Politically Incorrect Thoughts on Voting

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Over the weekend I attended my brother-in-law’s high school graduation. My wife and I were nervous when her brother excitedly told us that the commencement speaker was someone who had spoken to the class before, and was "a pilot who had been in Vietnam and told us he’d done the things that the US government had denied it was doing."

Apprehensive as I was, the speech didn’t turn out as my-country-right-or-wrong as I had feared. He mostly stuck to the clichéd yet important truisms that young people need to hear. (Of course they won’t believe you when you tell them, but after they make the mistakes of chasing popularity, adopting other people’s moral codes, etc. etc., maybe your words will help them understand exactly what went wrong. Then they can continue the cycle by warning the next crop of bored teenagers.)

However, the one thing that really bothered me about this guy’s talk was that he actually told them: "Now kids, the most important thing you can do to turn around this great nation of ours is to vote. Does anyone here know what percentage of the eligible voters participated in the last presidential election?"

Now this is a very typical view, especially coming on Memorial Day weekend. Yet I think it is just plain dumb. Bear with me as I try to explain my (literally!) politically incorrect views on voting.

The people who lament the state of our nation obviously don’t like the politicians we’ve been electing, right? So at first blush, shouldn’t they be blaming the people who voted for them? Let’s go back to the speaker at my brother-in-law’s graduation. He didn’t come right out and say it, but I’d be willing to bet my pocket Constitution that this guy was a strong supporter of George Bush over John Kerry and Al Gore. So what would have happened if more people had turned out to the polls? Either the same outcome would’ve occurred, or we’d have John Kerry leading us in the fight against Islamic terrorism. So why was this guy complaining?

Really folks, let’s think this through. The people who complain about the lack of voting seem to imply that if only people were more interested, then there would be great candidates from which to choose. No, actually the causality is the other way around. In our great system — at least for the last several decades — the voters have really been presented with only two possibilities. One candidate pledges to moderately invade economic liberties and strongly invade civil ones, while the other candidate pledges the reverse. The voters slowly come to see that there really isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the parties. (Did you know that the "conservative" George W. Bush has increased federal spending at the highest rate since Lyndon Johnson, and that even if you exclude defense spending, he’s increased spending more than the "liberal" Clinton? What about the "right winger" Richard Nixon, who imposed wage and price controls and took the US off the gold standard? And how about those compassionate Democrats who care about children, like Janet Reno?)

Now in this environment, what the heck is the concerned citizen supposed to do? Keep mindlessly pulling the lever for the politician who will merely slow (not reverse) the erosion of the Constitution? No, I submit that, in his or her capacity as a voter in the general election, the best thing the voter can do (if the choices really are abysmal) is either vote for a third party candidate or abstain altogether. The worst thing in the world to do would be to cast a vote for an admittedly awful candidate and thus grant legitimacy to his rule.

Just to distinguish my cynical views on government in general, from my specific objections to the "You’re right to vote" crowd: It would have made sense if the commencement speaker had advised the kids to go into politics, or to become very active in the primaries of the party that best represented the particular student’s views. I personally would’ve disagreed with that advice, since I agree with H.L. Mencken that elections are just advance auctions on stolen goods. But at least that advice would’ve made sense.

In contrast, if you are as disgusted as most people are with the clowns running for office, then think before you repeat the mantra that it’s everyone’s duty to go vote. Maybe if the clowns starting getting only 10 or 15 percent turnout, more responsible people would go back into politics.

And if you wanted to be really radical, after you tell kids to follow their hearts, be individuals, disagree with the crowd, and so forth, maybe you could point out that elections are giant popularity contests. That at least might get their attention, since they’ve probably never heard that before. I grant you, you won’t change anything right away. But perhaps in twenty years when they’re explaining to their own kids about the days when you could cross state lines without showing the national ID card, they might vaguely remember that cranky old man who talked to their high school class, making some anal distinction between democracy versus a republic.

Bob Murphy [send him mail] has a PhD in economics from New York University, and is the author of Minerva. See his personal website at BobMurphy.net.

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