24 November 2007

Against Voting

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 21, 2007

It makes no sense for an individual to vote in national elections. In fact, voting in national elections often makes the world worse. Voting is not valuable in itself. Rather, it is valuable only if it makes the world a better place. This observation is common to every couple with different preferences who agree to skip voting because they will just cancel each other out.

In national elections the chance of one person’s vote affecting the outcome or sending a message that a leader notices is infinitesimally small. Steven Landsburg of Slate points out that in the last election 6.5 million votes were cast for major party candidates in New York and 63% went to Al Gore. Assuming an electorate of similar size with a similar bias, he notes that the chance of casting the deciding vote in New York is about one in 10 to the 200,708th power. He notes that an individual would be more likely to win the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than determine who wins the election.

The problem arises in that most of us don’t enjoy voting. In Fredonia, it is quick and convenient but in plenty of places, for example Detroit, it is a real pain. If a person votes he makes his life go worse and doesn’t make anyone else’s go better. If an action makes at least one person’s life go worse and no one else’s life go better then it makes the world worse. It is hard to see why someone would have a duty to make things worse.

This does not hold for those who enjoy voting. However, it’s hard to see what they could enjoy about it that doesn’t rest on the mistaken assumption that they can affect the outcome. The case is something like a person watching a field goal attempt on television who tries to affect the outcome by leaning his body in one direction or waving his hands. Also, this argument doesn’t hold for local elections or voters who have many followers. Here it is more likely that a person’s vote will affect the outcome.

A frequent comment is that voting for a third party, for example the Libertarian Party or Green Party, rather than a major party is wasting your vote. This comment is mystifying. A vote in a national election is a waste regardless of the party for whom it is cast.

There are several arguments given in support of voting in national elections. One common argument is that a person can complain only if he voted. This makes no sense. If an individual voter can’t affect the outcome, it is hard to see why his voting should be necessary in order for him to complain. In addition, it is hard to see why a person needs control over something in order to have permission to complain. I wrong no one if I complain about the Bills’s passing game even though I have no say in the matter.

A second argument is that this is selfish because soldiers died for our right to vote. This is a mistake. Because an individual’s vote makes no difference, dying for it makes even less sense. It’s just a tragic waste of life.

A third argument is that because we enjoy the benefits of democracy, it is only fair that we shoulder the burdens of it. The background idea is that voting in one of those burdens; serving in the military might be another. However, it is hard to see how an individual’s casting a vote supports democracy. In addition, it is not clear why the enjoyment of the benefits of some institution entails a duty to support it. For example, imagine someone who benefited from going to Cornell University, it doesn’t follow that he has a duty to support it.

A fourth argument comes from Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century German philosopher. He argues that we should only act according to a principle on which everyone could act. For example, as a way of getting money, Alice shouldn’t make a false promise to pay it back, because if everyone did this then no one would accept such promises. If this happened, Alice would then be unable to get money via this route. It might be argued that this concern for universal application applies to the following principle: if I am in a democracy, then I will not vote. If everyone did this, then there would be no democracy. However, Kant’s idea (an act is right only if it is universally applicable) is dubious. There are many things an individual may do that we would not want everyone doing (for example, marrying Pam Anderson). In addition, if we narrow the principle, then it is possible that everyone could do it. This is true if we adopt the following principle: if I live in a democracy and my voting affects no one else but me, then I should not vote.

The irrationality of voting is in stark contrast to the free market. Here when an individual purchases something he can register his vote and affect the distribution of goods, because firms can offer different goods for different consumers. Also, in purchasing large amounts of goods, he can register the intensity of his preferences. Voting does not allow for this.

Voting in national elections is not merely a waste of time, it often makes the world a worse place. That’s why when I see the “I voted” red sticker, I chuckle about whether it would look good on a dunce cap.


The Objectivist said...

This is a good reason that the market rather than government should be used to distribute resources.

In addition, there are cases where the voting outcome is determined by the way in which the issue is framed (see Kenneth Arrow's work). This suggests that in some cases there just is no majority preference that can be accurately captured in a vote.

The Objectivist said...

That voting is not tightly linked to freedom can be seen in that a dictatorship can allow for very low tax rates and great personal freedom and have no democracy.

The opposite can be true of a Democracy. See, e.g., the U.S. during times of Jim Crow laws, anti-sodomy laws, anti-drug laws, and the currently high tax rates.

Andrew said...

Let’s keep things simple.

Suppose there is a heavy rock that O, T, and C are all holding. It takes two of them to keep it from crushing the baby, but not all three. If the rock is held for an hour, then the baby will be saved and go on to live a happy, fruitful life (etc…). Now for each of them it is pretty tedious work. For each of them it makes their life go worse, because they could be spending that time doing something else.
I take it The Objectivist would hold that all three of the following propositions are true…
(1) It is morally wrong for O to hold the rock
(2) It is morally wrong for T to hold the rock
(3) It is morally wrong for C to hold the rock
I’m not quite sure where this is going, so before I continue, I just want to verify that The Objectivist agrees to (1), (2), and (3).

Anonymous said...

It may be wishfull thinking but voting for certain 3rd parties such as the Socialist Workers Party or Libertarian party it would be possible to have an effect on the economic policy of the major parties.

My understanding is that the socialist party was able to do this to the democratic party some time ago.

Since politicians are at times obsessed with numbers and winning it would seem possible that in a close race the candidate might be tempted to address an issue or two that would be pleasing to a Libertarian in an attempt to get them to support a Republican candidate.

Mind you when I do go to vote there are no lines and pleasant old ladies bake excellent cookies...if either of those factors changed I would most likely stay home.

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