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TGIF: The Cruel Joke of Sacralizing Voting

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By now we’re used to MSNBC’s state adoration, expressed not only on its programs but also through in-house promotions.

These are often heavy-handed, such as Rachel Maddow’s spots asserting that only governments can accomplish “great things.” Sometimes the promos are more subtle, such as one currently running. Voiced by prime-time “All In” host Chris Hayes, the spot shows a series of colorful shower curtains backed by a sappily whistled tune; the final curtain turns out to be not for a shower but for a voting booth — at which point Hayes says,

In America there are many ways to express yourself, but only one that counts. Speak out.

The message: vote or you have no voice.

Whether it’s intended or not, no message could more effectively instill an abject passivity toward the ruling elite. As someone once said, if voting could change things, it would be illegal.

In Year 6 of Barack Obama, is it necessary to say this?

Note the irony of the MSNBC message. In truth, of all the ways to express oneself, voting is the way that counts least! Candidates typically appear to hold a grab bag of vaguely stated positions, often contradictory, that they may not really believe or ever attempt to carry out. Campaigns are merely theatrical productions designed to make various constituencies feel good. Voting for such people conveys no clear message at all.

Then there’s the arithmetic of voting. Except for the tiniest jurisdictions, the chance of an election-day tie is smaller than the chance of being hit by lightning. Therefore, it matters not at all what any individual voter does. With only the rarest exception, no election in your lifetime would have been different had you done something other than what you did that day — including staying home. One vote is like one drop in the ocean: inconsequential.

Some will say in response, But what if everyone thinks like that? This misses the point. No one is waiting to see what you do on election day. The rest of the country will do whatever it’s going to do — no matter what you do. (But if everyone did stay home on election day, think of the message that would send!) You only control yourself, and we normally undertake actions only when we believe they have a good chance of effecting consequences that matter. Otherwise we don’t act.

If voting won’t affect the outcome of an election, attempting to affect the outcome is a poor reason to vote. It’s an act of futility. Plus, it takes time and money (for gasoline) that could have gone to something that would have actually made a difference.

Observe that I ruled out only one reason for voting: to change the result. My argument says nothing about other motivations, such as feeling good or identifying with a particular community or getting a sticker to display to your co-workers.

The point is that casting one more vote is hardly a way to express oneself that counts.

This all has deep implications for the political system. Since voting has no practical consequences for the individual — even if one’s preferred candidate should win, one would pay only a tiny percentage of any resulting expense; most of the burden falls on others — the system encourages irresponsibility. An individual voter is like a toddler in a car seat with a pretend steering wheel. Under the circumstances, most people have zero incentive to undertake the considerable effort and expense it would take to become seriously informed. That would require, not only learning about the candidates, but also studying economics in order to judge the candidates’ proposals. The overwhelming majority of people are too busy making a living and caring for their families to invest so many hours and dollars for so little benefit.

The “informed voter” is thus a chimera. Since people can’t vote on the basis of serious knowledge about candidates and issues, they vote on more superficial bases, such as how candidates make them feel about themselves or how well candidates conform to long-held, unexamined biases. (I must put in a plug for Bryan Caplan’s excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.)

Compare this systemic irresponsibility with the responsibility people routinely exercise in the marketplace and the rest of civil society, venues where their choices and actions really matter because they expect to reap both the benefits and the costs.

In this light, sacralizing voting looks like a cruel joke, a costly distraction if we value liberty and justice. Benjamin Constant, the early nineteenth-century French (though Swiss-born) classical liberal, would call it a manifestation of the ancients’ mentality. Progressives like Hayes may think they are ultramodern in their thinking, but Constant shows otherwise.

In his 1816 essay, “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with That of Moderns,” Constant contrasted how people in the two eras viewed the idea of liberty. In the modern era, he wrote, here is how people think about freedom:

For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims. Finally it is everyone’s right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed.

This is largely the modern libertarian view of freedom. Note that Constant does not ignore the importance of having a say in governance. (Of course, how governance is to be implemented, though a monopolistic or a competitive process, is a lively controversy among libertarians.) But for Constant, this is just one among many ways that liberty manifests itself.

Now, in contrast, see how he describes the ancients’ view of liberty:

[It] consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them.

But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community. You find among them almost none of the enjoyments which we have just seen form part of the liberty of the moderns. All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals.… The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.

Thus among the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen, he decided on peace and war; as a private individual, he was constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body, he interrogated, dismissed, condemned, beggared, exiled, or sentenced to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he could himself be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the discretionary will of the whole to which he belonged. [Emphasis added.]

In sum, “The aim of the ancients was the sharing of social power among the citizens of the same fatherland: this is what they called liberty. The aim of the moderns is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures; and they call liberty the guarantees accorded by institutions to these pleasures.”

Constant noted that in the ancient city-states, “Everybody, feeling with pride all that his suffrage was worth, found in this awareness of his personal importance a great compensation.” But

this compensation no longer exists for us today. Lost in the multitude, the individual can almost never perceive the influence he exercises.… The exercise of political rights, therefore, offers us but a part of the pleasures that the ancients found in it, while at the same time the progress of civilization, the commercial tendency of the age, the communication amongst peoples, have infinitely multiplied and varied the means of personal happiness.

In other words, contrary to Hayes, there are means of self-expression that count far more than voting.

I admit that our Progressive “ancients” among us do not go quite so far as the original ancients. They would not want a vote to establish a state religion. But they go pretty far in the ancient direction. They see nothing wrong with collective control of how property and income may be used — so long as voting is widespread. That’s the ancients’ attitude.

In the Progressives’ view, the worst thing you can do to people is impede their ability to vote. But surely there are worse things, such as stealing their incomes, regulating the use of their land, spying on them, sending them to war, forbidding nonviolent recreational and productive activities, and banning peaceful uses of the ideas in their heads through intellectual-property laws.

It follows that there is no virtue in getting out the vote. A large turnout gives legitimacy to rulers and sedates the people, but it’s unlikely to roll back power and expand liberty. However, that’s a topic for another day.

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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.