appears as chapter 4 in Out
of Step (1962).
I voted for
Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. I haven’t voted in a presidential election
At first it
was sheer instinct that dissuaded me from casting my ballot. I listened
to the performance promises of the various candidates and the more
I listened the more confused I became. They seemed to me to be so
contradictory, so vague, so devoid of principle, that I could not
bring myself in favor of one or the other.
was I impressed by the candidates’ evaluations of one another. Neither
one had a good word to say of his opponent, and each was of the
opinion that the other fellow was not the kind of man to whom the
affairs of state could be safely entrusted. Now, I reasoned, these
fellows were politicians, and as such should be better acquainted
with their respective qualifications for office than I could be;
it was their business to know such things. Therefore, I had to believe
candidate A when he said that candidate B was untrustworthy, as
I had to believe candidate B when he said the same of candidate
A. In the circumstances, how could I vote for either? Judging by
their respective evaluations of each other’s qualifications I was
bound to make the wrong decision whichever way I voted.
I put off voting
from one election to another, perhaps hoping that sometime a compelling
choice would be offered me. I was, I believe, looking for a candidate
who would stand for a philosophy of government, something that would
be above the ephemeral. In time it dawned on me that I was being
romantic, that with principles – that is, moral or philosophic
concepts – politics simply has nothing to do, except as convenient
slogans in the promotion of its business, which is the acquisition
of power. I soon realized that the art of politics consisted in
the balancing of various group interests, one against the other,
so as either to attain or retain rulership over all. It was a juggling
This is no
reflection on the intellectual integrity of the politician. His
business does not call for any such quality and his supporters would
be outraged if he presumed to bring it into bearing. Assuming that
a candidate were a convinced free trader, or believed that veterans
do not benefit from handouts, or – to go to an extreme –
that the nation’s bonded indebtedness is a burden on the economy,
it would be political suicide for him to voice such an opinion.
A candidate in the North who espoused "white supremacy"
would have as little chance as a candidate in the South who did
Were a considerable
segment of the population, sufficiently large to offset the opposition,
in favor of putting disabilities on Jews, Catholics, or Masons,
you would find candidates advocating legislation of that kind even
though their private judgment were against it. The politician’s
opinion is the opinion of his following, and their opinion is shaped
by what they believe to be in their own interest.
It was always
thus. Even when kings ruled by "divine right," the throne
was held in place by the proper juxtaposition of rival and envious
nobles. When the ambition of a particular noble got out of hand
and an army was needed to make him respect divinity, the money lenders
supplied the war funds and received their compensation, usually
a grant of land and the privilege of collecting rent from the users.
In the 18th century the rising class of manufacturers and merchants
came to the support of the king in his quarrels with his nobles,
in exchange for tariffs, cartel privileges, and the "rights"
to foreign exploitation.
and the extension of the suffrage did not alter the character of
politics. These institutions merely increased the number of claimants
for special privileges and complicated the art of balancing interests.
In the early years of our country the politician’s problem was quite
simple: the pressure groups consisted of tariff seekers, land grabbers,
money brokers, franchise hunters and a few others, and the balancing
of interests was fixed by the size of campaign contributions. In
due time, thanks to professional organizers, others got into the
act, and the politician now has to consider the privilege claims
of vote-laden and skillfully led proletarians, farmers, teachers,
veterans – a host of articulate "minority" groups
– as well as the traditional claimants. The juggling has become
That this result
was inevitable becomes evident when we consider the nature of the
ballot. It is nothing but a fragment of sovereignty. It represents
a small piece of the power which, in an absolutism, is vested in
a single person or an oligarchy. And, just as the substance of political
power consists of castles and food and pleasures for the autocrat,
so does the holder of this fragment of diffused sovereignty spell
"good times." In short, the right of suffrage carries
with it the expectation of economic welfare, and that expectation
is still the motive behind the "x" set down along the
candidate’s name. We vote, in the main, by our belly-interest.
voter learned in time that the minuscule piece of sovereignty he
held brought him no profit unless it was augmented by many other
pieces, so that the total would be a bargaining power of proportions.
Thus came the modern pressure group. It is the business of the leaders
of such groups to convince the aspirant for office that their following
cannot be ignored with impunity. It is the business of the candidate
to weigh the relative voting strength of the various groups and,
finding it impossible to please all, to try to buy the strongest
with promises. It is a deal. Any moral evaluation of the deal is
silly, unless we condemn politics as a whole, for there is no way
for the politician to attain power unless he engages in such deals.
In a democracy, sovereignty lies in the hands of the voters, and
it is they who propose the trading.
The vast majority
of the voters are outside these pressure groups; there are too many
of them, too diversified in their interests to permit of organization.
I am one of them. I might vote for one or the other candidate if
I belonged to some such pressure group and accepted his promise
of improvement of my lot at face value. For instance, if I were
a farmer in line for a government handout, I would certainly cast
my ballot for the candidate who, in my opinion, could be relied
upon to come through when elected. Or, if I were a member of a union,
I would most assuredly trade my vote for some advantage which the
gentleman in question promised to deliver to my organization –
provided, of course, that I believed him.
But I belong
to no pressure group and am instinctively averse to accepting any
advantage over my fellow man. What is more, I am not looking for
a job in the bureaucracy, nor is my brother-in-law in line for such
a job, nor am I anxious for a government contract; and I do not
own any land that might be suitable for a post office. That is to
say, I cannot profit, directly or indirectly, from the election
of either candidate. I am of the great mass of unorganized citizens
and, therefore, see no reason for casting my ballot for one or the
there is no difference in the political philosophies of the contending
candidates, should I not choose the "lesser of two evils?"
But, which of the two qualifies? If my man prevails, then those
who voted against him are loaded down with the "greater evil,"
while if my man loses, then it is they who have chosen the "lesser
evil." Voting for the "lesser of two evils" makes
no sense, for it is only a matter of opinion as to which is the
lesser. Usually, such a decision is based on prejudice, not on principle.
Besides, why should I compromise with evil?
If I were to
vote for the "lesser of two evils" I would in fact be
subscribing to whatever that "evil" does in office. He
could claim a mandate for his official acts, a sort of blank check,
with my signature, into which he could enter his performances. My
vote is indeed a moral sanction, upon which the official depends
for support of his acts, and without which he would feel rather
In a democracy
the acquiescence of the citizenry is necessary for the operation
of the State, and a large vote is a prelude for such acquiescence.
Even in a totalitarian state the dictators feel it necessary to
hold elections once in a while, just to assure themselves and others
of the validity of their rule; though the voting is compulsory and
the ballot is one-sided, they can point to the large percentage
of the electorate who underwrite their rule. In a free election,
even though the difference between the candidates is a matter of
personality, or between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the successful
candidate (though he might be the "lesser of two evils")
can similarly maintain that he holds a mandate from the people.
It is to the credit of a democracy that I can choose not to vote.
I am not compelled to give my moral support to an evil.
to the economic advantages that the candidates promise me, in exchange
for my vote, my reason tells me that they cannot make good on their
promises, except by taking something from my fellow men and delivering
it to me. For government is not a producer. It is simply a social
instrument enjoying a monopoly of coercion, which it is supposed
to use so as to prevent the indiscriminate use of coercion by individuals
on one another. Its purpose in the scheme of things is to protect
each of us in the enjoyment of those rights with which we are born.
Its competence is in the field of behavior; it can compel us to
do what we do not want to do, or to prevent us from doing what we
want to do. But it cannot produce a thing.
when it undertakes to improve the economy, it is compelled by its
own limitations to the taking from one group of citizens and giving
to another; it uses its monopoly of coercion for the distribution
of wealth, not for the production of wealth. So that, when I vote
for the candidate who promises me betterment in my economic condition,
I am condoning and encouraging some form of robbery. That does not
square with my moral values.
I would like
to vote for a candidate who pledged himself to abolish taxation,
in toto, for my reason tells me that underlying all the ills of
society is this predatory institution. I would surely profit if
I were not taxed, and so would all the producers; the only ones
who would suffer from such an arrangement would be the drones, the
bureaucrats, who would be compelled to work for their keep. But,
since the abolition of taxes would put the politician out of a job
and would make impossible his dispensation of special privileges,
it is not likely that I shall have the opportunity of casting my
ballot for such a candidate. Lacking that opportunity, I see no
reason for registering my faith in the "lesser of two evils";
if memory serves me right, the "lesser" of either party
who attained office has always increased the taxes I have to pay.
All in all,
I see no good reason for voting and have refrained from doing so
for about a half-century. During that time, my more conscientious
compatriots (including, principally, the professional politicians
and their ward heelers) have conveniently provided me with presidents
and with governments, all of whom have run the political affairs
of the country as they should be run – that is, for the benefit
of the politicians. They have put the nation into two major wars
and a number of minor ones.
of what party was in power, the taxes have increased and so has
the size of the bureaucracy. Laws have been passed, a whole library
of them, and most of these laws, since they are not self-enforcing,
have called for enforcement agencies, who have interminably interpreted
the laws that created them and thus have spawned more laws. The
effect of these laws is (a) to put restraints on the individual
and (b) to concentrate in the hands of the central government all
the powers that once were assigned to local government; the states
are now little more than administrative units of the national government.
Political power has increased, social power has waned. Would it
have been different if I had voted? I don’t think so.
indicate that nearly half the electorate – those eligible to
vote – do not exercise their privilege. Whether such nonvoting
is due to apathy or a conscious rejection of the candidates and
their philosophies of government (or the lack of any philosophy)
it would be difficult to tell. Perhaps the stay-at-homes might be
interested in registering their conviction if two candidates stated
exactly what they stood for, without equivocation and without offering
inducements to various pressure groups; but, in the absence of such
an experiment, the best we can say is that a goodly number find
no sense in voting.
It is interesting
to speculate on what would happen if, say, 75 percent of the electorate
refrained from casting their ballots; more than that is out of the
question, for at least a quarter of the voting public are concerned
with what they can get for themselves from the election of this
or that candidate; their belly-interest is entirely too strong to
keep them away from the polls. In the first place, the politicians
would not take such a repudiation of their custodianship in good
grace. We can take it for granted that they would undertake to make
voting compulsory, bringing up the hoary argument that a citizen
is morally obligated to do his duty. If military service can be
made compulsory why not political service? And so, if three-quarters
of the citizenry were to refrain from voting, a fine would be imposed
on first offenders and more dire punishment meted out to repeaters.
The politician must have the moral support of a goodly number of
compulsion, what might be the effect on the citizenry and the social
order if an overwhelming majority should quit voting? Such abstinence
would be tantamount to giving this notice to politicians: since
we as individuals have decided to look after our public affairs,
your services are no longer required. Having assumed social power
we would, as individuals, have to assume social responsibility.
The job of looking after community affairs would devolve on all
We might hire
an expert to tell us about the most improved fire-fighting apparatus,
or a street cleaning manager, or an engineer to build us a bridge;
but the final decision, particularly in the matter of raising funds
to defray the costs, would rest with the town hall meeting. The
hired specialists would have no authority other than that necessary
for the performance of their contractual duties; coercive power,
which is the essence of political authority, would be exercised,
when necessary, by the committee of the whole.
There is some
warrant for the belief that the social order would be considerably
improved when the individual is responsible for and, therefore,
responsive to its needs. He would no longer have the law or the
lawmakers to cover his sins of omission or commission. Need for
the neighbors’ good opinion would be sufficient to induce acceptance
of jury duty, and no loopholes in the draft law, no recourse to
political pull, would be possible when danger to the community calls
him to bear arms in its defense. In his private affairs, the now-sovereign
individual would have to abide by the dictum of the market place:
produce or you will not eat, for no law will help you. In his public
behavior he must be decent or suffer the sentence of social ostracism,
with no recourse to legal exoneration. From a law-abiding citizen
he would be transmuted into a self-respecting man.
result? No, there would be order, without law to disturb it. But
let us define chaos of the social kind. Is it not disharmony resulting
from social friction? When we trace social friction to its source
do we not find that it seminates in a feeling of unwarranted hurt
or injustice? Now, when one may take by law that which another man
has put his labor into, we have injustice of the keenest kind, for
the denial of a man’s right to possess and enjoy what he produces
is akin to a denial of life. Yet the confiscation of property is
the first business of government. It is indeed its only business,
for the government has no competence for anything else. It cannot
produce a single "good" and so must resort to doing the
only thing within its province: to take what the producers produce
and distribute it, minus what it takes for itself. This is done
by law, and the injustice is keenly felt (even though we become
adjusted to it), and thus we have friction. Remove the laws by which
the producer is deprived of his product, and order will prevail.
speculation on the course of events if the individual should assume
the duty of looking after public affairs, rather than leaving it
to an elected official, is idle, or, to use a more modern term impregnated
with sarcasm, "unrealistic." Not only would the politicians
undertake to counteract the revolutionary nonvoting movement, but
many of the citizenry having a vested interest in the proceeds of
taxation would raise a hue and cry about the "duty" of
the citizen to vote. The teachers in our tax-supported schools would
lecture their pupils on the lack of public spirit on the part of
their parents. Propaganda would emanate from tax-exempt eleemosynary
foundations, and from large manufacturers dependent on government
contracts. Farmers’ organizations, with an eye to government largess,
veterans’ societies asking for handouts, and particularly the bureaucracy,
would denounce nonvoting as a crime against society. In fact, all
the "respectables" would join in proclaiming the movement
revolutionary – which indeed it would be; it would be a revolution
intended to shift the incidence of power from officialdom to the
We would be
told, most emphatically, that by not voting we would be turning
the reins of government over to "rascals." Probably so
– but do we not regularly vote "rascals" out? And,
after we have ousted one set, are we not called upon to oust another
crew at the next election? It seems that rascality is endemic in
government. Our balloting system has been defined as a battle of
opposing forces, each armed with proposals for the public good,
for a grant of power. As far as it goes, this definition is correct.
But when the successful contestant acquires the grant of power toward
what end does he use it – not theoretically but practically?
Does he not, with an eye to the next election, go in for purchasing
support, with the taxpayers’ money, so that he might enjoy another
period of power? The over-the-barrel method of seizing and maintaining
political power is standard practice, and such is the nature of
This is not,
however, an indictment of our election system. It is rather a rejection
of the institution of the State; our election system is merely one
way of adjusting ourselves to that institution. The State is a product
of conquest. As far back as we have any knowledge of the beginnings
of this institution, it originated when a band of freebooting nomads
swooped down on some peaceful group of agriculturists and picked
up a number of slaves; slavery is the first form of economic exploitation.
Repeated visitations of this sort left the victims breathless, if
not lifeless and propertyless to boot.
So, as people
do when they have no other choice, they made a compromise with necessity;
the peaceful communities hired one set of marauders to protect them
from other thieving bands, for a price. In time, this tribute was
regularized and was called taxation. The tax gatherers settled down
in the conquered communities, and though at first they were a people
apart, time merged the two peoples – the conquerors and the
conquered – into a nation. But the system of taxation remained
in force after it had lost its original character of tribute; lawyers
and professors of economics, by deft circumlocution, turned tribute
into "fiscal policy" and clothed it with social significance.
the effect of this system is to divide the citizenry into two classes:
payers and receivers. Among those who live without producing are
those who are called "servants of the people" and as such
receive popular support. These further entrench themselves in their
sinecures by setting up sub–tax-collecting allies who acquire
a vested interest in the system; they grant these allies all sorts
of privileges, such as franchises, tariffs, patents, subsidies and
other something-for-nothing "rights." This division of
spoils between those who wield power and those whose economic advantages
depend on it is succinctly described as "the State within the
we trace our political system to its origins we come to conquest.
Tradition, law and custom have obscured its true nature, but no
metamorphosis has taken place; its claws and fangs are still sharp,
its appetite as voracious as ever. Politics is the art of seizing
power for economic purposes. There is no doubt that men of character
will give of talents for what they conceive to be the common good,
without regard to their personal welfare. But so long as our system
of taxation is in vogue, so long as the political means of acquiring
economic goods is available, just so long will the spirit of conquest
assert itself; for men always seek to satisfy their desires with
the least effort.
It is interesting
to speculate on the kind of campaigns and the type of candidates
we would have if taxation were abolished and if, as a consequence,
the power to dispense privileges was abolished. Who would run for
office if "there were nothing in it?"
any self-respecting citizen endorse an institution grounded on thievery?
For that is what one does when one votes. If it be argued that we
must let bygones be bygones, see what can be done toward cleaning
up the institution of the State so that it might be useful in the
maintenance of orderly existence, the answer is that it cannot be
done; you cannot clean up a brothel and yet leave the business intact.
We have been voting for one "good government" after another,
and what have we got?
the suggested revolution all that is necessary is for citizens to
stay away from the polls. Unlike other revolutions, this one calls
for no organization, no violence, no war fund, no leader to sell
it out. In the quiet of his conscience each citizen pledges himself,
to himself, not to give support to an immoral institution, and on
election day stays home or goes fishing. That’s all. I started my
revolution 50 years ago and the country is none the worse for it;
neither am I.
Chodorov (1887–1966), one of the great libertarians of the
Old Right, was the founder of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists
and author of such books as The
Income Tax: Root of All Evil. Here he is on “Taxation
Is Robbery.” And here
is Rothbard’s obituary of Chodorov.