Buck the Vote, Urges George H. Smith

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Buck the Vote, Urges George H. Smith

by Ari Armstrong, November 14, 2002

About 40% of the adult population votes in a non-presidential election. In presidential elections, the turnout tends to be about 50%. The precise numbers are a little difficult to nail down because of imprecise population counts and issues of eligibility. Plus, the popular media often reports voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters, not total eligible or potential voters, which renders inflated figures (even though the official number of registered voters is probably somewhat inflated, too). Those votes are split among the various candidates, meaning the winners come away with something like 20-30% support from the adult population. Actual support is less than that, because some people vote for a candidate they consider only marginally less repugnant than the other options.

George H. Smith attends a reception following his speech October 30. Front, l-r: Dariush Rusta, George H. Smith, Ari Armstrong. Back: Bob Glass, Alex Baia, Molly House, Matt Zenthoefer, Brian Schwartz, John Thrasher, Dan Bryce, and Jennifer Armstrong.

Put another way, at least half of American adults decline to participate in the "democratic" system. Public Choice economics indicates voting is irrational in the sense that any given vote in a large election is highly unlikely to determine the outcome. Thus, some non-voters can be described as disinterested.

But there is another group of non-voters who choose not to vote because they despise politics. Some dislike the current political climate or see it as insulated from "the people," and others disapprove of politics per se. These are conscientious non-voters.

The popular media like to pretend conscientious non-voters do not exist. They treat non-voters not as rational economic actors or as conscientious objectors but as "pond scum," to quote one essayist. The popular media regularly describe candidates as having won by a "landslide" if they get 24% of the total potential vote rather than merely 20%. Here are just a few recent quotes that indicate the media's attitude toward non-voters:

  • "That 40 percent turnout is... a shameful thing... The reason for failing to vote is that we are lazy and do not want to take the trouble to fulfill our civic responsibilities." -- William Safire, New York Times article reprinted November 5 in the Rocky Mountain News
  • "[Y]ou're not truly American unless you vote." -- Grand Avenue comic, printed November 5 in the Rocky Mountain News
  • "As he starts his second term, Owens can legitimately claim a mandate..." -- Denver Post editorial, November 6
  • "To all you many nonvoters, two words: pond scum." -- Ricardo Pimentel, November 10 Denver Post
  • People fail to vote mainly because they are lousy citizens. It's their disreputable behavior that's at fault." -- Jay Ambrose, Scripps, November 4 Rocky Mountain News
  • "The nation needs its young people to develop the habit of voting as soon as they are eligible and keep it up throughout their lives." -- Denver Post editorial, November 4

Note the fundamental hypocrisy of the champions of democracy. On one hand they tell us we must listen to and obey the voice of the people; on the other hand they tell us at least half the people are stupid and perverse. Most Americans seem to be saying the political system is a sham, yet neither the politicians nor their sycophants in the popular media care to listen.

The great journalist H.L. Mencken suffered no such limitations: "I confess I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."

Mencken also described democracy as a battle of charlatans for the votes of idiots, noted George H. Smith during an October 30 talk at CU, Boulder. The event, titled "Buck the Vote," was sponsored by OMF. Smith, an author, anarchist libertarian, and atheist, has written two major essays about voting titled Party Dialogue and The Ethics of Voting.

(Smith's books Why Atheism? and Atheism: The Case Against God are available through Laissez Faire Books, as is his edited work The Lysander Spooner Reader.)

Smith began by describing a debate within the abolitionist movement. Could an abolitionist properly be elected to office, and thus swear to uphold a "pro-slavery document," the U.S. Constitution? That debate obviously came to an end with the abolition of slavery and the reform of the Constitution, yet it raises interesting issues for contemporary politics.

Smith urged the audience to "think a little more critically about a democratic form of government." Herbert Spencer, who advocated women's suffrage, nevertheless remained critical of democracy and thought of it as the "least-evil form of government." Aristotle distinguished between the end and the "form" of government, and he saw democracy as a form is not an end in itself. Thomas Jefferson worried Americans would confuse the end of government with its democratic form and come to see democracy "as a value in its own right." The worry among America's founders was the rise of "democratic despotism." Smith reminded the crowd that early American leaders were skeptical of direct democracy and built in safeguards such as a non-popular Senate.

In Lockean theory, natural rights are prior to and superior to the form of government, Smith said. Majority rule is not seen as inherently valuable; instead, it is acceptable only if it follows a "unanimous consent" in which members opt into a democratic system. The concept of this consent has given political philosophers endless trouble.

"The government does stuff that, if any of us did it, it would be illegal, and we'd be put in jail," Smith noted. At most, democracy can be seen as an acceptable form of government, not a legitimation of bad government. Smith noted the paradox of democracy: advocates claim "if you don't vote, you don't have the right to complain. The problem with this is, if you do vote, you somehow consent." Built into this assumption is the notion that majority rule is legitimate and may trump individual rights. But "in a political context," he said, "the highest value is political freedom."

In order to get around the notion of unanimous consent as the only legitimate path to democracy, theorists such as Madison came up with the idea of tacit consent. Critics referred to tacit consent as "a pleasant fiction" and its advocates as "fair-weather Lockeans."

Smith is an anarchist. "I'm not against a legal system," he said; he's against the state. "I've never voted in my life; I've never even been tempted to vote." Like some abolitionists before him, Smith believes the Constitution is an unjust document. Smith subscribes to the theory of "political reductionism:" we "don't gain extra rights by belonging to a group. All rights are ultimately reducible to individual rights." His theory of reductionism stands opposed to any theory of "emergent rights."

The reduction of rights to individuals lies at the heart of Smith's conscientious non-voting. He's not willing to appoint somebody else to do what he wouldn't do. There's "something fundamentally wrong with the system... [when] your rights can be voted away," he said.

Smith did admit the "single strongest argument for democracy" is that it may deflect violent revolution. It seems to be more stable than, say, a succession of a genetically-determined monarchy.

If Smith doesn't support political activism, then what does he support? Like many abolitionists, he advocates the use of "moral suasion." "I reject all forms of violence [as it] rarely achieves much," he said. No, he does not expect the achievement of an "anarchist utopia." Instead, he believes libertarians should offer "kind of a beacon," to bring society "as close to a political ideal as you can." Non-voting can actually be a part of effective "moral suasion," Smith suggested, in that through "organized non-voting" people can "register a protest against the process." People must be brought to liberty "mind by mind, heart by heart."

"I'm a huge fan of Gandhi," Smith said, who is "really a brilliant theorist." Smith noted Ghandi admired Jefferson and Thoreau and is essentially libertarian. However, Smith is a "pragmatic pacifist... a strategic pacifist." Unfortunately, "in many situations it just doesn't work." For instance, pacifism wouldn't have worked under the Nazi regime, because they were so insane "they'd just kill you" anyway.

Smith railed against modern conservatives, who "don't really understand the radical ideology [of the Founding Fathers], which was much more libertarian than conservative." Bob Glass attended the event and pointed out many socialist policies such as the war on drugs are defended on the basis that they cost "society" money through welfare expenses. Smith noted that even people like John Hospers and so-called "paleo-libertarians" often argue for social controls on the basis of welfare costs.

Smith mentioned the example of anti-immigration policies. Indeed, locally Republican Tom Tancredo supports such policies on the grounds that immigrants get welfare benefits such as government schooling, healthcare, and transportation. Smith cited Ludwig von Mises' theory that socialist programs tend to breed more socialist programs. Tancredo's positions certainly demonstrate the validity of Mises' analysis. The libertarian solution is to repeal existing socialist policies that are the source of the problems, not impose more socialist policies. "My attitude is you don't punish innocent parties" for the mistakes of interventionists, Smith said.

As one major example of democracy gone awry, Smith discussed drug prohibition. "There are limits to democracy... some things you have no right to vote for," he said, and consumption is one of those things. "I'm for the complete legalization of all drugs, including prescription drugs."

"We basically have an American gulag" for non-violent drug offenders, Smith argued. He cited freedom to control one's own body as a "very significant litmus test" as to whether a society is free, something "central to the concept of rights."

Smith noted that in the 1700s Cato's letters argued in favor of intellectual freedom by noting the obvious right to control what one consumes. Controls on consumption would be regarded as ridiculous, the letters argued, and controls on intellectual freedom should be considered equally repugnant. How times change! Today, we have relatively more intellectual and religious freedom, but not the freedom to ingest what we see fit.

Yet the freedom to control one's own thoughts and one's own body is central to the theory of individual rights. Smith noted that, back in Locke's day, "property" was seen as a relationship, not a set of objects. The language was, "I have a property in X," not "X is my property." One may have property even in time and in one's own conscience. Thus, a government that may deny a person a right in his or her own body can deny rights across the board.

Still, Smith is not convinced political action is a useful means to fight prohibition. He noted that, prior to the medical marijuana initiative in California, buyers' clubs were basically left alone, with "people quietly living their lives." The liberalization law was seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the federal government, and draconian crackdowns have followed in its wake. In contrast, non-voting is not a direct challenge to the state, though it may ultimately undermine it more effectively.

Smith is surely correct that democracy is not valuable in and of itself. It does not legitimize the "tyranny of the majority" or the trampling of individual rights. Conscientious non-voters stand on much higher moral ground than voters who see their vote as an excuse to violate individual rights. Still, I'm not convinced political participation is necessarily evil, as Smith believes, if the goal is to consistently protect individual rights and mitigate the damage of unrestrained democracy. That said, I hope conscientious non-voters continue to raise their voices to promote human rights and condemn the evils of out-of-control democracy.

Revisiting the Ethics of Voting

Smith's two essays on voting (linked above) are fascinating to read. Every libertarian should come to grips with the arguments Smith presents, even if, like me, readers ultimately disagree with his main thesis.

Smith describes the distinction between minarchists and anarchists; that is, between libertarians who advocate a minimal state (such as Ayn Rand and most LP activists), and libertarians who advocate complete market governance (the provision of courts and defense by market institutions). Smith notes it's more natural for minarchists to participate in the political system than for anarchists. However, like the abolitionists who criticized the pro-slavery provisions of the Constitution, it's possible for minarchists to refuse to participate in the modern political system on the grounds that it is (currently) inherently unjust.

The unusual case is the anarchist who participates in politics. Anarchists are committed to an institutional analysis that claims state intervention is bad per se, so it's difficult to see how a similar institutional analysis could permit libertarian anarchists to participate in the state. Libertarian anarchists who reject political action Smith calls "voluntaryists." They are dedicated to promoting social change through non-political means, things like "education, moral suasion, counter-economics, alternative institutions, [and] civil disobedience."

Smith draws up two basic arguments against political activism (voting and seeking political office). First, political action legitimizes the state. Second, because the state is inherently unjust (for libertarian anarchists), all state office holders are necessarily part of an unjust system.

I don't buy either of those arguments. Let's take the matter of legitimation first. What does it mean to "legitimize" the state? There is no transcendent legitimation; there is only the attitudes of the various people within a certain society. Let's take a hypothetical. Suppose 100% of the population of a certain region think the dictator in power rules illegitimately, but the dictator has so much power (say, through an advanced technology) that she can enforce her rule. Let's further suppose the dictator held a vote and forced the entire population to vote for her. Would that legitimize the government? Of course not. Legitimation rests in the hearts and minds of individuals, nowhere else.

Let's say the dictator held a vote on the following matter: "Shall I kill all redheads in the region?" The residents have no way to overcome the dictator's power. Would a "no" vote somehow legitimize the power of the dictator? I don't see how.

What Smith demonstrates is that it's immoral to vote, only if the voter believes the action legitimizes the unjust authority. If a voter proclaims, "I'm voting to try to minimize the damage of the political system, without thereby granting legitimacy to the tyranny of the majority," then the vote it perfectly moral.

Now let's take up the matter of holding political office. Smith argues each office holder is partly responsible for the outcome of state power, regardless of intentions. He offers as an analogy an automobile factory. Even if a particular worker doesn't even know how his or her efforts contribute to the final product, even if the worker is motivated totally by financial gain or some other factor, still the worker is partly responsible for the end product, the automobile.

This argument assumes, however, that the office holder is indeed promoting the continuance of illegitimate state power. What if, however, the auto worker actually hindered the production of cars? Could he or she then be said to be responsible for the product? I don't see how the charge could stick. Similarly, if a libertarian were elected to office and constantly fought to limit illegitimate state power, the office holder is not promoting that power.

Thus, Smith demonstrates no inherent moral problem with voting or seeking political office. This conclusion applies equally to minarchists and anarchists.

Smith does raise important concerns about political activists, however. They must be careful to articulate that their participation does NOT legitimize the tyranny of the majority or the trampling of individual rights. More significantly, they must be careful about falling into the trap of power. "Power tends to corrupt" -- even libertarians, Smith notes.

Is conscientious non-voting a better strategy for advocating libertarianism than political activism? It's certainly more surprising and more likely to encourage others to fundamentally rethink their assumptions.

Let's be honest here: libertarians have had limited success with political activism. A mere handful have held office even at the state legislative level. Ron Paul votes along mostly-libertarian lines as a Republican in Congress. Barry Goldwater's run for president sparked a free-market revolution in America, though even his limited vision has never been realized. Still, it's obvious some old-party politicians have picked up a few ideas from libertarians, in part because of the political pressure libertarians apply during elections.

But conscientious non-voters haven't had much success, either. True, most people don't vote, but most non-voters aren't libertarians, either.

Though the view is almost becoming trite, I nevertheless think it's true: libertarians should take their best guess as to the most useful strategy, find a niche that fits their talent, and go for it. We need internal discussion, but mostly we need to try to convince non-libertarians. Libertarians of all people should appreciate a decentralized approach. If you think conscientious non-voting is the way to go, then by all means make some noise about it. If you're going to run for political office, then win, or at least run a strong educational effort. To quote the great libertarian philosopher George H. Smith, advance the ideas of liberty "mind by mind, heart by heart."

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