Rock the Non-Vote, Part Two

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

I’ve often been mistaken, as I would guess most published writers have, about the level of response a particular article of mine will elicit. There have been times when I was convinced that some column would really strike a chord with readers, only to receive almost no feedback after its publication. On the other hand, I have written pieces that I feared were too esoteric or obscure to draw much interest, but whose public debut elicited a flood of comments.

However, once in a while, I do get it right. Recently, for example, when I sent “Rock the Non-Vote” to, I suspected it might generate many comments, and, lo and behold, it did! (By the way, I try to respond to every reader who writes to me. However, especially when I receive many letters about an article, I often can’t find time to answer all of them as they arrive. Then, some of them may drop off the first screen of my inbox, at which point they become “out of sight, out of mind.” Occasionally, during one of my periodic purges of old messages, I encounter such neglected correspondence, with the result that a reader receives an apologetic response many months after writing to me. In any case, if I’ve ever failed to answer an e-mail of yours it was probably because I simply lost track of it, so please don’t take it personally!)*

“Rock the Non-Vote” prompted a roughly equal number of positive and negative responses. Since the basic thrust of the supportive e-mails was that I was right, there is little more to say about them. It is the notes from my critics that prompt either clarification of or expansion on my original arguments, and they are what I will address here.

I will begin by tackling what I think is the weakest objection to not voting that I received. (It’s kind of like jogging slowly to warm up for a fast run: start out easy, loosening up the muscles so that they’re prepared for the harder stuff ahead.) While it was advanced by several of my correspondents, one in particular phrased it quite succinctly, saying, “if a citizen doesn’t vote he has no right to bitch about illegal wars or tax n’ spend.”

However, I think that contention is precisely backwards. To see why, imagine a stranger approaching you, a gun in his hand, and declaring that you have the “right” to play Russian roulette with him. If you don’t exercise your right, he says, he still plans to aim his gun at you, spin the cylinder, and then pull the trigger. If you agree to take part in his proposed game, it seems to me, then you have weakened the force of any protest you might lodge about the outcome. On the other hand, if you tell him you want no part of such foolishness, and that he should leave you alone, then how in the world would that negate your right to object to his plan?

Isn’t our “right” to vote closely analogous to that situation? Although I’m offered the chance to take my own turn spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger of the gun, I’m not permitted to opt out of my role as a potential target. If I attempt to ignore the outcome of an election, based on the simple fact that I never agreed to abide by it in the first place, the State is prepared to use deadly force against me, in order to compel me to pay attention. Why should my refusal to participate in the State’s aggressive schemes mean that I could no longer criticize them?

Another common objection was that my stance is cynical. Of course, even if that charge is true, it is hardly a knockdown argument. It is quite sensible to be cynical about some things. And, in one respect, these correspondents are correct: I am cynical about the pretensions of “public service” put forward by politicians, and about the “choice” represented by the Democratic and Republican parties.

However, in a more important sense, I regard my view as quite the opposite of cynical: I have a deep faith in the ability of ordinary people to choose for themselves and to cooperate with each other, if they are not in thrall to “leaders” who reinforce their grip on power by pitting class against class, race against race, and nation against nation.

Others among my critics agreed that the Democrats and Republicans don’t really offer voters much of a choice, but they held that voting for a minor party candidate is a more effective form of protest than lethargically sitting on the sidelines. I disagree, for several reasons. First of all, “lethargically sitting on the sidelines” doesn’t accurately portray my recommended alternative. This article is the 136th I’ve written for I also write (or at least have written) for about ten other libertarian or free market print or web publications, I have given a number of public talks, and I speak to people I meet about political affairs when they seem receptive. I don’t do those things for money – I made far more when I was a computer programmer – or for fame – I was already established as a writer for software magazines when I began to focus on politics and economics. (And I’m not mentioning these facts because I’m fishing for compliments about what a noble chap I am – believe me, I’m not all that noble! – but only to illustrate that “lethargy” is not what I practice or advise.)

Secondly, even if you eschew the Republicrats and vote Libertarian, Constitution, Green, or whatever else, you are still implicitly agreeing that whichever party garners the most support for its platform has won the right to force it on everyone else. (What’s more, the party’s candidates are not even bound to pay any heed to the platform they campaigned on once they are in office!) But I regard the idol worship of “the will of the people” as perhaps the most common, fundamental error in the political thought of our age. Bowing before that idol is unlikely to advance the cause of freedom. (I’m not suggesting that it is always wrong to vote. Voting against, say, a proposed new tax strikes me as a valid defensive measure, and, if I lived in Ron Paul‘s congressional district I might very well vote for him.)

What’s more, on a purely pragmatic level, I don’t envision that support, even very broad support, for a minor party will result in any really significant progress toward freedom. Certainly, as I said in my previous column, we might see some positive changes on the margin, such as some easing of our drug laws or slightly lower tax rates. It’s not that I wouldn’t welcome those changes, but they certainly don’t “strike the root” of the weed that is strangling our liberty – no serious blow to that root can be delivered through participating in a process that feeds and waters it.

If, for instance, Libertarian Party candidates began getting 20% of the votes in any significant number of important races, the politically powerful would just make sure that they captured control of the party, which they could do easily – that’s why, after all, we call them “politically powerful.” Do you recall that, in 1980, Reagan was an “outsider” candidate who was leading a “conservative revolution”? But, at the GOP convention, the establishment Republicans told him that if he didn’t accept Bush Sr. as his running mate, and place a bunch of their boys in his administration, they wouldn’t support him. (Murray Rothbard details that history in his essay “The Reagan Phenomenon.”) And so, despite Reagan’s conservative rhetoric, the Federal government kept growing throughout his presidency.

Or consider that, this year, the top concerns of most Democratic voters include the war in Iraq, which they believe was unnecessary and unjust, the possibility of more such military adventurism to come, which they hope to prevent, and their suspicion that the current administration is run by and for the rich. So whom do they wind up with as “their” candidate for president? John Kerry, who voted for the war, who is committed to keeping American soldiers in Iraq indefinitely, has discussed sending even more US troops there, who has promised to take a hard line with Iran and Syria, and who is a multi-millionaire member of the very same elitist, secret society as the president whom “his” voters despise.

Howard Dean’s positions were more in line with those of most Democrats. But, when it looked like such a non-establishment candidate might win the party’s nomination for president, the mainstream media suddenly found all sorts of things wrong with him, and within a few weeks he went from being the clear favorite to being roundly whomped in almost every primary. (By the way, we don’t need to embrace any conspiracy theory to explain those events. The media elite and the political elite move in the same circles, so that they are continually informed of and influenced by each other’s views. If the idea that Dean was a “fringe” candidate, whose nomination would spell certain victory for Bush, began to circulate widely in that social milieu, his campaign was sunk, whether or not there was any cabal devoted to torpedoing it.)

Today, the American ruling class can generally ignore all political parties except the two biggies, since the other ones almost never win important races. In fact, their existence helps to sustain the two-party system, by providing a safety valve for dissidents to vent their frustration. But, should a third party ever become a political force with which to be reckoned, the ruling class’s interest in it will swiftly be piqued.

So, no, I don’t think that voting for minor-party candidates is a generally better strategy than abstinence. However, if you believe that voting in some particular election will forward the cause of liberty, then I’m certainly not going to berate you for casting it. I’m not quite so arrogant as to think I always know what choices other people should make. I merely suggest that the larger struggle will not be won or lost in the polling booths, and that we will actually retard the cause of freedom if we put too much focus on them.

A fourth argument I received for voting is that the people running the country couldn’t care less if only 10% of eligible voters show up for a presidential election. Now, perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly enough, because I wasn’t implying that those folks will feel guilty or bashful about ruling if they don’t have a “popular mandate.” But they are generally not stupid, and they know that any government relies on the consent of the governed for its continued existence. For example, I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Anna Ebeling, a historian who grew up in the Soviet Union, in which she said that the USSR lasted as long as it did only because the vast majority of the Russian people took the rule of an autocratic, secretive state as a given aspect of life in their country; the Communists were merely carrying on in the tradition of the czars. But once a generation that had been exposed to liberal ideas came of age, too many Soviet subjects came to regard their government as illegitimate, resulting in its collapse.

The need to sustain the appearance of legitimacy is the prime motivation for the repeated, energetic efforts to “get out the vote.” The widespread idea that, whomever a person supports, the most important thing is that he at least votes for someone, is really rather curious. It would seem to be in the interest of Democrats that Republicans not vote, and vice versa. Yet I find that people are usually more upset to learn that I don’t plan to vote at all than they would be if they discovered I intended to vote for a candidate they oppose. I get the feeling that they might even regard my casting a ballot for a Pol Pot or an Adolf Hitler as morally preferable to not participating: “Well, at least you are fulfilling your civic responsibility and making your voice heard in our democracy!” But a little reflection should expose such an attitude as nutty: voting for an evil, murderous monster is clearly far more reprehensible than staying home on election day.

The long and short of it is that no one who wrote to disabuse me of my silly idea succeeded. Nevertheless, I appreciated their comments – at least those of the bulk of them who were polite and didn’t call me names – and they spurred me to think more deeply about my position. I hope that at least a few of my critics might find this article equally useful.

* A personal note to my friend James, who wrote me about my last piece: I e-mailed you back, but my mail bounced – please send me a phone number.

September 2, 2004

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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