28 November 2007

For Voting

The Theist
Durkirk-Fredonia Observer

The Objectivist argues that voting is, for most people, and at least in national elections, a waste of time. He should be commended for his bravery – after all, he’s risking a serious caning from the civic-minded senior citizens who staff our local voting stations! If he changes his mind and goes out to vote next November, he’d better show up dressed like a baseball catcher.

His main line of argument is as follows. In most elections, unless I have a large throng of followers who will vote as I do, the probability of my vote being the deciding vote is mind-bogglingly small. Hence, unless voting gives me some pleasure or fulfills some deep desire of mine (which it usually doesn’t), going to the polls is a waste of time.

It seems to me there’s a fallacy here, one which could make kindergardeners cry. Suppose that one day, The Objectivist hears a knock on his office door. Answering, he finds a group of bright-faced kindergarden students, accompanied by their teacher. One holds out a coffee can with a slit cut in the top, marked “NIAGARA FALLS.”

“Please, mister,” says the little girl with the can, “we need to raise $50 to go to see the Falls tomorrow. Can you help us? We only have $40 so far.”

The Objectivist, fingering the dollar in his pants pocket, replies, “Sorry, little missy, but I only contribute when I’m the ‘deciding contributor’ - when the thing I’m contributing most likely won’t happen unless I pitch in. But I can see that you’re near your goal, and there are many willing contributors on this campus, especially with your goal being so near. You’ll get your $50 even if I don’t give you this buck. Further, I don’t particularly enjoy encouraging juvenile panhandling, so be gone!” He closes his office door, and feeling a surge of pride in his own rationality, he returns to his work, ignoring the sobbing sounds emanating from the hallway.

Let’s suppose that The Objectivist does little harm in all this – the students get their last $10 at the next door – and that he has no moral obligation to fork over the buck in his pocket. Still, it seems to me that there was a failure of rationality on his part. From the fact that he was unlikely to be the deciding contributor, he inferred that he stood to gain or lose nothing in the matter. But to the contrary, he had an opportunity to be one of the people who sent the kindergardeners on a field trip. This opportunity, in my example, he turns down. The trip may have been inevitable, but what was up to him was whether or not it would happen partly due to him.

It must be admitted that in many elections, your vote is incredibly unlikely to be the scale-tipping one. That doesn’t seem too relevant, though, to the value of voting. Every presidential election cycle, pundits gas about the current election being the most important one in memory. But suppose that our country took a sharp xenophobic turn, and that an openly racist and fascist political party became the heavy favorite to win the presidency and congress. (Hey Democrats – pipe down out there – I’m talking about a merely hypothetical case here.) What would you, the non-racist, non-fascist voter do on election day? You have only three options. Let’s suppose that the evil Nationalist party is destined to win no matter how you vote, as they’re riding a tidal-wave of support.

Option 1: You show up, and vote Nationalist. If you do this, you take measure of responsibility for the resulting administration. It is with your will and support that they take power. Jerk.

Option 2: You show up, and vote against the Nationalists. And they proceed to win anyway. In voting against them, you accomplish at least three things. First, you publicly make a (tiny) statement against them – your vote is one among millions of others which constitute a repudiation of Nationalist policies. Maybe this will in some small way contribute to an effective anti-Nationalist movement, or maybe it won’t. Second, you make yourself the kind of person who stands up against significant evil when given the opportunity. While in this election, your efforts fail, this character trait of yours that you’re forming or reinforcing may greatly matter later, in other situations. Finally, you’re absolving yourself of (part of the) responsibility for the ensuing administration – they do what they do not because of your vote, but despite it. God approves of this action, and even if you’re an atheist, at least you, your friends and relations will be proud of your anti-evil stance and action later on.

Option 3: You stay at home, declining to vote because yours won’t be the ‘deciding’, balance-tipping one. Here, you decline to have any influence – you stand aside, squandering the opportunities spelled out in Option 2 above. You don’t help to put them in power, but you do nothing to oppose their rise. God says, “Sheesh... I should’ve made this guy be born in Stalin’s regime. Democracy is wasted on him.” And it is.

The consequences of your taking Option 2 may vary greatly. You may be a part of a mass movement which quickly votes down or even overthrows the Nationalists, or you may simply be killed by the new regime. But lay the consequences aside - I think it’s a mistake to evaluate actions solely in terms of their consequences. It just seems fitting that I should “speak out” for justice and against injustice, as I see them, in the act of voting. If my actions would matter in the imagined Nationalist scenario, they seem to also matter in real life, even though, it seems, less is at stake. What is at stake is a lot – the policies of the two major parties differ quite a bit.

The Objectivist mentions an interesting, and I imagine fairly common case, where a couple, say Republican Ron and Democrat Dana decide not to vote, as their votes will “cancel each other out”. In truth, neither vote is canceled out – both contribute equally to the final tally, and both Ron and Dana act admirably when they vote thoughtfully and according to their consciences. The Objectivist asserts that “most of us don’t enjoy voting.” To the contrary, both Ron and Dana enjoy exercising the valuable right to vote in a fair election, in which each vote counts. I hope to see them both at the polls. And also, The Objectivist in a catcher’s get-up.


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