A FaceBook friend recently asked principled non-voting libertarians to explain their reasoning to her, to explain why - in this year of all years, when the Libertarian candidate actually has a shot at winning - why they are withholding their votes. It is a reasonable question, and I’m going to do my best to give her an answer, with the qualification that while I have considered myself a “principled” non-voter in the past, I now consider myself a pragmatic one.
My stance on voting changed with Ron Paul’s candidacy. I realized that I was willing to participate in a system I believed to be deeply wrong, if it meant making a change that could save thousands - possibly hundreds of thousands - of lives by curtailing war, ending the war on drugs and reining in some of the most unaccountable and harmful federal agencies. I took a lot of flak for it, from some principled libertarians for whom I have a great deal of respect. But I don’t regret my choice. I believed there was a real chance of accomplishing good - the bottom line for me was saving lives - by voting. I trusted Dr. Paul, based on a long track record of sticking to his principles, to do his best to accomplish those things, and I acted on those beliefs.
I see things a little differently now. I’ve had a closer look at how the system works and I believe I have a better understanding of why this system of electing representatives, especially at the federal level, can never be an effective way of achieving liberty.
To be clear, I am talking specifically about electing people to office. I am not dismissing the potential for local ballot initiatives to have an impact. In fact we’ve seen the fruits of such initiatives in the relaxing of medical marijuana laws across the country, which is a significant step for liberty. But ballot initiatives are a very different animal from elections for office, and an entire life form removed from those for the presidency.
Jeff Tucker wrote recently of an encounter he had had with someone high up in a Republican political campaign who attributed the absence of a libertarian angle in Republican campaigns to the fact that “libertarians don’t vote. Everyone knows that. That’s why they don’t matter.”
Jeff’s political beast was only half right. Yes, politicians running for office care about votes. But just as much as votes - indeed, as a critical means of securing votes - they care about money. They care about campaign contributions. And they care about maintaining the relationships with the people, the corporations, and the other institutions that will keep that money flowing to them. There is no law that can change this. Or, if you think there is, ask yourself who will be charged with enforcing that law, and who then controls that entity or entities.
Here’s the thing to understand: The things libertarians want - freedom, less govt. interference in markets & in personal choices, non-interventionist foreign policy… there is no money in these things for politicians. There are no big corporations and very few rich people who are willing to pay tons of money to politicians to refrain from intervening in markets, or to keep the troops home, or to let people ingest whatever substances they want to.
In fact, it is just the opposite: Corporations have long been in the business of paying politicians to intervene in markets on their behalf, to erect barriers to competition and in some cases to squash a particular competitor. Competition is wonderful for society as a whole. But it’s not so great if you’re one of the ones doing the competing. It’s hard, and sometimes you lose. Sometimes, if you’re big enough, it’s just easier to send some money in the direction of the people who can discover antitrust violations in your competitor’s business practices.
Understand that behind the empty campaign promises, politicians have essentially two things to offer to the people who support them: 1. Power, in the form of regulatory and other control, over competitors and others who may get in the way of a particular entity remaining comfortably profitable; 2. Money. Not their own money of course - your money, and my money. Taken from us in taxes, and in the continual devaluation of the government-issued money we all use. Politicians can give money to their supporters in the form of contracts for things like military equipment and public works projects, or in less direct ways, like mandating that government schools all stock epinephrine injectors that meet the same very specific product requirements that your device happens to meet.
And the list goes on. What is not on this list is liberty. Why? Because nowhere in this game is there an advantage to selling liberty. This point was driven home to me a few years ago when I asked a California senator’s policy consultant if his boss would consider relaxing business restrictions as a way to help parents of children with special needs create the services they need. He practically laughed at me. There was nothing in it for his boss or his boss’ supporters in reducing the very control that he uses to buy support.
In theory, politicians could offer liberty to their supporters. They could offer to cut back regulations, to end military aggression. But who is going to pay them for that? Again these are things that would benefit everyone, all of society. But the game of politics is not about benefitting all of society. And the widely accepted belief that it is is perhaps the most dangerous lie ever crafted.
In order for a seeker of liberty to win at this game, that person would have to compete with the campaign donations and other inducements made by military contractors, major pharmaceutical companies, oil companies - but these are all entities that have been made rich by virtue of government interventions and direct largesse. How can a liberty seeker hope to offer the same level of financial inducements to politicians as these people, when they are not also on the receiving end of the government slush?
This is the real reason that libertarians “don’t matter” in the political sphere. It’s not because they don’t vote. It’s because they don’t participate in the real game of politics - the interest-driven game that can never reward a player who wishes to dismantle the very engine of that game. People win at the game of politics by buying and selling political power over other people’s lives and resources. A player who wants to reduce that power will not find themselves rewarded within that game - they will find themselves spat out of it.
That’s why the political beasts are laughing at us. It’s not because we don’t vote - it’s because we don’t steal. And for these people - for people who never even question the morality of using state violence to get what they want - that is the biggest joke in the world.
This is why I don’t believe that it makes sense for a libertarian to vote. Voting is simply not a realm in which liberty wins. The obvious question then, from the person who wants me to vote, is: Why not do it anyway though? In case you’re wrong? What harm can it do?
Here’s the harm it does: By perpetuating the lie that voting can be an effective way of advancing liberty, it helps to direct people’s energy and focus away from efforts that actually do have the potential to advance liberty. And I don’t want to contribute to that.
I am not going to help to prop up the charade that “we” control our government, or that it represents “the people.” (What does that even mean? Which people? The ones who all disagree with each other?) Our government is owned by military contractors, pharmaceutical companies, and a host of other concerns that are all feeding from that government’s trough in one way or another. None of this is going to be changed by voting, and the longer anyone pursues voting as a solution, the longer they are not seeking real solutions.
There are people pursuing real solutions: People like Dale Brown of the Detroit Threat Management Center; Ross Ulbricht - who is now paying dearly for his contribution; Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning; the Tenth Amendment Center , for using the political process in the only ways it can be used to further the cause of liberty; Tom Woods, the Mises Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, and everyone else who works to educate the public about the nature of markets and the nature of the state; every homeschooling mom and dad in the country. And there are many many more.
It occurs to me that there is something fundamentally disempowering about pursuing a solution that requires a majority of a population to go along with you. If your solution requires getting that many people to do what you are doing, then you don’t have a lot of power there. To me, it makes more sense to pursue solutions where I do have some power.
It also occurs to me that the greatest advances for human liberty and well-being have come about for the most part not because masses of people woke up and decided to do the right thing, but because of the work of a few individuals. That is where we have power: as individuals. Not as herders of livestock, trying to get everyone else to go along with our one solution. Certainly not as voters.
I’ve spent a long time listening to libertarians tell me that “this time” voting can help our cause. I remember being told that Ronald Reagan would usher in a new era of freedom, later being urged to vote for Ron Paul (the first time he ran, as a Libertarian), and later for every Libertarian candidate and a few Republican ones. So you’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little reluctant to believe that “this time” it will be different. I know that there are things that are different this time - there always are. But the nature of the game has not changed, and it is not going to. It is simply not the realm in which liberty is won. The game in fact is the problem, and helping people to recognize this reality is a far more productive goal than is encouraging them to continue playing it.