Co-authored with Trevor Burrus
Let’s start with the basics. Your vote does not matter. Your Vote. Does not. Matter.
A 2012 Economic Inquiry article by Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin used 2008 poll results to calculate the chance of a randomly selected vote determine the outcome of an election. In that presidential election, it was 1 in 60 million. If you lived in some swing states, that could go to 1 in 10 million. If you were a Republican living in California, it’s 1 in a billion. That, of course, was a relatively close election. In a blowout, like Reagan in 1984 or Roosevelt in 1936 then your vote really doesn’t matter.
No single vote has ever decided a presidential election.
Nor is your vote consequential in margins of victory, or your non-vote consequential in turnout numbers. The calculus is exactly the same.
A 2001 NBER paper by Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter looked at 56,613 contested congressional and state legislative races dating back to 1898. That’s 40,000 state elections, totalling about a billion votes. They found seven that were decided by a single vote. In Buffalo in 1910, there was congressional election decided by one vote, of a total of about 41,000 votes cast.
This was later altered in a recount.
Which gets us to Bush v. Gore. No, that doesn’t prove that your vote matters. In fact, it proves the opposite: if a presidential election ever comes down to even close to one vote, then it will be decided by courts and lawyers, not voters.
These facts are not reasonably up for debate. You’ve not mattered in basically every election you’ve ever voted in. If we did a George Bailey, “It’s a Wonderful Life” replay of the world without your vote, it would be exactly the same. Actually, you might be better off in the non-voting world because you spent your time doing more valuable things.
So, why should libertarians do an unquestionably ineffective activity, at least insofar as outcomes are concerned?
When you think about it that way, there are a lot of reasons not to do an ineffective activity. In fact, doing anything effective is a good reason not to do something ineffective. Rain dances are ineffective. When people ask, “Why don’t you rain dance?,” the answer is obvious: because it doesn’t do anything. But when people ask “Why don’t you vote?,” it’s gauche to say, “because it doesn’t do anything.”
Oddly, the weird ones are those who don’t vote because they understand it doesn’t do anything.
And most people know their votes don’t matter — that’s one reason why so many don’t vote or, if they do, they put little effort into it. That’s rational. But to make the point explicitly is weird.
Which itself is weird.
We’ll accept the onus of being the weirdos who say what half the people are thinking.
Of course, if you’re against us, what you’re likely thinking is “Yes, your vote doesn’t matter, but in the aggregate, voting matters.”
That’s trivially true, but there’s not much debate about whether “voting” en masse matters, because it does. The more interesting question is whether it’s wrong for a libertarian to abstain from voting.
The answer is, “No.”
Notice we are not making the case that libertarians should abstain from voting. We are not saying that it is wrong for libertarians to vote. If your vote is mathematically meaningless, we don’t much care what you do.
Instead, we reject the idea that there’s something wrong with choosing not to vote. That choosing to abstain from an election is nothing to be ashamed of. We believe there are reasonable arguments for abstaining.
Vegetarians abstain from eating meat, because they believe there are morally troubling aspects to it that weigh against benefits in tastiness and maybe health. And they do this knowing full well that any individual’s decision to not eat meat likely won’t save the life of a single animal. Yet we don’t take this as evidence that they’re behaving irrationally.
And what about Quakers, many of whom don’t vote? Or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who see voting as clashing with their principles? Do we condemn them for not fulfilling their civic duty? Are their principles stronger or better than libertarians?
We see voting to some extent like Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses do. Yes, your vote has no impact on the direction of the country. Even still, it doesn’t take much time or effort to do it. But that doesn’t make it without costs. Voting can have personal, moral costs to individuals.
We’re weird in large part because we have a fundamentally different view of the state from most people in Washington. We believe in moral limits to the state’s authority. We believe there’s a private sphere of choice government isn’t allowed to penetrate.
Yet voting is often seen as the thing that justifies a government’s intrusion into those private spheres. Voting has deep symbolic meaning in our culture, and that symbolic meaning is both overplayed and wrong-headed.
Very nearly everything we vote on, very nearly everything that most presidential candidates have said they would do, falls outside the bounds of libertarian principle. Voting is symbolically signing on to what those people will do in your name. And given that the outcome will likely be profoundly un-libertarian, that’s not something we’re willing to do.
Like eating meat to the vegetarian, even though we know abstaining won’t directly influence the government in better direction, we also know it won’t make government worse. At the same time, abstaining allows us to maintain my principles. To live our sense of justice.
Which is important, because we owe it to the world to make it better, and we can do that in part by pushing back against the histrionic and incoherent view most Americans have about moral and causal weightiness of voting.
That makes us weird, we admit. But it’s a weirdness we’re happy to embrace. And we wish more people were weird like us.
Furthermore, because it is seen as justifying nearly any government action, voting can also be dangerous. People have been talking about this since America’s founding. James Madison was terrified of voters, so he wanted filtering mechanisms and representatives. The Progressives were terrified of voters, so they built the administrative state to remove some questions from politics.
All the while our government has grown to be the most powerful organization in the history of humankind, controlling our daily lives to an unimaginable and unacceptable degree, and making us hate each other in the process.
And why can it do this? Voting. The fetishization of voting buttresses the idea that voting is adequate check on government and a justification for whatever government does. But many of things we vote on are beyond the legitimate power of government. We need to step back from the fetishizing voting and instead accurately characterize it as a weak and inadequate form of collective choice that cannot effectively support the weight of the governments claiming legitimacy from it.
The fetishization of voting can have real costs. If people raise voting to the pinnacle of civic engagement, which many do, they may ignore other types of more meaningful civic engagement. For many, President Obama entered office with a messiah-like status. He would solve things, fix them, make the country better. The anti-war movement of the left disappeared, partially because of partisanship, but partially because Obama was going to take care of it. For many who voted for him, their vote was the beginning and end of their civic engagement. Obama would take care of the rest.
There’s a reason the most repressive governments in history and today are “people’s republic of X.” They want to claim the legitimacy of voting. But, if the election is Hitler v. Stalin, don’t vote. What if they held an election and no one came? Those who would vote for the “lesser” evil, whoever that may be, are only giving him the ability to say “the people chose me” and claim legitimacy.
A single vote doesn’t matter. Nor does a single non-vote. So let’s agree that both are merely symbolic. You vote because you like the candidate and enjoy the process and feel like you’re doing your duty. We don’t. So we don’t vote, symbolically. And none of it matters.
But it is important to stand up and remind people what’s wrong with voting on the things we do. If there was a national referendum on a new national haircut, and the people grouped together around “the hippie” and “the marine,” people might say, “Why don’t you get involved? Why don’t you make your voice heard? Do you not like democracy?” Someone has to instead point out that we shouldn’t vote about this stuff, and do so loudly, honestly, and without shame.
So is it wrong wrong for a libertarian to abstain from voting? Clearly not.
Don’t vote, do vote. It doesn’t make a difference to us. But if you vote, vote with your wits about you, and vote for something or someone that doesn’t compromise what you stand for. Who cares if it won’t matter? It matters deeply to you, or it should, if you want to have principles that matter.
If you don’t vote, don’t sweat it. Take your kid to the park, help an old lady cross the street, stick it to the man by driving for Uber.
You don’t have to preach the gospel of non-voting, but having a mature conversation about the virtues and vices — the power and limitations — of voting is always beneficial and, in many ways, long overdue.
Principles are a difficult thing to have in the world of politics. In many ways, politics, as the art of the possible, is about compromising your principles. In fact, a principled politician is probably an unemployed one.
If you’re a libertarian, don’t forget what you stand for. Liberty. Democracy — voting — is not the same thing as liberty. Yes, for a variety of reasons — most not having to do with voting — democracies tend promote more liberty than some of the alternatives. But they also can easily go astray and, when they do, those in government usually cite “the people” as justification.
Maybe by consciously not voting, and being able to explain to others why we’re not voting, we can change not just the policies of our existing government, but people’s beliefs about government. We can say that there are better, more meaningful ways to achieve prosperity and peace and justice. That we don’t need to resort to the state every time a see a problem and that the state is very often the wrong way to solve a problem.
In a sense, the problem with voting as practiced today is that people take it too seriously as a means for achieving good governance. They invest it with too much meaning. When abstaining doesn’t make things worse and voting doesn’t make things better, by making the principled choice not to participate in a false show of public spiritedness, we can take some of the air out of big government sales.
Just because everyone else is praising the emperor’s clothes doesn’t mean you have to.
This column a revised version of remarks delivered during a debate at the Cato Institute, Should Libertarians Vote?, on November 2nd, 2016.
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