It is easy to be disheartened with the American public in light of the Ron Paul campaign. Past elections presented only various shades of evil to choose from; who can blame the people for choosing evil in such circumstances? But this year there was a real choice. For once, we had a candidate who was serious in his rhetoric of adhering to the Constitution, and he had the record to prove it. For once, we had a candidate whose election would immediately end the government’s quest for global hegemony and empire. For once, we had a choice that was not evil.
And the people blew it.
We might blame the media blackout, or we might point out campaign strategy flaws. But more likely, we will blame the voters. It would appear, after all, that they have made their preferences clear: more war, more welfare, more inflation, and more police state.
But is it really fair to castigate the voters in this way? Does this election really prove a mandate for the horrible policies of big government?
The problem with claiming mandates for specific policies from a general election is that the act of voting demonstrates remarkably little in the way of true preference. For in order for an act to demonstrate preference, there must be a cost associated with the act. For example, in free market exchanges, there is always a preference revealed at the time of an exchange: each actor prefers the item received to the item proffered. However, a preference is only revealed because each actor must give something up (the cost) to gain something else.
But what cost is associated with voting for a particular candidate? A common critique of voting is to point out that a single vote has a negligible chance of affecting an election, so there is no cost when an individual makes the “wrong” choice. As a result, there is little incentive to make an informed vote. While this may help explain the number of ignorant voters who cast ballots on seeming whim, the fact remains that there are still many passionate people who research candidates to make an informed decision.
However, even in the case of the informed voter who has researched all of the preferred policies of the candidates, voting still reveals little preference. The reason is that those voters do not directly pay for the policies of their preferred candidates. The costs of the federal government’s policies are spread throughout all of the people (including those in other countries). How then can we state that a voter for John McCain truly prefers war to peace, when the war has no perceptible marginal cost to that voter?
To make this clearer, consider our state if there was no forced collection of taxes. Instead, the government had to appeal directly to the people for voluntary contributions for its services and policies. There would be a welfare fund, for example, that charitable minded people might pay into. Now imagine that the President wishes to invade a foreign country. To raise funds, he sends out a direct mail advertisement:
“Hey honey, looks like they want to invade Iran.”
“So what do they want from us?”
“Money. They want $1000, but any amount is appreciated. The troops would appreciate it.”
“Hmmm, don’t we still have some credit card debt left over from Christmas?”
“Yeah. And we’ve also been saving up for a vacation to Europe.”
“Tell them to write us again next year.”
In a system where government activities are only funded voluntarily and at direct cost to those contributing, we would find the true mandate of the people for financing specific policies of the government. Likely, we would find an end to the welfare/warfare state and an army of bureaucrats seeking other employment.
So given that a voter does not pay for the policies of his preferred candidate, what can we say about the preference revealed in a vote? If we assume the voter understood all of the candidates’ policies, then we might say that he has a preference of being given certain policies over others. For example, a John McCain voter motivated to support the 100-year war in Iraq is revealing a preference for having free war over free peace. However, we know nothing about what the true value of the war is to him.
In no way does the outcome of an election demonstrate a mandate for devoting resources to the policies of the victor. Only voluntary contribution towards those policies could do that. Instead, the preference indicated (among the sample of informed voters) was for being given certain policies, at little or no personal cost, over other policies.
Good people can vote for evil because the political process spreads the cost of evil to everyone. This serves to both obscure specific evils within the grand scope and faade of government, and also to allow for the devotion of resources to evil in huge disproportion to what people really want to give it. As long as people recognize the authority of government to fund itself on their behalf, the regime will continue. For a lasting reduction in government evil to occur, we must transition from the authoritarian model of government to one where government is truly entered into, and financed, by the consent of the governed.
February 22, 2008