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For all of my life, until last year, I voted faithfully. I believed what I was taught by my government-school teachers, that good citizens of America vote. And I believed there was something in it for me, that I could gain something by voting.
But during the last dozen years I have become increasingly immersed in libertarian theory. So I have learned that some leaders of libertarian thought argue that voting is immoral.1 Although these arguments have failed to convince me, and although I have seen counter arguments (in favor of voting) which seem more convincing to me,2 still I like the stance of nonvoting. It challenges the politically correct establishment in America.
But my decision has more substance than just the joy of rebellion. By deciding not to vote I believe I take an important step in my psychological journey toward citizenship in a free nation.
I will not argue that voting is wrong per se. Not for you anyway. That is your choice. I write to describe my own choice and to offer you a chance to respond to it. Probably I feel forces which differ from those felt by most other libertarians, because I am committed to this Free Nation Foundation and its unique approach.
Let me start with a story about Joe, a man who bears a striking resemblance to me as I was five years ago. Imagine that a new free nation has been established somewhere on Earth. Joe, who has just arrived the night before, is in a hotel in this new nation. At 7 a.m. he comes down from his room to start his first day in his new home.
Joe had fought the good fight in America. For years he had struggled for libertarian political causes. But finally his experience overpowered his hope for majority rule. He decided to leave all that behind. Or so he thinks.
Joe has an hour to kill, over breakfast and coffee, before he heads out to check on permanent arrangements. He looks for a local free-nation newspaper. There seem to be a few publications like trade journals and self-help magazines, but Joe cannot find anything like the newspapers which he grabbed up each morning back in America.
Joe, a good citizen of course, wants to get a head start in his participation in the public process in his new home. So he asks where he can find a newspaper. Finally, in a gift shop he finds a few, editions from New York, Washington, and London. A headline on a Washington paper catches Joe’s eye. He takes it for his breakfast companion, since he sees no competition from free-nation newspapers.
Soon he is engrossed. He rages again—at what the criminals in government get away with. He exults again—as he sees the word "libertarian" used correctly in three places. The hour flies by. Joe feels that he has completed his duty to refresh his connection to the political world. But now the time has come for him to start life in the free nation. Do you think Joe is ready?
Understand that in a free nation there will be almost no politics. Few if any issues which are important to the people of the nation will be decided through a process of public exposition followed by majority rampage. Unless I am mistaken, there will be little if any public process. Almost everything that people need, including I assume most aspects of law, will be provided through markets. Citizens will express their preferences through choices to purchase, and not through votes or public displays.
As such the media in a free nation will not serve the function that the media serve in the U.S. The needs served in the U.S. by the media, to inform and involve citizens in the process of shaping the social environment, will be served in the free nation by other means.
The free nation will have a marketplace in social services. So some businesses will inform the citizens through advertisements. And, because advertisements tend to be biased, other businesses will fill the need for objective comparisons by rating goods and services in various categories.
So I believe Joe was wasting his time when he went looking for a newspaper to start his participation in the free nation. In the free nation there may be nothing like the newspapers we know in America.
But, more than that, I am worried about Joe. There is more at stake here than just an hour of Joe’s time. It has to do with how Joe sees himself in relation to his society, with whether he can be a useful and valuable citizen in a free nation. Thomas Sowell writes repeatedly about cultural capital. He shows that successful people have habits, engrained in their upbringings, which prepare them to trade and work effectively. Unsuccessful people lack these habits.
Joe wants to be a good citizen. He was taught by his government-school teachers in America that he should have public spirit. And in a way those teachers were right, because in America there is a vast (and growing) range of choices which are controlled by the state. These public choices must be policed by public means—or they will not be policed at all. If majority rule has any chance of working it requires self-sacrifice on the part of public-spirited citizens. (Of course we who understand that central planning cannot work, because of the impossibility of processing the requisite information, know that majority rule does not have even this chance of working. But that is another story. Majority rule may have its best chance if some citizens act from public spirit.)
What Virtues Are Important?
Actually, to be honest now, I am worried about myself. I believe that the people who will succeed in the free nation will be businessmen or entrepreneurs, as opposed to proselytizers. Successful free-nation citizens will have traits which Deirdre McCloskey calls "bourgeois virtue" (honesty, modesty, prudence).3 But do I have that kind of virtue? I really soaked up the government-school indoctrination. This told me that if I want to be held up as a model American citizen then I should have public-posturing virtue (rhetoric, publication, self-sacrifice). Will my penchant for this alien virtue make Don Quixote of me in a free nation?
Let me illustrate. The standard American indoctrination makes heroes of certain people who went to jail for their causes, such as Henry Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Since I absorbed this, I have always thought that it would be cool for me to go to jail for some worthy cause. For years I have been on the lookout for the right chance.
But, apart from jail’s reputation as a bad place to spend time, I now believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with this strategy. It attempts to educate the public, and thus to lead representatives of the public, to make the correct choice. But choices should not be made in this public way. To the maximum extent possible, I believe choices should be private, not public. So my objection to the strategy of going to jail for a good cause, you see, is that it makes an unstated assumption: it endorses the validity of the public, majority-rule mode of decision making.
Putting effort into majority rule is like betting in the lottery, or playing in any negative sum game. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. But in the long run you lose. In the long run the whole society loses, because public process cannot be as efficient as private process.
Now yes, it is true that a few moralistic jailbirds have succeeded in advancing their causes. But I bet the media completely overlook the jailing of most good people. And, should I attempt this tactic, I must predict that my jailing would also fail to attract sufficient sympathetic notice.
Someone who would invest in this way, in going to jail in order to gain publicity for a cause, must believe that the process of majority rule works as advertised. This person must believe that majority-rule democracy eventually reaches the truth, through a process of educating the masses followed by voting.
But my study of political systems has led me to believe that this is false. The majority cannot generally be expected to reach the best decision, through a process of education followed by voting, because there is no way that the majority can assimilate enough information to make the best decision. Austrian economics teaches us that even single experts, who spend all their time specializing on knowing a single issue, cannot perform this feat. So how could the majority, all of whom dedicate only a tiny fraction of their time to each issue, be expected to make a good choice? It does not work.
But Why Not Vote?
Perhaps you agree that going to jail would be a costly investment in a losing cause. But recently some friends have pointed out to me that voting only takes a few minutes. Therefore, the argument implies, I should vote and not quibble about the cost. This makes sense.
However some people can be political junkies. I know I am vulnerable. For someone with my weakness, the short time which it takes to vote is not the main issue. The main issue is the whole habit, the propensity to care about the consequences of majority rule. If I care about voting, or if I care about the outcome of some election, that shows where my heart lays up its treasure. To the extent that voting reinforces my addiction to myths of majority rule, then by voting I carry my psyche further away from home. I reinforce the wrong virtues while neglecting to exercise the correct virtues.
Perhaps you have heard of the traps for monkeys, in which the monkey reaches through a small hole to grasp a nut. But with the nut in hand the monkey’s fist is too large to withdraw through the hole. And, as the human hunter approaches, the monkey will not let go of the nut. The monkey is thus trapped by its own choice. I suggest that majority-rule elections may present a similar trap to libertarians. We are capable. Yet we seem trapped.
I believe that we libertarians command easily enough resources to launch a new Hong Kong. Indeed, when I observe the resources which libertarians pour into popular persuasion and electioneering, especially during presidential-election years, I think that if just one year’s worth of this stream of resources could be redirected, into the founding of a new Hong Kong, that could be enough. Yet we seem trapped. Trapped by our own choice.
We can be free. But first we have to believe in our own ability to craft institutions. We have to believe in ourselves enough to release our frantic grip on the bait of majority rule. I am trying to move my head in that direction by not voting.
Let me wrap up with another example which shows the clash in me between the two myths. You know that I am an avid writer. And you see now that I argue against voting. So, how do you think I reacted when, before the recent election, I saw this banner headline, "Candidates run against apathy," on the front page of a Sunday paper in a capital city (Times Union, Albany, N.Y., 1 November 1998)?
Well, my impulse was to write a letter to editor, to set the record straight about people who do not vote. There are people, I would say, who choose not to vote—not because they feel apathy, but rather the opposite—because they care so much about the future.
Like the monkey, I find this nut appealing. But I checked this impulse as a resource-wasting attempt to make majority rule work. If I spend an hour’s energy writing a letter to the editor of a general-circulation newspaper, I steal an hour’s energy from my dedication to another myth: that it is possible to get liberty by advocating the FNF approach among libertarians.
But I must admit that I may once again be imprisoned by my grip upon a false myth. What do you think? We welcome debate. D
1 George H. Smith, “Party Dialogue,” New Libertarian, Vol.
IV, No. 8, Dec. 1980 – Feb. 1981. Quoted in Long, below.
2 Roderick T. Long, “Dismantling Leviathan from Within, Part I: Can We? Should We?” Formulations, Vol. II, No. 4, Summer 1995, p. 11-12.
3 Deirdre McCloskey, “Bourgeois Virtue,” American Scholar, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 177-191.
Richard O. Hammer has run for Orange County (North Carolina) Commissioner on two occasions, for Hillsborough Town Board on three occasions, and for U.S. Congress on one occasion. During the years of his active political involvement he published about 25 columns in the local Chapel Hill Herald, was elected and reelected Vice Chair of the Orange County Republican Party, and served a three-year appointment on the Orange County Board of Social Services.
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