Recently by Jeffrey A. Tucker: I’m Part of the Problem
It’s political season, and I know this because my own neighborhood is festooned with political signs that say things like:
And so on, but they do not just say this once. If you are fan of STEVENS or MAYBERRY you apparently see the need to post not just one or two signs but ten or twenty of them on your property, creating negative externalities for all to see.
Now, keep in mind that this is a neighborhood ruled by one of those “covenants” that prevent me from parking a car outside its garage or painting my front door the wrong shade of gray. But when it comes to telling me for whom I must vote, there are no restrictions on anyone. To complain would be unpatriotic.
For example, I’m certain that if I posted a sign that said:
best lunch in town
it would be taken down immediately, and I would get a nasty note from the “homeowners’ association.” If I persisted in advertising products that might actually do some people some good, and giving them actual useful information to improve their lives, I would, at some point, be run out of the neighborhood.
Here’s the problem from my point of view. I don’t know these people who are running for these offices. I don’t even know their platforms or the issues. Heck, I don’t even know what jobs they are supposed to be doing.
Some of the signs attempt to summarize what these people stand for. One guy says he is for “courage, justice, and conservative values” while another says that he stands for “equality, efficiency, and fairness,” and I’m more or less for those things too. But I’m clueless about what these principles mean in this context.
In any case, everyone knows that politicians do whatever they want to do once they get elected. Mr. Fairness might suddenly become Mr. Justice once he rises to the occasion. We have no guarantee of anything. We can’t get our votes back the way we get our money back from Wal-Mart if the clock we bought doesn’t work.
So I’m looking at this pathetic situation and realizing something about myself: I’m the classic uneducated voter. I’m the nightmare of the teacher of the high-school civics class, the kind of person who shouldn’t even be allowed to vote. That is fine by me since I won’t vote anyway, given that the chances that my vote could swing any election are about one in a billion.
I could change this disgraceful situation. I could research these jobs and look into each of the candidates. I could go to their websites and Facebook pages and find out more. Of course, it isn’t enough to trust what a politician says, anymore than I automatically trust any advertisement for any product. I should probably ask around and talk to their friends and associates and do a detailed investigation. Then of course I would also need to find out what a “family judge” does and what it should do and what the real issues are here.
But what are the alternative uses of my time? I have some “teaching company” CDs on medieval history that I’ve been wanting to listen to. I’ve been putting off volunteering my time to build a website for a local singing group. There are a ton of books that I’m behind in reading. I need to be better about calling my mother on a weekly basis. Oh and I’ve been meaning to do that online tutorial on making sourdough bread; that looks like fun!
Each of these alternate pursuits will pay off in a real way. I’ll become smarter, more talented, and have a better character. What does researching politicians and their jobs get me? Nothing whatsoever, except the approval of currently disapproving do-gooders. The only thing I can do is march around with a sense that I’m an “educated voter” with one vote that counts for next to nothing, since, after all, the weight of my vote is the same whether I am educated or not.
What’s more, even if my vote counted and my newly acquired knowledge amounted to something, it is not entirely clear what I should be doing with the knowledge or the vote. It is very likely the case that I will end up supporting someone who is probably awful for the job, if only to prevent someone more awful from taking the job. This is pretty much how I’ve felt in every presidential race during my lifetime. It’s been a contest between the two levels of threat.
This is a dangerous situation. Let’s say I end up keeping the worst threat at bay. Still, the next-to-worst threat then takes power with a “mandate” and that’s when the trouble begins.
And this is precisely the problem with democracy. On the surface, it seems like a marketplace of consumers buying products, albeit political ones. The reality is that nothing checks out. We don’t get what we buy. What don’t know what we are buying. We don’t know what the thing we are buying is supposed to do. What are we really buying? We are expending no real resources on the purchase other than our time.
Oscar Wilde said that socialism annoyed him because it took too many evenings. Similarly, democracy takes too many lunch hours.
This is what Bryan Caplan means when he talks about the myth of the rational voter. There is really no such thing because it is not really possible to make rational decisions in this morass. And as Hans-Hermann Hoppe has noted, the core of the problem comes down to the absence of private property in the democratic exchange. There are no clean lines that permit us to be accountable for the decisions we make or they make. For this reason, democracy ends up as nothing more than a public relations gimmick for gaining and keeping power.
As we approach the big voting day, all these candidates start reaching for the big guns and stirring up voters into a frenzy. We are told that if Bob wins, he will unleash unfathomable amounts of immorality and disaster. If Joe wins, he will be the cause of the collapse of civilization as we know it. Then one or the other takes power with the sure knowledge that he had darn sure keep that threat that got him elected as a living part of the political culture, lest he lose an issue that swept him into office. He thereby instantly forgets about all election promises except for the backroom deals with his financial backers.
This system cannot work. Eliminate the jobs and you eliminate the candidates and the whole wasteful apparatus. Our neighborhoods will no longer be soiled by these ugly and manipulative signs. Those of us who wallow in ignorance will walk with our heads held high.