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Election Nonsense

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NO ONE WHO SPENT HOURS watching the coverage of the presidential election could have failed to notice the constant, almost desperate, invocation of two ideas: “Every vote counts” and “The will of the people must be respected.” It was almost as if the speakers were trying to convince themselves.

I followed the presidential election returns pretty closely, and I could not find a single state where George W. Bush and Al Gore were tied or where the margin of victory was one vote. That is important because everyone from President Clinton to the most obscure news anchorperson told us that this election proves once and for all that “every vote counts.” They especially had Florida in mind.

But how does a 537-vote margin in Florida demonstrate that every vote counts? I know that the government’s schools aren’t terribly good at teaching our children arithmetic, but this is a little absurd.

Should someone who would have voted for Gore but stayed home kick himself for letting Bush win? The answer is yes — if he could have cast 538 votes. But it’s one man, one vote, remember? Had this person exercised his “civic duty” and voted, Bush’s margin would have been 536. Conclusion: that person’s vote could not have counted, if by “counted” we mean “determined the outcome.” The same is true for every other person’s vote. We can say that in Florida every bloc of 537 votes cast for Bush counted, but that is far different from saying each vote counted.

So enough of this “every vote counts” nonsense. Aggregate votes do count. If millions of Bush’s or Gore’s voters had stayed home, the outcome might have been different. But no one controls millions of votes. When we wake up in the morning — election day is no exception — we each ask ourselves, “What shall I do today?” Almost automatically we separate our possible choices into two categories: those that in our best judgment have a chance of bringing about a desired result and those that do not. We routinely discard those in the second category. If I have to go to work that day, I do not flap my arms or twitch my nose to get there. I also do not make a wish that I’ll find a million dollars in my wallet, obviating the need for me to go to work at all. Why? Because I know it will have no effect on the desired outcome.

On election day, voting is one of the actions I can take. But I put that course of conduct to the same test: will it contribute to bringing about a desired outcome? That raises the question, what is the desired outcome? If it is to give my sanction to a candidate I admire and to join in the community of like-minded citizens, then voting will bring that about. That may be a good reason to vote.

But if the desired outcome is the election of a particular person, then my voting is most unlikely to bring that about. Indeed, I have a better chance of being hit by lightning while driving to the polls than of breaking a tie in most elections. Trying to determine the winner is a bad reason to vote.

When I argue this, people invariably say, “What if everyone thought that way?” Obviously, my decision not to vote is based on what I think most other people will do. That’s true of many actions. When a young person announces that he wishes to become a doctor, do we say, “What if everyone thought that way? If everyone becomes a doctor, there will be no electricians, plumbers, and shopkeepers.”

If I thought no one was going to vote, I might do so, because in that case my vote would be decisive. A good reason for not voting is precisely that by any rational estimate, one vote will not be decisive.

Finally, what about the plea that we should vote because it is our most precious right, which people have died for? First, voting is not the most precious right. The most precious rights are life, liberty, and property. If America’s servicemen died for anything, it was the right to live and raise their families as they saw fit. As any number of examples demonstrates, the right to vote is no guarantee of that.

The will of the people

The other most frequently uttered piece of nonsense of the 2000 postelection season was “the will of the people must be respected.” Most memorable is the Florida Supreme Court’s remark: “The will of the people, not a hypertechnical reliance upon statutory provisions, should be our guiding principle.”

If the will of the people is to be our guiding principle, heaven help us, for it will be a lame guide indeed: there is no such thing. How can there be? Strictly speaking, there is no “people.” There are only persons, each with his own will. We may call a group of persons who regularly interact with each other “the people,” or “society,” but these are convenient abstractions that do not exist in themselves. “The people” do not actually make a choice or express a will. If we let abstractions mask the particular persons behind the abstractions, we risk trampling individuals in the name of honoring the collective. We’ll miss the trees for the forest.

The principle that an election expresses the will of the people is thus highly dubious. “But Al Gore won the popular vote, some will say.” It makes no sense to use the popular vote as a standard when state electors determine the winner at the Electoral College. Neither candidate pursued a strategy to win the popular vote. If the popular vote did determine the winner, presumably the candidates would have run different campaigns. The national totals are just not meaningful.

The Electoral College aside, almost as many of the 100 million people who voted cast ballots for Bush as voted for Gore. Nearly 4 million people voted for other candidates. And another 100 million did not vote for anyone! In effect, more voted for “none of the above” than voted for either Bush or Gore. What do those numbers tell us about the will of the people? Precious little.

Each person who voted for a given candidate might have had a different reason for doing so. Is there no difference between a voter who likes Gore and one who simply dislikes him less than he dislikes Bush? So even among Gore voters we cannot identify a unitary will. All we know is that 50,456,169 people marked a ballot or pulled a lever (or dimpled a chad) for Gore. It is dangerous to elevate that to an expression of a sacred collective will. It just means a few more people voted for Gore than Bush. Likewise, Bush wasn’t awarded Florida’s decisive 25 electoral votes because such was the will of the people. He got them because according to the official count he had more votes than Gore. It’s how we keep score.

That isn’t quibbling. We make important decisions in this country by nose count. Too many people think this means that by some magic a plurality of voters possesses a wisdom and moral authority not possessed by the rest of the voters and nonvoters. That strains credulity.

The purpose of elections

Elections are best looked at as a nonviolent way to fill government offices. There’s nothing mystical or holy about them. As we have seen these last weeks, it is a mundane and sometimes corrupt activity. Elections are better than violence and heredity for filling government offices, but in all the paeans to the “democratic process” one big thing gets lost: what are these officeholders empowered to do? Any virtue the electoral process has comes from the totality of the political system. To take two admittedly extreme examples, if Jews were permitted to vote for the commandant of the German concentration camps, no one would praise the Nazis for their dedication to the democratic process. If slaves could have elected their taskmasters, Southern slavery would have been no better than it was.

By the same token, if the officeholders who stand for election define their own powers and legally violate our rights by taxing and regulating us, then the electoral system is morally tainted. Coercion is not rehabilitated by the fact that we periodically choose who rules us. To believe so elevates process over substance and sullies America’s heritage.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.