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Some Very Good Reasons Not to Vote

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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Why I don’t vote


Your vote counts for something. Just not what you think.

If your vote — not “voting in the aggregate”, not “voting blocs”, but your vote — has no chance of deciding the election or producing a meaningful difference in margins, then reasons against voting don’t have to be terribly strong to outweigh reasons for it.

This isn’t a controversial point, not really. If I’m wondering if I should take an action and the action’s effects will be trivial at best, then if there’s even a small reason not to do it, that’s probably good enough to say “don’t.”

On Tuesday, that’s exactly the situation millions of Americans will find themselves in. Not a single one will decide the election, whether at the national, state, or local level. That’s just math. Which means every American, if presented with just a minimal reason to consider not voting ought to abstain.

Okay, but what’s that reason?

Government is so powerful, big, and inept because we let it be that way. One of the ways we let it is by reducing civic participation to voting. Vote once a year, or every two years, or even just every four years, and you’ve done your part to make government accountable to the people. Which is, of course, crazy. We all know that. But voting enables a narrative of control where there’s little to none. And because so many Americans buy into this narrative, the “Get out and vote” message creates a false sense of legitimacy about the state’s actions. Simply put, the fact that we vote — that we’ve been granted the “right” to vote — does not justify the government’s claimed authority over us. Not even close.

https://www.libertarianism.org/blog/theories-political-obligation-consent

The world would be better if we took the state less seriously and so gave it less power. This is true whether you’re a progressive upset about surveillance and police brutality or a conservative upset about gun control and regulatory intrusion.

By voting, you might move things in the right direction. But probably not. The overwhelming odds are that the world with your vote looks identical to the one without. Yet what you are doing by voting is signing your name to a system that says all those things you despise seeing the government do — hacking emails, bombing kids, crippling small businesses, trampling religious beliefs, driving up the cost of health care, imprisoning the non-violent — are made “okay” and perfectly legitimate because “We” voted on them. They’ll be done in your name.

Why be a part of that? Especially when symbolically signing on to those injustices does just about nothing to make the world a better place.

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The Moral Failure of Trump Culture

It’s clear, as much of Trump’s base — though not all, thank god — sticks with him in the aftermath of his sexual assault admission, that a great deal of Trump’s success to date and a sizable portion of his core support, is the result of a broken and failed culture. It’s a culture that grips too much of American, especially uneducated whites who the demographics show constitute many of his most committed voters.

We must not tolerate this moral bankruptcy. In fact, those of us who recognize the importance of basic character have an obligation to repudiate it and the people who evince it. This is not moral posturing or signaling, but rather a crucial ingredient of moral progress. How are we to become better people, as individuals and as a nation, if we explain away instead of confronting and calling out and refusing to coddle or treat with unearned respect those who cling to or promote retrograde ideas about such core ethical truths as those Trump clearly fails to grasp?

We can of course discuss whether this failed culture is the result of the economic hardships these people face or if the economics hardships are a result of the failed culture. We can acknowledge that it’s probably a bit of both, and also that the hardships are products of policies and economic changes beyond these people’s control — and sometimes enacted without due consideration for the effect it would have on them.

But that doesn’t undercut the simple fact that some of us embody moral values that are objectively better, and that those who embody the kind of corrupt ethics of Trump need to learn from those who don’t, and need to seek to improve themselves. Cultural and moral relativism are wrongheaded and ought to be rejected, even when it means condemning the cultures of other Americans. Elitism can often be wrong and unwarranted and self-serving. But sometimes there’s a kernel of truth to it, as well.

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The GOP and the End of Virtue

It’s done. The Republican Party has officially chosen the worst major candidate of my lifetime. Not because of his attitudes about the role and scope of government, though in that regard he represents the antithesis of libertarianism. But because of his values, his character, his basic dignity and humanity.

Those of us who argue for limited government often argue that liberty inculcates virtue. Or, at the very least, that a lack of liberty and its replacement by the heavy hand of the state cuts against virtue by incentivizing, encouraging, and rewarding vice. But it’s also true that in order for liberty to live up to our ideals, we need to live up to those ideals. We need virtue to live in liberty and we need liberty to live in virtue.

That’s the catastrophe of the GOP’s choice this week in Cleveland. They have chosen a man to represent them who should not represent anyone because anyone who lives up to the standards we ought to set for ourselves would refuse to be represented by such a man. The fact that so many Republicans embrace their now nominee says terrible things about the future of American liberty and American virtue.

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We Care About the Election, but in an Ideal World We Wouldn’t


Trump and Clinton are only threats because we let them be.

Next week is the Republican National Convention and on the one hand, God help us, but on the other, it’s a good opportunity to think about why this all matter so much and whether it should. The prospect of Trump “in charge” of the country is terrifying. Same with Clinton — though marginally less so.

But the problem isn’t just Trump and Clinton, but the very notion of “in charge” in the first place. We fight about candidates and fret and quake at their victories because we’ve given the state far too much power over our lives.

That giving was at times explicit and intentional, others it happened without our notice because we weren’t paying attention or were digging deep enough and protesting loudly enough. However it happened, with its current size and scope, whoever holds the White House matters much more than it should because of all the ways that person can harm us.

That’s the lesson of this election. Both of the candidates who have a realistic chance of winning will make America and American lives worse. And they’ll do that because the authority they exercise is far vaster than it ought to be.

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A Political Thought Experiment

This election has me reflecting on American voters, American elites, and political and party ideology. In the Washington Post on Wednesday, I wrote about Republicans realizing their party is no longer the one they signed up for and thus fleeing to the Libertarians.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/05/25/libertarianism-isnt-republicanism-trump-haters-should-find-another-place-to-hide/

Which got me pondering more the makeup of the parties and, more broadly, the ideological labels we use. And this raised a thought experiment.

  1. For whatever reason, it’s been decided that the US will be ruled by one of two groups. It’s up to you to decided which. Your choices are (a) conservative academics and intellectuals or (b) progressive academics and intellectuals. Which would you pick?
  2. Same scenario. But instead of academics and intellectuals, the choice is between (a) self-identified conservative voters or (b) self-identified progressive voters. (Assume people’s label is genuine, and so they aren’t lying about affiliation in order to sneak into the ruling group.) Which would you pick?

(Note: I intentionally left “libertarian” out as an option in both.)

I’d expect the most typically answer is (a) for both questions or (b) for both questions. What seems more interesting for the insights it shines on America’s political landscape is the possibility of choosing (a) for one and (b) for the other.

For what it’s worth, that’s where I’d come down. I’d choose conservative academics and intellectuals over their progressive peers, but I’d lean — looking at the political climate as it exists today — progressive voters over conservative voters. Of course, I’d prefer neither, because both groups in both variants hold considerably anti-liberal (in the old sense of the term) beliefs that pose significant dangers to America’s freedom, progress, and prosperity.

But, really, I’m mostly curious what other people think. A or B?

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Election Debate and Political Ignorance: A (Brief) Dialog

“The current law says X, and the government is implementing that in such and such a way. This is, of course, terrible and a existential threat to America. Therefore we should elect a strong leader who will change X and then implement Policy A!”

“Hold up a second. The law doesn’t say X and the government in fact isn’t at all doing things in the way you — ”

“Policy A, I say!”

“But Policy A won’t do what you think because the law doesn’t say X and — ”

A! And if you don’t support A, then you must want to keep doing things in accord with X. You must want to destroy America!”

fin.

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Politics Makes Us Worse


by Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus


Even if we try to ignore it, politics influences much of our world. For those who do pay attention, politics invariably leads in newspapers and on TV news and gets discussed, or shouted about, everywhere people gather. Politics can weigh heavily in forging friendships, choosing enemies, and coloring who we respect.

It’s not difficult to understand why politics plays such a central role in our lives: political decision-making increasingly determines so much of what we do and how we’re permitted to do it. We vote on what our children will learn in school and how they will be taught. We vote on what people are allowed to drink, smoke, and eat. We vote on which people are allowed to marry those they love. In such crucial life decisions, as well as countless others, we have given politics a substantial impact on the direction of our lives. No wonder it’s so important to so many people.

But do we really want to live in a world where politics is so important to our lives that we cannot help but be politically involved? Many, both on the left and the right, answer yes. A politically engaged citizenry will not only make more decisions democratically but also be better people for it. From communitarians to neoconservatives, there’s a sense that civic virtue is virtue — or at least that individually we cannot be fully virtuous without exercising a robust political participation. Politics, when sufficiently unconstrained by crude individualism and sufficiently embraced by an actively democratic polity, makes us better people.

Yet the increasing scope of politics and political decision-making in America and other Western nations has precisely the opposite effect. It’s bad for our policies and, just as important, it’s bad for our souls. The solution is simple: when questions arise about whether the scope of politics should be broadened, we must realistically look at the effects that politics itself has on the quality of those decisions and on our own virtue.

Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a given policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we — as a community, as a nation — will teach children creation or evolution.

Oddly, many believe that political decision making is an egalitarian way of allowing all voices to be heard. Nearly everyone can vote, after all, and because no one has more than one vote, the outcome seems fair.

But outcomes in politics are hardly ever fair. Once decisions are given over to the political process, the only citizens who can affect the outcome are those with sufficient political power. The most disenfranchised minorities become those whose opinions are too rare to register on the political radar. In an election with thousands of voters, a politician is wise to ignore the grievances of 100 people whose rights are trampled given how unlikely those 100 are to determine the outcome.

The black-and-white aspect of politics also encourages people to think in black-and-white terms. Not only do political parties emerge, but their supporters become akin to sports fans, feuding families, or students at rival high schools. Nuances of differences in opinions are traded for stark dichotomies that are largely fabrications. Thus, we get the “no regulation, hate the environment, hate poor people” party and the “socialist, nanny-state, hate the rich” party — and the discussions rarely go deeper than this.

Politics like this is no better than arguments between rival sports fans, and often worse because politics is more morally charged. Most Americans find themselves committed to either the red team (Republicans) or the blue (Democrats) and those on the other team are not merely rivals, but represent much that is evil in the world. Politics often forces its participants into pointless internecine conflict, as they struggle with the other guy not over legitimate differences in policy opinion but in an apocalyptic battle between virtue and vice.

How can this be? Republicans and Democrats hold opinions fully within the realm of acceptable political discourse, with each side’s positions having the support of roughly half our fellow citizens. If we can see around partisanship’s Manichean blinders, both sides have views about government and human nature that are at least understandable to normal people of normal disposition — understandable, that is, in the sense of “I can appreciate how someone would think that.” But, when you add politics to the mix, simple and modest differences of opinion become instead the difference between those who want to save America and those who seek to destroy it.

This behavior, while appalling, shouldn’t surprise us. Psychologists have shown for decades how people will gravitate to group mentalities that can make them downright hostile. They’ve shown how strong group identification creates systematic errors in thinking. Your “teammates” are held to less exacting standards of competence, while those on the other team are often presumed to be mendacious and acting from ignoble motives. This is yet another way in which politics makes us worse: it cripples our thinking critically about the choices before us.

What’s troubling about politics from a moral perspective is not that it encourages group mentalities, for a great many other activities encourage similar group thinking without raising significant moral concerns. Rather, it’s the way politics interacts with group mentalities, creating negative feedback leading directly to viciousness. Politics, all too often, makes us hate each other. Politics encourages us to behave toward each other in ways that, were they to occur in a different context, would repel us. No truly virtuous person ought to behave as politics so often makes us act.

While we may be able to slightly alter how political decisions are made, we cannot change the essential nature of politics. We cannot conform it to the utopian vision of good policies and virtuous citizens. The problem is not bugs in the system but the nature of political decision-making itself. The only way to better both our world and ourselves — to promote good policies and virtue — is to abandon, to the greatest extent possible, politics itself.


This essay was originally published on September 14, 2012 at Libertarianism.org.

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Empathy for Trump Voters?

There’s a lot of talk about how elites aren’t fair to Trump voters. That what we see as an attraction to his racism, xenophobia, and, well, stupidity, is in fact a much more reasonable anger at elites who have promised prosperity while working class Americans have seen their prospects decline. Or anger at a culture war that has moved too quickly, its victors too dismissive of its losers. Or anger that it’s not politically correct to say negative things about blacks, or women, or gays, but that it’s perfectly fine — applauded, even — to crack wise about middle America.

I appreciate that line of thought, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, think elites suffer from a genuine lack of empathy for the working class and the struggles it faces in a modernizing economy.

But here’s the problem with it: No matter how deep and real the problems Trump supporters are angry about, their response — embracing Trump — remains contemptible. Set aside the fact that Trump’s proposed policies, such as we can make sense of them, would not actually make things better for working class Americans. Most Americans, across ideologies, lack much understanding of the outcomes of public policy. No, by embracing Trump, I mean embracing the stuff that’s ugly and vicious, no matter one’s perspective on economic cause and effect. I’m talking about his calls to murder the innocent families of terror suspects. I’m talking about his insane plan to deport poor immigrants and prevent entry into the country. I’m talking about his threats to use the office of the president to attack anyone who’s spoken out against him, and to “open up” libel laws because he’s a coward who can’t take criticism.

Cheering Trump as a result of legitimate grievances is like deciding that, because your boss fired you unfairly, you’re going to murder his children. We can say that, yes, you’re right to be mad, and we should empathize with the unjust hardship, but that empathy doesn’t — shouldn’t, can’t, if we believe in basic morality — extend to your reaction to it. America’s elites are often arrogant and ignorant and treat the working class poorly and need to stop. But that in no way excuses the embrace of a man rotten to his core.