Voting at the Edge of the Abyss

UPDATE — I changed the title of this piece, but left the content unaltered.

Anyone who has engaged with even a handful of libertarians in their time is familiar with their disapproval of voting. There are three kinds of reasons for this disapproval: rationalistic, moral, and the hybrid of democratic pollution. I want to admit at the outset that once upon a time I subscribed to each of these arguments. I now believe I was wrong on all counts.

Voting reductionism

The likelihood that your vote will sway any given election of more than several dozen people is vanishing. Unless the decision hinged on a single vote, then no single individual’s vote made a difference. You could have stayed home and the outcome would have been the same. So far so good. But it does not follow that you shouldn’t vote.

Libertarians make a lot of noise about how, given these quantitative probabilistic aspects of voting, your time would be spent far better doing literally anything (praying for rain, injecting heroin into your eyeball, whatever) than painstakingly adjusting your schedule to fit in the time to laboriously trudge uphill in the snow both ways to the polling station. Voting in a modern democracy isn’t some Herculean task, and voting by mail makes it quite easy for the kinds of people who read these arguments. Further, the libertarians who make this argument rarely apply the same exacting standards of efficiency for other aspects of life. Arguing with people on the Internet about how inefficient voting is on rationalistic utilitarian grounds isn’t a promising way to rack up your own utils.

This argument also implicitly assumes that the only value of voting lies in its impact on the probability of swaying the election. But this misses the point. When we talk about how we plan to vote, we are engaging in political dialogue with one another. When we explain our reasons for how we plan to vote, we’re educating ourselves about the salient arguments. Admittedly this can be done well or poorly, and our tribal instincts make it all too easy to seek out confirmation of our biases. In any case we’re potentially influencing outcomes with our reasons, not just our votes. And of course voting is a symbolic act as well. It signals to others your commitment to the civic order.

Neither ballots nor bullets

Some libertarians view voting as an act of aggression. On this view, by casting your vote for some candidate, you shoulder at least some portion of moral responsibility for that candidate’s actions in office. You consent to that candidate’s political power, and to that extent lend them legitimacy. Without such consent, whatever evils the candidate visits upon the people would be those of a common brigand or non-democratic tyrant. With your consent, you too are culpable.

This argument has some force. Voters must indeed pay attention to the consequences of their voting. If you participate in the election of a monster, and there was ample evidence for a reasonable person to predict the consequent harms, then, all else equal, you are at least partially culpable for the carnage.

But of course, how often is all else really equal? Voters are never given angels among their options, but two or more flawed candidates, one of whom will surely prevail. Moreover, candidates are not measured along a single dimension, but along numerous dimensions including character traits in addition to policy proposals. Voters must gauge those traits and policies not just on their own merits in a vacuum, but how they will likely play out in their social and political context (Will their plans be stymied by other political actors? Does the candidate’s party affiliation and the structure of the electoral system preclude the candidate’s chance at success?). And especially for high offices, a candidate should be assessed by their rhetoric and soft power. What passions might they evoke in their supporters? Will lynchings be given tacit approval, even if there isn’t an official lynching policy?

Fiat justitia ruat caelum?

This complexity doesn’t remove moral accountability from voting, but it does mean that assessing the morality of a vote is not at all straightforward. It requires assessing the reasons why you vote the way you do. The same vote may be praiseworthy or blameworthy depending on the supporting justifications. I’ll use the current pressing example. Libertarians are rightly critical of Clinton for a number of reasons, most notably her history of military hawkishness and its deadly consequences for innocent people abroad. Libertarians generally also find Trump loathsome for his clear strongman style authoritarianism and narcissism, in addition to his blatant sexism and his evocation and legitimization of rank bigotry.

Some neoconservatives will vote for Clinton at least in part because they wish to preserve American military hegemony in the world. To the extent this is their justification, I think they’re culpably wrong. So, does voting for Clinton necessarily imply bestowing your stamp of approval on ongoing campaigns of aerial drone terror? Clearly not. One might reasonably believe that, while Clinton has her problems, they’re the status quo problems we’re used to. Whereas Trump represents a “high variance” threat to our very institutions, the kind of threat that could lead to chaos and devastation impacting far more people than our current flawed system, while simultaneously crippling our best tools for improving the system.

Consider a more concrete example: a Muslim American chooses to vote for Clinton, not because she is unaware of Clinton’s hawkishness, but because she is terrified that a Trump presidency will result in pogroms and prison camps for her friends and loved ones, all while in all likelihood doing nothing to abate the bloodshed abroad. Condemning this person’s vote because “voting is an act of aggression” or because Clinton will predictably authorize actions that hurt and kill other people is implausible. Our voter has done her due diligence, and after carefully weighing the alternatives, she has reasonably concluded voting for Clinton is her best moral option.

Importantly, our voter acknowledges that her vote is not without a “moral remainder,” a degree of inevitable moral tragedy. Voting as she does is the best option available among a set of imperfect options, but that doesn’t mean she won’t feel bad for the specific Clintonian damage that proceeds. Our responsible voter is obligated to criticize the Clinton administration’s failures.

But the moral remainder is not unique to voting. The electorally abstinent anarchist suffers his own moral remainders. If Trump wins and all the predictable race- and religion-based violence, institutional corrosion, and setbacks to US-world relations ensue, then our anarchist nonvoter bears some of blame. This doesn’t change if Trump loses; in this case the anarchist will merely have enjoyed the good fortune that their abstinence (and their political dialogue running up to the election) failed to contribute to a much worse outcome. Abstaining from voting isn’t like accepting Christ’s blood. It does nothing to wash away the moral consequences of our political actions, which include acts of commission and omission.

On Gary Johnson

What I’ve said above applies to voting libertarians as well as nonvoting anarchists. There are really good reasons to vote for Gary Johnson, especially in a vacuum. On foreign policy and immigration especially, I think a Johnson administration would be far and away superior (especially if minimizing dead bodies is your thing). But we’re not in a vacuum. We’re in a two-party system where the chance of Johnson winning is infinitesimal and depends on fanciful scenarios like winning a single state (already improbable) that prevents either Trump or Clinton from getting to 270 electoral college votes (still more improbable) and then further depends on the House of Representatives (where there are no libertarians I can think of) to conclude Johnson is the best option.

Even in this case, voting for Johnson could be laudable as a protest vote—thus signaling both your dissatisfaction with the two parties and your desire to see more libertarian political options—but only if you genuinely see no substantive differences between the two major party candidates. But at the risk of imputing bad motives, if you see no substantive differences between Clinton and Trump, then you might have fallen victim to the reflexive, feel-good rational irrationality you so often decry in Republicans and Democrats.

It didn’t have to be this way. There was a window of time where it was conceivable that the anti-Trump voices within the Republican party might have loudly coalesced around Johnson/Weld as the best option for Republicans, and it might have been a very interesting three-way race where Republicans could have lost to Clinton while maintaining their dignity and libertarians could have set the stage for future campaigns as a serious political party. But this window has closed, and it’s pure fantasy to pretend otherwise. Johnson voters too will bear the moral remainder of protest-voting on the edge of the abyss.

Polluting the polls

Some libertarians aren’t hostile to democracy outright, but caution against demanding that people vote, or making voting morally mandatory. Voting is beset by problems of rational ignorance and rational irrationality. Why encourage voting when we can expect most voters to bring nothing but their biases into the booth with them? I accept this argument, and in general I don’t encourage people who aren’t otherwise inclined to go out of their way to vote. It’s far better to encourage other kinds of civic behavior. If you aren’t going to vote well, don’t vote.

That said, the libertarians I have in mind throughout this piece are politically inclined, and they are politically informed, and they’re already engaged in political dialogue. These are people who could vote well, but they choose not to. By conscientiously (sanctimoniously?) not voting, or voting for a third party candidate who can realistically only nudge the electoral outcome to one major party candidate or the other, these libertarians are themselves at risk of polluting the political process.

One thought on “Voting at the Edge of the Abyss

  1. A 4th grade class in Los Angeles recently replaced voting with spending. They replaced tyranny with trade. And here you are endorsing tyranny. You’re politically informed… but clearly you aren’t economically informed. Let me know if you’d like me to explain why spending is better than voting.

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