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Whats Wrong with Selling Your Vote?

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Poor Max Sanders. The 19-year-old University of Minnesota student faces five years in jail and a $10,000 fine; he is accused of putting his vote in the presidential election up for auction on eBay. He started the bidding at $10. The charge is bribery, treating, and soliciting.

Im confused. Arent all our votes for sale? Each candidate tries to bribe us with future benefits of all sorts. Basically, a campaign is an effort to buy votes wholesale.

Why do you think Barack Obama is refining his positions on so many issues? Hes in the process of buying the independent votes he needs to win in November. This creates a problem. If he goes too far in buying independent votes, he may have to return votes he already bought from left-leaning Democrats during the primaries. His updated positions on the Iraqi occupation, the death penalty, handgun bans, campaign finance, money for religious groups, and immunity for telecom companies that illegally helped the Bush administration wiretap us without warrants have upset people who thought their vote sales were final. In politics no sales are final.

John McCain may have a bigger problem. Hes had trouble buying votes from the conservative base of the Republican Party. Those voters dont seem eager to sell their votes to him because they dont like what hes promising to pay in return. While McCain is trying to close the deal with conservatives, he also needs to buy votes from independents. Thats one of the dilemmas of politics. If you buy votes from, say, fiscal conservatives, you might have a hard time also buying votes from advocates of climate control through cap and trade, which would be a tax on energy production.

Keeping most campaign promises costs money. For politicians, money comes from the taxpayers, who are forced to surrender their cash whether they like it or not. As H.L. Mencken understood, Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods. So the only difference I see between a politician who buys a vote and an eBay bidder who buys it is that the bidder spends his own money. Since people spend their own money more wisely than they spend other peoples, we can conclude that the eBay sale might be preferable.

Im sure many people were appalled that young Mr. Sanders eligible to vote in his first presidential election would even dream of selling his vote. How cynical he is, they must be thinking.

I dont think hes cynical. I think hes nave.

He thought someone would be willing to buy his vote for $10 or more. Why would anyone do that? One vote isnt going to change the outcome of the election. The chance that McCain and Obama will tie in any of the 50 state elections is roughly zero. No single vote will be decisive. So we can be certain that for any voter, on election day it wont matter if he stays in bed.

Now, if a persons one vote doesnt matter, are two votes his own and the vote he buys likely to change the outcome of the election? Of course not. Yes, his vote total would increase 100 percent, but that only shows you how misleading percentages can be. Its still only one more. So why would anyone pay $10 for it? If there is such a person, tell him I have newborn unicorns for sale.

Mr. Sanderss entrepreneurship would have run into other problems. How would the buyer know the vote he purchased was cast for his favorite candidate? Thered be no way to prove it. Hed have to rely on Mr. Sanderss honesty. That strikes me as a big risk to take with a stranger.

But I guess its no bigger than the risk you take when you trust the honesty of a politician when you sell him your vote.

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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.