A false dichotomy is when one is presented with two options as if those were the only options. American presidential elections present voters with a false dichotomy. This election, we are led to believe that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are the only real options for the next president of the United States. Granted, one of them will win, so, conceding this circular logic, even the naysayers have to admit that “the system” has worked in so far as it will produce a president from one of the two major parties.
But this is a false dichotomy because every four years the game is rigged to give voters two pre-arranged choices, and probably two choices of which we all had little input. There are primaries and caucuses and conventions, but all of this is only about narrowing down the options to two: Option A and Option B, like a boring grade school quiz. In states where anyone can vote in primaries—i.e. open primaries—oftentimes voters will vote for the weakest candidate from the opposite party to stack the deck in their favor for when the candidate from their party eventually runs. This is relevant because it undermines democracy at every turn; which isn’t to say that most libertarians are so high on democracy in the first place, but if the rest of the country is going to hold up “fair and open elections” as the pinnacle of the free West, then they should at least be honest about how democratic democracy is.
Readers may recall the Republican field in 2015 and 2016, which included notables such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul. Most voters would have been crazy at the time to predict that Donald Trump would beat any of these names and win the election. In other words, it’s fair to say that many Republicans along the way did not vote for Trump in state primaries. SNL mocked his debate performances, celebrities (and Barack Obama) arrogantly asserted again and again that “Donald Trump will never be President.” And yet, he is. Some contingency, whether private donors, self-interested corporations, or the “Silent Majority” in flyover country, managed to elevate Trump to office 2016. But it seems odd to call this process democratic when most mainstream Republicans (which is to say centrist and party-line) were working hard behind the scenes for other candidates. We might also be interested to see how many primary voters voted for a different Republican before eventually voting for Trump in the general election.
All of this doesn’t even account for the contingency on the left who believed Bernie Sanders was unfairly pushed aside both in 2016 and 2020, in favor of more “electable” and party-loyal candidates. In short, what we called democracy in 2016, and what we’ll call it this election cycle, is not really “the rule of many” at all, it is a duopoly that, as Patrick Henry said of the Constitution, “squints toward monarchy.”
Oftentimes voters think their vote is an expression of their individualism, their freedom as Americans, and their influence on an election. None of these is true. Elections present a false dichotomy. Voting may make one think that their vote does all of these things, and thus it may bring some psychic satisfaction or a sense of belonging to a group. But it’s not individualistic, it doesn’t expand their freedom, and a single vote never influences an election. What we saw in 2016 after Trump was the clear nominee, and what we see today since Joe Biden has become the Democratic nominee, is that voters bend their preferences and principles to fit the candidate, not the other way around. Maybe this is just anecdotal but when the Democratic field was wide open, I didn’t know anyone on the left who wanted Joe Biden. They wanted someone “progressive” like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, or even Beto O’Rourke.
After Biden “won” the nomination (if we can call the Democratic convention process fair given unelected “superdelegates”), most voters on the left whom I knew still didn’t like him. He’s too old, he isn’t progressive, he has a bad record on crime and voted for the War in Iraq, many liberals said. And yet, we all know they will still vote for him next week, if they haven’t done so already. For the voters I’m describing, how is voting for a candidate they never actually preferred until now an expression of their individualism? For that matter, how is doing something that at least 50 million other people will do “individualistic”? The American voter has less realistic options on a presidential ballot than their second grade kid has on a multiple choice test. This is democracy?
Voting is not about freedom. Voting confers legitimacy on the most powerful man on earth. This man can start wars, can send drone bombs to kill people overseas, can authorize domestic spying and nearby torture, can enact tariffs that just make domestic prices higher, and can appoint unelected and unaccountable judges to the highest bench in the United States. If we go back in time a bit, apparently the president can also order the internment of whole groups of Americans simply based on their race. And they can also choose to drop atomic bombs on women and children. How is voting for this office an expression of freedom?
Yes, we have the “freedom” to vote, the same way we tell our children they have the “choice” to obey. It’s presented as freedom, and as a choice, but it’s really not. It’s a false dichotomy that is self-supporting and self-perpetuating. If every election is “the most important election of our lifetime,” then we can never “sit this one out.” We can never not vote. We can never vote for a third party candidate because doing so, according to left and right, only helps the opposition. So we can and should and have to vote for a candidate that, all things considered, we don’t really like or want, but because we live in a “democracy,” he is the best we have. And this is freedom? There’s more freedom in choosing a coffee creamer than choosing a president.
A single vote does not influence an election. As I’ve suggestedpreviously, voting incurs an opportunity cost, which, while potentially small, necessarily means we can’t do something else while we’re spending time voting or toward the election process. If one works on a campaign, or at a phone bank, or puts up signs, or anything else beyond just voting, their opportunity cost goes up even more. Maybe to some this is worth it, but if voters confronted the reality that their single vote doesn’t matter, I doubt any opportunity cost would be worth it.
The response, then, is “if everyone thought this way no one would vote.” This is true, and would happen, but this isn’t what really happens. Millions of people are going to vote in every election for the foreseeable future. But, their vote only matters as part of a group, not as a single vote. One’s vote is always on the margin, that is, negligible in terms of its influence. If 250,000 people vote for Candidate X in your county or district, and then you also vote for Candidate X, your vote didn’t do anything more to help him or her get elected. It is insignificant. Therefore we have to realize that unless we can get a whole lot of people to vote the way we do, then our single vote doesn’t influence an election.
If I went and voted for Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate, it might bring me personal satisfaction, but it won’t help her win. She’s not going to win. So we see then that unless I get millions of people in Texas to vote for Jo Jorgensen, my single vote won’t have any effect on the election. This is true of mainstream candidates as well. In most districts in Texas, for example, if I vote for Trump, I’m only doing what everyone else is already doing, and thus my marginal vote doesn’t help him win; and if I vote for Biden, knowing that in most districts Trump will win easily, then I’m also having no effect on the outcome. Voting only matters in groups, and thus the idea that our individual vote influences elections is simply not true.
As I’ve said before, if someone votes out of self-defense because they want to keep their money, or they think a candidate will not wreak as much havoc as the other, this is completely understandable. Voting doesn’t make you a bad person, and all of us live in a very undemocratic system where money and power present us with two real options and then tell us to pick one. And they call this “choice,” democracy, and freedom. So given the unfortunate situation, we can understand why many voters vote for the “lesser of two evils.” For that matter, voting for a Republican or Democrat is the only way a voter can have even a fractional (though negligible) effect on an election.
But it’s still a false dichotomy to say that we have to vote for one or the other. We can vote for a third party, we can write someone in, or we can join the largest political group in the country: non-voters. Not voting is a vote: it’s a vote of no confidence. So whether we vote or don’t vote in this year’s presidential election, let’s all admit the presence of this false dichotomy, and also the deflating reality that a single vote doesn’t do what we often think it does.
In case you couldn’t tell through the inescapable barrage of media coverage, we have an election coming up, which means voters are mobilizing. To most Americans, democracy and voting are the pinnacles of freedom. Your vote is your voice, etc. etc. 2016 threw a wrench in some Americans’ confidence in democracy, though. Did Trump break the system? Rather than admit that democracy allowed half the country to foist a new leader on the other half against their will, the election had to be explained away: Russia, meddling, the failings of the Electoral College. Democracy works, proponents maintained, it’s just that external forces subverted this particular election. I’m interested to see if these sinister forces can manage to rig back-to-back elections; I guess we’ll see. Someone who’s not so high on democracy is author and Georgetown professor Jason Brennan. His book from 2016, Against Democracy, rejects seemingly every argument in favor of America’s most cherished of political systems.
Growing up in the United States, one gets the impression that democracy is next to godliness. School children put their hands over their hearts every morning and literally pledge allegiance to a flag, and to the republic for which it stands. The NFL spends weeks wearing camouflage hats and jackets on the sidelines as part of their salute to the military; and what does the military do if not protect (and even spread) democracy? Brennan refers to this ubiquitous sentimentality as “democratic triumphalism”: “the view that democracy and widespread political participation are valuable, justified, and required by justice” (7). But, as his book makes clear, almost no one ever really questions the history, justice, and most importantly, the efficacy of a democratic political system. Among several arguments, Brennan’s primary thesis is that democracy is only useful for its instrumental value; it has no real symbolic or intrinsic value. Democracy is a tool, like a hammer, Brennan repeats. It’s only as good as its ability to achieve results. “If we can find a better hammer,” he writes, “we should use it” (11). Brennan’s recommendation is epistocracy: the rule of the knowledgeable.
In the latter half of the book, Brennan offers a clever bit of authorial maneuvering: “In philosophy, we use the least controversial and weakest premise we need to get the job done” (151). This strategy becomes more clear in retrospect when we consider the book’s first major argument: that the American voting public are either hobbits, hooligans, or vulcans (4-5). Hobbits are apathetic, ignorant, uninformed, and lack strong opinions about politics and world events more generally. “The typical nonvoter is a hobbit,” Brennan writes. I find his bit about the “weakest premise” convincing because from the outset of his book, readers will either conjure up their hobbit friends and family and be inclined to agree with Brennan’s premise (most likely), or perhaps readers will self-identify as hobbits and say, “This sounds like me” (less likely). Either way, readers are likely convinced of the usability of the concept. Hooligans, though, are the majority of Americans, those who either vote or participate in politics more broadly. Hooligans are the “rabid sports fans of politics.” They have strong views, though they are based on weak and bias-reinforcing data, and they are unlikely to listen to opposing views, no matter how sound. In fact, debate makes them more entrenched in their views. They want to win and they want their opponents to lose, since to them, politics must be a zero-sum game. Again, even if the reader would believe themselves to be a vulcan (the last category), they can definitely identify these hooligans. Vulcans are essentially Plato’s philosopher-kings, though perhaps we should call them philosopher-voters. They take in all information in an unbiased way, listen to opposing views, and make their decisions based on reputable facts and evidence. We gather that there are not many vulcans out there. If there were, we probably wouldn’t have a democracy.
Especially convincing is the wealth of empirical studies Brennan cites between chapters 1-4. His main findings include the following, among others: most voters are “rationally ignorant,” meaning they know that they don’t know, and they don’t really care that they don’t know (30); the more educated people become, the more they favor smaller government (34); many political participants only “keep up” with politics because they are expected to according to their social class or vocation, or because they would be interested in politics regardless of a particular election or candidate— to them it is a hobby, like crafting or gardening (35-6); political tribalism damages rationality and often causes us to make decisions based on our “group,” rather than the validity of the options themselves (39). The rest of the political literature, to be sure, is expansive. In sum, though, the average voter is: tribalistic, ignorant, myopic, etc., and yet they feel obligated to participate. Voters tend to think of democracy like a poem (chapter 5), in that it has symbolic value (versus instrumental). And this idea, of course, has been reinforced in most Americans since birth. Brennan wonders why this is, or should be so.
More damaging than the voter though is the larger effects of a democratic system in general; Brennan writes “that most common forms of political engagement are more likely to corrupt and stultify than to ennoble and educate people” (55). Believing in the just possibility of ideal democracy is, to Brennan, like believing college fraternities would “improve . . . character and scholarship,” if given the right conditions (73). Shooting heroin or dropping out of high school, he suggests, have the potential to serve an educative function, like ideal democracy, but we doubt the wisdom of trying. Brennan writes elsewhere, “Since individual votes don’t matter and hating other people is fun, voters have every incentive to vote in ways that express their tribal biases” (234, italics in original). Democracy puts us in “genuinely adversarial relationships” where we treat each other in ways that we would never (hopefully) treat one another outside of the political sphere. We think that if “they” win, “I” lose. And, to be sure, the two-party system, with its attendant popular suffrage, does result in this win/lose dichotomy. We have, for the most part, dumb people voting in a rigged system (where their individual votes don’t matter), which results in one party or person being forced on everyone else at the point of a gun (See 240-1). And yet, as Brennan shows, this is supposed to be indicative of “consent,” “voluntary” choice, fairness, and the justice of democracy in general. Brennan suggests, instead, that we try a better hammer: epistocracy (See chapter 8). We want the best doctor, the best plumber, the best teacher, etc., so why don’t we want the best voters and the best rulers? We don’t let just anyone come fix our pipes, so why do we let everyone vote, and, theoretically, let just anyone rule? Democracies violate the “competence principle,” which the author defines as the notion that “high-stakes political decisions are presumed to be unjust, illegitimate, and lacking in authority if they are made incompetently…” (21). As such, democracies are disqualified to rule (On qualifiers versus disqualifiers see p. 165-6). Just as our doctors and plumbers must be competent, so too must our voters and rulers. On Brennan’s suggestion that epistocracy solves some of the issues of political competency, I am somewhat convinced, though Brennan undercuts his argument by never seriously considering anarchism.
Throughout, he talks about how an epistocracy would likely be a “better form” of government, with “better results,” and would, overall, function “better” (See p. 223, paragraph 5 as but one example). But, to my understanding, he never says what “better” means. More efficient at collecting taxes? more adept at keeping the masses docile? better at making war? Brennan would likely say no to all of these, but he never explains what a “better” system or better results are. If he is laissez-faire on economics, as he lets on, and he hates democracy as he explicitly states, then why not suggest or explore something like anarcho-capitalism? I could just as easily suggest the efficacy of this system, and, by his own standards, he couldn’t dismiss this argument by saying “It’s never been tried.” As he says in defense of epistocracy, it too has never seriously been tried, and thus can’t be ruled out a priori. To ignore anarchism is to ignore the base condition of mankind. Why, in Brennan’s world, does man ever come out of their “state of nature” to form society in the first place? And if/when they do, why is it assumed that they form a government? If Brennan convincingly showed why we need the state, only then could he seriously propose epistocracy as the best choice among presumably imperfect political systems. Just as he criticizes most Americans’ assumption that democracy is ideal, and that it works, I would argue that he assumes some kind of government is ideal, and that, theoretically, it can work. But this assumes too much. Nonetheless, Against Democracy is a punchy and prescient tour de force which should be required reading for political philosophy. It’s high time we stop being ruled by hooligans. Brennan calls democracy a “flawed tool” (204), but this doesn’t go far enough. It’s unavoidably antagonistic, it’s violent, and it’s inherently violative of the most basic “political” unit: the individual.
In a broad sense, political philosophy is very simple: if you’re not an anarchist, then everything else is just debating the “ideal” amount or level of government. Conservatives supposedly want the government out of their wallets, while liberals want them out of their bedroom. But to debate the right amount or size of government is an admission that 1) there should be a government, and 2) there is a specific degree of activity and/or range of authority that optimizes its function in society. The textbook characterization of the Republican Party is that they’re the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, while the Democratic Party is progressive, modern, and a champion of active government. But whether a government is “limited” or “active,” it’s still a government, and presupposes the two assumptions listed above. I wonder whether our government funding the study of the effects of cocaine on the mating habits of Japanese quails falls under “limited” or “active” government.
So what is the optimal amount of government? When Americans vote in any election they seem to be indicating that they, too, believe there is some ideal level of government, and that whoever they are voting for represents the fulfillment of this ideal. Straight-ticket voters are a great example of this since they suppose all candidates belonging to a certain party hold the same belief about the role of government. As a case in point, consider how large the words “Republican” or “Democrat” are printed on campaign posters. In reality, little else matters to voters except party. “No way we’re voting for some liberal who wants to spend all our money on welfare…we’ll vote for Republicans who only want to spend money on wars, Israel, a multibillion dollar border wall, and the drug war.” How fiscally conservative were the wars started under H.W. and George W. Bush, nearly all of which are conflicts that persist today? Democrats and progressives rarely pretend their party abides by the Constitution. On the contrary, their allure seems to be in flouting that scrap of paper and in appealing to a mass of people who demand the government regulate every aspect of our lives. To them, the government is the great paternal maternal force providing all of our needs and desires, with little concern for how things are paid for. As my new masochistic muse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, no one asks how we’re going to fund Trump’s space force. Presumably, the money is just there. She’s even leading the charge for a Green New Deal. The first New Deal worked so well that now we need the same thing, but for plants. FDR solved the Great Depression by commissioning bridges and slaughtering pigs, and now we can save the planet by having Americans knit booties for rose bushes, all the while getting paid a living wage.
For anyone who cares about logical consistency, there is no “in between” when it comes to degrees of government. If we were to draw a line, and on the far left is Anarchy (no government) and on the far right is a World Government, the U.S. government might be just slightly to the left of the world government. Conservatives say they want our place on this imaginary spectrum moved half a centimeter to the left, and that that would be “minimal government;” and liberals, in the vein of their Founding Father Woodrow Wilson, truly want some form of world government that will give everyone a $15 minimum wage and fund a centrally located multicultural center. Maybe they could use eminent domain to seize Epcot? If we moved leftward from wherever the U.S. government is on this imaginary scale, we would come across decreasingly powerful forms of government such as: constitutional republics, confederations of small states, individual sovereign states, small city-states, community rule, family rule, and eventually rule by individuals (the libertarian anarchist position). So why do I say there is not really a defensible point between anarchy and a world government?
From childhood, most of us are taught what the word “government” means, just like we’re taught what “red” or “table” or “car” means. The government is the collection of people and agencies who make and enforce laws for the benefit of society, or so we are told. But, as Murray Rothbard shows in The Anatomy of the State, governments only have legitimacy by the miracle of our collective imagination. We all believe the emperor is wearing clothes. Just as many never question that a table is a table and a car is a car, many never question the necessity of governments, or its definition as a night watchman keeping us safe. A global force for good, right? By the time we become adults, few will ever stop to consider why some people get to rule over other people; it truly is a miracle that millions of people just assume that because governments have always existed, they always will exist. The French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel said that “the essential reason for obedience is that it has become a habit of the species . . . Power is for us a fact of nature.” What is more nefarious than the supposition that governments simply will be is the fact that most assume the government truly has good intentions. As Rothbard says, the government sells us on the idea that they are we. Afterall, what is a government but a collection of individuals elected or chosen from the very society they are to govern? It stands to reason then that since our mayors and governors and congressmen and presidents are Americans, just like us, that we truly are the government. A government of the people, by the people, for the people, or so we’re told. Maybe someone could update the Gettysburg Address and add “…at the expense of the people.”
But we are not the government. Using Rothbard’s definition of the State as “an organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area,” would anyone not actually in the government consider himself to be the government? How many of us use force and violence on a daily basis with impunity? There have always only been two groups of people in the world when it comes to governments: those actually in the government, and everyone else. We are everyone else, and we are not in positions to raise or lower taxes, to start or end wars, to seize private property for the “public good,” to control what people may or may not put in their body, etc. Rothbard referred to this “we” tactic as ideological camouflage. Conflating our government with us personally means that when the American government goes to war, or passes a law, or, I don’t know, builds a wall, that we are starting wars and passing laws and building walls. But honestly I don’t know the first thing about construction.
Indeed, we are not the government, and since all governments, by necessity, subsist through the production of the governed, there is no perfect degree of government somewhere along the political spectrum. Any point between anarchy and a world government necessarily perpetuates the bifurcated class system of governing and governed, of them and us. Even if there were some ideal form of governance—some political version of “maximum output”—why is it that only some people can calculate it, and the rest of us are then subject to their divine enlightenment? Only Bernie Sanders knows why $15 is the perfect minimum wage, and only Donald Trump knows why tariffs work, despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no in between because all forms of government are constantly swinging on a pendulum between anarchy and a world government. Every action by the government that decentralizes power is a tacit admission that complete autonomy of the individual (anarchy) is the ideal form of social organization. But all of these technocrats and busybodies that sit in their offices and think up new bills and laws and executive orders that expand the power of the state are admitting, conceptually, that “the bigger the better” when it comes to the government. If this is the case, why would we stop at only state and federal governments? Why don’t we establish a world government? Everything in between anarchy and this idea of a world government is either 1) logically inconsistent, or 2) an admission that some people know the perfect amount of government and others don’t. If the latter, then the rest of us must either trust that these guys really do know what they’re talking about, or we don’t trust them and must reckon between anarchy and a global state. For anyone to propose a point between the two is logically inconsistent since he would be admitting that some degree of government is good, but not too much, but not too little, and that only the person proposing their model knows the perfect amount.
To put it simply, if having a government is good (however one defines “good”), then there is no logical limit to how good a government could be if given the chance. But, if having a government is not good, then we arrive at the not-so-radical idea of letting people control their own lives. Anything in between is just window dressing. I say let all the statists come out in the open and admit that a world government (run by them) is what they want. In a way, their pontifications about how much government we should have is even more insulting than a world government since the former implies that they alone have the privileged, divine wisdom to know how much government you and I need.
Many balk at the word anarchy, but why should they? Libertarians need to press the issue and put the onus on statists to defend their position, not us ours. If we truly are all born equal in terms of self-ownership, who or what gives some the right to rule over others? We must disrupt what Rothbard called the chief task of the rulers: to secure the active or resigned acceptance of the majority. We don’t accept them.
“The State is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”
~Frédéric Bastiat, “The State” (1848)
“It is practically inevitable that such men should win great influence over the state, because they may view it as means, whilst all the rest, under the the power of the unconscious intention of the state, are themselves only means to the state purpose.”
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Preface to The Greek State (1871)
It seems that Bastiat and Nietzsche were onto something that American voters don’t understand. I don’t mean to deride all voters as an homogenous group, only to critique the premise of using the vote as some sort of existential act, a divine birthright which is our ticket to participate in a collective that many of us didn’t ask to be a part of. I often see pro-voters reference the quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that “voting is like a rifle.” Unfortunately, that rifle is aimed at non-voters. Voting is indeed a weapon, and like Bastiat said over a century ago, it is essentially the means by which one class usurps power over everyone else. Of course, pro-voters will simply tell us all to go vote so that we, too, can express our preference. The true irony for most libertarians is that there is no equally effective means of expressing our political preference as there exists for everyone else. In other words, we cannot vote the state away.
As Nietzsche alluded to, for everyone who falls into the neat category of being a means for the state, it is as simple as punching a card or pushing a button on a screen. This cathartic release allows voters to feel patriotic, dutiful, and worthy of the price ostensibly paid in blood by previous generations. How discomforting it would be to hear that the the Civil War was not originally fought for any kind of racial or political equality for black Americans, or to learn that neither World War One nor Two were about voting. Many of the Founders had a deep distrust for popular democracy, and intentionally established a system where the majority of Americans did not have the right to vote. Yet, we are told that whether through Jacksonian Democracy or the 17th Amendment, extending voting rights is essentially next to godliness. To be sure, I am not advocating that we return to a system where only white men can vote; libertarians should be against anyone voting away other people’s lives or property, no matter the race or gender of those voting to do so. Regardless of one’s views on “what the Founders thought,” we can be assured that they never intended a system whereby some people can steal from others through the voting process. Bastiat called this legal plunder, and the sociologist Franz Oppenheimer called this the “political means,” as opposed to the economic means.
This cycle leading up to the forthcoming midterm elections has truly been anomalous. Despite being told every two or four years that the next election is the most important election of our lifetime, this is not why these midterms have been so strange. Never before, at least that I can recall, has the entire country placed so much emphasis on a midterm election. There are always “get out the vote” campaigns in any election, and of course every candidate has their supporters, but the widespread intensity behind the demands to vote in these midterms is unprecedented. Hopefully readers do not base their politics on the views of actors and musicians, but if their recent behavior is any indication, we see that even previously non-political celebrities have come out of the woodwork, not necessarily to demand we favor a certain candidate (though this is implicit), but simply to encourage everyone to vote. The “comedian” Samantha Bee even helped develop a smartphone app that uses quizzes and games to get out the vote. We might take a wild guess at which party Samantha Bee, who on television called the President’s daughter something too vulgar to say here, is encouraging her audience to vote for. Even as I recently scrolled through Twitter, a paid advertisement from Levi’s stressed the importance of voting in the upcoming midterms. So not only are we constantly bombarded by news media to engage in the dirty world of politics, but now the company I buy my jeans from is encouraging the same thing. It is truly bizarre.
The economist Robert Murphy recently asked, “If you urge people to register/vote every election, do you think increased turnout would improve quality of elected officials? . . . Do you think the people who currently don’t bother voting, pick better candidates than the people who DO vote?” This sums up the odd pro-voter psychology, and the seemingly misplaced strategy of getting out the vote. There is a stark disconnect between simply the idea of voting, and the far more nefarious intentions behind “getting out the vote.” The implication here is that voting, in and of itself, regardless of who one votes for, is the important thing. As long as you voted, the pro-voters are happy, supposedly. Many pro-voters, both from the Left and Right, pretend to be open-minded and act as though they don’t care who you vote for, as long as you vote. But this is truly the big lie behind getting out the vote. They absolutely care who you vote for. Everyone cares who you vote for.
Does anyone think pro-voters will actually be contented by someone physically heading to a polling place? Will they cheerlead the simple fact that one more person is doing their civic duty and voting? Of course not. They only care about what voters do inside the polling place. They want to lead the horses to water, and make them drink. It’s all about their candidate, their party, their agenda, and their lust for control. Ironically, the people actually gaining power by winning elections are able to get everyone else to do their bidding for them. The candidates are those whom Nietzsche referred to as seeing the state as means, while everyone else simply serves as means to the state purpose. Voters are unwittingly locking themselves up, while thinking they’re becoming more free. If we can just get the right candidate, we’re assured, things will be different. Did Republicans feel vindicated by the time George W. Bush left office? Did President Obama effect the change his base expected? Will wunderkinds Beto O’Rourke or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fulfill everything they’ve promised to voters?
Why is there such a sudden and unprecedented “get out the vote” campaign? Could it possibly have anything to do with the Trump presidency and the Left’s loss of power? Is it happenstance that Hillary Clinton said, two weeks before the midterms, that she would “like to be President”? Or that former President Obama is actively campaigning with Democratic candidates? These people won’t go away. Imagine how the Left would react if, after his presidency, Donald Trump hit the campaign trail to actively offer endorsements. Surely he would be denigrated as “unpresidential.” But the rules are always different for the party in power versus when they’re out.
In terms of voter turnout, if every eligible voter in the United States voted in the midterms, would that change the outcome as opposed to what would have happened if normal voting patterns prevailed? Many pro-voters think so lowly of non-voters that they assume the latter can easily be coaxed into voting for their candidate, if only they will vote at all. Among the cadre of Trump Derangement Syndrome celebrities, Chelsea Handler recently joked about setting a date for November 6 and taking one’s date to vote instead. This is emblematic of the Left’s attitude toward electoral politics and the voting system, that we are all peons who can be used to further their agenda; and that if we don’t vote or if we don’t agree with their political ideals, we are simply unenlightened. Never do the pro-voters deign to consider that non-voters are actually expressing a preference by not voting.
To be sure, there are legitimate reasons to vote. In some senses it is like self-defense where, if given the option, we would prefer a robber steal 20% of our money versus 50%. Or given the choice between a domestic welfarist and a militant interventionist, libertarians might be inclined to hold their nose and choose the former, valuing human life as the highest priority. Or, as many libertarians well know, we can skip out altogether and instead offer a principled stance for not participating in the political masochism of electoral politics. Murray Rothbard offered a nuanced perspective on the merits of voting, and I would likewise conclude that only the individual can weigh the costs and benefits. It seems most libertarians are rightly conceding that voting is not an inherently immoral or aggressive act, but we also walk a tight line between voting out of self-defense and simply playing the same game as those on the Left and Right.
As I’ve said before, it’s not really about voting. It’s about power, dominance, and lending legitimacy to the political victor. This is why pro-voters are often viscerally opposed to political abstention, because non-voters won’t abide the reverence and pageantry of the electoral process. Libertarians don’t operate within the same psychological boundaries as Left and Right, where we are all supposed to pretend that whoever wins an election is in fact our new moral, social, and political superior. It for this reason that the Left keeps touting the results of the popular vote from the 2016 Presidential Election, pointing out that Hillary Clinton won more in that regard than Trump. They crave a mandate for their candidate to lead, because by everyone partaking in the system they can say their person won fair-and-square. But, ironically, when their person doesn’t win, the system and results are ipso facto flawed and illegitimate. So it’s really very simple: they don’t just want to get out the vote, they want to get out the vote for their candidate. They may not always say it, but we know this is what they mean. They mean go vote for their candidate, or else. Readers may recall Mussolini’s explication of fascism as having “…nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” You are not allowed to think for yourself. You have to vote. You have to vote for their person. You have to play their game.
It’s high time we demystify the quasi-religious act of pushing a button on a screen and getting a sticker.
Kollin Fields is a PhD student in Dallas and may be reached at kollinfields.com where he writes about libertarianism, economics, and Christianity.
In 2016 about 55% of Americans voted in the presidential election. Of those 55%, about half voted for Hillary Clinton and half voted for Donald Trump. That means about 27% of all votes went to Clinton, about 27% to Trump, a small percentage of popular votes to third party candidates, and about 40% of Americans didn’t vote, which could be interpreted as a vote for nobody. If one’s vote is an endorsement, then who are we endorsing when we don’t vote at all?
So much of the political process involves candidates and their teams getting you to the polls. Have you ever wondered why they spend so much time doing this? Trump won with 27% of eligible votes. In other words, he didn’t need everyone to come out, he just needed enough of the people who did come out to vote for him. So why do politicians spend so much time and money getting you to vote when they don’t actually need all of you, just some of you? We can assume that in every presidential election a certain number of people are going to vote, no matter what. Regardless of who is running, they will find someone to vote for simply because they always vote. So why don’t candidates simply spend their time trying to persuade these people to vote for them, instead of soliciting new voters?
The reality is that candidates need you to vote because it gives them a sense of legitimacy. In political science this is called a mandate. When people don’t vote and candidates win by small margins, it doesn’t quite give that candidate the mandate he or she was looking for. All political power rests on public consent, and the candidate would prefer that a high majority of the public support his or her leadership. You may recall that after the 2016 election, President Trump spent months trying to convince everyone that a lot of people were at his inauguration, that he won by huge numbers, etc. It doesn’t take a therapist to tell that he was insecure about his victory. If he could convince the public that he won by as much as he thought he did, then he would have more of a mandate.
If candidates and their teams can get a high majority of Americans to vote, then it gives more of a perception of legitimacy to the victor. But when barely over half of the eligible voters turn out, what does this mean? Firstly, it means there is no legitimate mandate for anyone to lead. How can 27% be a mandate? That is basically 1 out of every 4 Americans saying they want a certain person to be in charge. Secondly, it means that about 45% of eligible American voters didn’t want either of the two major candidates to win; at least they didn’t want them to win badly enough to actually cast a vote. In this sense, the actual majority – non-voters- revealed their preference to be neither Clinton nor Trump. But of course, this reality won’t do. Democracy is supposed to be reflective of the will of the majority, but it seems the majority’s will doesn’t matter if their preference disrupts the system. Common rebuttals to political abstention go as follows:
If you don’t like either candidate, why didn’t you vote for someone else?
If you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome.
If non-voters really wanted someone else to win, why didn’t they run their own candidate who reflected their own views?
It only takes a few minutes to register to vote, so non-voters must be lazy.
By definition non-voters do not reveal their political preference so we can’t know what the will of these people would have been.
Democracy is open to all, so it’s as easy as making your voice heard.
I’ve written before about why I don’t vote, so that’s not what I want to address again here. What we will focus on is what economists call an opportunity cost. An opportunity cost is something someone gives up by choosing to do something else. For instance, if someone chooses to build houses instead of selling cars, his opportunity cost is the possible profit he might have made from selling cars instead of making houses. Each of us has to choose if the benefits of pursuing one thing over another outweighs the costs. If a man can either become a home-builder or a car salesman, he will choose the one that is best for him, and the foregone potential benefit of doing the other thing is his opportunity cost. We don’t always succeed in choosing the best path; in other words sometimes the thing we chose not to do proves to have been, in retrospect, the better option. Sometimes we stay at a job for years because we think there’s a future there, but it doesn’t pan out. The opportunity cost for all the years we were at that job are the things we could have been doing instead.
What does all of this have to do with politics? One facet of politics which receives little popular attention is the opportunity costs involved with the entire process. When candidates, their teams, strategists, pundits, news media, and voters spend time trying to get someone elected, they give up time and money that could have gone elsewhere. Therefore there is an opportunity cost involved in participating in politics. If someone thinks that participating in politics is more beneficial than doing something else with their time, then so be it; but we must acknowledge the reality that there are other things people could be doing.
The cost/benefit for everyone except voters should be obvious: if their guy wins, they reap all of the rewards that come with it. So even though candidates give up months and years of their life to campaign, the cost will be worth it to them, if they win. Their strategists and donors also benefit because if their guy wins they gain access to power. Every election cycle there are major donors who give millions of dollars to a candidate. They don’t do this out of the kindness of their heart, they want a return for their investment. It was quite candid of Trump to admit this in the run-up to 2016 when he was asked why he donated to Clinton’s New York Senate run and the Clinton Foundation. He essentially said that as a businessman he had an incentive to donate to every candidate. In that way, he has access no matter who wins. This isn’t really anything new. For all of these people, the opportunity cost does not deter their decision to engage in the political process. But are there obvious benefits for the common voter? More specifically, are there any benefits for voters who vote or support candidates who are not likely to win?
As we’ve seen, 45% of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2016. We could dismiss them as “lazy,” but I doubt this legitimately explains why nearly half the country didn’t drive five minutes to cast a vote (or even do it from home). If a voter in 2016 wanted Clinton or Trump to win, then for them the benefits outweighed the costs, and thus their participation in politics could be considered rational. For instance, many people liked Trump because he spoke about strict immigration policy, or because they felt he represented their middle-class interests. Regardless of why someone voted for Clinton or Trump, if they thought that by winning, he or she would benefit them personally, then their time spend voting outweighed their opportunity cost. But apparently only about 27% of Americans thought Clinton would benefit them, and the same for Trump. 45% of Americans didn’t even think that the cost of getting off their couch was worth casting a vote. And this is where opportunity cost becomes most visible.
Let us suppose a voter didn’t like Clinton or Trump in the months leading to the 2016 election. What would be this person’s options in light of this? He or she could have personally run for President, but would not have been likely to win. This person could have supported a different candidate, such as the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, but history shows that a third party candidate won’t win; the most he or she can do is affect the outcome by “splitting the ticket.” So we ask then, is it worth this person’s time, and does the cost/benefit incentivize him or her to vote for a third-party candidate when they know for sure that this third-party candidate will not win? The opportunity costs in this scenario will likely deter this person from voting. Why go cast a vote for someone that won’t win? Even the small amount of time it takes to go vote does not overcome the opportunity costs involved.
So if a potential voter doesn’t like either major candidate, and he or she is not personally going to run, and they know that a third-party candidate is not going to win, what should this person do if they want to be part of the electoral process? A lot of Americans who are in love with democracy would tell this person to find someone they do support, and then do whatever they can to get him or her elected. But what is this really implying this would-be voter should do? Give up their time, money, and resources to support someone who still is unlikely to win? Do people realize that a Democrat or Republican has won every presidential election since 1853? How should a normal American go about vetting a candidate and then convincing over a third of the country to vote for him or her? Should they give up their job and time with their family to do this? Should they give up some of their salary to try to spread support for this new candidate? It has been approximated that $2.4 billion was spent on the 2016 presidential election. We wonder how that money might have been better spent. For “fiscal conservatives” and/or financially prudent Christians, how are these costs justified?
In reality, we know that few of us are going to give up weeks of our lives, and money out of our own pockets to support a candidate that will not win. We won’t do this because the opportunity cost is too high; we would be giving up too much to not get enough in return.
This doesn’t mean that every candidate is necessarily a bad person or that we should never vote or never give time or money in support of a candidate. If you think that spending time and money toward a candidate outweighs your opportunity cost, then go for it. But all of the arguments that are supposed to shame Americans into voting don’t hold weight in light of opportunity costs. Because, essentially, if you don’t vote for one of the two main candidates, then your vote doesn’t matter. We could qualify this by saying that maybe it matters to you, but it has no practical influence on the election. If I had voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or Mickey Mouse in 2016, then my vote would not have mattered one iota in the grand scheme of things. In light of this, is it worth the opportunity cost to give up my time, resources, and effort to go through the charade of trying to get someone else elected?
Some people (especially big L libertarians) think that eventually, with enough support, someone could break through the two party system and get elected. Therefore to them, the opportunity cost is worth it since they envision an eventual return on their investment. There have been glimmers of success in this strategy. What Ron Paul did on the Republican debate stage in 2012 was a pivotal moment for the cause of liberty. He spoke out against interventionism and bad monetary policy and consequently spread the message of liberty to millions of Americans. As he’s said many times, even though he wanted to win the presidential election, he always knew that it was more about education, and that running for president gave him a platform to spread his message. A lot of people supported Ron Paul. They gave him their votes and time and money. While this is great for those who did so, the reality is that he didn’t win. But, for everyone who supported him, the benefits of spreading the message of liberty outweighed the opportunity costs, so it was worth it to them.
We are not saying that opportunity costs mean voting is inherently immoral. People vote and campaign because they think it will return to them some sort of benefit. They must determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs. Some Americans give up weeks and months of their time to help with a campaign. If this is what they want to do, they’re free to do so. No one can decide another’s opportunity costs. But we can surmise, according to the voting data, that the opportunity cost of spending two seconds to vote for someone was too high for many Americans; it evidently would have returned to them a negligible benefit, if any. Most Americans did not care for either candidate, nor did they support any third-party candidate enough to vote. None of them winning meant any kind of benefit for nearly 45% of eligible voters.
Trump was supposed to the the outsider…the independent…the business candidate, and he even spoke out promisingly against the U.S. war in Iraq. But what has happened since he was elected? Tariffs, more spending, and more war. He hasn’t ended wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and now there seems to be a rising tide for more war in Syria and Iran. Scott Horton always says that when a politician wins, he will ignore his good promises and keep his bad ones. We would be hard-pressed to think of a modern president who is an exception to this rule. So even to those who did support and vote for Trump, we wonder if in retrospect their efforts to get him elected were worth their opportunity costs. I submit that sitting on your couch and reading an economics book is an infinitely better use of your time than voting in an election. But only you can decide.
If another candidate ever came along who said he was going to bring the troops home, end the Federal Reserve, shut down most federal departments, and respect the 9th and 10th Amendments, many non-voters might be inclined to vote for him or her. But until then, we should continue to promote education over participation in politics. Teaching others, and learning new things for ourselves, is far more fruitful than spending time and money on a candidate who will only disappoint. The opportunity costs of politicking, for many, are always too high.
If candidates are voter junkies, and need your vote to get their next high, what message does it send when 45% of Americans simply refuse to vote? It seems that nearly half of the population is saying “we don’t want either of you.” What are these 45% supposed to do? Vote for someone else even though they won’t win?
Americans shouldn’t be shamed or denigrated for not voting. Some people think that other Americans died for your right to vote, and that’s fine for them to think that, but if some died for your right to vote then they also died for your right to cast a ballot for no one…to not vote. If there are others such as myself who wished that no one would have won in 2016, then we wonder what would have happened if 80% of Americans had refused to vote. Or 90%? Or 100%? What if, through abstention, we all said, “we don’t want a president”? Not voting is just as significant as voting, since both reveal a preference.
Democracy is painted as the opposite of monarchy. We learn in 8th grade history class that colonists hated the British monarchy and so they fought a war for independence and established their own republic. It’s a fun story, but is our modern-day republic all that different from the British monarchy of 1776?
Monarchies give people one option.
The American democracy gives you two.
Kollin Fields blog, Tierra y Libertad, may be found at kfields91.wordpress.com where he writes on libertarian topics including politics, war, and economics. Email: email@example.com
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