by Sam Konkin III
Last Fall, R.W. Bradford, editor of Liberty (the magazine, not the Ideal), decided that he could no longer stand the heresies he was publishing, and he promulgated the Bull, "Voting Is No Sin" (henceforth, VINS, first published in November 1996 issue and posted on the Liberty web site---with which we would be glad to trade links, should Liberty deign to consider the offer). Unfortunately, these alleged heresies were not his but of others, and have been considered bedrock libertarian principles since the 1850s --- in short, Orthodoxy.
Thus, Editor Bradford (I would like to say, "fellow Anarchoeditor," but, as shall be seen, he may object to this implicit embrace) is himself the heretic and he fears damnation by the Goddess Liberty; he attempts to defend himself by means of this article. Alas, one is advised to bet on the Flames.
Politics and voting have had no place in Libertarian history for a century; to list every major figure in the Libertarian Movement between Josiah Warren and Frank Chodorov---and I will: Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Albert J. Nock, H.L. Mencken, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Leonard Read---is to list anti-voters. There were exceptions, of course; Spooner debated Senator Thomas Bayard in a long published letter and Benjamin Tucker's Original Liberty contained letters from many sympathizers with Liberty, if not liberty, who exhorted the immovable Tucker to throw his support behind some Reform or Socialist candidate or other, most often a follower of Henry George. Ayn Rand, who strayed furthest from libertarianism to the point of denouncing the label and its followers, supported such stellar candidates for freedom as the first pure P.R. nominee offered by the Power Elite, Wendell Willkie, to that Master of Lesser Evil, Richard M. Nixon.
But the major figures, the "hard-core" ones we remember, the ones whom others rallied around for a century and a half, opposed voting and running candidates. Thus, not voting is the norm, the standard, the orthodoxy which, if it is to be challenged, a compelling argument must be mounted.
There are three distinct positions in This Movement of Ours concerning voting and politics. Interestingly enough, Mr. Libertarian, Murray N. Rothbard, Ph.D., embraced all three. In his early writings (I have a delicious issue of Perspectives from the early 1960s denouncing voting and candidates; of course, he was extolling the late Frank Chodorov at the time) Rothbard was a pure, anti-political anarchist. He had supported Strom Thurmond for President in 1948, but he saw it as a student prank with bite; after all, the rest of Columbia University students were divided between Communist-backed Henry Wallace, and the New Deal heir, Harry S. Truman. While Thomas Dewey (a Liberal Republican precursor of Nelson Rockefeller) supporters hid in closets, Rothbard's Thurmond support was in-your-face New York attitude. He knew Thurmond could not win electoral votes in New York and hence his "vote" was irrelevant on all levels.
But by the 1964 election, Rothbard took the choice between Goldwater and Johnson seriously. Hard-core libertarians, such as Robert LeFevre and Leonard Read, remained opposed to choosing the Lesser of Evils, even if Goldwater appeared lesser than most. Rothbard, reacting against compromise to follow Barry, went so far as to extol Lyndon Johnson (I have saved that issue of the Liberal Innovator as another prize for my collection.)
Rothbard, and his sidekicks Joe Peden and Leonard Liggio, brought his Circle Bastiat and brighter young students (all of whom could fit in his living room) into the Students for a Democratic Society on the grounds that they were run by Anarchists and Decentralists---true enough in 1965, but false within two years of his move. Thus, Rothbard's subsequent voting including support of Progressive Labor (Maoist) candidates in exchange for their voting for him for Governor (on the Freedom and Peace ticket; he lost the nomination).
So in 1968, Rothbard was participating in the process only to the extent of furthering The Revolution. But by 1972, he had bounced back so far as to choose Richard Nixon even over the anti-war (an issue he considered crucial) candidate George McGovern, Bircher John Schmitz (with whom he sympathized on many levels philosophically), and "Libertarian" Party candidate John Hospers. Perhaps it might put all this tactical wandering in perspective to remember that Wrong-Way Murray refused to register to vote as part of his jury-draft resistance; hence, his endorsements only jeopardized other souls, not his.
Anyways, to sum up, one can believe that the State can be placated, petitioned, or purchased, at least to some useful extent, and thus one's ballot (among millions), might be part of that supplication. Or one rejects that argument and feels that dealing with the political system in any way other than rejection of temptation is in error and impure. The third way (which happens to be the Agorist position) is that voting is statist (evil, to continue our ecclesiastical metaphor) and should be fought. Burn the polls ye sons of freedom! It is neither accident nor unideological spite that revolutionaries in the jungles and forests of the Third World actively oppose balloting to the extent of leading raids against polls and voters themselves.
Most of these revolutionaries are not anarchist and might even bring in election machinery to ratify themselves once in power; the point here is that they realize that electoral participation is counter-revolutionary. When the guerrillas are in power and want to keep it, they will institute voting mechanisms.
Bradford is not really advocating the ballot as a revolutionary tool. He does seem to want it to accomplish something, at least some small Reform, and, if he cannot have that, then he will settle for the position that it does no harm.
His targets are the unyielding Wendy McElroy (most identified with NEW LIBERTARIAN, though she writes for Cato, Reason, and even Liberty) and John Pugsley (author of the populist-agorist The Alpha Strategy and Founding Advisor of The Agorist Institute). Pugsley, a long-time friend of Harry Browne and his campaign manager, Doug Casey (yet another AI Founder), refuses to go along with their picaresque voyage (which Casey has publicly confessed he sees as a jest) in search of the Libertarian Party nomination (which they, indeed, won, exhibiting the incredible level of bankruptcy of said Party---or maybe the delegates consider it all to be an amusing lark as well). McElroy is more theoretical and hence, possibly, more threatening.
Let us then first deal with the argument that voting might "accomplish something." It should be stated in fairness that nowhere in VINS does Bradford actually argue that it might, only that some may be deluded into thinking it might. Perhaps we can save some time untangling the many threads of argument from the historical, strategic, tactical, economic, short- and long-term, emergency ethics and whatever, by asking what political voting is and is meant to accomplish. Thus we can avoid silly little pitfalls such as Bradford's bringing up "voting" for chair of the Association of Voluntaryists (a very obscure purist libertarian group which makes the Movement of the Libertarian Left look like a broad popular front) as an example of the offense.
Let's start with our Movement's grandfather, Lysander Spooner. Spooner's opposition to voting is well-known; he perceived (as did Rothbard et al.) the State as a "band of murderers and thieves" who compared unfavourably to highwaymen. (At least the highwayman will take your money and leave you alone afterwards, instead of lecturing you incessantly on what a virtue his banditry is.) For Spooner the State is a secret gang of bandits who select their muscle and divided the spoils without revealing publicly who they are. How? By the secret ballot, which was still an issue in the 1860s and 1870s.
Spooner, Tucker, and the others saw clearly at the time that various propertied classes settled their differences (usually who should get what privilege or tariff at the expense of the others) through their political gladiators in the congressional arena: Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun fitting this description most aptly. The power elite, over time, realized that they could dilute the vote by allowing those with little property and less to lose (and glad to gain anything) and lose nothing themselves. But no matter how much water you pour in the whiskey, you do not transmute it into milk or orange juice, though it may no longer be much use for inebriation. So though voting is so diluted as to make a single vote meaningless, it still serves the function in aggregate of assisting the ruling class in selecting their representatives (not yours) to sort out the high-level conflicts they have not been able to settle like gentlemen (or ladies).
Thus, in the sense of maintaining the mechanism of oppression over the American (and other people with similar structures), voting has a "practical" application. In the sense of co-opting those who think that by helping a faction of the power elite against another faction, they have some political freedom, the Succubus Democracy has a "practical" application. But surely those are not the "practices" that libertarians support --- or else many of us need to start another Movement. Understanding the nature of political voting, we can now quickly deal with other issues that may have seemed formidable a moment ago. What is a "Libertarian" Party's function? To join the feeding trough dividing up the spoils of taxation, inflation and tariff protection. and to assist the rulers in deciding who is most fit to serve them. Why would any real libertarian devote an iota of his or her resources to that goal?
Now Bradford was shocked by Ms. McElroy's refusing to go to the polls (and getting herself duly registered by the State, he fails to mention) even to vote no on tax increases. Counter-economically, Ms. McElroy (and the hard-money entrepreneur Bill Bradford, as well) are far better off remaining off the State's books and practicing their respective trades than by stamping themselves as "prime sheep" for the State's records to get a piece of paper or a pull at the lever to be one of a million or so saying yea or nay to being fleeced. For one thing, they could avoid the tax; for another, they could be shining examples (as Ms. McElroy and many around NL are) for those others to emulate.
Perhaps Editor Bradford holds himself in such little self-esteem that he cannot see how he could be an example to anyone else; nonetheless, his very ability to accumulate wealth through Austrian principles is example enough to many, and should he be unable or unwilling to trumpet his own success, why, NEW LIBERTARIAN will step into the breach and be proud to do it for him.
But maybe Editor Bradford feels he is arguing for others who have not even his level of entrepreneurship going for him; these near-worthless adherents to libertarianism can conceive of nothing better than throwing themselves on the State's Altar of Registration to give that lever a feeble yank against a particular tax (though the State and its minions have a million others).
Surely even these anarcho-wretches would better serve themselves and the rest of the movement by picking themselves up, spurning the State and de-registering, get themselves a decent entrepreneural endeavour (no demeaning job, of course), and standing as an example, no matter how small or industrially infant, of individualism. Better a heroic schoolyard dope-dealer than a (gasp!) vile voter as an example to Future Anarchist Youth!
It should be noted in passing that Bradford brings up various boycotts against grapes and Polish hams by Right and Left during his (and my) youth; he is opposed to them and so am I. They not only accomplish little besides raising the price of grapes and ham, they also encourage economic tunneling (the basis of Counter-Economics) by the Other Side. But these are economic issues; what in the (political) world do they have to do with voting?
A political vote would be represented in micro something like this: you can choose someone who will shoot A (or break his promise and do something else) or choose someone else who will let A live but torture him (or break his promise and shoot him) or maybe a radical third choice who will let A live and torture him for only a reasonable, definite period (or break his promise, etc.). The choice you are looking for, of letting A go or giving him a medal for his subversive acts, is not and cannot be offered. In the famous libertarian slogan of the 1960s, if voting could change anything, it would be illegal. Exactly.
Hence, when Bradford confronts Wendy McElroy with what he perceives as a strange choice of shooting Adolph Hitler (assuming one has full knowledge of the statist acts he will commit and that doing so will somehow lessen those acts---or maybe just because he has many times over forfeited his right to life and it will feel good to eliminate his existence) rather than voting against him, it is Bradford who wallows in absurdity. Editor Bradford may assert that WMcE has the deciding vote, but that situation is itself fantastic in the real world; sooner you would see simians ejected rectally. She would need both time-travel knowledge of the degree of evil ur-Hitler represents (as any revisionist could tell you, about the same order of magnitude as FDR) and the knowledge that her one vote could topple him from power (whereas a well-aimed bullet is known by all to have that effect).
Bradford goes on desperately to argue that voting does not confer any legitimacy on the State. In one sense he is right; the correct phrase should be that it casts the illusion of legitimacy on the State which can never have true, natural-law legitimacy. But I thought Bradford did not "believe" in Natural Law (or anything else to do with reality, it seems); hence, why should he worry about the subtle distinction between legitimacy and legitimization?
The depth of his desperation is in the following paragraph of Editor Bradford:
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.
Where is the parallel, Bill? Rational, scientific inquiry disproves the legitimacy of the Marxist state. We fought them on their own grounds and won. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all have strong anarchist factions; we lose nothing by using them as well. But voting is an act of Statism; it has no other meaning.
How about "we need not deny the legitimacy of taxation or the legitimacy of warmaking to deny the legitimacy of the Marxist/Medieval State"? Why not? They must be denied for every State and all States. Similarly, the means of plunder and its distribution must be denied legitimacy. And the means of selection of its rulers and so on. Wherein lies the problem, Editor?
There is nothing to be gained by voting by any moral person; hence, why should one do so?
One real howler was the attempt by Bradford to shame WMcE (she worried about Hitler being replaced by another Nazi) by saying, "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?"
In all these cases, the answer was a clear YES, Bill. Pinochet remains in control of the Chilean state. Jaruzelski was replaced by another statist who continued and continues to this day the oppressively huge role of the State in Polish affairs that even Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was unable to reverse once he succumbed to incumbency. And the Sandinistas remain armed and in control of as much of Nicaragua as they had before the election they lost (before they realized that they had lost the support of the masses), poised to regain all at a slip from the opposition. (Again, the only contender who had libertarian support, Eden Pastora, was marginalized out of serious contention.)
Bradford's subsequent comparison of Stalin and Roosevelt are even more ahistorical; talk about being caught with a dropped context in public! A reasonable argument would be of the form was Stalin, relative to the Czars, worse than Roosevelt, relative to Hoover and Coolidge? (The argument is less interesting, actually, if you compare them to their respective, relatively libertarian predecessors, who were considered incompetent by Statist court intellectuals: Czar Alexander II and President Warren G. Harding, both of whom actually reduced the size of the State they inherited and both of who died early in office or were assassinated).
Yeltsin may be better than Stalin, but who would have known they would ever get anything better than Khruschev? Come to think of it, when they finally did do in Stalin, they got Khruschev. And FDR's death led to Hiroshima Harry. These are significant moral choices?
Bradford, a bit earlier in his argument, insisted that voters were not responsible for their acts under the criterion that one needs to know the consequences of what one does to be blamed for them. Libertarians are not interested in blame but in assigning guilt (that is, responsibility and liability) for the purposes of Restitution. If you trip and fall through a pane of glass or if you throw a rock through it, you owe the glass owner the cost of replacing the glass plus the time it was out of his possession. Your motive is far less interesting to the victim than the promptness of your restitution.
Bradford excites us, as did Lyndon Johnson's 1964 handlers, with images of a young girl chasing butterflies onto someones property and that of a burglar trespassing with different motives. Did she pick any daisies, Bill? Set off any nukes?
But why would any Libertarian oppose the reasoning that if the girl did only a dollar's worth of damage to the grass and daisies, she should be liable for it? And if all the burglas did was to step on the grass and daisies, then he owes a dollar (or tenth-gram of gold, or whatever)? Finally, if the little girl chasing butterflies spotted the Mazarin Stone lying on a garden table and walked off with the pretty object, is she exempt from returning the million-dollar diamond because of her age, gender, or her appeal to Editor Bradford? Similarly, if the burglar grabs the diamond and runs, and is caught, then he too is liable for restoring it to the rightful owner.
Voters are participating in the spoils of statism and they are surely aware of it. One only need skim the columns with which Bradford fills the pages of Liberty, of supposedly hard-nosed political experts who analyse voting patterns in terms of interests and pay-offs, for verification. They, by and large, know what they are doing and they (morally) should stop.
Most to the point, thanks to Bob LeFevre, Wendy McElroy, George H. Smith, Sy Leon, not to mention Victor Koman's and my own humble contributions, there are no libertarians beyond ideological infancy who are unaware of the arguments against voting, parties and collaboration with the State. Anyone aware of the argument, that is, anyone assumed to be reading Bradford's article, is no innocent.
The other paragraph in which Editor Bradford reveals his moral three-card monte is his penultimate one. Even most "voting is tolerable" libertarians concede that the act is corrupt, disguesting, vile and we would be better off without it. Hence, the last thing we would want anyone whom we are trying to influence is to see us in this compromising position. But what does Editor Bradford counsel?
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 to educate them. We can set good examples by trying to live exemplary lives. We can organize debating societies. We can write book 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.
No, Editor Bradford, we cannot, whether or not we chose. An election campaign is not an educational endeavour, it is the opposite. Candidates cash in on the prior education done by activists, and then distort and dilute it to pick up a few marginal votes. No one who voted Libertarian ever was educated into Libertarianism via a political campaign. First, they read Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Thomas Szasz, Wendy McElroy, or maybe even NEW LIBERTARIAN or Liberty. THEN they went out and voted --- or not.
I could let Editor Bradford's argument collapse at this point but these non-arguments Bradford himself heard demolished a quarter century ago when Don Ernsberger (since sold out and run for office) made them. The question arises as to why he is motivated to pursue this error even though he knows better. To be blunt, what's in it for Bill?
Perhaps he wants Liberty to be a big tent? But he is familiar with NEW LIBERTARIAN's history and that we have no trouble getting writers from all factions by the simple expedient of not editing them. Apparently, an open publishing policy is far more to be feared by Editor Bill. And he could have kept his party/anti-party neutrality by simply saying nothing. Yet he says, "I reluctantly have decided to take the issue up here."
As an editor myself, I am aware of the possibilities; the main one is that the editor gets the last word. (Remember, in the Natural Law debate in NL, I put forward no argument until the debate was to be concluded and that issue is yet to be published.) Hence, Editor Bradford may be motivated by having the last word and letting the more gullible libertarians assume that he somehow won the argument and they can now go and vote. Coincidentally, the issue came out at election time.
But this does not answer why he was motivated to use editorial trickery against WMcE. The voting issue is not trivial; if it were, he would not have wasted Liberty's precious space. On one side are revolutionary agorism, counter-economics, the rapid abolition of the State and permanent elimination of voting; on the other are conservatives who like sex and drugs, continuation of taxation, imperialism, incarceration, regulation, and . . . voting. Counter-Economics brought down the Berlin Wall; the most Bradford himself can see voting has accomplished is a cut in the New Zealand income tax from 66% to 33% (Liberty, March 1997, p.14).
If that is the most you can imagine libertarians achieving, Bill Bradford, you don't need Wendy's or my utterances of damnation; you're already in Hell.
Now, if you dodge that pitchfork and leap over that fiery pit, you can still register in time to select your chief tormentor: I hear Screwtape is running against Wormwood on a platform of 33% fewer lashes . . .
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