarians, or you will lose a close election. Basically, become the median voter. Talk about a beachhead.

Anonymous said...

I agree that libertarians in non-swing states can make an expressive vote for Gary Johnson (I have).

But, I suggest that the instrumental value of libertarians voting for Johnson is even stronger in the swing states. If Johnson carried more than the margin of victory on one of those states, major-party candidates in the future would be more likely to at least attempt to appeal to libertarian sensibilities.

Glen Whitman said...

Trent and Gil, I agree. But that's a more contentious position, because it really might involve (at least temporarily) sending the greater of two evils to the White House. So I wanted to bracket that debate and focus on what I consider the slam-dunk.

Andrew_M_Garland said...

I think Romney is much less bad than Obama, and has a chance to explain our economy to the people in a way that Bush would/could not, and which Obama does not understand. But, even if you believe that Romney is as bad as Obama, then vote for Romney.

()  Removing the incumbent breaks up the consolidation of power.
()  There is more opportunity to punish Obama's cronies, sooner.
()  Romney is likely to appoint better Supreme Court and appellate judges.
()  Obama is an ideologue with unknown and suspicious background, which causes him to lie and make bad decisions.
() A pragmatist Romney will be able to make better decisions in the face of the coming financial collapse. Obama will rush into it as a Communist inevitability/desireability.

There is an argument that Obama should keep office and reap the horrible outcomes which his policies make inevitable (and some policies prior to Obama). This would teach the solid lesson that Liberalism doesn't work. But consider:
()  FDR was able to argue (falsely) that he needed even more power and control to meet the economic disaster which he was in fact causing.
()  Touching a hot stove teaches a lesson. Planting your hand on the hot stove and keeping it there teaches the same lesson, but it isn't worth losing the hand.

Voting is not essentially an expression of personal preference. It is an expression of group power. Vote for the person who is the best of those who can actually take power. Then, send $50 to the party who you want to have power in the future, and work for the public recognition which will eventually make that party viable for a future vote.

Glen Whitman said...

Andrew, let's suppose you're right that Romney is clearly the better of the two major contenders. Doesn't my argument still work? I started out by supposing that you think one candidate is the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, if you're in a non-swing state, you might as well vote for Johnson.

Andrew_M_Garland said...

To Glen Whitman,

I agree that one might as well vote for Johnson (or whomever) in a non-swing state, where that vote doesn't hurt electing the much-better of the two real contenders. The irony is that Johnson could or should get that vote only when it doesn't matter.

I think the advertising effect of the Libertarian vote for president is small. Unfortunately, the political effect of even a million thoughtful, rational people is negligible when spread across the country for a national election.

Those million votes would be the result of thoughtful decision, but wouldn't lead vast numbers of others to reach that same decision.

Say there could be 10 million votes for Future-Johnson. This wouldn't be enough to elect a president, but would probably split the vote for the more thoughtful candidate (say Republican) and deliver political power to the less thoughtful one (say Democrat). That isn't a way to build support. The intermediate costs are too great.

The system is stacked against third parties, intentionally by the two major parties.

Henry Hazlitt:  A group may benefit greatly from certain policies. It will hire the best buyable minds to argue plausibly and persistently for them. It will either convince the public or so befuddle the argument that clear thinking becomes next to impossible.

malkie said...

What do you think now about the effect that voting for Johnson had in the 2016 election?

In which states might a libertarian's vote for Johnson be seen as having caused/allowed Trump to win?

Was Trump's win a good thing (however you define "good")?

Glen Whitman said...

Hi, Malkie. Good question. I advocated pretty much the same libertarian strategy in 2016 that I did in 2012: vote for Johnson in non-swing states, and for the lesser-of-two-evils in swing states. The only difference is that, unlike 2012, I considered it very obvious which major-party candidate was the lesser evil. So to answer your question, I consider Trump's win a Very Bad Thing.

Do I regret my strategy now? No, I still think it's right. I voted for Johnson in California, which (of course) Clinton won handily. No regrets there. But what about other states? Based on the numbers I collected a couple of weeks ago, there were only four states that Johnson voters could have flipped from Trump to Clinton: FL, MI, PA, and WI. Of course, if Clinton had won those states, she would've won the election. BUT...

(a) All four of those states, and particularly FL and PA, were considered swing states, where the strategy I advocated was to vote for the lesser of major-party evils.

(b) It's not reasonable to assume that all Johnson voters would otherwise have voted for Clinton. Based on the polling numbers I've seen, Johnson voters were about equally split between Clinton-leaners and Trump-leaners. Therefore, redistributing their votes to Clinton and Trump likely wouldn't have changed the outcome in those states.

Now, I might wish that the Clinton-leaners in those states had voted for Clinton, while the Trump-leaners had still voted for Johnson. If that had happened, Clinton *might* have won the election, although it depends crucially on exactly what percentage of Johnson voters were Clinton-leaners vs Trump-leaners in MI, WI, and especially PA. But this is a weirdly asymmetric wish. It is like wishing for your own side to be smart and strategic while assuming the other side is stupid and unstrategic. The more plausible "alternate history" is one in which Clinton-leaners and Trump-leaners abandoned Johnson in about equal numbers, which (as I said above) wouldn't have made a difference to the final result.