Road Tax Passes with 15.3% Approval
by Ari Armstrong, November 3, 1999
Governor Bill Owens's touted new highway tax passed with a paltry 15.3% of the total potential vote. Yet The Denver Post refers to this as "strong support," and The Rocky Mountain News calls it an "overwhelming victory" (November 3, front pages).
What kind of la-la land are these newspaper editors living in? A whopping 84.7% of the potential vote failed to support the tax. I guess this vast majority of the population is invisible to those who regard politics as the end-all-be-all of cultural life.
Yet I got the 15.3% figure straight from the pages of the News. In a story by Ann Imse ("Math made turnout look good," November 3, page 35A), the News reported that, in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson Counties, 1,415,234 people are registered to vote. Out of those registered, only 443,971 actually bothered to vote. That brings us down to 31.4%. However, because only around 80% of the potential voters even register, that lowers the figure to 25%. Of the 25% of the potential voters who did vote, 61% voted for the road tax, for a 15.3% approval.
Imse describes how counties are now using Orwellian logic to boost the apparent voter turnout. Now, instead of reporting the number of registered voters who turn out at the polls, many counties are reporting the number of so-called "active" voters who vote. Of course, this raises the reported figures by around 10% to 20%. Some who wanted to vote didn't even get a ballot in the mail because they weren't considered sufficiently "active." (Of course, some who are registered don't live in the state anymore, but some who have recently moved to the state aren't tracked as potential voters, either, so my figures remain roughly accurate.)
Yes, democracy in America is a fraud.
Of course, those who supported the road tax claimed that it is not a tax at all. For instance, as the News put it:
"The 'no new taxes' was a selling point," said Paul Dempsey, a University of Denver law professor who specializes in transportation issues. Voters like the idea of borrowing money to pay for projects instead of raising taxes, he said. ("Highway projects," by Lynn Bartels, page 5A)
This is more Orwellian double-speak. The government has only one way to pay off its debts, and that is to raise taxes (or inflate the money supply at the federal level, which is a hidden form of taxation). You can't get something for nothing. Or, as Robert Heinlein put it, TANSTAAFL, "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Or a free road.
The most Coloradans can hope for is that the taxes will come from people living in other states in the form of federal grants. However, the belief that this will ultimately benefit Coloradans is illusory, for other states will want a piece of Colorado's pie in return.
Of course, some say that, by not voting, people voluntarily surrender their rights to self-government. This is nonsense. Some refuse to vote on moral grounds, because voting supposedly lends support to a fundamentally flawed system. I disagree with this argument, but those who hold such ideas ought not be simply ignored or chastised.
More importantly, voting has little to do with the will of the people, because our choices are pre-arranged for us. In other words, voters cannot choose the option they may most favor, but are instead restricted to only two choices. A simple analogy can be when a robber demands, "Give me your money or your life!" If we hand over our money, are we thereby expressing our preferences? Of course not! The favored option, "Why, I'd like to refuse both alternatives, thank you," is not permitted.
In terms of roads, Coloradans were faced with two distinct paths, neither of which may be what Coloradans on the whole really want. Either we can suffer continued traffic problems on I-25, or we can vote to increase taxes to build more highway lanes. Yet does anyone imagine that these two options exhaust the possibilities or express people's true preferences?
The same logic can be applied to political elections. Some, rather that vote for "the lesser of evils," choose not to vote at all. Who can blame them? And let us not forget that voting carries with it some costs; as Gordon Tullock has pointed out, one has a greater chance of being struck by lightning on the way to the polls than of affecting the outcome of an election.
"But," my critics will argue, "anyone may run for office, and anyone may attempt to put an initiative on the ballot." This argument ignores political reality. Only special interest groups or rich individuals can afford to put an issue up for vote. Running for office is extremely expensive, especially in terms of the time it takes to advertise to voters. With the hopes of victory so slim and the costs so great, many ideas are kept from the political marketplace.
The economic marketplace, on the other hand, is fundamentally different. On the free market, individuals' preferences are tallied by the "invisible hand" according to actual expenditures. Individuals cannot act with the expectation or hope that they can pay for a decision with other people's money. On the free market, if individuals wanted better, faster modes of transportation, they would express this preferences by spending their own money to get what they want. It doesn't take an act of Congress or a costly popular vote to alleviate overcrowding in the free market, as it does with government-controlled industries.
America is a great country precisely to the extent that it is not ruled by democracy. Ours is (supposed to be) a country of individual rights, not tyranny of the majority. If government leaders were limited to their roles of "night watchmen," it would hardly matter how many people voted for them. It is Frederic Bastiat who said, "The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else." In America, the government is not supposed to be fundamental to the lives of the people, but only a harmless adjunct to civil culture.
However, even though the democratic form of government suffers fundamental flaws, it remains a good route by which to seek return to freedom. If pro-freedom individuals can pass an objectively beneficial ballot issue with 15% of the vote (or even 1%), or elect a pro-freedom politician, then that's a good thing. What we can't do is claim our measure is justified because it won a popular vote. Rather, the proposal must be justified on independent grounds and enacted by whatever means available (so long as the means don't violate rights).
The real message of the recent election is that the vast majority of people are completely alienated from politics, and yet many politicians proceed as if democracy grants them the moral authority to rule. It's as if the boy has cried out that the Emperor wears no clothes, but nobody cares.