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November 6, 2000

   Strakon Lights Up, No. 85

Down with apathy!


Election Day dawns in a few hours, so here's a last-minute warning from The Last Ditch Center for the Preservation of Self-Government, Rightly Understood: Voter apathy is once again threatening America's finest traditions. If more Americans were able to take voting seriously, fewer would stray within a mile of the polling place.

The System has made it hard to take voting seriously, there's no doubt of that. Getting to the polls involves some time and trouble, but once a voter has managed to arrive there, admission is free! A serious man knows that he first pays his money and only then takes his choice. When he is told that something is free, he immediately suspects a scam is in progress.

Free admission rewards whimsy rather than serious-mindedness, but it's only one way the voting system encourages irresponsibility. Voting is also anonymous, as it relates to particular candidates. If a man bought an Edsel back in the '50s, he may have wound up ashamed or proud or indifferent, but however he felt, there he was out on the road with his Edsel for everyone to see. Not so with voting for a particular candidate, where a man can have his Edsel and hide it, too. And even if a voter should publicly (and truthfully) declare whom he voted for, that individual voter's approval is still not binding on any aspect of a winning candidate's behavior for the statutory length of his term. No contract has been made. A voter wouldn't have much luck if he tried to take back his vote, not even if the man he voted for started betraying him the day he took office.

The very fact that many people learn nothing from their first foray into the voting booth but keep coming back election after election, despite betrayal after betrayal by previous winning candidates they've voted for, is sufficient demonstration that they don't take voting seriously at all. They cannot have devoted two minutes' serious thought to voting and its consequences, or lack thereof.

Why should they? When a man decides to buy a new car, it's a real-life decision. When he slaps his hard-earned dollars down on the counter, he's really going to get the car. Before doing that, he's going to do some hard, serious thinking to make sure he wants that car and that he can afford it. But when he votes for someone to occupy a political office, any hard, serious thinking he might have done is pointless, because there's an infinitesimal chance that his vote will have any effect on his actually getting that man in as one of his rulers. The more powerful the office, the more infinitesimal the chance, because the more powerful the office is, the more competition in decision-making the voter will face from other voters. An individual voter would be as well off laboriously cogitating about what kind of weather he wanted.

It's worse than that, really. Whenever a candidate for any office appears to win by a single vote, rest assured that the election will be contested by the apparent loser and will be turned over for disposition to some administrative body. And it's funny how the candidate whose party makes up a majority of the board usually emerges as the designated "winner." That very thing happened in southern Indiana some years ago, when the Republican candidate for a congressional seat edged his Democrat competitor by a handful of votes. The Democrats controlled the House in those days, so a subcommittee selected by the Democrat leadership engaged in a couple months of chin-stroking and brow-furrowing and harrumphing designed to impress the credulous before duly declaring that the Democrat had won. Even in the rare, puzzling case when such a panel decides contrary to its partisan interest, the original vote totals from the ballot boxes never stand. No one is ever going to be declared the winner of any office more consequential than dog-catcher on the basis of a one-vote margin. It wouldn't look right.

Now for the absolute worst. I've referred to "powerful" offices, but in fact when it comes to determining general policy the creatures inhabiting the political class have little real power unless they also happen to be members of the ruling class. None of us ordinary people will ever be asked to vote for or against our ultimate rulers. They're simply not subject to election, at least not election by us.


None of the carefully selected ruling-party candidates on the ballot tomorrow would be able to think or move "outside the box" if elected, even if they suffered a mental breakdown and attempted to do so; but it is true that the ruling class usually permits officeholders some freedom of movement within the box. So we might see more on the environmental totalitarianism front from Al Gore than we would from George W. Bush; and more on the military pork front from Bush than from Gore. From what Bush has said lately about winding up the U.S. invasion of the Balkans, it's possible to hypothesize that, if elected, he might be permitted to tinker with the style in which the Empire is run. We can't be sure of any of that, of course, but it is on the basis of such "within the box" considerations that I have decided to half-heartedly root for Bush instead of Gore. Bush, I think, is the lesser of the two evils.

Why won't I go out and half-heartedly vote for him, then? A sufficient answer should emerge from what I've already written here, but it's worth repeating the old libertarian slogan that the lesser of two evils is still evil. The act of an individual in voting is not meaningful in its consequences for the fate of the regime and its functionaries, but it is meaningful as an act of fealty to that regime. That is as true of voting for micro-party candidates, including "Libertarian" candidates, as it is of voting for ruling-party candidates. The least of ten evils is still evil.

Voting is meaningful — horribly so — for the voter himself and for his moral standing. From the standpoint of the individual, voting is not effective for sanctioning one or another candidate and his future actions, as I've shown; but it is effective for sanctioning the whole apparatus of permanent rule and one's own permanent role as one of the ruled. Habitual voters like to tell conscientious non-voters that if they don't vote, they have no business complaining about what happens later. If anything, the reverse is true.

Sanctioning the regime — that's the aspect of voting that people ought to take seriously. It's the aspect that the regime itself takes seriously. Those who own the regime never worry about voting being too easy, as they would if voting could in any way threaten the institutionalized oppression, injustice, and banditry of the regime. No, they worry about voting not being easy enough. Every election cycle, the regime goes out of its way to make voting easier, cheaper, more irresponsible, and more painless. In a few years most voters may be casting their ballots by mail — as people are already doing in at least one jurisdiction — if not by e-mail.

The regime exerts itself along those lines because ever more Americans, especially young Americans, are rejecting voting as an empty, unsatisfying ritual and no seemly endeavor for a serious man; but as many as half of those who are eligible do still turn out for some elections. Depending on how bad the weather is tomorrow, more than half may turn out. (I'm hoping for a toad-strangler that drenches the entire country.) Voting is the only form of citizenship, or apparent citizenship, that most people have been told about, and that's part of what pushes them to the polls. But that push might prove too weak if, in their heart of hearts, they didn't think voting was safe and harmless. The emptiness of the ritual doesn't repel that species of voter — the "minimalist citizen," let's call him — for emptiness is exactly what he wants.

Voting doesn't seem to carry the same kind of risk other political acts do, acts such as standing up and bearing witness, spurning leviathan's bribes, telling truth to Power, ostracizing servants of the regime, or unfurling a banner of defiance. Just as libertarians strive to show people the actual costs of government, including the costs of projects such as its incessant wars, we should strive to show people the actual costs of voting. Libertarians should tell those likely to fall victim to voting that, although voting cannot earn the rewards of more honest, full-blooded political acts, it does entail serious risk: risk to themselves — to their character — to their self-respect. Voting is an apathetic bow of obeisance to their rulers.


Published in 2000 by WTM Enterprises.

Related column from November 2002.

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