06 Nov 2008

Another Quick Post on the Logic of Non-Voting

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In response to my Election Day nose-thumbing, several different challenges were raised. (A few people were outraged at Mises.org as well.) In response, I need to clarify some things.

(1) I am not repudiating principled behavior. I realize many of the “economistic” arguments for non-voting rest on such a case, but that wasn’t the case I was making. Let’s switch examples for a minute. Suppose your friend is throwing a birthday party for his wife, and it’s on a night where there’s a really important game on TV. So there’s a chance that nobody in your circle of friends is going to show up, and that would really hurt his wife’s feelings. Now you know that whether or not you personally decide to go, is not going to make a difference. It’s the kind of thing where at least 10 couples need to show up, or else it will be lame. In a situation like this, I have no problem with someone saying, “I really ought to go, because it’s the right thing to do, and I just hope enough other people reach the same principled conclusion.” And if only 3 couples show up and it’s lame, and your friend yells at you the next day, I agree it would be weaselly to say, “Why are you mad at me? If I went, then only 7 people would have shown up. It still would’ve been awful.” (Now even here, the analogy isn’t perfect, because on the margin it actually does help, whether or not you show up–at least the guy knows you’re a good friend. But you get my point I hope.)

(2) On the other hand, I am also not saying that the “perfect should be the enemy of the good,” to use that overworked phrase. If I thought I had the power to personally send Ron Paul to the White House, I would probably do it; I certainly wouldn’t object to another libertarian who did it.

And now we come to the climax, where I use (1) and (2) above to conclude: Voting is neither principled, nor is it utilitarian. Even if I go vote for a third-party candidate, that is not really what I wish everyone else would do, after reflecting on principled behavior. No, I think the best response would be for no one to vote at all, and also not obey the “president” (who wins with his own vote and that of his mom) when he orders police officers and soldiers to start arresting people for tax evasion or draft dodging or whatever. If you’re granting me the (false) ability to control every other citizen’s behavior, then why should I do an alternative-universe experiment where we all write in Ron Paul? If we’re engaging in fantasy land anyway, I’m going to do a really good fantasy, not just a pretty cool one where Ron Paul becomes president and vetoes everything for 4 years.

Now the reason I go over the improbability of your vote affecting the outcome, is that this shows you get no pragmatic benefits from “holding your nose” and voting for the “lesser of two evils.” To repeat, if you really could put in McCain/Obama instead of Obama/McCain, then it might be worthwhile to go over all the reasons that one or the other is a worse threat to liberty. But you can’t, you don’t have this power. So it’s completely meaningless to go vote for the guy you think is the lesser tyrant.

Those who agree with my critique of politics but urge me to vote nonetheless, are asking me to (1) act in a manner that I don’t want to be universalized and (b) do so in a completely pointless way that doesn’t change the outcome. So in effect they are asking me to sell my soul for $0. Eh, no thanks.

Incidentally, my state of Tennessee voted overwhelmingly for McCain. So whether or not I voted for Obama or McCain, the electoral tally would have been the same. Phew! I’m glad my decision to abstain didn’t alter world events. And now, if and when Obama blows up some foreigners to get the Republicans off his back, I can ask the people who voted for him, “What were you thinking?”

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