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The Wills of the Persons

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Besides “every vote counts,” the most frequently uttered nonsense of the 2000 postelection season is “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 with particular wills, 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. (Had Bush pumped up his Texas vote margin enough to beat Gore nationally, would that have made Bush the choice of the American people?)

The Electoral College aside, of the 100 million people who voted, almost as many cast ballots for Bush as did for Gore. Moreover, 3.8 million people voted for other candidates. Whoever wins, we know that a majority of the people voted for someone else! 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 Bush more than he dislikes Gore? So even among Gore voters we cannot identify a unitary will. All we know is that 50,133,912 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 for Bush. Likewise, Bush wasn’t awarded Florida’s decisive 25 electoral votes because such is the will of the people. He got them because according to the official count he had more votes than Gore. Votes are how we keep score.

This may seem like quibbling, but it isn’t. We make important decisions in this country by nose count. This implies 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.

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 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 on 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, the slave system 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 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.