No sooner did the extreme closeness of the 2000 presidential election become evident than the commentators began reprising the self-serving mantra of the political class: Your Vote Counts.
In any national, or even statewide, election in the United States this is obvious rubbish. The notion that one vote — one single vote — could possibly swing the balance in California or New York, or even in Delaware or Wyoming, is crazy on the face of it. In a tiny township on some local issue, maybe, but in a jurisdiction where tens of thousands, or millions upon millions of votes are cast? How dumb can people be?
The answer is: very, very dumb. The pundits started it on the long election night, Tuesday-Wednesday. By Wednesday morning, the whole political class was in on the act. The man sometimes called the Piece-of-Dirt-in-Chief declared it for the TV cameras, with that characteristic smirk of his — the facial expression of a 12-year-old who knows you’ve caught him in something nasty, but just what do you think you’re gonna do about it? It carried through the day, Republicans no less than Democrats, announcing it for TV, mostly with a knowing smirk. Then it got down to the Jim Lehrer Report, on PBS, where that incredibly impartial moderator, who happens to work for the government’s radio network, interviewed Mark Shields and Paul Gigot.
Shields, for those who don’t watch Capitol Gang, is not only dumb beyond belief. He, like his buddy on Capitol Gang, Margaret ("Twinky") Carlson, resembles the majority of TV talking heads (Robert Novak is the noble, conscientious exception). The only thing they know about politics is what they read in the papers. Then they add the left-liberal biases they picked up God knows where and finally make a career out of the mess. Shields’s "conservative" partner, in the grand tradition of PBS and the incredibly impartial Jim Lehrer, was the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot.
One of the few times I’ve noticed Gigot’s Washington column in the Journal he was parroting his paper’s position on immigration: open borders — something that, given our current welfare state, even Milton Friedman rejects as nuts. Gigot was mocking Pat Buchanan. Silly old Pat had written that it made sense to establish certain criteria for immigration, because after all America could much more easily assimilate 100,000 English immigrants than, say, 100,000 Zulus. Gigot’s rebuttal: the Zulus would probably work harder than the English. Touché, Paul. Would that the Zulus do come over and go to work in your neighborhood.
With this level of intellectual acumen, it wasn’t surprising to see Gigot explain to us peasants that, if we’d ever dared think that our individual vote doesn’t count, well, this election is the proof that it does, smirk, smirk, smirk!
But what is the logic here? Once upon a time, there used to be a "public interest" TV commercial urging people to vote and citing as proof of the mighty power of the individual ballot the election of 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes eked out a victory over Samuel J. Tilden, by 185 electoral votes to 184. But, of course, if you had an electoral vote to cast, yes, that could make a difference. Likewise, if you had 1700 or even 300 or so votes to cast in Florida, it might have been a good idea to cast them. It was certainly a very good idea for the great Charley Reese to keep urging his readers: vote for Bush. Unsung hero that he is — that seems to be his fate — in the end Reese may have made the difference.
On Chicago-Public Choice grounds, you are acting irrationally if you vote in a national election. Leaving aside opportunity costs, the chances of your getting hit by a car on the way to the polling place are much greater than the chances of your single vote making the difference.
So why then do people vote and why is it not necessarily irrational to do so?
For the detailed analysis, consult chapter 3, on ideology, in Robert Higgs’s magisterial Crisis and Leviathan. Briefly, it is irrational to vote if you act under the belief fit for morons that your vote will determine who will be president of the United States. It is not irrational to vote if by casting a ballot you are acting out or asserting your identity as a political person and if you feel this is important to you. In my opinion, any rational libertarian or real conservative living in the 14th Congressional district of Texas should have gone out of his way to vote for Ron Paul.
On Tuesday, I fully intended to act out my identity as a first-class Clinton-hater, subclass Hillary. If for nothing else, and there was a lot else, then just to protest the ineffable hypocrisy of this self-styled feminist. She sold the last shred of her womanly and wifely self-respect for a share in the power wielded by the loathsome habitual harasser and likely rapist she calls her husband. And the cosmopolitan, savvy New Yorkers, as they like to think of themselves, bought it, big time.
A resident of Buffalo, New York, I planned to snap down the ballot lever for the admittedly pretty pathetic Rick Lazio for U. S. Senator, breaking the damned machine if I had to. Alas, it turned out that I was not even eligible to vote in the first place. Since I hadn’t for about the past twenty years, I was required to reregister, weeks ago. Forlorn, I walked away from the polling place, disenfranchised.
As the kids say (or used to say, who knows?), bummer. The Lady Macbeth of American politics, Hillary Stalin Clinton — my friend Norman’s apt name for her when she set out to nationalize one-seventh of the American economy — won, by over 800,000 votes.
Damn! If only I’d reregistered in time! Then my vote would have made a difference.
Ralph Raico is a senior scholar of the Mises Institute.