If you hang around libertarians enough you will meet people who take some principled stand or another against voting. I’ve personally abstained from elections most of my adult life. Liberals are often flabbergasted, as I’m squandering the precious gift of democracy. Conservatives do not seem to take such a principled offense. However, they like to impart in me the realities of the “other side” not being afraid to vote against my interests (and fair enough!).
I was certainly coming from somewhere when I was taking this position. Roughly speaking, I convinced myself that it was beneath my dignity to participate in such a system with false pretenses of representing us, unless it was really worth it (basically, voting for Ron Paul in the primaries). At the same time this conclusion never quite sat right within me. When it would come time to explain myself to others, all I was able to offer were platitudes.
“I don’t want to be part of the system.”
“The system is rigged anyway.”
“Voting just makes us feel complacent about being governed.”
“Republicans are so far from libertarian, and the libertarians don’t stand a chance anyway.”
This is all kind of silly, and part of me always knew it. One may agree with all of these sentiments and still see no practical reason why voting for one’s own interests is a worse idea than abstaining. I place a high value on logic and intellectual honesty. So by this point, I have more or less convinced myself to move on from all of this.
And yet, the instincts that made me a non-voter are still in there somewhere. I was ruminating on this very recently. I think I figured out how to articulate the logic that I was circling around but could not quite articulate to others or even myself. There is value in not voting, but if we are serious about this then we should take a sober look at what we are doing, who is doing it, how, when and why.
Pros and Cons
So first, let’s do our best at a serious cost-benefit analysis.
You can’t ignore politics. Even if you are “above it all”, somebody is out there voting against your interests. You want yourself and others voting for your interests. Even if democracy is incapable of producing a great outcome (more on this below), a move in the right direction is better than the alternative.
But let’s be realistic here as well. Your individual vote has impossibly small odds of tipping an election. Even if you look at races that have come within 10 votes, you are already talking about having a need for some level of “group action” to tip the election. Your individual vote would not make a difference. That said, there is something to be said for “group action”. Even if staying home on election day would not make a difference, convincing 100 people on the Internet to do the same just might. This is all very paradoxical, and to be honest, hard to wrap my head around. I think the answer lies somewhere in game theory, and it at least deserves its own blog post. For the purposes of this post, let’s just factor this ambiguity into our cost-benefit analysis.
Next, there is an argument that candidates are fundamentally not very different from each other. This one is not so much of a concern to me. Both candidates do need to be close enough to the center to capture more voters. However, they would not be running if they were not trying to move the needle in their preferred direction. A bigger concern to me is that your voting group is not necessarily represented by the most popular candidate that they can muster. Political parties have favored candidates (you see how Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and Donald Trump were treated). Once elected, entrenched bureaucracies, unions, lobbyists, and protesters can overturn what people voted for. The policy outcomes are a far cry from the “will of the electorate”.
Again, this alone is not a reason not to contribute. Without libertarian leanings among the electorate, the outcome would be even worse. It might be enough to make you want to throw up your middle finger to the system. A lot of good that would do, right? But we can at least be clear about the limits of what we are doing when we participate.
Point blank, the only practical value in abstaining from the vote is to shock and offend starry-eyed fans of democracy. Non-voting is a protest, meant to provoke people to notice and (with luck) consider our views. In particular, we (as radical libertarian types) wish to dispel what I think we tend to see as a mythology that underlies democracy.
The first part of this mythology is that because democracy gives us all input into the government, it is tantamount to us giving our consent to be governed. To us, the only way the relationship would be consensual is if we could opt out entirely (and being free to leave the country doesn’t count). This one seems to be deeply rooted in people, and I’ve personally had very little success breaking through.
The second part of this mythology is that if only we were all civic minded and took time to be informed and voted, democracy would tend toward some sort of optimal policy. I’ll point to David Friedman (here and here) and Bryan Caplan for arguments against this from an economic perspective. What I will say here is that voting is not always the most effective way to shape the world around us, or even government policy.
For instance, if we imagine a ballot initiative to free the ride-for-hire economy from the Taxi industry, how many progressive voters would get on board? By contrast, how many progressives do you know who use Uber? (or, to be fair, have found themselves moving on to alternatives with better public images). We in the general public are not equipped to anticipate what might be a better option. Enterprising individuals breaking through and offering that option gave us a chance to try it out. And notably, this forced the hand of local governments to negotiate with Uber and Lyft and change their regulations.
To give a different example, the radical left (some of whom also do not vote) and nationalist right are well aware of the ways in which the facts on the ground can shape public policy when it comes to immigration. The left, whatever their reasons may be, tends to favor radically more open immigration to the United States. One of the tactics they employ is assisting people who immigrate illegally. This affects policy, because they know the general public does not have the political will to deport all of them (until, perhaps one dark day, they will. But that is another topic). This example is not to condone or condemn this tactic, but rather to demonstrate the general sense in which the facts on the ground can push policy in a way that elections cannot.
One thing I would however encourage is promoting alternatives to state services. This is much less antagonistic. Successful alternatives could relieve some of the pressure that leads people to support a new or existing government programs. I have personally made a project of collecting historical examples of this, and this year’s New Hampshire Liberty Forum will be focusing on current and future examples.
Making it Count
So we have this unique way of seeing things, and voting just doesn’t feel like it belongs. A non-vote is a symbolic gesture in line with this worldview, to represent how things ought to be. But this symbolic gesture is of no use if you do not have the rhetorical skills to tie it in with some of the above arguments in a persuasive way. (And most certainly, none of this does you any good if you keep your mouth shut altogether!)
As a side note, I’ll acknowledge that there are some more extreme libertarian stances against voting. One claims that if we all withdraw our vote, it will weaken the power of the state. Another argument is that voting is altogether immoral, as it always imposes one’s will on another. Disputing these claims is outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, while these are not platitudes, I personally find them to be overly dogmatic and/or shortsighted. I would not choose to abstain from the vote for these reasons.
What I am trying to do here is lay out the full landscape on this topic so we can all make a sober decision. I am not trying to make a case for voting or against voting (though I’m more inclined these days toward the former).
On one hand you have a minuscule chance of swinging an election, with some argument for group solidarity in a voting bloc. On the other hand you have some chance, again probably minuscule, of enhancing your messaging with a symbolic gesture and maybe change some minds. There is not a clear answer here. Even if there were, it would be a judgment call in each case. How important and close is the election? How good is your rhetoric? What is your reach? Perhaps one could even argue that only high profile people should do this, as they are sacrificing only one vote for a lot of influence.
For my part, I am no good at rhetoric. Therefore, I feel fairly comfortable in my decision to vote in elections I care about. But if you choose to not vote, make your non-vote count!