Voting Is No Sin

by R.W. Bradford

From Liberty, November, 1996.

Voting no more legitimizes the state than scratching legitimizes an itch.

Over the past two years, a lot of Liberty's ink has been devoted to arguing that participation in the political process is immoral. First, in the March 1995 Liberty, John Pugsley offered an eight-page argument against voting in general and Harry Browne's presidential campaign in particular. In the very next issue, Wendy McElroy presented a more concise argument against voting, which she emphatically restated in "Why I Would Not Vote Against Hitler" (May 1996). "At the last Liberty Conference," she writes, "a question was posed: 'If you could have . . . cast the deciding vote against Hitler, would you have done so?' I replied, 'No, but I would have no moral objection to putting a bullet through his skull.'"

To date, these arguments have gone virtually unanswered in our pages. As the person who posed the question to McElroy at the Liberty Conference, I reluctantly have decided to take up the issue here. My reluctance grows out of my admiration for McElroy and for Pugsley, both of whom have demonstrated a courageous willingness to advance a rather lonely and unpopular opinion, and both of whom honestly carry their logic to its conclusions. But as much as I admire them, I am not convinced by their argument.

McElroy's willingness to put "a bullet through [Hitler's] skull" demonstrates her revolutionary zeal. But her elaboration makes it clear that she considers voting the kind of serious sin that mere assassination, apparently, is not: A ballot can never be "an act of self-defense . . . [It] attacks innocent third parties who must endure the consequences of the politician [who has been] assisted into a position of power over their lives. Whoever puts a man into a position of unjust power -- that is, a position of political power -- must share responsibility for every right he violates thereafter."

For McElroy, if a candidate is elected, all who have voted for him become guilty of any crimes he might commit. This logic, it seems to me, would lead in very strange directions if it were applied to a voluntary association or corporation. By McElroy's argument, if she voted for someone to be chair of, say, her local Association of Voluntaryists, she would share guilt for any evil that individual might do in office, up to and including encouraging people to vote in political elections. Of course, such thinking, if adhered to by members of voluntary organizations, would simply eliminate any such association not run by administrative fiat.

For Pugsley, the voter shares guilt for elected officials' crimes even if he voted against them: "Those who vote in the next presidential election will share responsibility for the theft, coercion, and destruction the next administration will wreak on all Americans as well as on innocent people around the world who fall victim to American intervention. Every person in the lynch mob is as guilty as the person who pulls the rope. Since a voter appoints an agent and empowers that agent to aggress against others, the act of voting is immoral. It is wrong."

The notion that by taking a certain action, one accepts responsibility for all sorts of diffuse antecedent events, is fairly widespread. Hence the 1960s boycott of inoffensive table grapes because they were harvested by non-union labor, the 1950s boycott of Polish hams by anti-Communists, and certain yuppies' preference for hamburgers made from cows raised by farmers who give them names and treat them humanely (at least until they are slaughtered) -- not to mention U.S. government ordered embargoes of trade with Mongolia, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa, the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, etc.

Such actions may or may not have the intended moral effect. They certainly provide comfort both for the well-meaning and the self-righteous. But they are no substitute for the real business of the world. If one must investigate the antecedents of everything one buys and verify that it was produced in accordance with one's ethical values, trade will halt and society will cease to exist.

McElroy even opposes going to the polls only to vote no on tax increases: "It seems like I should be saying that you should vote against things," McElroy said in response to a question at the conference. "But one of the big problems that you have in terms of dealing with the state, and dealing with people who believe in the state, is the state has legitimacy. And perhaps the biggest thing that gives the state legitimacy is that it is considered a democratic process in which we can all vote. . . . If in fact you deal with the political system and vote, even against something, you're saying they have the authority, or you're participating in a system that says the state has the authority."

Her view is that all voting is wrong -- which is what prompted my question about casting a deciding vote against Hitler. "Thou shalt not vote" is a universal moral commandment that must be obeyed under any and all circumstances.

But why is voting wrong? "Voting is an act of implicit violence, because it is an essential aspect of a system that binds others to the will of the state. Moreover, voting provides the legitimacy upon which the state lives and breathes. . . . Just as totalitarian states go through the charade of 'free elections' to justify their rule, Western democratic states base their claim to legitimacy upon consent via the ballot box [because] most people . . . accept the notion that by 'participating in the electoral process,' they have given consent in one important matter."

The crux of McElroy's argument, I believe, is that the power of the state rests on its claim to legitimacy, and its claim to legitimacy rests on its subjects' participation in democratic elections; so by refusing to participate in elections, we can deny the state's legitimacy and reduce (or destroy) its power. Q.E.D. A nifty argument. But not, I believe, a valid one.

The problem with this argument is that it accepts as true a key proposition of the modern statist: that voting confers legitimacy on the state. I can see no more reason to accept this claim at face value than to accept many modern statists' claims that a social "contract" binds us to obey the law and that government ownership of the means of production renders them more productive, more just, and more humane than means of production that are privately owned.

There is a glimmer of truth to the legitimacy argument. The power of any state does depend on the opinions of its subjects; if enough of them view it as good or inevitable or too powerful to resist, the state achieves a certain viability. Ultimately, power is in the hands of individual human beings, and the most powerful states are those with the widest support.

Like all governments, the modern democratic state rests on the support of its subjects. It seeks this (and asserts its legitimacy) by holding elections. The democratic state that gains widespread support by this method can become extremely powerful, able to command huge resources.

But elections are not the only means states have used to assert legitimacy. In medieval Europe, states asserted a legitimacy that came from the Christian religion, and demonstrated that legitimacy by sharing power with the organized church. Democratic elections played no part in the process. In much of the Muslim world today, states derive their legitimacy from Islam. In countries controlled by Communists, states claimed legitimacy from scientific, Marxist thought.

I am no more willing to accept the notion that voting confers legitimacy on the democratic state than I am willing to accept these other supposed sources of legitimacy. And just as I need not condemn rational, scientific inquiry to deny legitimacy to the Marxist state, or condemn religious belief to deny legitimacy to the medieval state, so I see no need to condemn voting to deny legitimacy to the modern, democratic state.

Casting about for a way to interpret McElroy's argument in a more plausible way, it occured to me that perhaps she fears that exercising my moral freedom to vote may lead other people to believe that the state is a morally legitimate authority.

But allowing neighbors' interpretations to determine your behavior is absurd. Suppose, for example, that McElroy's neighbor believes that walking upright is evidence that she agrees that all her property should be forfeited to the state. Would McElroy agree that it ought to be?

Or -- to take a less absurd notion -- suppose that your use of public streets leads your neighbors to believe the state is morally legitimate. Must you then stop using the roads?

As a matter of fact, many people do believe that if you use the streets, or sidewalks, or government schools, or postal service, or any other state-owned or state-controlled entity, you confer legitimacy on our massively coercive government. Yet few of those who oppose the omnipotent state try even to reduce our use of such things. They don't walk on the grass, or buy bottled water, or stop driving. They're not really worried about the bad example they give their neighbors. I suspect McElroy isn't either. Nor should she be.

What McElroy misses is that when our neighbors interpret our behavior as granting legitimacy to the state, they are wrong.

The simple fact is that people's motives for voting do matter. Just as we treat the little girl who trespasses on our property while chasing a butterfly differently from the vandal who enters our property with intent to damage, so we must treat those who vote as a way of gaining personal power or wealth differently from those who vote in order to reduce the power of the state.

But for McElroy, the proposition that voting confers legitimacy on the state is an established fact that cannot be denied; neither a voter's motive nor the consequences of his act are relevant against the perfidy of his legitimizing the state. She removes voting from its social context -- not realizing that in the process she is robbing it of its actual meaning. And so, off in this fantasy world where refusing to cast a ballot that would prevent Hitler from taking power is an act of virtue and voting against Hitler is evil, McElroy is secure in her own heroism.

And ironically, she accuses voters of removing their arguments from the real world. She asserts that my question about Hitler "postulated a fantasy world which canceled out one of the basic realities of existence: the constant presence of alternatives. In essence, the question became, 'If the fabric of reality were rewoven into a different pattern, would you still take the same moral stand?' Since my morals are derived from my views about reality, it was not possible for me to answer this question . . . I can address only the reality in which I live and, in a world replete with alternatives, I would not vote for or against Hitler . . . Voting for or against Hitler would only strengthen the institutional framework that produced him -- a framework that would produce another of his ilk in two seconds."

What reality is McElroy living in? When Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet allowed himself to be voted from office in 1988, did "another of his ilk" take power in two seconds? How about when Jaruzelski was voted from office in Poland? Or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua?

I suppose someone might argue that all the succeeding governments continued to collect taxes, regulate the economy, enact unjust laws, etc., and are therefore of the same "ilk" as their predecessors. To this I respond: Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin were both statists, but Stalin was far more destructive of human life, liberty, and property, and the difference is very important.

My guess is that by characterizing my question as fantastic, McElroy wanted to free herself from dealing with this sort of objection. Of course, I don't believe that the situation I specified is likely to occur. All I suggested is that it is plausible that at some point a person might have an opportunity to cast a ballot that would keep a very bad person from political power. But McElroy is arguing for a universal moral imperative. The whole purpose of such commandments is to tell you what to do in extreme cases. So she must deal with every plausible case, not simply those likely to occur.

Well, I don't live in Wendy McElroy's world. In my world, I don't claim to understand the inherent moral significance of voting, let alone accept the notion that it confers legitimacy on aggressive force. And in my world, if I had an opportunity to cast the deciding vote against Hitler, I would do so. I would do so because Hitler was a very bad man who advocated policies that would do a terrible amount of harm to millions of people, including, presumably, me. Even if I were somehow immune to the future harm done by Hitler, I'd have jumped at the chance to cast a deciding ballot against him because I feel benevolent toward my fellow human beings and because the cost of voting against him is slight.

So what action can one take to reduce the power of government and increase human liberty? To answer that question, we must remember that government power rests on the opinions of our fellow human beings. It will be reduced or eliminated only when there is widespread conviction that it ought to be reduced or eliminated. The means by which such a change takes place may be democratic (as in New Zealand over the past decade) or revolutionary (as in the United States in late eighteenth century), or somewhere in-between (as in Poland in the 1980s). But the one undeniable precondition for such a radical transformation is a change of opinion.

In our society, there are many means of convincing our fellows to change their opinions. We can try to educate them. We can try to stimulate others to educate them. We can set good examples by trying to live exemplary lives. We can organize debating societies. We can write books about feminism, or publish magazines. We can do research, or explore the frontiers of social thinking. And, if we choose, we can run for office, using our campaign to spread the proposition that liberty is good.

There are many roads that lead to a freer world. Some of us prefer one over another. Some of us progress further along some roads than we would by following others. But it behooves us to remember that the road we choose is not the only road.

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