Next 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.
As 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.
Starting 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.
At 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.
Though 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.
With 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.
Now, 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 promises?
No 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.
It hardly need be said that no one would voluntarily sign a business contract with such elastic terms and so few safeguards.
And 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.
Setting 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?
Then 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.
Of 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.
Now 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.
Even 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?
But, I accept that none of this may deter you from voting. There is, however, an important ethical objection; in my mind one which is decisive.
Put 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?
There 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.
Now 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.
In 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.
If 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.
- Étienne 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 Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, for a contrary view on this topic.
October 8, 2004