24 May 2011

The legitimacy of voting

With Ron Paul running for president again, much is being made about the legitimacy of voting. In fact, my wife asked me the other day if I would vote for Ron Paul either in the primary or in the general election, should he succeed in getting the Republican nomination. I honestly wasn't sure how to answer. I oppose voting on the grounds that 1.) participation in the system may be (mis)construed as consent to or legitimization of the system, and 2.) voting is the attempt to impose one's own will on another.

Tom Woods addressed the first objection in a blog post the other day:
If you were stuck in a prison camp, and the guards let you vote on whether you were to have gruel or prime rib for dinner, would you be “consenting to the system” to vote for prime rib, or would you simply be doing the best you could under the circumstances to improve your material condition?
His question implies that the two options -- consenting to the system or doing the best you could to improve your material condition -- are mutually exclusive. They are not. Can you vote for the prime rib (or the gruel, for that matter) and still oppose the system? Absolutely. Will your captors acknowledge this distinction? Doubtful.

The problem with these types of thought experiments is that they are directed at the wrong audience. The title of Mr. Woods' blog post is "Why Even an Anarchist Should Vote for Ron Paul". The content is clearly directed at anarchists of various stripes who have made a conscious decision not to vote for whatever reason. They, typically, understand the nuances of voting but not consenting. That is not to say that statists don't also understand that nuance. However, whether they understand it or not, they will not acknowledge it.

When one is born into this world, he or she cannot be said to have consented to any government. In fact, even adhering to the laws of any particular government cannot be said to constitute consent. A person breaking the law often enough would quickly find himself in a situation akin to the prison camp described by Mr. Woods. Therefore, the only position we can reasonably ascribe to such a person is a desire to avoid the government force threatened when the law is broken. The same applies to paying taxes. Paying taxes also cannot be said to serve as consent because, again, government force is threatened if taxes are not paid. While adhering to the laws and paying taxes are sometimes used as a measure of consent, even the most ardent government supporter cannot claim that these are completely free choices made by an individual.

How then can we measure whether a person consents to his government? It can only be by an affirmative participation with government in which a person can freely choose whether or not to participate. This participation must also not be predicated on some prior interaction with the government. An example of this latter condition is the acceptance of a government benefit by a taxpayer. The taxes were appropriated (for the sake of argument) without the consent of the person, and the courts refuse to hear any case in which taxes are purported to be theft. Therefore, the only recourse for the taxpayer to try to recoup his lost property is by accepting some kind of government benefit, be it through the use of public roads or schools or accepting payments from programs like Social Security. (This ultimately leads to the problem described by libertarian class analysis, namely that there exists net tax payers and net tax beneficiaries, but that is another topic entirely.)

What we are left with to determine consent is voting. (Technically, voluntary military service could also serve in this role, but this is applicable to a very low percentage of the population and therefore not suitable for this discussion.) Again, it is possible to vote and not consent; it is even possible to make the argument that voting for lower taxes (or against higher ones) is a form of action predicated on a prior government action: theft via taxation. However, voting is the "most free" interaction with government allowed, and as described previously, those in government and those who support it will construe voting as consent. Sure, one can disagree with the outcome, but one still consented to it. In this way, voting for a candidate who most favors libertarian ideals -- who outright wants to abolish government -- could be the most damning act of all (in a statist's eyes) because one will vote most earnestly and without reservation to give his candidate the power of government, even if the goal is ultimately to turn that power against itself.

To illustrate my second objection to voting, let me alter Mr. Woods' example slightly:
Let's assume again that you are stuck in a prison camp, this time with two others. The prison guards again offer a choice of gruel or prime rib. One of the others becomes violently ill when eating red meat, and one is tired of eating gruel to the point of violence.
Do you vote for the prime rib, forcing the one who will become ill to go without? Do you vote for the gruel risking the possibility that the other one will become violent and hurt either you or the allergic one? Do you work out some kind of system in which you vote for prime rib sometimes and gruel other times leaving the allergic one without food on occasion?

It's very easy to look at a situation like that proposed by Tom Woods and assume that there is nothing wrong with voting because the situations presented are such that no one would oppose them. Roderick Long, in an article I highly recommend, makes the same leap by analogizing that it would be right for Lana Lang to take control of Lex Luthor's Juggernaut Beast and prevent the destruction of Smallville -- you really have to read the article. (Long eventually shoots his own argument in the foot by saying that there is nothing wrong with a libertarian wielding government power so long as he doesn't use it for "evil". Why isn't the same true of Lex Luthor? Lex has not aggressed against anyone merely by flying around in his Juggernaut Beast, at least not any more so than the mere existence of government constitutes aggression.) Real life is never so cut and dried. The choices required in voting are more often like the example of the prison camp that I described.

In summary, voting is not, in and of itself, an immoral or aggressive act. Furthermore, it is possible to vote for (or against) something and still object to the system within which the vote takes place. However, no matter how one rationalizes his act of voting or not voting, he must be aware of how that action will be perceived (particularly by those with whom he disagrees) and if/how that action will affect others.


  1. The thing about those prison analogies is that the prisoners - whether they vote or not - are not the ones at fault for the situation. The prison guards are. That's an important distinction.

    However I do agree with your basic point, which is why I am strongly in favor of all elections having a "None of the Above" option. Or perhaps a ranking system that would allow voters to designate if they are voting because the honestly approve or voting because they feel it's the best of a set of bad choices. I think it's important to the health of a democracy to allow voters register their discontent with their options right there in the public record for all to see.

  2. I don't think the prison analogies fail (or are lacking) for that reason. After all, those who oppose the state are not at fault for the fact that the state exists and exerts control over them. In this way, they are similar to the prisoners.

    Your "none of the above" suggestion addresses my first objection to voting, but not my second. The state still claims the legal authority to use force against me (or anyone) if enough people vote for it.

  3. What about how your non-vote will be perceived? No one seems to mention that. "Political Scientists" frequently debate why people don't vote - even during the highest turnouts, around 45% of the eligible voters don't turn out to vote.

    The overwhelming consensus in the academic community is, those who don't vote are content with the way things are. QUI TACIT CONSENTIRE VIDETUR - or silence implies consent.

  4. @June 17, 2011 2:11 PM: This is the reason I've taken the time to explain why I don't vote. This blog only occupies a small corner of the Internet, but it's no more or less significant than my single (non-)vote. Actually, it's probably far more significant than than that.

    It's probably worth noting that the "academic community" is subsidized heavily by the state. It wouldn't behoove them to use that money to generate studies showing that people oppose the government. Don't bite the hand that feeds you and all.

  5. My actions can't become immoral just because others might perceive them as consent to the state. The state is expert at spinning anything as support for itself. People should spend less time worrying about whether statists might believe that their actions constitute consent.

    Your argument that the academic community is subsidized by the state undermines your own argument, because the premise is that it's immoral to do something that would be perceived as consent to the state. Whether or not the state might be pulling a fast one is irrelevant.
    By your own premise, not voting is immoral because statists think it means you consent to the state.

  6. @Craig Ruuska: I did not say that your (or anyone's) vote becomes immoral because it is perceived as consent to the state. I said that I opposed voting for that reason. As I pointed out, statists are going to think whatever best achieves their ends. I think the more important question is what *actually* constitutes consent. As I tried to argue, perhaps unpersuasively, a lack of action should not be considered consent. Conversely, there is a strong argument to be made that it also cannot be regarded, on its face, as dissent. However, let me put it this way: if ten people are eligible to vote, and only two of them vote (for opposing candidates), we cannot conclude that the incumbent won 9-1. There's really nothing we can conclude from their inaction without further evidence. Hence, the reason I've written about why I don't vote.

    In short voting is not immoral because it may be perceived as consent to the state. It is immoral because it represents an attempt to impose one's will on another (via government force) without the other's consent. I'm opposed to voting for both reasons.

  7. Then you should be equally opposed to not voting because not voting can have the same effect on others' perceptions.

    Voting is just a ritualized opinion gathering process. If I vote for someone, I'm not giving anyone any power. The power already exists and will be wielded by someone no matter how few people vote. I'm merely stating my opinion that this particular person is the one least likely to do damage. You may as well say it's immoral for someone to publicly state that they would prefer Ron Paul to be president over the other options.

    If anything, your attribution of the power to impose one's will on others to the voter seems like an accidental endorsement of democratic principles.

  8. I think you make interesting points...the only thing I wish to add is that if someone is concerned about what government or those within think about those who do or don't vote....they are concerned over nothing.

    I suspect that if only 10% of eligible voters in our nation actually voted that those in power(gov't) could care less....

    It is only civil disobedience they care about...and until so many engage in it that even the gears of the machine cannot grind them all up those pulling its nasty levers will continue to do so.

  9. Couldn't agree more.
    Good article.

  10. If you oppose voting, how do you feel about defending your freedom and property in other ways? When the economy collapses because of the awful US Government, society breaks down, and people are killing each other for food, will voting then seem like the lesser evil?

    Is it worth trading our moral spotlessness to avert catastrophe? I ask hypothetically, I suppose, because I'm an ancap and see no moral dilemma in defensive voting.

    I feel sometimes like we're on a crippled spaceship drifting to Mars, doomed to crash and die on the red planet. There's an escape pod back to earth available, but no one wants to get on, because it's going to NYC, when what we really want is Boston.

    I might not want to see Ron Paul as governor of my state, and of course I'd love if there were no presidency, but there is, someone will fill it, and I'd prefer it be him.

    Ultimately, we're not unfree because of the government. The government is just a symptom, an institutional manifestation of the ethical disease around us. We won't be free until our neighbors let go of the idea that they should have a say in everything that occurs. I think a liberty-minded president might be a good first step in that direction.

  11. @June 19, 2011 12:41 PM: People are already killing each other for food and other goods. Voting isn't improving that problem; in fact, in many cases, it's making it worse. That said, I have no quarrel with those who attempt to "defend" themselves by voting. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no confidence that any of our problems with government can be solved through the use of (further) government force.

    Voting ultimately perpetuates the very system to which we are so opposed, and I believe my time is better spent trying to explain what's wrong with the system to people and pointing them to alternatives than by trying to decide which ballot option is the lesser of two evils -- both are still evil -- and risking life and limb by driving to the polls just to cast a vote that will ultimately have no effect on the outcome.

    I believe you'll find that the election of a liberty-minded president (should that ever actually happen) will, in the end, be a case of "one step forward, two steps back".

  12. (In passing--I may stick around to see what you have to say.)

    One does not, after all, consent to be born, to the laws of physics, to being human, to being part of a family, however briefly. In some things humans participate, regardless of consent.

    From the viewpoint of the pols--and yes, that includes Ron Paul--people who do not vote are still consenting to be governed, and to let the pols govern as they will. Moreover, this seems to be the reality: inaction makes one complicit. Voting and pursuing change through other paths is perhaps more viable. Civil disobedience is perhaps also an alternative. I am cynical of armed revolt (though it feeds us corvids); it often fails of its goals--the violence becomes a goal in itself..

    There seems to me little hope that we will be voting out the authoritarians any time soon; leaders who will repudiate power on ethical grounds are rare, and I do not see any of them on the current political stage.


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