month, U.S. voters will have the opportunity to participate in one
of the world's great democratic events. As usual, mainstream commentators
allege that the forthcoming presidential election is of great importance,
and to hammer home that message there's already been a rash of scary
stories about citizens being deprived of their democratic rights.
a political activist turned non-voter (an inactivist?), however,
I think there are some excellent reasons why the public in general
— and liberals1 in particular — shouldn't
worry too much whether they're on the electoral roll or not.
at the practical end of the scale, an obvious problem with voting
is the fact that a vote's real worth varies quite arbitrarily depending
on where you are and who you vote for2.
One sees this most clearly with first past the post systems, where
elections are decided by a relative handful of votes in a few marginal
constituencies. Meanwhile in safe seats, votes are wasted on piling
up useless majorities for winning candidates, to say nothing of
those cast for the losers.
the same time, parties with relatively few supporters concentrated
in a small area — in the UK for example, Welsh and Scottish nationalists
— can achieve quite disproportionate success, while parties with
larger votes that are spread thinly and evenly across the country
may fail to gain any seats in parliament.
it's the activist's job to minimize any perception of these distortions,
and sell the idea that "every vote counts," election results
suggest that many would-be voters appreciate how little their votes
are really worth and act accordingly.
this in mind, various schemes of proportional representation have
been designed to try and minimize "wasted votes". Yet
even they typically include a cut-off point below which votes for
minor parties can simply be discounted, partly, no doubt, to avoid
the possibility that "extremist" parties may gain representation.
In short, no system has completely solved this problem.
imagine a store where you could only buy a fixed "basket"
of groceries. Separate products would not be for sale. Inevitably,
most people silly enough to make a purchase would end up with too
little of some goods and surpluses of others. Would you patronize
such a store? Of course not. Yet this "package" approach
is what we are supposed to be satisfied with in politics
— with the added disadvantage that we must continue to "buy"
one or another such basket for the next several years on pain of
prosecution. In one sense, though, even this is represents an ideal
situation, for how often does a party stick to its pre-election
doubt many Republican voters will remember Mr. Bush's pre-election
remarks about a "more humble" foreign policy. Whatever
happened to that? And to this must be added many cases of policies
unexpectedly appearing once the election is safely out of the way.
In the UK, for example, compulsory ID cards, plans to make it even
easier for the government to dose public water supplies with fluoride
and a whole raft of gun bans over recent years fall into this category.
hardly need be said that no one would voluntarily sign a business
contract with such elastic terms and so few safeguards.
what exactly are these safeguards? Essentially, they boil down to
the chance to vote the government out after a few years, by which
time, of course, it may well be practically impossible to repair
the damage. And don't forget that you first have to find a party
that actually promises to reverse the offending measure and
which will stick to its manifesto. Experience suggests that if such
a measure involves an accretion of government power, that may be
much easier said than done.
aside the above objections to voting, there is also the question
of whether even a victorious party committed to liberal values would
really be able to make a difference. After all, it would inherit
the same bureaucrats who were running the machinery of state before
the election, whose entire careers depend on state power. How readily
would they carry out policies specifically designed to put them
out of work? Given that the new leaders would depend on these very
people to learn how to operate the levers of power, people who would
vastly outnumber them and be able to count on a network of statist
media and intellectuals to shore up their position, what would be
the liberals' chances of success?
again, there is the narrowness of the choices open to voters in
the typical western election. This bears further examination. Whether
one looks at Japan, continental Europe, the UK or the US, nearly
all candidates accept broadly the same kind of ideas about the ideal
form of society; namely, a massive state whose power is only limited
by its ability to raise money and which confronts the isolated individual
with irresistible force.
course, candidates may argue about the policies that such a state
should pursue, but its existence is not a subject for debate.
Indeed, it is a precondition of their programs. Faced with a selection
of candidates espousing this approach, it is easy to see why even
the most enthusiastic potential voter may hesitate.
a democrat may argue here that this confuses cause and effect, and
that if there were any demand for liberal policies, suitable parties
would spring into action to offer exactly this program to voters.
However, to do so would be to mistake the nature of political
government. In short, there is an inherent contradiction in competing
to gain control of a state apparatus which you then plan to dismantle.
However noble their motives may be, by the act of competing to control
the state such groups unintentionally buttress its legitimacy.
if a genuine liberal won the presidential election on a platform
of abolishing the U.S. federal government, he would initially have
to rely on that very apparatus to enforce his decisions. Just think
of an environmental activist driving to an anti-car demonstration
in his V8-engined SUV and you'll get the idea. This is what one
might call the "tragedy" of libertarian parties, a contradiction
that statists of one stripe or another never have to face. In other
words, the democratic system by its very structure is ill-equipped
to offer freedom as an option. And is it not possible that once
elected, even a liberal might acquire a taste for power?
I accept that none of this may deter you from voting. There is,
however, an important ethical objection; in my mind one which is
simply this is that any democratic election, no matter how peacefully
voting may take place, will ultimately involve one group of people
— the leaders of the majority party –imposing their will on "their"
territory by force. Of course, as de la Boétie3
so rightly recognized, a certain level of popular acclaim is always
necessary for any rule to be sustained. But there must always
be force as well. After all, if everyone cooperated in working towards
shared objectives, what would be the point of government?
is a saying that in a democratic election you get the government
that your neighbor deserves. This is very true. Whether you vote
for a government, against it or stay home, all must obey its dictates
under pain of severe punishment. Thus the Quaker must pay "his"
share of the nuclear weapons program just as surely as the idiot
who waved a flag at the last party rally.
democrats sometimes seek to justify this imposition on the basis
that in a democracy there is some kind of unwritten contract between
the citizen and the state by which the latter accepts such rule
in return for the security and other benefits that the state is
claimed to provide. But would anyone really sign a contract with
such onerous terms, from which there is no possibility of withdrawal?
The argument is patently absurd.
one sense, however, if you choose to participate in a political
election4, you are effectively
signing up to a kind of contract5.
Namely, that in return for exercising your right to have a say in
the choice of government — however insignificant it may be and however
flawed the democratic process — you implicitly accept whatever the
outcome of the election may be, even if that involves someone else
helping himself to your property and forcing you to live your private
life according to his prejudices.
that doesn't sound like such a great bargain, maybe its time to
consider keeping away from your local polling station.
- In the
sense that Mises used the word. To me, libertarian seems
rather a contrived word, and I am suspicious of using liberal
as a synonym for socialist because in this sense it is often wrongly
held up as the "opposite" of mainstream conservatism.
- I readily
admit that you might be one of the lucky ones here — but statistically
the chances are against it. Of course, a system where the votes
were weighted to take account of the amount of tax paid would
be far more defensible.
de la Boétie, The
Politics of Obedience.
- In non-political
voting, of course, exit is always an option (costly thought
it may be), and thus the use of force does not come into the picture
— an important distinction.
- See Lysander
Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, for a contrary
view on this topic.
Westcott [send him mail]
is an ex-business editor who lives on the South Coast of England.