Please share it far and wide to help achieve Liberty in Our Lifetime. Peace.
This article was originally published by Gary Chartier on the Libertopia Underground, September 7th, 2012.
People who want to live in a society organized on the basis of peaceful, voluntary cooperation don’t want to be ruled by monopolists—by states. State authority is illegitimate, unnecessary, and dangerous.
But that obviously leaves open the question: what do we do now, while we’re still under the state’s rule, to make our lives more bearable and help to dismantle the state?
One answer, for a lot of people, is: vote. And that’s an answer about which I’m increasingly skeptical.
In The Conscience of an Anarchist, I talk about electoral politics as offering one avenue for positive social change. I’m not saying it can’t play that role. But I am saying there are good reasons to pursue alternatives.
Some people oppose voting because they think it’s immoral, as if the sheer act of voting placed an imprimatur on the political process or as if the voter were responsible for everything someone for whom she voted did in office. I think that’s silly. Voting can be a defensive act; the harmful results of decisions made by politicians can reasonably be treated as unaccepted, unwelcome side-effects of voters’ choices; and politicians have to be seen as responsible for their own actions. The problem with voting isn’t that it’s inherently wrong; no doubt, in principle, voting or even campaigning for office could be a reasonable defensive act.
But even if that’s true in principle, the reality is that there’s good reason not to vote.
Start out with the ineffectiveness of voting.
As we’ve seen in previous elections, governments can determine the outcomes of elections by eliminating some people from the voter rolls. And this means, in practical terms, that the victims of the drug war and other campaigns against victimless actions will be poorly positioned to influence electoral outcomes. The deck starts out stacked against anyone who wants to roll back state policies responsible for unjust imprisonment. The effect is similar to the one exerted when death penalty opponents are prevented from serving on juries; the full range of conscientious positions isn’t represented.
Campaign advertising is often deceptive and manipulative. Like other lies that don’t involve the fraudulent transfer of title, advertising ads shouldn’t be actionable at law, but that doesn’t mean they’re not harmful. Many voters depend on them, often to the exclusion of other sources of information, with the result that lies are persistently disseminated and electoral outcomes distorted.
Politicians themselves like, too, or cast their positions in ways likely to mislead the unwary. Consider candidate Barack Obama’s appeals to the peace vote, and his seeming opposition to the growth of the national security state. Politicians say what they think voters want to hear; but, once in office, they can be counted on to do whatever they think will boost their chances of reelection, help them raise money, and benefit their cronies.
And of course there’s the fact that votes often don’t count because elections can easily be stolen; just ask Coke Stevenson. That’s especially true now that hackable electronic voting devices are increasingly common. And counting errors can occur even when people act in good faith, too (thanks to Sam Hays for this point).
Gerrymandering decreases the likelihood that the outcome of a given election will be dependent on individual votes, and it’s been common as long as there have been electoral contests. But even in its absence, the likelihood that your vote will determine the outcome of a race is very small indeed when the number of relevant votes is large.
Suppose it does: what then? It’s clear that the outcome of a race may make little difference at all. Most politicians operate within fairly narrow ideological confines, and are most unlikely to do particularly radical things. The sorts of people who are likely to become successful politicians are unlikely to rock the boat—and are, indeed, likely to be unprincipled and ambitious. But even if a genuinely radical politician is elected, that doesn’t mean that radical changes will be enacted. After all, once in office, a politician becomes the target of enthusiastically rent-seeking elites and their cronies, who will be adept at influencing her or his actions to their benefit.
And even if a politician doesn’t bend to the will of any of these various interest groups, there’s the obvious fact that individual politicians have considerable difficulty accomplishing things. A legislator is only one member of a sizeable group, many of whose members will be largely uninterested in basing decisions on principles, especially defensible ones, so the odds that a continuingly principled radical legislator will be able to make substantive change happen are very low. The odds that an elected executive will be a principled radical are even lower, given that more people have to be satisfied to ensure that a successful campaign for governor or president is managed and funded, and more principles will often have to be sacrificed to win a campaign for executive office. But, again, once in office, a radical executive would have no choice but to work with a legislature that was unlikely to be radical at all.
A further problem: a genuine radical, someone who really cared about making the world a better place, might find the temptation to use power, not to liberate people, but to control and manage them, almost irresistible. Even in the absence of effective manipulation by special interests, the desire to change the world by force could corrupt an initially principled politician.
In short, therefore, there is little reason to believe that voting will effectively lead to the actual enactment of policies that enhance freedom and justice. We may sometimes, rarely, see, ex post, that it did; but as a general ex ante policy, it’s safe to assume it won’t. Emma Goldman was surely right: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Even if you have doubts about the effectiveness of voting, there will be good reason to avoid it.
Doing so can be a useful means of protest—an expression of one’s disgust at the limited options, the deceit, the hypocrisy of campaigns and the aggression and manipulation, the theft and murder, of governing. And it can give one a great opportunity to highlight the awfulness of the state. Imagine people’s reactions when they see you wearing a sticker that says, “I’ve avoided voting. Have you?”
It’s especially useful to avoid voting because of the rush of team spirit that accompanies every election campaign. If you’re going to vote for a politician, you should at least hold your nose. But otherwise sane and sensible people fall victim to charisma and breathe in the seductive pheromones of murderers and thugs. They announce, without a second thought, that their candidate is wise and good and heroic. They cheer for their team’s inanities, and dramatically exaggerate the good any rational person could expect an election might accomplish. If you want to avoid being caught up in mass hysteria, stay away from the ballot box.
Electoral democracy helps to convince ordinary people that they are the state’s masters rather than its subjects. It conceals factional disputes within the power elite and frames them as popular contests in which the people’s will is done. It deceives people into supposing that they really have consented to the state’s dictates, and prompts them to dismiss critics of the status quo with shibboleths like, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Refusing to vote helps to reveal the fact that the emperor has no clothes.
Just say “no.” This year, vote for nobody.
Note: I no longer agree with this thesis. I am currently very confident it is wrong. See the updates at the end.
Many anarchists—especially voluntaryists—believe that it is obvious that electing anarchists to political office is a counterproductive strategy for achieving a free society. For example, voluntaryist Wendy McElroy writes, “Political offices are the State. By becoming politicians libertarians legitimize and perpetuate the office. They legitimize and perpetuate the State.”
In contrast, other anarchists believe that voting for anarchists or even “libertarian minarchists” (a contradiction of terms) certainly can help the cause of a free society. In fact, anarcho-capitalist Walter Block apparently believes that participation in electoral politics is so crucial to achieving liberty that he recently went so far as to accuse Wendy McElroy of not being a libertarian due to her opposition to a Ron Paul presidency.
Block wrote, “How, then, can I call into question her libertarian credentials? I do so on the ground that she is a bitter opponent of the Ron Paul presidential campaign, and this is the last best hope for liberty, as I see matters.”
I am not at all sure why Block sees the Ron Paul presidential campaign as “the last best hope for liberty.” Is he saying that if we lived under a non-democratic government then we would not have much hope at all of achieving liberty (a free society) simply because we would not be able to elect rights-respecting libertarian politicians? Since when is our freedom dependent on our ability to elect nice rulers?
It seems to me that we should be trying to get rid of rulers, not trying to get nice rulers. You might say that there’s no reason why we can’t try to do both, but then you have to answer McElroy’s and others’ arguments that this is impossible using political methods. It’s impossible because voting for nice rulers actually helps to perpetuate the delusion that there is such a thing as a legitimate ruler by perpetuating the delusion that voting for people can magically give them the right to commit aggression (rule).
Wendy McElroy makes this point in her essay Why I Would Not Vote Against Hitler:
The power of the state does not rest on its size – the number of laws on the books or the extent of the territory it claims. A state’s power rests on social conditions, such as whether people will obey its laws and how many resources it can command to enforce obedience. A key social condition is how legitimate the state is seen to be. For without the veil of legitimate authority, the people will not obey the state, and it will not long command the resources, such as taxes and manpower, that it needs to live.
In other words, freedom does not depend so much on repealing laws as weakening the state’s authority. It does not depend – as political strategists expediently claim on persuading enough people to vote “properly” so that libertarians can occupy seats of political power and roll back legislation. Unfortunately, this process strengthens the institutional framework that produced the unjust laws in the first place: it strengthens the structure of state power by accepting its authority as a tool of change.
McElroy’s last sentence explains why voting for nice rulers actually hurts the cause of a free society by legitimizing the state and the democratic process that makes people erroneously believe that there is such a thing as a legitimate ruler.
For those who are still unsure why voting legitimizes the state and rulers’ acts of aggression, I will explain it in more detail below.
Perpetuating The Delusion Of Rightful Rulers
Most people hold the delusion that people can gain the right to commit aggression (rule) by receiving a majority of votes in elections. This is why we call the government a government rather than a mafia. It is a legitimized mafia due to this widespread delusion that voting for people can give them the right to rule.
As libertarian anarchists we recognize this delusion as being completely false. In reality we know that voting doesn’t matter: voting has no effect on what actions people can legitimately or morally take. But, because the deluded believe that voting can give people the right to commit aggression they regard voting as something that does matter very much.
When you, an anarchist, vote in an election, the deluded people notice your action, see that it is consistent with their delusion that voting matters, and hence continue to believe that voting can give people the right to commit aggression. Thus, the voting anarchist perpetuates this delusion that voting matters—that voting really can give people the right to commit aggression—and hence perpetuates the state, hurting the cause of a free society.
When you refuse to vote, however, the deluded people notice your action and see that it is not consistent with their delusion that voting matters. If voting really did matter—if whoever received the most votes really did gain the moral right to commit aggression—then you would vote. But, you refuse to vote. Consequently, the deluded are forced to question their belief. Of course it’s possible that they could dismiss your act of non-voting by saying that you choose not to vote out of apathy. But, assuming that they know that you are not apathetic, your choice to not vote is very unsettling to them, at least compared to the choice to vote which would not make them think twice about their delusion that voting matters.
As I said earlier, in order to achieve a free society we should be trying to get rid of rulers, not trying to get nice rulers. If it is true, as I have argued, that while trying to get nice rulers through participation in the electoral process we are actually helping to keep rulers, then we really should stop participating in the electoral process. We should never vote nor run for political office.
For those who doubt my above argument that voting necessarily hurts the cause of a free society by perpetuating the delusion that voting matters—that voting can give people the right to rule—consider the following thought experiment that I came up with based on Wendy McElroy’s essay Why I Would Not Vote Against Hitler. I know that it is very unrealistic, but I think it still illustrates my point.
Why I Would Not Cast The Deciding Vote For A Consistent Libertarian Anarchist Against Hitler
Imagine that everyone has already voted except you. Everyone in the geographic region claimed by the government is sitting on the edge of their seats watching to see what choice you will make (even the anarchists this time!). Are you going to vote for Hitler, the consistent libertarian anarchist, or not vote at all? For the sake of making this thought experiment even more extreme let’s say that if you refuse to vote then, rather than be a tie, Hitler will win. Thus, assuming you’re not going to vote for Hitler, you can either vote for—and successfully elect—the consistent libertarian anarchist or you can choose not to vote and let Hitler win. What do you do?
It’s a no-brainer: you vote for the consistent libertarian anarchist so that nobody’s rights get violated. Most people are deluded into believing that whoever receives the most votes also receives the right to commit aggression (rule), so obviously you should vote for the rights-respecting, consistent libertarian anarchist so that no harm will come from this widespread delusion.
What? You thought I was going to say don’t vote? Why would you do that? Casting the deciding vote for a consistent libertarian anarchist (against Hitler of all people!) sounds like a dream come true. What could be wrong with it? Oh yeah, now I remember: The people will still believe that voting matters.
But, what if you didn’t vote? What if you refused to vote and let Hitler win? What if you just said, “Voting doesn’t matter. Whether I vote or not does not change what actions either of these two individuals can legitimately or morally take. Therefore, I refuse to vote so as to force you to question your long-held delusional belief to the contrary.”
Hitler wins. Are people going to blame you for allowing Hitler to gain the right to commit aggression or are they finally going to see their delusion for the utter insanity that it is?
Walter Block has it wrong. We’re trying to get rid of rulers, not get nice rulers. We’re trying to abolish government, not reform it. Our freedom is dependent on our ability to wake people up from their delusion that voting for people can give them the right to rule, not on our ability to elect nice rulers. That’s why a refusal to participate in electoral politics is the only path to a free society. Voting just makes people think that we don’t hate the state. But we do: we hate it to its core. Electing anarchists is counterproductive.
A Response To Rothbard
It is necessary to recognize that the ultimate power of every government—whether of kings or caretakers—rests solely on opinion and not on physical force. The agents of government are never more than a small proportion of the total population under their control. This implies that no government can possibly enforce its will upon the entire population unless it finds widespread support and voluntary cooperation within the nongovernmental public. It implies likewise that every government can be brought down by a mere change in public opinion, i.e., by the withdrawal of the public’s consent and cooperation.
Let’s put it this way: Suppose we were slaves in the Old South, and that for some reason, each plantation had a system where the slaves were allowed to choose every four years between two alternative masters. Would it be evil, and sanctioning slavery, to participate in such a choice? Suppose one master was a monster who systematically tortured all the slaves, while the other one was kindly, enforced almost no work rules, freed one slave a year, or whatever. It would seem to me not only not aggression to vote for the kinder master but idiotic if we failed to do so.
Do not forget, Rothbard, that the vast majority of your fellow countrymen erroneously believe that this voting process makes the government’s rule over you justified and that without this widespread delusion of legitimacy the government’s rule would be impossible.
If the vast majority of your fellow slaves believed that your enslavement was justified because of this voting process and their belief was the only thing keeping you enslaved, would you vote? I wouldn’t—not on my life.
(UPDATE July 2, 2014: Hey Former-self, what do you mean, “not on my life”? =P My rhetoric and emotional appeals in this blog post are amusing looking back. Of course, once one understands the absolutely enormous damage caused by the widespread belief in political authority it’s easy to be extremely turned off by the entire political process.)
UPDATE April 24, 2012: I no longer believe that electing anarchists is counterproductive. Instead I believe that voting for libertarians (even Ron Paul) can possibly be productive to the cause of a free society. This changed my mind. [Update: The link was to a Mises Forum post with a counter-argument from Graham Wright, the creator of the video Government Explained.]
UPDATE October 24, 2012: A slight correction on the April 24th update: Electing anarchists is not necessarily counterproductive–my argument in this essay that electing anarchists is counterproductive is wrong. But that does not mean that voting or trying to elect libertarians to political office does help the cause of a free society. And it certainly does not mean that such participation in the electoral process is an efficient strategy for achieving a free society.
My current view is that libertarians who participate in the electoral process probably are helping the cause of achieving a free society (meaning I don’t think their actions are counterproductive), however I think libertarians who do not participate in voting or running for political office may be helping the cause even more.
Let me also mention that I think the issue of voting is often treated by many libertarians (including both those who support participation and those who oppose participation in electoral politics) as though it were more important than it actually is. Half a year ago when I wrote this essay and was trying to make up my mind about whether I should vote or not I believed that the issue was a big deal. I believed that it was very important that I determine which act (voting or not voting) helped the cause of a free society more. But the truth is that the issue is not important. The act of voting and the act of not voting are both quite insignificant. If we were to observe people in the world and make a list of all the things they have done to help make the world a more just place, the acts of voting and not voting would both not be significant enough to include on the list.
UPDATE November 8th, 2016 11:30 AM CT: Today is Election Day. PredictIt gives Trump a 21% of defeating Clinton. This year I registered to vote and voted for the first time. I was persuaded by Robert Wiblin and others in the Effective Altruism community that my vote for Clinton in swing state New Hampshire has high expected value. The expected difference in outcomes between the two candidates is significant enough that the 1 in ~10 million chance of affecting the outcome of the election is sufficient to make it worth voting, perhaps even very worth it. So my view has again been changed on this topic. I now think that voting can be a pretty significant act.
That said, I would still agree with my above statement that “If we were to observe people in the world and make a list of all the things they have done to help make the world a
more just [better] place, the acts of voting and not voting would both not be significant enough to include on the list.”
Although perhaps campaigning and getting hundreds if not thousands of others to vote well who otherwise would have voted poorly or not voted at all would make such a list.