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A vote for voting

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 7, 2002

William L. Anderson is an adjunct scholar at the incomparable Ludwig von Mises Institute and teaches economics at Frostburg State University. He is also one of the finest columnists to appear on LewRockwell.com. In a very perceptive essay about how politicized our culture has become that appeared on the site before Christmas, he noted that when he moved to Maryland he struck his first blow against the leviathan by declining to register to vote.

Anderson counseled that perhaps the best way to deprive the steadily growing government its legitimacy is to drop out of political life altogether, rather than fight losing battles in a system that seems biased in favor of bigger government and less individual freedom. Many other critics of the modern welfare state have begun to reach similar conclusions and not just anarcho-capitalists. Karl Rove, political guru of the Bush White House, estimated that of the religious right's white evangelical base, only 15 million of the estimated 19 million turned out to vote for the Republican candidate in 2000. Much of the remainder appears to have dropped out of the process, a development Rove tells insiders he hopes is only temporary.

It is understandable that many people who differ from the consensus that favors increased centralization of power in federal hands would find fault with American politics. A redistributive state must take from some in order to give to others and impose one-size-fits-all solutions that will necessarily penalize some as others benefit. One major political party is dedicated to the proposition that human progress rests on the continued growth of government while the other favors limited government in speeches and platforms but fails to achieve it practice, even on the rare occasions that it seriously tries.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that those who find these circumstances distressing will accomplish anything by ceasing their political involvement besides ceding even more ground to those who believe the solution to all problems lies in the state. This approach is to shrinking government what unilateral disarmament is to national defense.

While many anarchists do not vote based on principle, this is not a viable strategy for conservatives and libertarians. Anderson argued that by refusing to vote, the state may be able to "take my home, income and even my family, but they cannot have my encouragement. I will deprive them of that little victory. Like the Christians who deprived their Roman captors the satisfaction of renouncing their faith, I will face the Lions rather than tell the political classes what they want to hear."

Large and overweening as our government is, it doesn't appear that it is yet involved in feeding Americans to lions, not even Christians. The larger problem with Anderson's argument is that it assumes that anyone is going to recognize his decision not to vote as a political statement on the legitimacy of modern statism. We live in a country where barely half the American people bother to vote and where many eligible voters fail to register not out of principled pique but due to apathy. What separates the non-votes of those who refuse to vote on principle from the much larger number of votes that were not cast out of ignorance, apathy and sloth? Neither the political class nor impartial observers will be likely to know the difference. In fact, students of political science learn that low turnout in elections means a kind of vague approval of the status quo.

Massive organized boycotts have had some impact on the legitimacy of the election victors, if people know who is boycotting and why. Even they are questionable as strategies however, because whatever their impact on the legitimacy of the winner, the people boycotting the election usually end up allowing their opponents to be elected. In the last Haitian presidential election, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (the subject of US efforts to "restore democracy" to Haiti during the Clinton administration) sought to return to power amidst a process international observers decried as highly irregular and corrupt. Some 75 percent of the electorate boycotted the election, including major opposition leaders. It was quite a rebuke to Aristide in international eyes, but the end result was that he still easily won the election (as it was mainly his supporters voting) and became president. He is still president at this writing.

In a representative system of government where the people elect officials, the natural bias of politicians will be in favor of what their constituents want to hear. (Anderson's Mises Institute colleague Hans-Hermann Hoppe criticized such systems at some length in his new book, Democracy- The God That Failed.) Many voters, including businessmen, farmers, pensioners, college students and their parents and others who are recognizably middle and upper class, receive a variety of government benefits and would not like to see them cut. These people vote and often in large numbers - the voting power of Social Security recipients is legendary- and to expect people who seek public office to ignore such demands if there are not voters making contrary demands requires an extremely unlikely denial of self-interest. There will never be enough people in politics like Ron Paul who will seek limited government on the basis of principle alone if there are not voters who demand it.

No matter how many people refuse to vote because they reject big government, this will do nothing to keep government from getting bigger, taxes from getting higher and the government from spending more of the people's money. If these trends seem unmoved by the votes and activism of many conservatives and libertarians, think how much more likely government would be to grow in the absence of their participation. Hello, national health care.

Candidates who will stand on principle and work to repeal bad laws, privatize government assets, cut taxes, rescind regulations and reduce spending deserve the support of those who favor smaller government. It is difficult to ascertain why someone did not vote. A vote for a candidate who favors smaller government or against a candidate that has worked tirelessly for bigger government is much easier to interpret.

Since not voting will have no practical result other than perhaps to give more weight to the votes of those who disagree with your beliefs, the only point that can be made by abstaining is symbolic. Yet a vote for a candidate may have more tangible symbolism. George W. Bush may not be shrinking government, but his policies offer the practical benefit of not growing government as much as Al Gore's would have. But there was also a symbolic effect of voting for Bush. The cultural and philosophical chasm said to exist between the Blue States and the Red States (USA Today's famous depiction of the breakdown between votes for Gore and Bush in 2000) far exceeded the substantive policy differences between the candidates themselves. Those who supported Bush were seen as wanting lower taxes, a more restrained domestic role for the federal government, gun rights and family values while the Gore supporters were for activist government involved in income redistribution, gun control and more secular and cosmopolitan values. No one thought much about the intentions of the millions who stayed home.

If you can't bring yourself to vote for a Republican like Bush, why not vote for a minor party candidate? No one would confuse a vote for Harry Browne (himself long a devotee of political nonparticipation) and the Libertarian Party or Howard Phillips and the Constitution Party with support for government continuing to grow. These candidates will not win, but the more votes they receive the more votes it is apparent are out there that reject the current trajectory of government growth.

Certainly, it would be better if the Republican Party was more committed to limited government and the conservative movement was focused on long-term objectives rather than narrow goals such as winning each election. But how does a refusal to vote at all give greater satisfaction than the knowledge that you voted for a candidate acknowledged as a supporter of limited government? One of the key factors in the growth of organizations like the Republican Liberty Caucus is the votes GOP candidates are losing to the Libertarian Party. The more such votes are out there, the more the GOP will move in the direction of smaller government.

Perhaps a more convincing statement about the legitimacy of statism than not voting could be made by refusing to comply with unconstitutional laws. However, there is still a great deal of freedom to influence government policy in this country. It seems that the most basic of them, voting, should be exercised before civil disobedience.

Politics has its limits, but it is ultimately the forum for deciding what government will and will not be involved in. Those who wish to limit government would do better to work toward more effective efforts in the political realm, rather than withdrawing entirely and allowing government to continue to grow by default.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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